The scrumptious Victoria Will was born on Oct. 1, 1980, so it was to be expected that as Oct. 1, 1981, approached, the world would turn in awe toward Washington. It did, but for the wrong reason.
Oct. 1 is the first day of the fiscal year. Now begins the bulk of the president's economic program, and markets (which means many people) seem to be holding their breath.
This is a vigorous nation with a continental market, rich in resources, the most important being a reasonably educated and industrious population. It has a huge pent-up demand for houses, automobiles, and capital goods. Common sense suggests that the fate of the nation does not depend on the differences between the economic numbers bandied by the president and his critics. The impression that the stakes are immense derives, in part, from the administration's contribution to the national monomania about economic numbers. For awhile, the administration should, but evidently cannot, talk about anything -- soybeans, sex, anything -- else.
Some of the president's senior aides believe that part of Jimmy Carter's problem was that he overloaded the nation's circuits with too many issues. They believe that the way to husband presidential power is to focus on one theme at a time. So for nine months the president's theme has been economic recovery. Such a focus has benefits, but also has costs.
While the administration was deferring work on behalf of controversial "distractions," such as the proposed sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, opponents were spending months quietly gathering strength. A hard-won and easily lost mood of support for an assertive foreign policy and adequate defense spending is, being frittered away as the administration slights foreign policy and seems to be acquiescing in plans to balance the budget at the expense of defense.
The two great questions of the 20th century are: Can the democracies find the stamina to withstand the protracted challenge of the totalitarians? Are the democracies disciplined enough to endure the painful policies necessary to cure the inflation that their indiscipline creates? These two questions are related, and current events are only the most recent evidence that pessimism is realism.
An unreasonable pessimism -- concerning short-run economic developments -- is being deepened by the spate of talk about restoring the gold standard. Many of those advocating restoration have credentials commanding respect, and much of what they say is true. But the truth of the argument for a gold standard is, for now at least, beside the point. The argument may be true; it unquestionably is untimely.
The mere fact that the argument is occurring suggests that the "supply siders" are perplexed and are improvising, or that they have been less than forthright. It suggests that there was a little asterisk at the end of the supply-side argument, an asterisk that referred the nation to a footnote that says: "Oh, by the way, the success of all the tax and spending decisions hitherto advocated depends on radical revision of the monetary system." People are, understandably nervous when told that the success of a policy depends on something that is probably not going to happen, ever, and certainly is not going to happen soon.
What may happen soon is that sensible people will become sick of the vanity and misapprehensions revealed in many arguments about who should get what -- or, for that matter, who does get what -- from government.
Some children of my acquiantance have a new expression of disapproval. "Gross" and even "grossening" are out. "Vomitrocious" is in. The word is, like most children, a bit too energetic for comfort but, like most children, it cannot be faulted for blandness. The word has arrived in the nick of time. It describes a lot of the rhetoric now heard regarding the budget.
As is to be expected in a middle-class nation, the bulk of government benefits goes to the middle class. And the bulk of complaints about "big" government comes from the middle class. I do not mind the policies; I mind the attitude of the many comfortable people who receive benefits while grousing about government being on their backs, and while worrying that, somewhere, someone less than "truly needy" may be getting government assistance.
Compared with some cowboys -- symbols of rugged individualism: hairy-chested, leathery-skinned, crow's-feet around the eyes -- who use heavily subsidized water, graze their cattle on public land for a pittance and have their market protected by beef import quotas -- compared with such Marlboro men, the average inner-city welfare mother is the soul of self-reliance.