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Where are the truth-speakers?

The 1992 election will go down as the one in which anybody who spoke the truth about our nation's economic troubles could not be elected president. As a result we will elect a man who has not spelled out the sort of honest, realistic economic plan our nation needs.

Nobody is doubting that we have economic troubles any more. Call it a recession, or a depression, or a widespread pullback of business. By whatever name, there's bad trouble across America, and it has spread to the other developed countries as well.

No, it's just that all candidates have learned well the lessons of the last decade or so: Say tax increase and get beat. Say cap Social Security and get beat. Say ration medical care and get beat. Yet some version of all of these will certainly be necessary to bring order and strength to our economy.

(I leave aside Ross Perot, who does have a plan, albeit a tremendously punishing one, because I do not judge him to be a candidate with any potential for election. Had he not spent $16-million promoting himself he would have disappeared off the scope entirely, and although Americans tend to believe rich men must be good, Perot's irascible ego has carried him about as far as he is going.)

So where does our economy stand? What is the situation that our president and our would-be president don't think we're strong enough to discuss candidly? The annual business outlook meeting in New York of the Conference Board, a business information group, provided this outline last week:

The good news is that many companies have managed to stay profitable. They have done so by getting smaller and more efficient. The rest of the news is bleak. We are eliminating jobs. Almost no businesses are growing or expanding. Consumers remain fearful. We are not building new houses. Office buildings continue to be vacant. The dollar, symbol of safety and order across the world for decades, continues to fall.

One telling observation came from Edward Kangas, head of the international accounting firm Deloitte & Touche. Top executives, he said, are "off balance, not quite confident." They are "preoccupied with management, not growth." His description of the current state of affairs, by the way, is "deep recession."

Then the Conference Board's chief economist, Gail Fosler, known in the trade as an optimist, said our economy is "fragile . . . inherently unsustainable." She predicts '93 will see more of 1992's story, with rising inflation and a continued fall of the dollar.

In her view, "irrespective of who wins" the presidency, the new year will see both tax cuts and spending increases, which will stimulate the economy, as well as continue the huge growth of our federal deficit and the debt burden it imposes. "In the U.S. there is no prospect of tough choices in sight." There will be an increase in the tax rate for the wealthiest taxpayers, more if it is Clinton, less if it is Bush, Fosler predicts. Some form of capital gains tax cut is also likely, finally.

The consumer will start spending as a result of this shot of stimulation. Home construction will get a boost. Still unsolved will be huge spending for health care, much of it by the federal government through Medicare. The rising payments to retirees will continue, as will the rising cost of paying interest on all the money the government has borrowed, soon to be the largest single item in the federal budget.

This is the politician's nightmare, a hard problem without a ready solution. No wonder those who mean to be elected prefer waving from the back of trains or buses, depending on which party. But our evasion of ugly reality does not make it go away.

My mind's eye keeps returning to the television clips of Lyndon Johnson that have been broadcast on public television in recent weeks. Here was a Southerner grappling with the realities of race, trying his damnedest to speak the truth about a bitter topic, moving toward trouble in the hope of solution, not dancing away in the hope of evasion.

Where are the truth-speakers who will help us sort out our economy's travails?

Andrew Barnes is editor, president and chief executive of the Times.

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