THE COMMON WISDOM of mainstream economists is that there are no quick solutions for the economy's current malaise. Many people seem to think, however, that accepting this truism implies that you also accept the victimization of millions of people who suffer most directly from the recession. As long as you're properly sympathetic to the plight of this or that poor soul who comes to your attention, it is felt, you're absolved of any further responsibility for trying to alleviate the worst side effects of the economy's period of adjustment.
For example, Congress has just adjourned after adopting a budget for this year that further reduces many services and offers no new help for the unemployed beyond a few extra weeks of unemployment benefits. The administration, meanwhile, is preparing a budget that, by all reports, will call for additional reductions in basic social and educational services. All of these reductions will come on top of the earlier cutbacks made in the federal domestic budget -- and the further retrenchments that have been forced on fiscally strained state and local governments.
It strikes us that the fatalism that powers this inaction -- a fatalism indulged almost exclusively by the comfortably employed -- is profoundly misguided. If you accept the notion -- as we do -- that in order to avoid a recurrence of the damaging boom- and-bust cycle of the last decade, the recovery is going to have to be long and slow, surely you also should accept a very direct obligation to see that the costs of the necessary adjustment do not fall disproportionately on a small part of the citizenry.
The inflationary cycle that fueled the extraordinary employment growth of the last decade caused many distortions in the economy. It impeded investment and penalized people who saved and those who lived on fixed incomes. But it had, at least, the virtue that it hit almost everyone. Not so unemployment -- the tool that current economic policy has used to curb inflation. Even now the great majority of Americans are better off than ever before. This is especially true of those at the high end of the income distribution. But that prosperity -- and the promise of even greater prosperity in the future -- has been bought at the expense of millions of jobless and impoverished people, many of whom are now crowding into public shelters, living in cars or under overpasses or waiting in fear for the day when their unemployment benefits run out.
These people are part of a problem that is national -- and caring for them is indisputably a national responsibility. There are things that Congress, with the administration's backing, should do as soon as it meets in January. Some are aimed at relieving immediate distress. Others will make sure that when recovery comes, everyone gets a fair chance to share in its benefits. Over the next few days, we will share our notion of what should be done.
We are not suggesting that the federal government should throw all budgetary caution to the wind and launch a multi-billion federal program for the jobless. That could easily retard recovery. Nor should it start building federal shelters, running federal food lines or relocating families. State and local governments -- and the private sector -- have shown that they are willing and able to do the job -- at least when there is federal leadership and federal money to prod and assist them. But there are ways to help people that will not only encourage them to adjust to necessary economic change, but speed economic growth as well.
If you are worried about "wasting" government money, remember that still larger costs--monetary and moral -- come from wasting human lives. The legacy of high unemployment lives on for many years in broken families, abused children, welfare dependency and the whole sad litany of human disorder. The country will need the talent and skills of all its citizens in the years ahead. Now is the time to make sure that no group is left behind.