A Recession Kid Looks at '92

THE political questions supposedly framing the 1992 campaign are economic. Ronald Reagan's 1980 clincher has come around again: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? It has a corollary: Will you be better off four years from now under Bill Clinton or under George Bush?

The one I like is: Is your children's future better off today than it was four years ago? And its guilt-edged corollary: Will your children's future be worse than yours?

Implicit is the assumption that we can measure these things meaningfully and assess credit and blame. But can we? What do we value? How big is our spreadsheet?

I'm better off without communist regimes sitting on Eastern Europe. I'm not better off with a United States tobacco company opening a plant near St. Petersburg, taking over where Chernobyl left off. I'm worse off with anarchy and starvation in Somalia, better off with the democratic gains in South Africa. I don't much care that Euro Disney, the new theme park near Paris, will dampen the parent company's first-half profits. Theme parks do provide work - maybe not "essential" work except to those who perfo rm it, and not unlike the travel and resort work of the beaches at Deauville. The dollar is down: Flights abroad are cheap, the costs on landing shocking. Some 82,000 jobs, net, were lost in the US economy last month; we all care about that. And we worry about trends that show starting salaries for college graduates averaging down a few points.

But how do you measure whether you are really better off or worse off? How do you separate political accountability from the inertia of the human condition?

If you are out of a job or have been looking for one for a year and a half, it can be easy to know how you'll vote.

Nonetheless, attitudes about the economy can have a long shelf life. Those of my age cohort may have been set by our parents during the Depression. Through the summers, as late as the 1950s, we were still setting up stores from the garden to get through the winter: jars of beets, Queen Anne's cherries, yellow beans. Was this evidence of hard times or, as we took it, of plenty?

The decade of the '50s was the age of hurricane-strength recessions, with auto-industry jobs the key barometer. Then a year at Harvard College and a new Chevy Impala cost about the same. Today the Harvard year costs half again as much. Is campus cost inflation or foreign-auto competition the key factor here?

Then Chrysler would lay off middle managers in droves; some would be picked back up, some not. One could always move to California. Given news about the California economy, the state appears to have greatly depreciated - although I have a son who still wants to move there.

Young people are getting their future political cues from today's circumstances. Campuses report that more young people are enrolling in the sciences. The students of the '90s are more into idealism and fields with a more determinable future, less into the self-aggrandizement of the '80s. The cold war may be over, democracy may be safe except in China; but the environment remains endangered and the third world - within US borders and without - faces calamity. Young people ask, Can I afford a life of altr uism? At the end of the road, will pension and health benefits be there?

Today's is a long, slow recession, fed by a downsizing of companies, by international competition, a shift from defense spending to health-care spending, and a weight of government debt that discourages stimulative monetary and fiscal actions.

The political question for the Republicans is not whether the recession is George Bush's fault, but whether he cares. Is he engaged in what now preoccupies Americans?

During the Labor Day weekend, Bush was campaigning in a midwestern urban neighborhood, trying to show his affinity with working Americans, when he mispronounced kielbasa. The slip might not have been enough to have cost him the industrial-crescent vote. But it would have conveyed to thousands of voters who caught it that, if they knew nothing else about Bush, here was no urban recession-era survivor.

President Eisenhower's slowness in responding to recession might have cost Richard Nixon the 1960 election. But it has little to do with the pay of first-year teachers taking up careers this week.

The economic analysis leads this recession kid to conclude: My children's future isn't as much better as I would have hoped.

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