Daniel and Veronica live in a well-tended, three-bedroom townhouse near Fairfax Circle on an annual salary of $24,000, which is what Dan draws as a drug salesman.
Once, Dan and Veronica thought $24,000 was a lot of money. But that was a long time ago, before a lot of things - before hamburgers started selling at steak prices, before weekend vacations to the Shenandoah Valley started costing more than a week's after-tax pay, before Heather (their three-year-old daughter) was born.
Now, $24,000 barely seems to go the distance it has to for Dan and Veronica. "I never thought when I was a kid I'd make this much money when I got older," Dan said in an interview last week. "Now it seems like a never ending battle. You keep raising your level of expectations, but it always seems out of reach." At 30, he is looking for a better-paying job.
But don't get Dan and Veronica wrong. They aren't pleading poverty, not at all. There's a big, beautiful Zenith color television sitting right in the middle of their living room; a high fidelity, finely-tuned stereo over in one corner, and a richly-upholstered couch and rocking chair in another; and lots of lovely knick-knacks all around. Just last week, Dan and Veronica bought an old oak hutch for the dining room.
In this way, Daniel and Veronica are typical of many others across America who were interviewed for this series. Inflation has not left them starving. They still can buy the things they need. What they cannot buy is everything they want, some things they expected to be able to buy, and even some things they had been used to having.
"We have to make choices now," Veronica said. "Buying has become a real drudgery. I miss the ability to spend money and not to accout for every penny."
Dan misses having lamb for dinner - instead, they eat what Veronica calls "meatless exotic dishes." Veronica misses going on shopping sprees for clothes - instead, she has learned to sew most of the things she wears. Both wish they could go out for dinner and a theater show more often - instead, several nights each week they play in a local softball league.
Like other economic phenomena, inflation is uneven in its impact, which makes it difficult to write about in a general way. Certainly the poor and those on fixed incomes have been forced into an uncompromising life-death struggle. But for most Americans, the effects of inflation have not been this severe. Rather, among most there prevails, as with Daniel and Veronica, a sense not of a struggle for survival but of a struggle to stay even.
This struggle has bred deep frustration - it is the rub, basically, between great expectations and a diminished ability to pay. It has also bred fear.
"Not that we're uncomfortable," Veronica confided. "Right now, we're probably ahead of the pack slightly. But we feel we have to keep running and running, or else we'll fall behind. I keep thinking that next month or next year we're going to get stuck."
But though many are scared, what stands out most about the way people are reacting to the latest burst of inflation is their relative calm. They have become resigned to it. Absent are the boycotts, the protests, the campaigns against high prices which marked the surge in inflation earlier this decade. Instead of taking to the streets, people have chosen to wage private holding actions in the home. They hunt determinedly for bargains; they buy not for pleasure's sake but for investment purposes (and all the better if the two ends can be served jointly); they repair their own homes and make their own improvements; they cut corners where they can, conserve, contain.
"This inflation process is insidious," said Dan, when first asked to talk about the subject. "It's a gradual process. You don't wake up each morning and say everything costs more. But you do wake up after six or eight months and say, 'Hey, we have to put more money in the food budget.'"
One other factor that probably has contributed to the lack of a broad-based, grass-roots, inflation-fighting campaign is the difficulty in identifying the enemy. Inflation is only the ghost, and everyone has his or her favorite villain as to its likely source - the laborer blames government and big business, the businessman castigates labor and government, while the government official chides unions and businesses.
There are no innocents in this affair, though. Take, for instance, the group which claims the least responsibility of all for inflation, the business community. Rather than acknowledge the existence of corporate profiteering or price gouging, businessmen prefer to see their companies as being victimized by rising union wages and costly, unproductive government regulations.
One day last month, William King, director of policy analysis for Gulf Oil Corp. in Pittsburgh, was asked by this reporter to comment on the oft-heard charge that the oil companies have conspired among and within themselves to bolster the price of gasoline. "A lot of people are sure there is a conspiracy," said King, sitting up straight in his high-backed chair. "But every time that happens, Congress has an investigation which finds that, no, that wasn't the problem."
Two days after the interview, the Justice Department announced that Gulf had agreed to pay the government $42.2 million in alleged overcharges on crude oil bought from its own subsidiaries between 1973 and 1975. Gulf's halo, alas, was missing.
The point is that big business, along with big unions and big government, must share the blame for inflation. But this begs another question: Who will be the first to move?
The mood this reporter sensed after five weeks on the road is that people expect the government to take the leading role - not by dropping the boom on unions and businesses through jawboning or explicit controls, but by putting its own house in order, spending less and manufacturing less money. As one farmer in North Platte, Neb., put it, "The government is the only one that has control over itself. You're not going to see businesses and unions move because there're too many of them. But government competes only against itself."
The catch here is who government really is. "The government is us, it's you and me," said a state representative during a debate on inflation in Rockford, Ill. "It is the special interest groups, the lobbyists, all the people back home, anyone who wants something out of the public purse. It is fine to talk about cutting back, but let's face it, what we're really talking about is still someone getting something at the expense of someone else, and these are sometimes very hard choices to make."
So we're back to making choices, whether it's the nation's lawmakers trying to weight the cost of a new missile program against a national health plan or it's Daniel and Veronica trying to decide whether to have lamb or some exotic meatless concoction for supper.
"Inflation is trying to tell us something," said Walter Adams, the retired clerk and war veteran in Santa Clara, Calif., who began this series in an interview on the Fourth of July in which he ruminated on the weakened power of the dollar. What inflation is trying to tell us, Adams said, is that we have been overdoing things - overspending, overdemanding, overcharging - and maybe making some wrong choices, or too many choices.
This suggests that if inflation is to be brought under control, it will require, in addition to a workable and effective program by government, a change in public attitude away from the great expectations of the past and toward a more modest life view characterized by sacrifice, limited choice and smaller dreams.
There was very little evidence on this trip, however, that such a change in national attitude was occuring or would. In fact, instead of a greater national awareness about inflation, there was in evidence simply a greater national frustration.
Inflation alone has not fostered this frustration. Distress over taxes, pollution, corruption in high places, the state of the cities - all have contributed. It was not possible on this trip to begin a conversation about inflation without it spilling over into a discussion of any or all of the above list of concerns. Many of the interviews ended with people shaking their heads about how "the system" isn't working anymore.
In the next few months, Danniel and Veronica will be looking for a new house. They are expecting a baby, a playmate for Heather, and their current home is too small for a family of four. But Dan figures he can find something suitable priced between $70,000 and $100,000. He expects to make about $17,000 selling his home, which will serve as a down payment on the new price. He is not happy about how much he'll be paying for a new house, but he sees the change at least as a move up.
Veronica, meantime, has given up for the time being anyway, on her dream of a beautiful house with a fireplace, a garage and lots of space. She says she will settle for what ever the family can afford. "I can't see how anyone can help but be discouraged," she said. "Things might get a little better, but not a lot, not for a while, I think."