What else will work in our cities?

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Only 12 percent of the American population lives in cities of over half a million, but the Los Angeles riots warn us that they can bring the nation down if we ignore them.

In the wake of the riots we've had all sorts of suggested remedies but not much confidence that any of them will work. President Bush has mumbled something about Weed and Seed (which one commentator thought sounded more appropriate for a country club than the mean streets of Los Angeles or Harlem). Democrats are talking about reviving President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration of half a century ago. That would substitute ``jobs' (either make-work or otherwise) instead of the cash dole. Lord knows, the infrastructure of America is crying out for repair. And it needs more than make-work.I was interested to note that Herbert Stein, a staunch Republican and former chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, has a sensible view about these matters. After listing 11 serious suggestions for uplifting the center cities and the folks who live there, he mildly castigated the nervous nellies who say the federal government can't influence behavior and that all these remedies (centers for prenatal care, full funding for Head Start, voucher systems for school improvements, radical reform of welfare and strengthening police departments) are too expensive.

Quoting the unknown sage who said: ``Make no little plans; they do not stir the blood,' Stein insisted, in a Wall Street Journal article, that we very well can find the money (without increasing taxes) if we get our priorities straight. That would mean confronting squarely the swag doled out presently by the federal government to the wasteful and unfair entitlements programs.

President Bush talked about not ``dumping largesse' on the inner cities. But Stein reminded us of the tens of billions of dollars of ``largesse' now being doled out for the middle and upper classes. They include subsidized Medicare, subsidies to agriculture, partial exclusion of Social Security benefits from income tax and exclusion of employer-provided fringe benefits from income tax (not to mention untold layers of bureaucratic waste in Congress and the executive offices). Congress could find plenty more if it really made up its mind to stop worrying about re-election.

``The only question,' Stein concluded, ``is whether the American people think the gains from a large urban program are worth what would have to be given up.'

Critics of the slovenly behavior of folks trapped in the inner cities can go right on complaining about making them ``do right' before supplying any help. Most of them are doing the best they know how, under the circumstances. Those who could flee (both white and black) have already fled. What we have left is a major 12 percent problem, and it won't go away. It will grow and extend to the suburbs. Fear will stalk both the ``inner city' streets and the ``edge city' streets. It will seep toward the Beverly Hillses and the Lake Forests and the East Eighties of Manhattan and the Irving Parks and Starmounts.

There's no way to ignore the fact that the United States has let a desperate, seething, poverty- and drug-ridden Third World fester in its heartlands. What a shameful vision for the United States of the 21st century. How can we allow such embarrassment to continue?

So come right back to the central question: Which of the three potential presidents could do the best job confronting this dilemma?

Would it be the rapidly unraveling George Bush who's been mired down in establishmentarian government at the highest levels for the last 12 years (and one of its chief architects)? Would it be Gov. Bill Clinton, who has promised to rally Democratic members of Congress behind his program of change for the first 100 days of a new administration? Or would it be Ross Perot, who has no track record in public life but who has managed business enterprises successfully and pushed to the top in recent decades?

I don't know, but I think the American people are yearning for somebody to move in with fresh energy and enterprise to tackle just such problems. Overhauling the inner cities (especially their people) may cost, some say, as much as $50 billion, but Herbert Stein's argument about thinking big is the only way to capture public imagination and get something done. It's a crisis larger than the Persian Gulf or the Great Depression. Stein put it succinctly when he wrote: ``There may be a critical mass to be reached before programs can be successful. Responsible behavior (on the part of inner city populations) may need to be not a little more common but much more prevalent before it becomes the standard to which almost everyone will adhere. The streets may need to become not a little safer but much safer before investment is attracted. A big program may be much more effective per dollar and per unit of effort and attention than a little one.'

Has President Bush given a modicum of thought to such an approach? If he hasn't, he ought to be ashamed. And certainly he shouldn't be re-elected president of the United States.

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