Put a Stamp On the Future

CITZENS should vote. Voting is the way citizens participate in the direction of their country. This is so even when the issues are as frustrating and arcane as fiscal policy. Today's politicians keep public attitudes under constant surveillance. Many voters resent opinion surveys, thinking they usurp their vote. Surveys enable the politician to trim his sails to the popular wind. Raise enough money to intimidate would-be challengers and stick to the trade winds of the election cycle is today's formula for political longevity.

But cynicism does the citizen little good. Neither does disengaging from the political process and forgetting to vote.

The citizen actually embraces government in thought. More instant, more complete information about government is available today than ever before. Cable TV networks carry hearings live. Radio analysis can be thoughtful. The major newspapers and magazines carry the reactions of economists and experts. Negative advertising trivializes campaigns, to be sure. But the thoughtful citizen can still follow what is going on and make up his own mind about the direction the country should be heading.

Right now the country is heading into recession, and opinion polls show the public does not like it. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson and Congress reduced personal taxes by 18 percent to spur consumer spending. The policy worked, and the economy picked up rapidly. Soon the Vietnam war added too much fuel to the spending fire and in 1968 Congress enacted a temporary 10 percent rise in personal tax payments - a ``surcharge.'' In 1975, the economy was bottoming out again in a recession and President Ford and Congress agreed on a temporary tax cut to revive consumer spending. Taxpayers were given rebates on their '74 taxes - which they saved rather than spent, confounding expectations. Under Ronald Reagan, tax rates fell by 23 percent from 1981 to 1984, and consumer spending rebounded again as anticipated. But the deficit soared, giving rise to the central domestic political issue of today, how and when to balance the budget.

Harvard economist Francis Bator has been arguing that the US must raise taxes substantially. Balancing the budget is not enough. To create a margin for enough investment, the total of private and government saving must be increased. Instead of the federal government's structural budget deficit operating at just under 3 percent of the gross national product, Bator argues for a federal budget surplus of 5 to 6 percent by the mid-1990s. The Federal Reserve would have to hold down interest rates to avoid a deepening recession. The dollar would have to be kept low to encourage American spending on American instead of foreign goods. And governments abroad, especially the Germans and the Japanese, would have to move to expansive fiscal policies to avoid the spread of recession abroad.

A lot of citizens would not want to trust Washington with a budget surplus. Reagan budget director David Stockman wanted a deficit that would, theoretically, force government to cut spending. Washington has proven quite tolerant of its operating deficit, however, and will not eliminate it even by the mid-1990s.

Voters will get few opportunities to determine directly whether they want a budget surplus instead of today's budget deficit. Debt was the vogue of the '80s - junk bonds, a runup in housing prices, student loans. Debt is dissaving. Most of the talk about raising taxes is to cover costs, not spur investment. Ballot initiatives in many states would further limit powers of taxation. For a policy shift to a budget surplus, voters will have to await the trickle down from disputes among economists and politicians.

When more than half the electorate does not even vote, either the level of futility is high or the public thinks it can trust the system to carry on without supervision, or both.

Still, the citizen should stay tuned to the direction the country is heading, study the ballot issues and views of candidates over the remaining week and a half until election day, and vote. The more engaged the electorate, the less likely legislators will be fooled by boondoggles like the savings and loan bailout.

A vote is a private matter, with a public outcome.

It is a way to protest the past and to put a stamp on the future.

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