On the eve of the 1980 presidential campaign, you ought to ponder one of today's conspicuous political paradoxes: Americans are obsessed with inflation, but inflation isn't an issue that figures prominently in the nation's political dialogue.
To be sure, our leaders are against it and, increasingly, they clutch at anti-inflation symbols: a balanced budget, for example. But most of their denuciations are ritualistic and hollow. When it comes to the essential issues -- how it happened, what it means and what ought to be done about it -- you will discover that prominent politicians became curiously retiring.
The modesty starts at the top. Paul Al Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, is now the most important maker of economic policy -- not President Carter. Until recently, Alfred E. Kahn, chairman of the Council on Wage and Price Stability, was the administration's most articulate spokesman on inflation -- not President Carter. It strikes people as normal that these unelected technicians ought to dominate the dialogue.
Carter simply reflects the prevailing political predilection. No presidential candidate or potential candidate of either party -- from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to former California governor Ronald Reagan -- has said anything memorable or original about inflation. It is questionable whether they ever will.
We ought to ask why this happens and whether is is good for us.
As to why, that is simple. You must remember that today's inflation is a wage phenomenon at heart. Wages constitute two-thirds or more of business costs; if wages weren't rising, the current rate of inflation -- even with higher oil prices and the heavy housing demand -- would be only a tiny fraction of what it actually is.
Economists cannot solve inflation because it no longer is primarily an economic problem; it is a political, psychological and social one. But political leaders shun responsibility because no one wants to label the average voter as the chief culprit or shout out the obvious truth: The national assumption that people automatically are entitled to increase -- or, at any rate, maintain -- their purchasing power is no longer valid.
Our predicament isn't grim, but if we keep living on the basis of this outdated assumption, we can make it so. More and more people now recognize that increased consumer purchasing power flows primarily from higher productivity and that our productivity is stagnant. But there is still only scant understanding that declining productivity growth isn't the exclusive soure of our trouble.
We live in a world where an increasing number of claims on our economic output compete against our paychecks. Even larger productivity gains wouldn't assure rising purchasing power automatically for the average worker.
Some of these competing claims are worldwide in nature. Higher oil prices are a signal that we have to pay more of our output to oil producers in exchange for their scarce fuel. Some pressures are public or semipublic: higher defense spending or more spending for an improved environment. Finally, some are private. Almost all workers now enjoy increased fringe benefits, including better pensions (which are simply a form of deferred compensation) and company health plans (which substitute for private spending).
Today's inflation stems largely from the fact that we haven't offset these additional claims on output by reducing our pay claims. We define our standard of living simply by what we can buy, but it isn't that simple. A stronger defense and cleaner environment, for example, both improve our standard of living; so do better pension and health insurance plans. To finance the competing claims, government simply increased the growth of the money supply; that didn't make everything match, but only worsened inflation and eroded "real" buying power.
Now the Federal Reserve no longer may be willing to supply that extra money. Unless we lower our wage demands, we face the traditional collision between rising labor costs and shrinking money growth: We will suffer unnecessarily high inflation and unemployment.
It matters very much that political leaders cannot -- or won't -- discuss these changes with a candor and clarity that compels attention and helps alter popular attitudes. Search Jimmy Carter's pronouncements, and you will find references to these changes, but he hasn't given them the emphasis they deserve nor (a more telling point) made much impression. Neither has anyone else.
We need to re-establish contact with basic economic realities: that some higher prices -- for energy and for environmental improvements, for example --stem from real cost increases that, like taxes, we must pay; and that fringe benefits aren't a free ride.
Unfortunately, these realities collide with today's wagesetting practices. As economist Arthur Okun repeatedly has pointed out, most large employers now base wage increases on a crude concept of "fairness." Wages get raised roughly in the line with inflation, not because employers like to give money away but because being "unfair" would damage employee morale and risk higher quit rates during boom periods.
Compared with a decade ago, America is healthy and prosperous. We aren't involved in a bitter, losing war. Our cities don't experience periodic riots. iThe family agonies caused by the rebellion of the children of the Baby Boom against their parents are subsiding.
Today's troubles -- high inflation, energy scarcity -- are trivial by CONTRAST. but our inability to treat these problems weakens us at home and abroad. Increasingly our domestic policy is our foreign policy. We took our economic power for granted for so long that we forgot that, as much as missiles and tanks, it undergirded our international position. As our economic control and performance have slipped, so has our international power.
America's position today is not unlike BritainS at the end of World War Ii. We need to reconcile our past with our present to make the best of our future. Britain, sadly, failed.