AS YOU CROSS the bridge from Pennsylvania into Trenton, N.J., you see that famous old sign, "Trenton Makes, the World Takes." Look past the sign and what do you see? Not a factory in sight. Just large state office buildings -- and lots of them.
This is the tragedy of modern America. The people who make things have been replaced by the people who shuffle paper and get paid lots of money for producing absolutely nothing.
The reason Trenton is full of state offices is the tremendous explosion in the number of state employes in New Jersey and in every other state during the past 20 years. A similar explosion occurred in the cities. So if you want to cut the size of government, state and local offices are better targets than the federal bureaucracy, which hasn't grown much in recent years.
But the Republicans, our main budget-cutters, have an automatic bias in favor of state and local governmemts and against the federal government. This is just as bad as the Democrats' bias in favor of the federal government. Both are a barrier to sensible reform.
The same is true of automatic thinking in general. Take defense. The Republicans tend to be uncritical supporters of more spending while the Democrats spent most of the 1970s automatically opposing the military. A man like Gary Hart -- who advocates a strong national defense but doesn't want to waste money on weapons that aren't needed or don't work -- has been a lonely figure.
The regulation issue is another where people split automatically into "pro" and "anti" groups, with little atempt to discriminate between the kinds of health safety regulations that are needed to protect life (do you really want your baby deformed by a dangerous drug?) and the kind of economic regulation that needlessly stifles competition.
Of course the subject that inspires the most automatic responses is abortion. The pro-abortion people refuse to acknowledge the obvious truth that a life a being destroyed. The anti-abortion people refuse to acknowledge the occasions when having a baby would be disastrous for a mother or her family; or the toughest fact of all, the fate that is suffered by children who are truly unwanted.
Any hope for the future has to be based on a way to make these automatic responses responses less automatic, by encouraging people to face complexity and take pride in doing so. You don't have to sacrifice your determination to get things done -- which is, of course, what some people really mean when they say, "Well, that's a very complicated matter." They want you to give up, to stop bothering them.
On way to deal with the problem of the automatic response might be to introduce into the American education system experiences comparable to those a trial lawyer must go through before presenting his case to the jury. He cannot be a prisoner of the automatic response, because that is the sure path to defeat. He must scrutinize his case to see what will ring false or unpersuasive to a jury. He must open himself up to every fact and argument in his opponent's favor. Of course this is something the worst of the automatic responders hate to do.
Think of a failing marriage. It can usually be saved only when the parties stop replaying in their minds the litany of arguments that inflame their sense of self-righteousmenss and begin to really listen to the legitimate points of their partners. That is exactly what concerned liberal and conservative Americans must begin to do.
I have from time to time noted that our NATO allies seem to be reliable only in their desire to put self-interest ahead of the purposes of the alliance. Now comes my favorite example of them all. For the last two years, one member of NATO -- Greece -- has been providing repair service for the Soviet Mediteranean fleet. The Greek company involved has received $7 million a year from the Russians.
The Reagan administration's budget proposals may or may not change the country, but I think they will succeed in changing the press -- at least that part of the press that covers politics and governenment. The large budget cuts proposed by the president are forcing reporters to examine how money is actually spent. Otherwise, they are realizing, they can't begin to let their readers know whether the proposed cuts are wise or foolish.
Traditional Washington journalists have covered only the announcement of programs -- think of the television reporters on the Capitol steps or the White House lawn. Reporters were, particularly during the last three administrations, under absolutely no pressure to examine the programs, because the announced changes were almost always incremental. So slight were changes that the basic value of the programs themselves was never in question.
What's happening now is a novel experience for most political journalists. If they don't get lost out there in the boondocks, they might learn something about the government and be able, in future campaigns, to ask really intelligent questions about the candidates' programs -- instead of just reporting the latest gaffe or the .0039 shift in the lastest opinion poll.
One of the great rules of public relations is that if you have bad news, announce it on a day when, because of other more newsworthy events it will be buried on page 28, or at least not receive banner headline treatment. So my Page 28 Award goes to the staff of Sen. Edward Kennedy. His divorce from his wife Joan was announced during the week the hostages were released and Reagan was inaugurated.
Speaking of public relations shed a tear for Hill & Knowlton. Robert Gray has left his job as head of its Washington office to form his own public relations firm. Gray, a Republican, was valuable to the firm during the Nixon-Ford years, but, during the Carter administration was a depreciating asset who must have been kept on so that Hill & Knowlton could cash in when and if the Republicans returned to power. Now the Republicans have returned, and by all that is right and just in this world, money should be rolling into Hill & Knowlton. Instead, of course, it's going to roll into Gray's new firm.
Did you read that the Maryland legislature seriously considered paying $6 million to the owners of Bowie racetrack to not use their racing days? What makes this interesting is that racing days are granted by the state. The state has no legal obligation to give them to anyone, much less to pay to get them back. Indeed, if they are for sale, it should be not to the public, but by the public.
Not long ago Sen. William Armstrong of Colorado sold his radio station to Westinghouse for $7 million. Leaving aside for the moment the propriety of a senator having a federally conferred license to operate a radio station, why should licenses conferred by the public be for sale by the licensee? They are really no different from Bowie's racing days and should be for sale only by the public -- think of the money they could bring in at a time when the Treasury clearly needs all the help it can get -- or they should be granted by the public by some means other than sale. My favorite way is by election, as suggested by my friend Robert M. Kaus. Let the people in each city vote for who should have these licenses -- and let them vote every five or ten years so we'll keep the station operators' feet to the fire in terms of serving the public.