Thanksgiving this year asserted a paradox. All around the world events announced trouble for the United States. But here at home the board groans and the cup runneth over. The times are too flush to generate the kinks of action necessary if this country is to continue its economic growth and maintain its role in the world.
No one can doubt the need for a stiffening of national discipline. The troubles in Iran and the neighboring zone of insecurity declare that American power is no longer taken seriously. They reiterate the well-worn sermons on the danger of energy dependence.
Merely to think about oil is to be aware of the need for doing something about chronic inflation. Invoking inflation raises the problems of productivity and the work ethic, revitalizing industry and guarding against a future recession.
But the problems tend to be thought -- not felt. What we experience in day-to-day living is affluence. Moving around the country over the past three years, I have seen a steady rise in buying of cars and houses and other goodies. Even in the past three months, on trips to Detroit and San Francisco and New York and Boston, I have not found the signs of hard times.
The statistics bear out the evidence of the senses. Disposable per-capita income during the third quarter of this year was at an annual rate of $4,487. That is down slightly from the record ($4,522) set in the first quarter of the year. Still, it reflects a steady, general growth. In constant dollars, disposable income has risen 10 percent since 1975, 25 percent since 1969, 75 percent since 1959.
Retail sales over the past summer were -- as described by Lyle Gramley, the numbers man on the Council of Economic Advisers -- "spectacular." Even in the areas affected by the recent tightening of credit, conditions are not bad. Auto sales will come to over 10 million this year -- a figure close to the record only a little while ago. Housing is running at 1.7 million starts annually -- roughly twice the amount in early 1975.
In the absence of hard times, however, sacrifice for the general good does not automatically assert itself. The need to cut back on energy uses does not immediately come to mind. Nor does the importance of increasing spending for defense, and particularly the kind of military strength useful in areas like the Persian Gulf. Still less, the importance of restraining price and wage rises, and of readying programs against recession.
President Carter has sounded the alarm intermittently. He did liken the energy program to the "moral equivalent of war." He did call for heavy taxes on gasoline. He did announce that inflation was "Public Enemy No. 1." He has established a wage and price czar, and warned of the dangers of recession. He has been, at times at least, for increases in defense spending.
But the country and the Congress have not responded. We have preferred to find villains in the oil companies and the defense establishment and the bureaucracy. Carter, unable to get results out of the Congress and threatened within his own party by a challenge from Sen. Edward Kennedy, has done what comes naturally. He has taken the lead in assaults on the popular villains.
Extraordinary leadership might reverse the trend. Maybe events will galvanize Carter to come off the backs of the oil companies and push again for a strong energy program and a more serious stance in the world. Possibly Kennedy will seize the occasion to move from a posture that makes the president's position look positively tough. Perhaps there will emerge some other leader with steel in the soul and the capacity to project power in this country and abroad.
But none of those things seems likely to happen. Probably we will have to wait for matters to turn palpably sour -- for the gas lines to form again -- before a potent assertion of national will becomes possible. The more so as we have as a fallback the American disease -- the tendency, not absent from this column, of blaming difficulties on ourselves and the environment, rather than hostile forces that must be met and mastered.