AS A COLUMNIST, I like to tell the story of how I can look at a dark, threatening alley and see both a shortcut and an opportunity. If I make it down the alley without being mugged, fine. I have saved time. If I get mugged, fine, also. I get a column.
This (besides being a tad fatuous) is what is called a no-lose situation of which there are very few in life. One of them, though, is Ronald Reagan's economic program. For middle- or upper-class liberals, it gave us the rare opportunity to argue for our principles, but against our own pocketbooks. The worst that could happen was that we could lose the argument and become richer. At best, we could win and remain as rich or as poor as we were.
What was not expected, though, was that we would lose both the political fight and the economic fight. This was not supposed to happen. This sort of flat-out loss was supposed to be reserved for the poor -- the very poor, the work-shirking poor, the ungrateful poor. They were the ones who were going to lose their food stamps and their Legal Aid and the easy welfare and, according to the latest newspapers, the size of their school lunches will be shrunk. They are to be shrunk so that the Defense Department's budget will grow.
The rest of us were supposed to be the winners. We would get our tax reductions (starting Oct. 1, in fact) and our incomes would be indexed against inflation. Inheritance taxes would be all but eliminated, as would the corporate tax, and the tax code would be riddled with so many incentives for so many industries that all you had to do was work hard, use a little common sense and the Treasury would all but serve you a piece of the fat, tasty, economic pie.
Under those conditions, it is no wonder we all but turned our back on the poor. They are, anyway, mostly out of sight, living as they do in neighborhoods that can, and probably should, be avoided. The truth of the matter is that few of us who are not poor have any idea of what it means to be poor. And it is hard, I know, to listen to some unmarried welfare mother with a brood of children at her feet complain about her welfare stipend. It makes the residual Cotton Mather rise like bile within us, demanding to know why we should support her children -- and just where, woman, is the father of all these kids?
But now, alas and alack, something has gone wrong. Not just the poor are suffering. The middle class and even what used to be called the better classes are hurting and the ouches can be seen all over Page 1. High interest rates (the sort of rates that gave loan-sharking a bad name) are murdering the housing and real estate industries. My block is testimony to the times. The "For Sale" signs seem to have taken root. There are no buyers.
Similarly, the automobile industry is doing poorly. Logic says that there is a pent-up demand for cars, but logic also seems to say that people are willing to postpone the purchase of a car as long as interest rates remain high. So Detroit is hurting and the housing industry is hurting and business in general is hurting. The stock market, which has to be a bastion of Republicanism, is nose-diving. Since April, the Dow-Jones Index has lost more than 150 points. All of this, or much of this, (let us not quibble) is directly attributable to the Reagan economic program.
Now the poor must look at the stock market, the real estate market and what's left of Detroit and wonder what all the handwringing is about. It must be pretty hard to work up a lot of sympathy for people who have money to invest, own their own homes or have a stake in auto production. The poor, after all, have the right to feel as alienated from the middle and upper classes as the middle and upper classes do from them.
There are, of course, real economic considerations to take into account. But a poor person might notice that the Reagan economic program was not adjudged a failure, or a possible failure, until it started to threaten the middle and upper classes. They might notice that what has prompted this mild panic in Washington is not some moral revulsion at the realization that the administration has failed the poor, but the realization that it might fail the middle and upper classes also -- that it might renege on its (intimated) promise that only the poor would suffer. If this happens, only the poor will not be disappointed. They got what they expected. And we got what we deserved.