You may recall, unless you have somehow succeeded in repressing the memory, that the Form 1040 you dutifully filled out last month featured on its first page a letter from Roscoe L. Egger Jr., commissioner of internal revenue, that said among other things: "A number of Americans have seen fit to make voluntary contributions to reduce the public debt . . . If you wish to contribute, just enclose in your tax return envelope a separate check made payable to 'Bureau of the Public Debt.' "

For me, as doubtless for millions of others, this was such an exceedingly tempting offer that, alas, in the end I felt it necessary, for reasons having to do with my own private debt, to refuse. But the pleasing prospect of being able in some way to help my country haul itself out of the alms house has stayed with me past April 15, and I have continued to search for whatever special contribution I might be able to make. At last I have found it: a foolproof way by which public expenditures, and thereby the public debt, can be reduced by the impressive sum of $539,925.07 -- a sum rather larger than any I would be able to contribute by drawing upon the Yardley family exchequer.

This savings can be effected through the simple expedient of terminating, forthwith and without the expenditure of a single additional penny, what is by any reasonable measure one of the most -- if not indeed the most -- preposterous federal undertaking in the history of federal undertakings. It is a study, now being conducted at American University under the auspices of the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, of the deleterious effects upon children of Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler magazines. The total budget for the program is $734,371, of which $194,445.93 has already been spent; if we stop it right now, according to my calculations, we can save $539,925.07, which presumably gives us the leeway to purchase five or six more military toilet seats without further roiling the waters at Fort Knox, or wherever it is they're hiding the money these days.

Hard choices must be made, as our president keeps reminding us even as he declines to make any himself, and I have made mine. Given the choice between toilet seats and the kiddie-porn study, I believe the nation will be better served by toilet seats. This is because it is quite impossible to see how it will be served in any way at all by the Justice Department study, if in fact "study" is not an entirely too charitable word by which to describe it. If what the people involved in this business are doing is "studying," then what on earth is it we were doing back there in college?

Well, if you must know, what we were doing was just what they are doing: Reading -- reading? -- dirty magazines. The difference is that we hid them behind copies of geology textbooks as we eyeballed them, while they're being paid by the federal government -- that's you and me, buddy, just in case you'd forgotten -- for doing the same thing. Under the direction of one Judith Reisman, who is described in a Washington Post news report as "a former songwriter for the 'Captain Kangaroo' television show," some seven full-time employes and 12 part-time data analysts are slaving away at the American University School of Education, working their way through all 660 issues of the three magazines. Why are they doing this, you may ask. In exquisite academic/bureaucratic jargon, the project description explains:

"By analyzing the extent and nature of mainstream erotic-pornographic content, with special focus on child imagery, this research may be said to lay the foundation for future studies on the possible influence, or lack of influence, of erotica/pornography, with particular emphasis on issues of child exploitation: molestation, prostitution, incest, kidnaping, general juvenile delinquency and child pornography."

That's a heavy load to lay on the broad shoulders of Hugh Hefner, Bob Guccione and Larry Flynt, but the betting here is that unless we stop the project right now, that's just the load they're in for. The conclusion of this study is foregone, because it's precisely the conclusion the Reaganite fundamentalist constituency wants to hear: That all this terrible business of juvenile delinquency and sexual exploitation of children has nothing to do with dark undercurrents flowing everywhere in American society and everything to do with three magazines that nobody much likes except the hundreds of thousands of people who read them.

It's the good old American way: Dream up a study, appropriate a few hundred grand, hire a staff, farm it off to a university and sweep the whole nasty business under the rug. After a few months of poring over these 660 magazines -- the mere thought of which induces terminal stupefaction -- the staff of this little study, like the staff at Alice's Restaurant, will be in a position to give us anything we want, which in this case happens to be a simple explanation for a complicated problem. Blame it on the peddlers of mass-circulation porn, and we neatly sidestep shouldering any of the blame ourselves.

The study is being represented as possessing academic and sociological legitimacy, but in truth it's likely to have about as much as coin-flipping or ouija-board reading. Put a dozen data analysis personnel -- or for that matter a dozen chimpanzees -- in a room with 660 dirty magazines, and they can find evidence to support any old conclusion you want: that gentlemen prefer blondes; that liquor advertisements appeal to status seekers; that erotic-advice columns are funnier than Woody Allen; that the average bimbo bustline has expanded 1.73 inches in a quarter-century; that Roxanne Pulitzer should have kept her clothes on; that if it weren't for Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler, American moms and dads could sleep well at night.

Yes, and if wishes were horses then beggars would ride -- though not for long, since the Reaganites no doubt would find some way to turn the horses over to the local hunt club. What $734,371 of our money is certain to get for us is precisely what the Reagan Justice Department wishes us to hear, any semblance to actual truth being entirely beside the point. What's worse is that we'll believe it, such suckers have we become for psychology and sociology and "communications studies" and all the other ersatz sciences of the Freudian age. Take three-quarter million of the taxpayers' dollars, say "Abracadabra" over it nine or 10 times, run a few hundred thousand impenetrable words through the processor, wrap it all in the imposing packages provided by the Government Printing Office -- and, presto! the problem is gone.

If you believe that, then you presumably also believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Ronald McDonald and the Laffer Curve.