"The selfishness of the American people never ceases to amaze me," I told the cabbie who was taking me to the budget hearings on Capitol Hill.

"They're like spoiled children who want to go right on getting everything they always got, even though the family is over its head in debt. The word 'sacrifice' doesn't seem to be in their vocabularies."

"You know, sometimes I don't know whether you people in the media are dumb or just stupid," the cabbie said. "According to you people, the reason all those budget deals fell apart is because the American people pressured their congressmen into voting against them. It's like we're too selfish to consider what's good for America."

"Well, it does seem to me that there's a certain amount of selfishness involved in the reluctance of the people to face up to the budget crisis or to endure even the tiniest bit of pain in order to set things right," I ventured. "I mean, a few cents tax on cigarettes and beer, minor cuts in social spending, a modest increase in payroll taxes -- it didn't strike me as that much of a sacrifice. And yet the American people, in their selfishness ... "

"Selfishness has nothing to do with it," the cabbie said. "We're willing to suffer a little if it will do some good. But these con games Congress and the administration are trying to put over on us aren't going to do a lick of good for the deficit. I know they told us it would reduce the budget by $40 billion, but look at what they didn't tell us. They didn't tell us that their little package didn't include the cost of Operation Desert Shield, or that it didn't count the money that'll go to the S&L bailout. How much budget reduction do you think there'd be if they gave us some honest bookkeeping?"

"Oh, sure," I said. "I can tell you're just itching to make a sacrifice for your country. You'd just love to pay a little extra for your gasoline and cigarettes and beer. You can't wait to have your income tax raised or to have some of your favorite government services reduced."

"If you're trying to say I don't like the idea of paying more taxes for less service, you're right," the cabbie said. "Nobody, rich or poor, likes paying taxes. But we pay because we need government services."

"But you don't want to pay a little more to help the government out of its budget crisis," I said.

"Not true," the cabbie said. "I just don't want to be a sucker. I'd gladly pay a little more if everybody paid a little more -- not just the middle class who have been picking up the tab all along but also the rich who have been enjoying the Reagan tax-cut party."

I reminded him that while the idea of socking it to the rich may be attractive, there just aren't enough of them to balance the budget. Either we're going to make some sacrifices in the national interest or else we're going to stick our children and grandchildren with the cost of our selfishness, I told him.

"Let me tell you how I see it," he said." Let's say the rent goes up, and the wife loses her job. There's just a few things you can do. You can find a second job to produce more income, you can move to a place where the rent is cheaper or you can lower your whole standard of living.

"But these people are trying to balance the national budget by projecting income as if the wife is still working, handling expenditures as if the rent is unchanged and asking the children to take a cut in their allowance.

"Well the children might not mind taking a small hit if they thought it would help the family. But when Mom and Dad go on living the way they always did, the kids don't want to give up a dime.

"You let members of Congress and top administration people reduce their salaries, give up some of their perks and stop wasting government money on things like unnecessary travel and campaign mailings, and you'd be surprised how easy it would be to get the people to go along with a tax increase.

"But we don't want to hear a lot of talk about sacrifice when we're the only ones who'll be doing the sacrificing."

I was just about ready to admit he had a point when I decided to try one more tack. "So you're willing to pay more taxes?" I asked.

"If everybody else does," he said.

"And you're willing to see federal expenditures reduced for such things as education, Medicare, the war on drugs and law enforcement?"

"I didn't say that," he said. "You're talking about things that I consider absolutely necessary. But I don't see why the taxpayers should be stuck with the bill for all these things."

"Then who ... ?"

"Let the government pay for 'em," he said.