Ford's WIN Buttons Remembered
Thursday, December 28, 2006; 6:35 PM
WASHINGTON -- Gerald R. Ford failed to "Whip Inflation Now" as his hapless WIN buttons proclaimed, but his presidency did provide a training ground for the ultimate inflation-tamer: Alan Greenspan.
In what is considered to be one of the biggest government public relations blunders ever, Ford approved a plan soon after becoming president in August 1974 to have millions of red-and-white buttons printed up with the "WIN" slogan on them.
The button appealed to the Republican Ford because it put the emphasis on fighting inflation through voluntary citizen action rather than a big government bureaucracy of price controls.
However, the buttons were a flop, endlessly lampooned by critics. Ford gave a series of speeches promoting his idea for voluntary efforts to control inflation such as having more Americans plant vegetable gardens, turn down their thermostats and carpool as a way of cutting down on energy use and helping to restrain prices.
Ford had the bad luck of serving as president during one of the worst economic decades in American history short of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The country was being hit by successive oil price shocks which sent inflation soaring and economic growth tumbling. Economists used the word "stagflation" to describe the twin evils of stagnant job growth and surging inflation.
During Ford's time in the White House from August 1974 until January 1977, the country was faced with a serious recession, which pushed unemployment up to a high of 8.8 percent in June 1975, and severe inflation with consumer prices rising at the double-digit rate of 12.3 percent in 1974.
"Ford inherited probably the worst economy we have seen in the post World War II era," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York. "The country was going through a rough period under Ford and in the early years of the Carter administration."
Many analysts blame the bad economy in large part for Ford's defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Carter's defeat four years later by Ronald Reagan.
Inflation was not brought under control until Paul Volcker, selected as chairman of the Federal Reserve by Carter and re-nominated by Reagan, pushed interest rates up to the highest levels since the Civil War.
That brought on the 1981-82 recession, the worst downturn since the Great Depression, but it finally broke the back of the 1970s cycle of stagflation, setting the stage for the economy to enjoy a period of more than two decades of growth interrupted by two relatively mild recessions in 1990-91 and 2001.
Greenspan, who ran a New York economic consulting firm, served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Ford administration and it was during this time that he developed his skills in economic policy-making.
"Greenspan was learning the ropes of government policy-making, learning from his mistakes. That knowledge made him a better Fed chairman," said economist David Jones, who has written four books on the Greenspan Fed.
While Greenspan went along reluctantly with the WIN buttons, he was more successful in pushing other ideas such as getting Ford to seek tax cuts in 1975 as a way of boosting growth and helping end the 1973-75 recession.
Greenspan during his 18 1/2 years as Fed chairman developed an inflation-fighting reputation to rival that of Volcker. But one thing that did not change was his friendship with Ford, a relationship that was probably the closest of five presidents he worked for in government service.
"Jerry Ford was the most decent man I ever encountered in public life," Greenspan said in a statement after Ford's death this week. "It was a great privilege to work for him. I will miss him."