President Carter continues a long tradition of presidential waffling. In the decade since inflation became a matter of pressing public concern, no president has addressed the issue with the candor it demands.
Carter certainly did not do it on Oct. 24, though his anti-inflation speech was realistic in its modest goals. Even if everything goes according to plan - a longshot - the administration's program envisions lowering inflation only to a range of 6 percent to 6.5 percent next year against an expected rate of 7.5 percent to 8 percent this year.
But only in passing did the president obliquely touch upon the central cause of persistent inflation: a mass belief that the economy guarantees everyone a constantly rising standard of living.
Events have proved this to be fantasy.
Median family income in 1977 remained slightly below its level in 1973 and, as everyone strives to stay even with prices, the cult of instant gratification has spread to economic life. Ultimately, self-perpetuating inflation simply reflects a collective unwillingness to recognize that, in the 1970s, higher living standards require higher investments: to pay for energy developement, to improve the environment and to expand output and modernize production.
But, if more investment today means rising living standards tomorrow, it also means slightly less in wages and government spending today.
Instead, the pattern has gone the other way: higher wages and more government spending. No one has been willing to sacrifice current consumption, and, consequently, this country - like most western democracies - has embarked on a course of rising costs (mostly wages), causing higher prices along with stagnating living standards.
The resulting inflation slows growth, further deters investment and locks the economy in a sick, vicious circle. Some call it stop-go, others, stagflation.
All signs indicate that the United States is trapped in this cycle. Even as the president attacked recession as an antidote for inflation> his economists predict only 3.5 percent economic growth next year and an unemployment rate hovering around 6 percent. That is a far cry from the nearly 5 percent growth they initially embraced as a way of reducing unemployment below 5 percent by 1981.
That Carter barely acknowledged the need for more investment - which means business profits is understandable. Business isn't very popular, and his program already has enough problems.
To achieve eventhe administration's modest targets requires enormous good luck. The price estimates, for example, don't include the possible impact of rising food costs. If those prices rise only 6 to 6.5 percent, the inflation target remains intact. But they may not behave so well. For example, beef prices - reflecting a decline in cattle slaughter - are expected to rise 10 to 15 percent next year.
Reaching the inflation target also requires widespread observance of the "voluntary" wage standard of 7 percent. This, too, is a tall order. The standard is about two percentage points below the average wage increase in 1978 and, as workers come to understand the gaps in the program, they may find it less palatable.
For, although Carter quickly passed the point in his speech, the standard doesn't cover everybody. Workers with existing contracts - which often include wage increases exceeding 7 percent - aren't expected to suffer a rollback, and low-paid workers (anyone earning less than $4 an hour) are also exempted. Together, these groups are estimated to represent 25 to 30 percent of the work force. When other workers realize the extend of these exemptions, they too, may press for more than 7 percent.
The chief threat, of course, comes from large unions. Carter hopes to keep everyone within the guidelines with his novel proposal of "real wage insurance": workers who agreed to accept only 7 percent raises would be reimbursed, via a tax rebate, for real income losses if inflation exceeds 7 percent.
If that looks fair, it may not be workable. Many majors unions have been doing better than inflation, and they may not be willing to sacrifice their advantage. In their latest contract, the Teamster - which will be the first major union to bargain in 1979 - recenived 9 to 10 percent a year, which is 2 sto 3 percent better than the prevailing inflation rate.
Other potential problems also plague the program. Most conspicuously, a possible contradiction looms between Carter's pledge to lower budget dificits and his commitment to "real wage insurance." If inflation exceeds 7 percent by one or two percentage points, the "insurance" could cost $5 billion to $10 billion, depending on how the plan is implemented. And, if Congress does not quickly enact controversial proposal, its usefulness would vanish.
In the end, government cannot promise - as Carter did - that it will maintain everyone's living standards. Only the economy can perform that trick. Giving people mony will permanently raise their purchasing power only if it reflects increased investment and productivity.
An that is the key. The economy's pro-inflation, anti-investment bias ultimately reflects a widespread illusion that the government can somehow mandate rising living standards by fiat. In part, the apparent popularity of wage-price controls, the ultimate form of economic fiat, stems from this illusion. People want a quick fix.
Meanwhile, everyone grasps at whatever protection is at hand: wage indexation schemes, import restrictions and protective federal regulations. No one wants to give up what he or she has, even when the result is to perpetuate inflation for everyone.
Carter's program aims to weaken this inflation machine. But it's not clear that his speech - and his warnings about the ills of inflations - were compelling enough to forge the political consensus essential to make the program work. If they weren't, the economy may end up where the President wants it least: either in a recession or with wage-price controls.