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THE MISSING ISSUES // Economic issues you won't hear about from Bob or Bill

You probably never heard of James Fallows, but he has caused quite a stir in my line of work.

Fallows is a magazine journalist and a former Jimmy Carter aide. Earlier this year, he published a book titled Breaking the News that was highly critical of the way American journalism functions.

"By choosing to present public life as a contest between scheming political leaders," he wrote, "all of whom the public should view with suspicion, the news media helps bring about that very result."

The press, Fallows argued, should focus more on issues and less on political tactics. We're too caught up in the esoterica of politics, he wrote, and not sufficiently attuned to the true role of public life as it relates to ordinary people; we focus too much attention on what poll-driven politicians say instead of what they should be saying.

Whatever the merits of that view, it was intriguing the other day to see a story on a debate between Dan Quayle and Mario Cuomo on the conduct of the current presidential campaign we're all suffering through. They agreed on virtually nothing, no surprise, except this: Neither Bill Clinton nor Bob Dole talks about the right things.

As a rule, I don't tell politicians what they should talk about. But two friends of mine, two-time Pulitzer Prize winners Don Barlett and Jim Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer, have just published a huge series titled "Who Stole the Dream?"

It deals with the erosion of the middle class built up in this country over the past century and offers suggestions on what government should do to preserve it.

You can argue with their conclusions, and a good many people have, but their series indisputably deals with issues that both Dole and Clinton should be addressing.

A few examples: Average income for America's top 10 percent of earners has jumped 215 percent in the past 15 years while the incomes of the bottom 90 percent went up 67 percent _ slightly below the 70 percent rise in the cost of living.

The top 1 percent of wage earners took in 8 percent of all income in 1980. By 1992, they'd moved that up to 14 percent. The compensation of top executives in Fortune 500 companies has gone up 951 percent since 1975 while the average wage of workers in those companies went up 142 percent.

In short, Barlett and Steele have documented a shift of wealth from workers to owners unprecedented in the nation's history. They think that's a bad thing. It's also worth noting that as combined local and state taxes have consumed an ever greater portion of the incomes of working people _ from 12 percent 40 years ago to an average of 23 percent now _ the tax load has shifted dramatically from corporations to individuals.

In New York, for example, companies doing business in the state paid 25 percent of the state tax bill 35 years ago. Now they pay more like 10 percent.

Sure, all this is complicated, and it reflects real changes in a rapidly altering world economy. Both Cuomo and Quayle are right, though. There are topics far worthier of serious discussion in this election than whether Bill Clinton chases skirts or whether Bob Dole was sufficiently kind to his first wife.

If that's what we want our presidential elections to be about, then maybe we deserve whatever the politicians decide to do to us.

Dan Lynch is a columnist for the Albany Times Union.