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Contributions to the Common Pot

By William Raspberry
Friday, February 19, 1993; Page A21


I don't know if Clinton's economic plan is as good as we can get. Some of the questions about it (the proper ratio between spending cuts and tax increases, for instance) are matters of taste and unresolvable. Others are unanswerable until the plan is reduced to legislative particulars. As Ross Perot reminded, "The devil is in the detail."

But I liked the shape and feel of Wednesday night's address to Congress. It may have been the best speech Clinton ever delivered (and the best Clinton ever delivered a speech) for two reasons. The first is its insistence on understanding the difference between "spending" and "investment," a distinction the federal government has seemed unable to make. The second is its understanding that the sum of the interests of the various subgroups is not necessarily the interest of America.

As Clinton put it the other night, "The test of this plan cannot be, 'What is in it for me?'; it has got to be 'What is in it for us?' "

Every householder knows that outlays of equal size are not necessarily equal. A $10,000 fur coat that depletes family savings is an extravagance. A $10,000 expenditure for tools and equipment, or to replace a leaky roof or to send a child to college might be the essence of prudence – even if it means borrowing the money. The former is "spending," the latter "investment."

It's too soon to know whether Clinton's proposal embraces the right investments. Not all investments are equal either. Fixing the roof may be of such urgency as to warrant making do with the old tools or postponing Junior's matriculation in college.

As much as I like the idea of community service in exchange for college tuition, for example, the cash cost of such an investment might make it a lower priority than outlays that have a good chance of generating jobs. Spending to spawn new businesses should rank higher than spending to beautify local parks. Better to spend money to improve education than to replace ancient school buildings.

Still Clinton is right to push the federal budget more toward investment and away from consumption.

He is also right in his determination to get us thinking again as Americans, not merely as interest groups. Americans have always been members of interest groups, of course. We have always grouped ourselves by status, occupation, geography and so on. But most of the time we have argued for inclusion, for fairness for our group in the context of the political whole. The trend in recent years, it seems to me, has been to argue the interests of our groups as against the interest of the whole. It is about as rare these days to hear an activist argue for the interest of America as to hear a Serb or a Croat argue for the interest of Yugoslavia.

My great fear for the Clinton economic scheme is that we will get so caught up in adding to it here and cutting it there to fit the dictates of our group interests that the whole thing will become very much like what we already have: an incohesive and ineffectual mess that serves neither the national interest nor, save for the short term, the interests of the particular groups.

Some things can be worked out in the give and take of collective bargaining. Others, including the redemption of our national economy, require an overall intelligence – a plan in which individual pieces can be moved only so far without wrecking the stability and effectiveness of the whole.

And it also requires fairness – in fact and in perception. The worst thing that could happen to the Clinton scheme as it moves toward enactment would be for ordinary Americans to believe they are being taken advantage of by the rich and clever. The early, encouraging response is that we are ready for shared sacrifice – "contribution," in Clinton's words – in the interest of America, with emphasis on the word "shared."

Two pictures come to mind. The first is of Americans formed in an inward-facing circle, cash in hand, ready on the count of three to toss their "contributions" into the common pot.

The second is of a joke. Three men attending the funeral of a mutual friend want to show their sense of loss. The first places a hundred-dollar bill on the coffin that's about to be lowered into the ground. The second does likewise. The third writes a check for $300 and takes the cash as his change.

It's that third guy we'll have to watch out for in the weeks ahead.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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