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COLUMN LEFT : Bootstrapping Won’t Work Without Shoes : It’s Bush’s big theme--let the people take care of themselves.

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To many here in Eastern Massachusetts, the epicenter of national economic decline, the State of the Union message was a crushing disappointment.

Naturally, we anticipated the emphasis on the war. But the deterioration of America itself--its gradual slide into an ever-deepening recession--received little more than a litany of the same obsolete exhortations and abstract intentions that have become the staple of public rhetoric.

Although the President paid lip service to the need for investment in America’s future (by whom?) and the need to upgrade education (an echo of a long-forgotten campaign promise), he recurred to his favorite theme: Let the people take care of themselves. “We must return to families,” he said, and to “communities, counties, cities, states . . . the power to chart their own destiny and the freedom and power provided by strong economic growth. That’s what America is all about.”

But that’s not what America is all about. A democracy is not a geographical collection of leaderless people. It is, or should be, a community that selects a government to formulate policies and programs that make it possible for people to secure the basic necessities of life and build a growing economy. During the last decade, government has abysmally failed in that responsibility.

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A word like “recession” is an almost comfortable abstraction; resonating of some natural phenomenon, expectable and sure to pass. But it is none of these. It is a label that obscures human failure, defeat and even tragedy.

Not too many years ago, some friends of mine--all successful small businessmen--opened a restaurant on the border between the towns of Concord and Maynard, Mass.--between the birthplace of the American revolution and the headquarters of the Digital Equipment Corp., one of those high-tech companies that fueled an economic renaissance.

And it worked. The food was good. Families would come to meet their friends. Assembly-line workers mingled with lawyers and engineers. Soon the restaurant employed about 25 people and began to turn a profit. It was George Bush’s dream come true--citizens creating growth and adding a beneficent dimension to the life of the community.

Then the recession struck. Fewer people could afford to eat out. Bank lines of credit began to dry up. Profits were displaced by losses. And just a few weeks ago the restaurant closed, bankrupt.

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The impact of this failure radiated in many directions. Vendors, all small businessmen, not only lost an important customer but were unable to collect on past debts. The local bank lost its loan--a relatively small amount but still part of the devastation that is threatening the entire banking system.

More was lost than money. Many citizens had made the restaurant a regular part of their lives; they were stunned to see “Closed” posted on the familiar entry. The employees, unaware of frantic efforts to stave off bankruptcy, suddenly found they had lost their jobs. Some would find other employment; others turned to unemployment compensation or welfare. All would suffer varying degrees of distress. And why? They had worked hard and efficiently, helped create a local institution. In other words, they had--just as George Bush wanted--unleashed their energies to build only to find themselves standing amid the wreckage.

And that is what is meant by the word “recession.”

These mini-histories--multiplied innumerable times and across the country--reveal the true State of the Union; the one that was not discussed.

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The renewal we were so glibly promised is not in sight. We have failed as a people and as a government to confront the dimensions of American economic and spiritual decline. This not a temporary downturn. It is the inevitable consequence of national failure to build a skilled and educated work force, to fairly distribute national income, to increase productivity. It is a result of waste, scandal, greed and a political structure corrupted and indifferent to the people it is supposed to serve.

There are no easy fixes; no magic formula to arrest and reverse a massive deterioration of national economic strength. That will require a whole new set of priorities backed by action, even radical changes in the structure of economic life. If this is not done by our present leadership, then we will need new leadership. And we will have to find it for ourselves outside the Republican and Democratic parties, the joint architects of deepening distress.


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