President Carter and his top inflation fighter, Alfred Kahn, yesterday told 35 consumer and labor leaders that the administration is committed to a "continuing relationship" with them in an effort to curb the impact of inflation on the price of the basic necessities in life.
In a meeting with members of Consumers Opposed to Inflation in the Necessities (COIN) Carter said "90 percent of the time we'll agree" on the issues affecting consumers. The President said he was directing Kahn to set up working groups in the White House to study problems in each of the key areas noted by the group; food, energy, health care and housing.
Kahn said that one proposal he was studying would involve the creation of separate credit controls in the housing area. Some consumer groups have complained that high interest rates for housing loans are inflationary, forcing consumers to pay more for the hous, or pay higher rents.
Gar Alpervoitz, chief economist for COIN, which is a newly created consumer-labor federation, said that for the first time COIN's proposal for a sectoral approach to the inflation problem seems to have been taken seriously by Kahn.
"The president made it clear that he wanted the four working groups to see what can be done with these necessities, which he said are the things that matter most to families," Alperovitz said.
COIN presented Carter and Kahn a chart showing that inflation in the four necessities sectors has been rising at an 11.6 percent annual rate in the past 10 months, compared to a 6.1 percent rate for non-necessities.
"We got the point across," said COIN spokesman Roger Hickey, "that the reason this group came together was a common concern to see the administration take steps to control prices in these sectors."
"They agreed with us that if we don't get control over these areas, then we have lost the inflation war," Hickey added.
White House consumer advocate Esther Peterson called the session "a good hour-and-a-half meeting," and said that "it was clear that Kahn was talking notes all of the time. He showed tremendous interest and in many cases pointed out the complications that would be faced."
Mark Green, head of Ralph Nader's Congress Watch, said the meeting was more of a "theme meeting. We wanted them to say yes, they were going to make necessities inflation a key issue, and they came very close to that."
Green said that the joining together of consumer and labor groups, "who have not always agreed in the past," created an unusually strong alliance, one in which Nader had never before participated. He called the meeting "a good wind-up, but we'll be looking for the the followup. This is a small, but necessary, first step down a very long road towards solving the structural problems that cause inflation."
Nader, who was at the White House meeting, was not as optimistic as Green. "The basic issue is that inflation is question of who has got political and economic power in society," he said. "We have to find out who the victims are and give them power and find out who the perpetrators are and make them accountable. Instead of pleading with corporations, why doesn't Carter enforce the laws-like antitrust, and make alternatives like solar energy a top priority."
Kahn told the meeting that President Carter has given him review authority over all new appointees in the regulatory area, and, according to Nader, Kahn said he would make sure, for instance, that any new appointees to the Interstate Commerce Commission are deregulation-oriented.
Both Kathleen O'Reilly of the Consumer Federation of America and Sandra Willetts of the National Consumer's League said they felt Kahn was sincere in asking for help from the consumer groups.
"The door is open," Willetts said. "The president has given us direct access to the four working groups and endorsed the need to work on the four essentials."
O'Reilly said Kahn asked for the help of the group "in determining how to mold a selective credit allocation plan, and cross the hurdles faced when structuring such a proposal."
Kahn said the four working groups would be set up shortly, and the consumer groups would have ample access to get their view across to the groups.