And so under the standby authority provided by Congress. I, Jimmy Carter, am today imposing mandatory wage and price controls on the entire economy, to be enforced by the Internal Rerenue Service. Unlike the nation's previous experience with controls, this time the effort will work. I ask the cooperation - and the prayers - of all Americans.
That disquieting excerpt hasn't yet appeared in any actual presidential speech, but to a good many economy-watchers these days it doesn't sound all that far-fetched. Although officials have taken pains to rule out mandatory controls, pressure fot them is growing among some sectors of the economy. To many, the possibility now is a respectable outside bet.
Admittedly, all the surface signs would tend to suggest that mandatory controls are out of the question. The Carter administration has taken pains to eschew the notion of full-fledge restraints, and neither business nor labor has been angling for them - a prelude necessary even to the Nixon administration's wage-price controls experiment in 1971.
What has set the oddsmakers shifting is that Carter now seems headed toward what many consider to be brink of a mandatory controls program - the imposition of Kennedystyle voluntary wage-price guidelines, to be enforced by a variety of catch-as-catch can government sanctions. Indeed, Carter is expected to begin making decisions on the plan as early as this weekend.
The reasoning is that, if the guidelines program fails, the White House will be virtually obliged to move to mandatory controls, if only because there won't be anywhere else to go. And the betting is that, at least in the present economic and political climate, a voluntary guideposts program is unlikely to succeed.
Indeed. Herbert Stein, the former Nixon administration economic adviser who helped mastermind the 1971-73 controls fiasco, has asserted the present administration already appears to be headed down the same path. And Carter's own top economic advisers have been warning labor leaders privately the White House may be forced to mandatory controls if the guidelines program collapses.
Can Carter succeed with a voluntary wage-price program? And, if he fails, will mandatory controls be unavoidable? Carter's own advisers concede that trying to make the guidelines program work will be at uphill fight at best. But controls needn't follow, they argue. So why not make a stab? What would the president have to lose?
By any standard, the program Carter's advisers have recommended is a modest one: As described by administration strategists, the guidelines would ask workers to hold their wage increases to 7 percent - down from a 10 percent pace this year - and seek to get companies to hold their price rises to the 5.57 percent range, down from today's 7.5 percent inflation rate.
The guideline plan would be combined with a series of other anti-inflation actions - from a tighter-than-expected spending crackdown in next January's budget to possible delay in the Social Security tax rise and minimum wage increases now scheduled for 1979. The proposals, still being worked out by top policy makers, are expected to go to Carter for a decision next week.
To a good many analysts, there are some solid economic reasons for toying with a guidelines program. The administration's main need now is to slow the momentum of inflation, not to dampen overheating - a situation that calls essentially for reversing current inflationary psychology so wage demands guidelines plan would seem to fill that bill.
More important, unlike the 1971-73 experiment, in this case the guidelines wouldn't be a substitute for proper monetary and fiscal policies. Whether sufficiently or not, the White House already has shifted toward budgetary restraint in a move to hold down the deficit, and the Federal Reserve Board has had interest rates rising for months. Even Congress is cooperating somewhat.
But however ripe the opportunity may seem in theory, analysts warn that making the program work is quite a different matter - and not one in which Carter is apt to succeed. The reason is a fundamental one: It seems unlikely that the White House will be able to win cooperation from business and labor. And Carter has no real power to enforce the guidelines on his own.
There are these considerations:
The administration has flatly failed to win labor's support in its earlier, milder wage-price "deceleration" program, and there's no reason to believe it will be successful this time.
Even if labor gives in grudgingly on the program, there's little the administration can do to enforce its guideposts - despite the list of potential sanctions planners have suggested. For one thing, the number of opportunities to impose such penalties is limited, and they don't always coincide with the administrations needs involving a particular union or company.
Although the White House has made much over using government procurement policies to put pressure on would-be violators, canceling federal purchase contracts probably would be illegal. And so might prodding a regulatory agency to limit an industry's ability to pass along the cost of big wage settlements. And the opportunity doesn't always arise in the offending industry.
Moreover, the administration doesn't always have the necessary influence to carry out its threats. In one recent success, Carter inflation fighter Barry Bosworth got the Interstate Commerce Commission to warn truckers it would not approve automatic rate boosts in the face of a Teamsters wage rise next spring. But White House influence in other agencies is nowhere near that.
The White House simply doesn't have the staff to run a really effective wage-price enforcement program, and isn't about to set one up.
Moreover, there's little in Carter's previous record to suggest that the administration would be able to ride herd on violators if it wanted to. Carter has been conspicuously reluctant in the past to use his powers to help hold down inflation - witness the coal miners' and postal workers' settlements - and has only begun to bear down on legislation that exceeds his budget.
Indeed, many analysts expect the guidelines program to be blown apart when it meets its first real test - the contract settlement to be negotiated by the Teamsters' union next March 31. Despite the ICC's warning to truckers, most analysts believe the union increase that will outstrip any guidelines Carter may set. From then on, it's downwhill.
About the only hope most outsiders give the administration is the possibility of modest success in its bid to persuade unions - as an anti-inflation gesture - to eschew big first-year wage boosts and long-term contracts in favor of one-year contracts with effective cost-of-living escalator clauses. But even this would have limited impact.
The question is, what would Carter do for an encore if the guidelines program fails? Since the president took office in early 1977, the administration has steadily escalated its anti-inflation effort from general cajoling to a more formal "deceleration" program that began this past Feburary. To a good many pundits, the next step would seem to be controls.
But the progression doesn't necessarily hold up. For one thing, while Carter and his top economic advisers may seem divided on other issues, one thing they all agree on is that controls won't work and shouldn't even be tried. Skeptics recall that Nixon's advisers said the same thing before his move to controls. But that only hardens the Carter people's determination.
More important, Congress hasn't yet provided Carter with the sweeping power it did. Nixon to impose mandatory wage-price controls - and isn't likely to in the current environment.