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18 SEPTEMBER 5, 1980 By Alfred J. Watkins THE ZERO SUM SOCIETY By Lester Thurow Basic Books, 230 pp., $12.95 I have always had difficulty distinguishing between liberals and conservatives. Unfortunately, as my store of historical information and awareness of current events. has increased, my confusion has become worse. For example, consider the case of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. In 1962, Kennedy ignored the pleas of advisors such as John Kenneth Galbraith who argued that increased social spending would both stimulate the economy and provide needed services to the poor Al Watkins is an Observer contributing editor. and underprivileged. Instead, Kennedy believed that a trickle-down tax cutting policy was the appropriate way to accelerate economic growth. Today, Ronald Reagan, espousing Kemp-Roth tax cutting principles, has also renounced increased social spending and called for a major tax reduction in order to get the economy back on a fast growth track. But if Kennedy’s tax cut make him a liberal, why do so many liberals despise Ronald Reagan’s economic policies? Is it because Kennedy justified his stance with “liberal” Keynesian economic rhetoric while Reagan invokes the “conservative” dogma of Kemp-Roth? Comparing the policies of Richard Nixon and Ted Kennedy adds to my confusion. Richard Nixon, generally considered to be an economic conservative, supported the Lockheed loan guarantees and imposed wage-price controls. Even though both policies required government meddling with the free market, they were bitterly opposed by li:Jerals. Ted Kennedy, a liberal not always willing to trust the judgment of the “invisible hand,” has supported wage-price con-. trols and government loan guarantees for Chrysler. Yet his policies are greeted enthusiastically by the same liberals who jeered when they were practiced by Nixon. To be sure, important differences do exist between John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Ted Kennedy. But there are also significant similarities between what Marcus Rasken, writing in the Nation of May 17, calls “establishment liberalism” and traditional conservative doctrine. When reduced to its basic principles, said Raskin, “establishment liberalism” amounted to a “partnership theory of government in which government helped business thrive.” To this end, establishment liberals urged government to prime the pump of consumer spending with tax cuts. They accepted deficit spending but acquiesced to a regressive tax structure. They supported social welfare programs, not because they believed that people living in an affluent society had any moral claim to them, but because such programs were the only tools that could prevent the “unruly classes” from pillaging the cities. Because “establishment liberals” were unwilling to mount a frontal attack on big business, they adopted pragmatic policies that eliminated some of the worst economic abuses without ever addressing the issue of corporate power and corporate control over the strategic resources that affect everyone’s life. Conservatives, of course, also have no interest in either attacking big business or challenging the status quo. Therefore, as long as both groups consider corporate prerogatives sacrosanct, it should come as no surprise to discover that while the rhetorical packaging may change, their policies are nearly identical. Lester Thurow’s latest work, The Zero Sum Society, provides a superb illustration of the dilemma of establishment liberalism. As the title suggests, Thurow believes that the post-war era of rapid economic growth has come to an end. As a result, whenever we try to appease dissident groups by granting them a larger slice of the economic pie, we must reduce someone else’s portion. Under these conditions, says Thurow, “the losses will exactly equal the winnings,” and winners can exist only so long as others are willing to be losers. In mathematics, this is known as a zero sum game. Books/ Class Distinctions