A line on clean air, conferring with the cosmos, incredible shrinking unions, and other matters. BABY TALK

(FORTUNE Magazine) – We were sorry to see that the latest submission from the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility is labeled a ''final report.'' It seems that the esteemers have actually run out of state money and agreed to disperse. This counts as bad news in the present precinct, since the task force has been one of Keeping Up's more reliable suppliers of knuckleheaded chuckle-worthy material, including two ''Only in America'' items, three other pronouncements requiring barbed comment, and one hilarious indignant letter to the editor. Frankly, we were thinking of the gang's views as a kind of annuity to sustain Keeping Up in its sunset years. The 144-page final report is all baby talk. In a way, what's most bizarre about the report is its evident utter obliviousness to the serious psychological research being done on self-esteem. Academic scholars now distinguish between two variants of self-esteem: (a) judgmental feelings about one's ''self-worth'' and (b) confidence in one's ''self-efficacy,'' i.e., ability to deal with problems. There are significant black-white differences in these two kinds of self-esteem, with blacks generally scoring as high as whites, or higher, on self-worth measures, but somewhat lower on self-efficacy measures. The academic research on self-esteem is rigorous, highly quantitative, and frequently fascinating. A 1986 paper by Viktor Gecas of Washington State University and Michael L. Schwalbe of North Carolina State demonstrates that parental behavior is more important to the self-esteem of adolescent boys than of girls, and the difference persists whether you look at self-worth or self-efficacy. Possible explanation: The girls are affected less by feedback from their parents than from the ''rating and dating'' system of their peers. The California final report is nonrigorous and full of the darnedest fantasies. In an introductory section it burbles, ''In the 1990s we humans * have the opportunity to enter our own inner space.'' In a concluding passage, it hails the revolutions in Eastern Europe because they are ''of the very essence of the self-esteem and personal and social responsibility endeavor.'' Arguably the most risible details in the final report concern the task force's own efforts to define self-esteem. The group was established, you will recall, because Democratic Assemblyman John Vasconcellos of San Jose persuaded the state's airhead political establishment of the centrality of self-esteem in fighting crime, drug abuse, scholastic failure, and you name it. Having got their appropriation, the task force then spent months -- and took reams of testimony -- trying to figure out just what self-esteem was. If they didn't know what it was, how could they be so sure it cured druggery? Anyhow, why didn't they just ask Vasconcellos? Having been in the legislature for 23 years and in psychological therapy about as long (a detail he has never concealed), he ought to have had some terrific answers. The definition they finally came up with: Self-esteem is ''appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others.'' A bit clumsy, but let that pass. The definition is followed, however, by certain formulations allowable only in California. It seems that self-esteem always develops ''in the context of social relationships.'' These relationships might be internal, i.e., ''self- to-self.'' (Huh? Talking to yourself is social?) They might also involve communication with nature or chatting with ''the cosmos.'' Do moonbeams have self-esteem? You better believe it.