Why Balance?

POOR Ben Franklin! First we play with his image on $100 bills. Then we snub his thrifty aphorisms for how to run our own affairs and the nation's.

"Lost time is never found again," he wrote in his famous almanac. And yet those who routinely salute his wisdom from the bully pulpits of White House and Congress seem willing to lose as much time as is politically tenable on the road to balancing the US budget.

The latest example: President Clinton's fiscal 1997 budget proposal. Its subtext: "The era of big government is over" - at the end of my next term.

But Republican budget- balancing plans are also back-loaded. In part that's because they too insist on tax-cutting before, not after, there's proof that balance plans are working.

We've said repeatedly over the past year that balancing the budget is not an end in itself, some incantation to be blindly followed. There are two great national reasons for balancing.

The first is to prove that a nation governed by and for its people can unselfishly balance the interests of present and future generations. That means reining in runaway entitlement programs. Specifically, the giants - Medicare and Social Security - must be retailored so as not to exceed economic growth and population bulges. We need to get ahead of the problem looming in the future, when baby-boom retirees will live long years in part on the taxes of their children.

The second reason for balancing is more abstract, but no less real. It derives from Joseph in Egypt, Ben Franklin, and John Maynard Keynes. Put simply: If you're going to follow a system, follow it. Don't eat dessert and leave the spinach. Both parties follow broad Keynesian precepts: Run surpluses in high-growth years so you can run deficits without added harm to the economy in bad times.

Last year, in very general terms, John Kasich, the GOP budget hawk, led the House effort at serious balancing. Then the Senate crafted a compromise version. We approved of much of that Senate modification. So did the president. Or so he said in early fall. But then he went into reverse. And Republicans squandered their mandate in Pyrrhic government shutdowns.

At that point various bipartisan groups tried to patch together an acceptable new compromise. We liked versions that: preserved basic environmental regulation; funded basic research that helps the nation's future competitiveness and job creation; and provided incentives for improved education and private-sector job retraining. We felt tax cutting should come as a reward after results allowed it.

At this stage there's much cynicism in the land about a Clinton-Dole compromise. That's understandable - but no excuse for not making one last attempt to get started down the right path. For Ben Franklin's sake. And for our children and grandchildren.

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