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WASHINGTON -- The wife of the man who says the era of big government is over told convening Democrats that helping Americans find time to get their dogs to vets is a federal responsibility. (See paragraphs 20 and 21 of her speech.) So the nation needs a new entitlement, to "flex-time" for employees.

No one laughed. What the nation really needs is a blue-ribbon commission to study the death of America's sense of humor.

Her husband, whose recent rhetoric suggests that government is becoming anorexic, and properly so, came to his convention scattering from his train's rear platform proposals for more government.

For example, he proposed promoting literacy with the help of his AmeriCorps, an oxymoronic little program that has added about 25,000 "paid volunteers" to the 90 million Americans who each year do true, meaning unpaid, volunteer work.

Her proposal, for another unfunded mandate on the private sector, and his, for a minor tweaking of a trivial program, suggest that the era of pertinent government is over. His convention speech was surreal in its disconnection from the country's serious discontents.

His response to the poor performance of schools is that young people should spend two more years in them, a plan that might produce a net subtraction from the nation's stock of competence.

By casting the problem as the protection of education from congressional Republicans' budget cuts (Congress provides less than 7 percent of the nation's education spending), he suggests that whatever is wrong can be cured by more money. This, even though real per-pupil spending doubled between 1945 and 1965, doubled again between 1965 and 1985, and has increased 20 percent since 1985, and even though there is scant evidence that financial inputs by themselves significantly increase schools' cognitive outputs.

The best predictor of a school's performance is the caliber of the families from which its pupils come. The crucial variable is family structure -- not the pupil-teacher ratio but the parent-pupil ratio. Family disintegration, now producing social regression in the midst of rising prosperity, is the problem driving most other serious problems, and Thursday night Mr. Clinton simply had nothing serious to say about it.

Although he supposedly has a hearty appetite for policy arguments, he evidently missed the last 30 years of them. In the mid-1960s there was an intellectual consensus: As Pat Moynihan ruefully remembers, "everyone knew" that economic conditions determine social conditions.

Then two lines on a graph crossed ominously -- one showing decreasing unemployment, the other showing increasing welfare dependency. Full employment, the fundamental goal of social policy at the beginning of the postwar period, would not suffice.

Instead of offering the country a statesmanlike, meaning sober, appraisal of the disproportion between today's problem and any proven solutions, the president breezily served up some hardy perennials -- money for jobs programs and for (mostly Democratic) mayors, tax incentives for companies to hire welfare recipients.

Money is not everything

However, the last 30 years have taught how few problems can be engineered away by adjusting monetary incentives. And evidently Mr. Clinton does not know what we do not know, which is how to bring jobs back to blighted neighborhoods, or how to make the currently dependent competent to fill them. Hence the banality of his legislative laundry list.

Well, the tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart, and perhaps the banality of contemporary politics should be a national boast. The deflation of politics is not a bad coda to this century.

However, government, although now despised, has had substantial domestic successes. Far from producing "uncontrollable" deficits, its revenues now match outlays for programs -- the budget would be in balance, but for debt service. Inflation, once considered a disease endemic to democracy, is controlled, as are business cycles, which used to produce surges of unemployment huge enough to threaten social stability.

We are sadder but wiser than in 1966 when Sargent Shriver, head of President Johnson's "war on poverty," was asked how long it would take to win the war and replied "about 10 years." However, we have largely eliminated one kind of poverty -- financial distress among that portion of the population possessing the accumulated social capital of good habits.

Still, as Senator Moynihan says, there is more social dysfunction in the United States than in any other industrial nation. "The central conservative truth," he writes, "is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

About that latter truth, the leader of liberalism's party, has, on the evidence of Thursday night, nothing plausible to offer.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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