When President Carter returns from his overseas trip one of the first decisions he'll have to face is whether to announce another new anti-inflation program. In the president's absence, officials have been polishing a set of final proposals. Aides say whatever does emerge isn't likely to be very startling - but it's sure to be touted as a bold new move.
There's little argument from anyone that the wage-price problem deserves more attention. As the Labor Department reported last week, inflation is continuing at a decidedly uncomfortable pace, and some economists predict a further speedup by late year. Even the White House has raised its estimates - to 7 percent by year-end, instead of the 6 percent to 6 1/2 percent forecast earlier.
But to many analysts, the issue isn't whether the administration really needs another wage-price program, but rather whether it finally will begin to pay attention to the one it has. While no one denies inflation is a serious problem, critics complain the president's biggest mistake in facing the inflation threat in the past 15 months has been to ignore it.
Indeed, economists say there's a case to be made that, rather that combating inflation, the White House has done a good deal to exacerbate it. Top officials admit that despite all his anti-inflation rhetoric, Carter too often has placed inflation considerations on the back burner when making day-to-day policy decisions. And several steps he's taken have worsened the problem.
Moreover, for all the new concern about the inflation threat, many economists aren't convinced that the situation is bad enough to justify a major new attack. While inflation has worsened in recent months, not everyone agrees that it will hit 7 percent or 8 percent by year-end, as some analysts have warned. Some critics fear another half-hearted program could prove counterproductive.
Among the Carter actions last year and this that have tended to exacerbate inflation:
Signing a costly new farm bill last year that bloated previous spending by $7 billion - despite warnings from his economists that it would prove inflationary. The measure, which came at a time when farm incomes were not declining very seriously, boosted the cost of farm subsidies and broke the administration's budget. It now is contributing to higher food prices.
Supporting a hefty increase in the minimum wage last year that boosted business costs substantially, heightening pressures for price rises. Carter first proposed a modest minimum wage boost to $2.50 an hour, but later accepted a $3.15 level in the face of pressure from labor and liberals. His own economists had warned the measure would be inflationary.
Embracing a series of new Social Security payroll tax increases in 1977 that will raise business costs substantially and sap take-home pay of consumers. Although the impact of the 1977 bill won't show up until early 1979, analysts say that - together with the payroll tax rise last January - it has contributed to inflationary psychology.
Proposing sharp new increases last year in sugar prices and price supports for milk - both of which have added still further to the cost of living. Initial computations estimated that the measures aimed at raising sugar prices would add about $1 billion to consumers' bills for soft drinks, candy and other items.
An ill-fated cargo-preference bill that would have required the use of U.S.-flag vessels in 9 1/2 percent of the American-bound transoceanic shipments involved in this country's trade.Economists warned the measure would raise shipping prices substantially, but Carter went ahead anyway, in part as a political payroff. Ultimately, the measure was scrapped.
Engineering a series of import-holddown arrangements involving shoes, color TV sets and a wide array of steel prices that have restricted import competition and increased prices to consumers. Among these are the "orderly marketing agreements" signed with Japan and South Korea, and the new "trigger price" mechanism involving world steel trade.
Backing a spate of consumer and environmental bills that, whatever their other merits, would raise prices significantly in key areas. Among these are a new mine safety bill Congress passed last year and tanker safety regulations proposed by the Coast Guard that authorities concede could add $1 billion a year to fuel costs by 1981.
Giving presidential blessing to a clearly inflationary 39 percent wage increase in the coal miners' contract last month, despite warnings by top administration economists that the settlement might prove a rallying-point for workers in other industries. Carter tried to claim the move wouldn't have much impact, but others - including some in his own administration - disagreed.
Only last week, the president proposed a major new urban initiative that would bloat federal spending by another $2.4 billion, and - gallingly, to some analysts - pull another end run around the budget process by using federal loan guarantees instead of direct appropriations to stimulate business investment. Carter earlier had criticized the loan guarantee device as inflationary.
And, despite previousl assertions that a second new farm bill wasn't needed, the White House let go untouched a Senate-sponsored measure last month that would raise farm subsidy costs by another $5 billion to $7 billion and spur food prices further. (The administration's won Council on Wage and Price Stability blasted the measure as inflationary.)
The White House later proposed its own "compromise" version, but analysts say it isn't much better. Economists still regard the measure as a setback for anti-inflation efforts.
Perhaps most important, the president never has used his power of veto to block inflationary legislation - a device that former President Ford found effective, if not always successful.As a result, Carter is in the somewhat vulnerable position of having given frequent lip service to budgetary restraint, but never having acted to enforce it.
Admittedly, not all of these decisions would have come out differently if inflation had been given top priority in the administration's thinking. In some instances, there were other considerations that also were important. In the trade area, for example, the administration faced extremely heavy pressures to help slow the growth of imports.
But in the majority of instances, insiders concede the White House made these decisions primarily on political grounds - with the inflation issue pushed aside, and in some cases not taken seriously at all. Top Carter economic officials have been complaining for months that their concerns have been ignored by political aides. Now it's all coming home to roost.
The question is, even with these new increases, is inflation really accelerating quite that dangerously and, second, would what the administration is contemplating really do any good?
Economists are divided over how grave the inflation threat is now. While some fear openly that prices will accelerate sharply by year-end, others see much of the recent speedup as temporary, with the inflation rate likely to ease some toward the final quarter of the year. That doesn't mean things are getting any better - just that there may not be any real crisis.
Moreover, there's a serious question of how much a new "program" could accomplish in holding inflation down. The bulk of the recent speedup has stemmed mainly from food prices and the dollar decline, neither of which can be solved by wage-price measures alone. Some even fear a new move could prove counterproductive if the administration promises and doesn't follow through.
Just the same, Carter is almost certain to come out with something - if only to live up to the advance publicity the policy review has sparked. "If everyone expects us to come up with something, and then we don't, it'll really be bad for inflationary psychology," says one key official involved in the planning."
What seems likely now is a series of mostly symbolic steps, including a 6 percent ceiling on this year's federal pay increase, a renewed pledge to hold down the budget deficit, and a batch of modest measures, such as opening up more government timberlands to cutting to drive lumber prices down. There also will be renewed White House efforts to enlist business and labor help.
Still, what some insiders are hoping for, apart from any new symboiic gestures, is for Carter to begin giving the inflation issue higher priority - by making day-to-day decisions on government policy, by exercising more visible leadership in "jawboning" business and labor when they propose wage and price increases that are excessive, and by vetoing inflationary bills.
At least some Carter advisers hope the president and his men may have gotten the message in recent days. Last week, for example, Carter made a show of staring down a U.S. Steel Corp. proposal for a $10-a-ton increase in steel prices. And top administration officials, including Vice President Mondale, went to the hustings talking a tougher line.
As White House economists have learned in recent months, the difficulty is that there's no constituency for inflation-fighting - particularly when it means that big pressure groups may have to give something up to help hold prices down. What some insiders are arguing is that, if inflation is to be slowed, someone is going to have to say no when it's needed - and that has to be the president.
As a result, analysts say what Carter announces formally this week won't really be what matters. The crux of the matter is that the White House has run through 2 1/2 wage-price programs in the past year without taking any of them seriously. Unless Carter really is willing to put the inflation issue back on the front burner, there may not be much point in new announcements.