Any year that begins with the stark realization that Doonesbury is going on vacation while Congress is coming back to work is not likely to be a vintage year. Unfortunately, there is both substantial and symbolic evidence that makes one view 1983 with more apprehension than anticipation.
Time Magazine nominates the computer as its "man of the year," suggesting not only that no statesman is of sufficient stature to deserve that accolade but that things--not people--are in control. When the best news of the year is the functioning of an artificial heart, it tells you where we are.
The forces that will shape our destiny in 1983 give the appearance of running on their own, unguided by human intelligence or conscience. The arms race rushes onward, producing weapons that only a suicidal madman would willingly employ and "scenarios" that seem increasingly implausible. When the chief American arms control negotiator says there is a "50-50 chance" of achieving agreement with the Russians to limit such weapons, the full prestige of the State Department and the White House is used--not to underline his signal of seriousness to the Soviets--but to denigrate it.
Meantime, the American and world economies are wracked by forces that seem beyond the comprehension of most people and the control of anyone. Debts pile on debts, deficits on deficits, imperiling the fragile structure of international trade, shutting factories, and pushing unemployment to the worst levels in 40 years.
Yet there is a tinge of optimism--a brightening of the horizon--at the turning of the year. Gen. Edward L. Rowny is not alone in believing that 1983 could be a year of progress on the great goal of arms control. Most economists endorse the view of Data Resources' Allen Sinai that "the patterns of economic recovery are systematically unfolding," even if the likelihood is that it will be a "gradual and anemic" recovery when it comes.
The Economist, about as hard-headed a publication as one can find, suggests that if 1982 was a year to make "Scrooge rejoice," then 1983 may be "Bob Cratchit's turn."
That hopeful view will be tested severely in the weeks just ahead, as the Reagan administration submits a budget that, if honest, will project a deficit of $150 billion or more. And Congress faces not just that deficit but the long- postponed and now urgent task of rescuing a Social Security system that is literally running out of time and money.
It will be a grim winter on Capitol Hill, in the state capitols and city halls where tax hikes and spending cuts are even more certain, and in the homes and on the streets, where the victims of this recession are waging an increasingly bitter struggle for survival.
What is most lacking is the voice that can make the implacable forces that seem to be shaping our destiny at least understandable to those who feel themselves tyrannized by these trends. What is lacking is the sense of urgency and compassion that will, by forceful example, inspire the country and the world to strive to bring those forces under control. What is lacking, in short, is leadership.
Ronald Reagan has been called the Great Communicator, but a more apt title recently would be the Great Myth-Maker. Rather than plunge into the complexity of our economic and defense problems and extract the broad principles that could help people see where we are and where we should be going, he has taken the easy course of creating a fantasy world where simplicities are offered as a substitute for policy. At first, the American people saw no harm in trying such implausibilities as an economic policy that simultaneously cut taxes and increased defense expenditures, with no thought to the consequent deficits. But we have all learned what havoc that can bring.
Now, when Reagan suggests that the way to stabilize the world is to bring back the battleship or pack a peck of missiles into a corner of Wyoming, the tendency is to snicker. When he suggests that the answer to massive unemployment caused by heavy industry operating at less than 50 percent capacity is for every business to hire one additional worker, the snickers subside into embarrassment.
The gravest problem we face is the loss of confidence in the man to whom this country and much of the rest of the world looks for leadership. Fortunately, government is not a one-man band and, fortunately, too, the Congress and most states and cities are capably led today.
But at a moment when so much is hanging in the balance, that vacuum at the center makes you queasy.