`Brother, Can You Spare a Billion?'

OF all the questions being uncovered in the hot sands of Saudi Arabia these days, few are touchier than the one the United States is ever so tactfully raising: Who will pick up the tab for the US military presence in the Persian Gulf? American allies have been more willing to offer encouragement than economic support, as Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady discovered during a global fund-raising mission last week. Secretary of State James A. Baker III fared better, extracting a promise of $2.5 billion from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. As a senior Saudi official explained to reporters, ``we know that everybody has to pitch in.''

Call it ``pitching in,'' as he does, or ``burden sharing,'' as George Bush does. By whatever term, the concept of cooperative responsibility appears to be one of the governing ideals of the '90s. From the international bivouac on the desert to the savings-and-loan bailout back home, ``sharing the burden'' has taken on an urgent imperative. But instead of the old question - ``Brother, can you spare a dime?'' - the new query has become, ``Brother, can you spare a billion?''

The stakes get equally high when the subject is the environment: Who will write the checks to mop up oil spills? Who will pay to clean up hazardous waste?

And then there are the billion-dollar social policy questions: Who will foot the bill for hunger and homelessness, crack and crime? Whose responsibility is it to pay for those with AIDS? Little wonder, perhaps, that the political game of the '80s often involved passing the buck from Washington to states to cities - burden shifting, rather than burden sharing.

In the corporate world, burden sharing is also an issue. Benefits such as parental leave, child care, elder care, and flextime reflect an acknowledgment that workers need help in managing the dual responsibilities of work and home.

But all of these remain public examples. It is in the private world of home where the smallest, most personal dramas of sharing the burden still get played out - where time, attention, and caring, rather than money, become the commodities. Dual paychecks now allow a majority of couples to share economic responsibilites. But in many homes the team spirit ends when it comes to sharing the domestic load. If anything, the division of labor has become more unequal than ever as some working mothers, through guilt or a feeling that it is faster to do tasks themselves, let other family members off the housework hook.

From the humblest home to the largest superpower, collective responsibility spreads out in concentric circles, drawing families, communities, even nations together.

During the '80s - the Decade of Homelessness - images of outstretched palms and pleading eyes dominated the nightly news and touched the public consciousness, seeming to promise an end to the Age of Me. But the homeless are now evoking more impatience than compassion among those who step around them. Meanwhile, their numbers grow as a new tribe of the homeless crosses the borders into Jordan and the ``tent city'' becomes a tragic stereotype of the Middle East.

Who will share this burden, as well as the burden of Operation Desert Shield?

It may be easier to play ``we'' when the subject is profit sharing rather than burden sharing. But the ``peace dividend,'' if there is to be one, must be a profit fairly shared to reduce the unjust burden in the community, in the world, or else there can be no lasting harmony. This may be what burden sharers have to learn.

Burden sharing is finally a way of witnessing that other people exist, as needy and deserving as oneself. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, drawing upon wisdom rooted not from the Persian Gulf, described this higher significance of burden sharing when he wrote of ``leavening the human race in all places with genuine We-ness.'' In the context of Operation Desert Shield, such sharing of the burden - and privilege - of ``We-ness'' ought to lead to peace, not war.

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