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U.S. avoids confronting its many problems

From the Soviet Union to South Africa, societies are confronting their fundamental problems. Immobilism is giving way to change. There has never been a time in the world like this. But one great country is not confronting its problems. It is avoiding them, refusing to risk the uncertainty of change. That country is the United States.

America's problems are no secret. Commissions have reported on them, presidents talked, commentators thundered. But doing something _ something meaningful _ is another matter. That would take courage, and cost money.

Education is an example. We have become an ill-educated society. Our working population is at a growing disadvantage with the well-schooled people of Japan and other East Asian societies, or of Germany or France.

In his 1988 campaign George Bush said he would be the "education president." His budget last month, discounted for inflation, actually proposed less spending than the previous year for education.

Health is another profound problem. The United States is one of only two industrialized countries that have no national system of health insurance for the entire population. (The other is South Africa.) Most Americans have private insurance _ but at ever-higher rates, burdening them and their employers. Medical care for the uninsured is provided, inadequately and at heavy cost, by local hospitals. Infant mortality is higher in this country than in some less affluent societies.

Then there is homelessness, a largely though not entirely urban problem. How many of us, middle-aged or older, ever thought we would walk down an American street as we would in Calcutta, indifferent to desperation because we are so hardened to it?

A host of economic problems menaces our position in the world: slow growth in productivity, inadequate investment and saving, a tax structure that encourages business to think of the short term instead of the long. Again, there is no sign of a serious effort to address the dangers.

Finally there is the most profound problem of all, the environment. Bush said he would be the "environment president," too. His record in office is a particularly graphic example of the current American habit of talking about problems without doing anything that would be really difficult.

Bush has taken a more caring position on the environment than President Reagan. He picked a genuine conservationist, William K. Reilly, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But on a succession of tough issues Reilly has been overruled. When he drafted a Bush speech on the greenhouse effect and global warming, the speech was toned down and those very phrases eliminated. The president did not call for international action, as the State Department as well as the EPA had proposed.

The president promised a strong policy to protect wetlands. But after weeks of delay, the administration issued wetlands rules that gave way on key points to developers.

On all the hard issues Bush is doing fine in the polls by talking but not acting. The public is hardly in a daring mood these days, and doing something always offends someone. But leadership requires more than the attitude of the Victorian verse:

Mother, may I go out to swim?

Yes, my darling daughter;

Hang your clothes on a hickory limb,

But don't go near the water.