A change has occurred in the American New Year. It used to be a time for soul-searching, and (perhaps half-hearted) resolutions to straighten up and fly right.

Recently, however, it has become a time for self-congratulation, and you may expect tomorrow to hear every windbag on the continent gas off about the glory of our state, following (I suppose) the lead of the White House.

I used to think, by the way, that the presidency could be filled perfectly well by drawing lots; that one man would do about as well as another, but it is increasingly difficult to maintain this hopeful view, which I now amend to "anybody except maybe movie actors."

When the Roman Empire collapsed, it was not generally reported in Rome, or even much noticed there. It was only later, looking back, that her ruin was apparent, and it is that way with us, too.

You will have noticed the secretary of transportation has gone on to higher endeavors, leaving the government for cable television. Which may remind you, as it does me, that the government of this nation sat placidly while its passenger railroad system fell into ruin. You can't even get to Charlottesville nowadays, out in the capital's suburbs, unless you pay an exorbitant fare on a plane, or venture out on a highway full of drunks and hopheads, or ride the bus from a typical Calcutta-gutter-type terminal. A government that allows a train system to disintegrate has no mandate, and no right, to govern. Elsewhere in the world trains scoot from town to town at l25 mph, and plans are far along for trains at 300 mph and more. But just try to get to Cincinnati or Chicago or Topeka or anywhere else from this capital.

In the town itself, for some years, it has been clear even to nincompoops that the population has quadrupled and more, though the city has not expanded geographically. We have the same streets. They are packed now. Furthermore, for some years it has been clear, though not necessarily clear to nincompoops, that oil is a problem now and will be an even greater problem tomorrow. This would be a signal, you might think, to develop a mass transportation system with the greatest possible speed.

Instead, the Washington subway, years late in conception and execution, still drags along as if it were some project for a museum honoring Garfield (president or cat, makes no difference).

What kind of government cannot get a subway built within 10 generations? What kind of competence is suggested by the decision to buy subway cars from Italy, of all places, that nation that may or may not still have running water in its capital?

The truth is, of course, that politics is staffed--has anybody, by the way, ever run a table of the IQs of the Congress which seem to hover about 108? -- by men at their wits' end, who are pleased and doubtless surprised to have landed on their feet after all. For this reason and this reason alone the subway has not been completed, the incompetence of local politicians.

If anyone wishes to say that in a country so large, it is natural to develop the airlines rather than the trains, he is invited to look at the airlines network of America, which is outrageous and outrageously inconvenient. Apparently the only solution is for Pan-Am and all the others to go bankrupt and for the nation to start again at Square One to devise something better for getting people moved.

Transportation is so basic, and we are so used to wretched arrangements, that we almost do not notice it any more, unless we visit a nation in which transportation is well managed. Which is to say, I increasingly believe, almost anywhere else except the United States and Mexico and places like that.

To branch out a bit, infant mortality is too high. Furthermore, there is a decline in the number of physicians entering research, since they all wish to be millionaires dispensing antibiotics and assuring old ladies with intestinal obstructions that they probably have a "bug" and should take a Tylenol.

American art and letters are ludicrous. Journalists are shockingly overpraised, novelists of quite moderate talent are turned into lions, and poets (while nobody, quite sensibly, reads them) spend much of their lives getting together to praise each other.

American industry -- well.

Crime spreads. In this very office a friend of mine fretted that people kept stealing his ashtray. He got a heavy metal one, drilled a hole in it and attached it to his desk with a cord. Within two weeks somebody cut the cord and stole the ashtray. He now has a huge one weighing 23 pounds and shaped like a great scallop, probably in the hopes that this symbol of pilgrims will protect it somehow. Ha. Within a week somebody will make off with it and write a story about the world's largest mess of coquilles St. Jacques which will be widely admired, and never mind my poor old colleague without an ashtray again. There is a pipe that burns dragon dung.

The president has gone out West to holiday with a fortune made in -- God save the state -- a thing called TV Guide. In every direction, the American tension has slackened, except among the down-and-out, who are tense enough still.

Every luxury operation in the nation is flourishing. Chocolates that cost $1.25 per bonbon. Absurdly expensive restaurants, in which the food is utterly routine and uninspired, are packed.

Madalyn O'Hair inquires on holiday television where the Holy Ghost "kept his sperm," and you wonder if she may have missed a point or two of theology along the way to her numerous advanced degrees, but then it occurs to you there are plenty of fundamental types who are prepared to inform her, so maybe it's best for them to holler each other into the ground.

Then there's a fellow named Christo, who has neither a first nor last name, but who manages quite well with just Christo, doubtless in allusion to the count or the God, who is now hard at work on an heroic task: He will wrap several islands in Biscayne Bay with pink plastic; that is, he will attach a sort of skirt of pink plastic extending for 200 feet from the shores of these islands. It will cost $2.5 million. It is a superb example of the combination of American monetary extravagance and spiritual poverty.

It would probably never have been noticed, except it seems a symbol of American wits at the moment or something picked up at a California party. And something that the nation at large is (as usual) a bit baffled by, but not really surprised at.