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Economic growth holds no guarantee of jobs tomorrow

In every advanced industrial country _ here, in Europe, and Japan _ voters seem to be saying that the macroeconomic numbers on employment, inflation, and profits are no longer a personal guarantee of a happy future existence.

"They see a disconnect between the past and the future," Goldman Sachs vice president Robert Hormats observed. The pressure of a new kind of competitive workplace gives managers and ordinary workers a sense of insecurity: Even those who hold a good job today have learned from others to worry about tomorrow.

The German election provides a clue to what may happen here in November. True, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's right-centrist party maintained a squeaky-thin control in the German parliament.

But recovery from a serious recession was not enough to mask the huge underlying problems of the German economy, which still faces mass unemployment and a two-class society _ one in the West and one in the East. In what might have been referred to as "normal" times, Kohl probably would have gotten a much bigger electoral bang out of improved exports and other macroeconomic signs.

This time, most of the opposition parties got stronger, and there is a real question whether Kohl's 10-seat majority in a 672-member Bundestag will allow him to pursue his agenda at home and abroad.

American parallels with Germany are not exact; we have had a much sounder and more extensive recovery, to begin with. But President Clinton and incumbent Democrats may suffer a rebuff despite low unemployment, high profits, and stable prices. We face the same high-anxiety economic environment that swamps the benefits of good, traditional macroeconomic performance.

"Only slices of the population benefit from a good GDP (Gross Domestic Product)," an administration official concedes.

My own hunch is that the Democrats' losses in next month's election will be less severe than advertised, but even if they maintain technical control of both Houses, Clinton is likely to face a governing coalition of right-wing Democrats and Republicans.

Administration officials publicly profess bewilderment at how voters could be so unappreciative of a long list of Clinton accomplishments, starting with his getting control of the budget deficit. Naturally, they don't talk openly about the "character" issue. They hope, moreover, that recent foreign policy successes in Haiti, Iraq and North Korea will give the President and the party a boost.

And they hope that somehow, anticipatory Republican arrogance will boomerang.

But they privately acknowledge that the controlling factor in the election may be a brand-new dynamic: growing disparities between the rich and poor, and between the educated and less-well educated in the labor force.

"You can surely bet that the next few years will be even better (for the American economy as a whole) than the last few, but in our society, there is a growing wedge between the top and bottom," an administration official admits.

A troubling illustration: A decade ago, about 80 percent of college graduates had good health care protection, while only 50 percent of high school graduates had similar coverage. Now, the college graduate protection has eased to 76 percent, but for high school graduates, it has dropped to about one-third.

Intuitively, American citizens seem to understand that our new high-tech, high-productivity economy probably guarantees steady economic growth. But it doesn't guarantee jobs (and health insurance), except for those who can benefit from training. We are breeding a new mix of haves and have-nots.

Moreover, it is believed in the administration, there has been a fundamental change in the manner in which individuals assess credit and blame for whatever economic success they achieve. "More and more, we are entering an era in which government responsibility for the individual's economic security is seen as less significant, and (more credit) is given to the private sector," the official said.

But blame, of course, is easily shovelled by dissatisfied voters onto incumbents of all parties.

If this line of thinking is right, that part of the electorate that is doing well will tend to accept the situation as having developed without government help, or even in spite of it. And that part of the electorate doing poorly will still blame the government.

President Clinton recognizes the problem inherent in the decline of real wages over the past 15 or 20 years, and has taken limited steps, within budget constraints, to address it. But this problem won't be solved in time for this or the next election.

For America, the problem is exacerbated by the very fact that our economy is now an integral part of the global economy. In earlier times, an unemployment rate that moved down from 7.5 percent to less than 6 percent would have assured labor a bigger share of the national income pie. But union leaders can't demand higher wages when surplus labor in other nations acts as an effective ceiling.

Hobart Rowen