Much to do at home



PRESIDENT BUSH'S vision thing clearly calls for the U.S. to shoulder Victorian England's "white man's burden" as high sheriff of his new world order. "We are Americans," he said in his State of the Union address, as if that explained everything. "We have a unique responsibility to do the hard work of freedom." You could close your eyes and hear John Kennedy's "bear any burden, pay any price."

Well, put the empire on hold, Rudyard. Some of us who supported sending troops against Saddam Hussein from the moment he invaded Kuwait aren't eager to have them spend the next century as legionnaires of an American raj. There's too much to do at home.

We wouldn't be in the gulf now, doing 80 percent of the fighting, if Ronald Reagan hadn't scrapped our energy policy. We wouldn't be flirting with bankruptcy at home had he not figured the way to get government out of any business except defense was to bury it in debt.

That gave us crumbling roads and bridges, schools that can't teach, a banking crisis that will cost more than half a trillion, armies of homeless, a high infant mortality rate and a concentration of poverty that traps one of four American kids.

By cutting income taxes while shifting the burden to wage earners through Social Security increases, Reagan also widened the gap between rich and poor to the point the richest fifth now make more than the rest of us put together.

Meanwhile, the other industrial countries -- less distracted by the Cold War -- flourished, building themselves from within instead of policing abroad.

Suddenly, we find it hard to compete with Japan and Germany. Most Americans have undergone a decline in standard of living, with factory workers (and those laid off) taking the biggest hit. The middle-class overnight converted to two wage earners per family, not because every wife (or husband) wanted to work but because that was how to make ends meet.

Bush brushed over all this the other night with a half-hearted recital of old ideas. Unlike Reagan, he gives lip service to social needs but then avoids doing anything about them by pleading poverty.

It's not just bleeding hearts who fret about where this neglect has left the nation. Spurred by out-of-control medical insurance costs, even big business is urging a stronger government role. Some are ready for universal insurance. All plead for curbs on health-care costs.

Many see the need for a federal spur to education and rebuilding the infrastructure. David Aschauer, a respected conservative economist, recently studied for the liberal Economic Policy Institute the cost to gross national product of infrastructure neglect. His conclusion: "More than half of the decline in our productivity growth over the past two decades can be explained by lower public infrastructure spending."

America's challenge in 2000 and beyond will be more economic than military, Mr. President. It can't be met entirely by the private sector. The problem is not keeping government on a tight leash but finding creative ways to make it work.

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