Nearly 50 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter began a series of lectures with this admonition: "The test of a citizen, as a soldier, lies in action. But wise action is the fruit of reflection." Looking at the economy these days, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that we're long on action and short on reflection.
The economy is not -- as the headlines imply -- in ruins, but neither is the landscape a scene of beauty. Inflation is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent (depending on what statistic you choose), the housing and automobile markets have collapsed and interest rates reach new records almost daily.
Watching Jimmy Carter and his chief economic lieutenants in their latest foray as anti-inflation crusaders, you have the feeling that they are dealing with something they don't understand and don't want to understand -- that they are simply being dragged along by a rising tide and doing their best not to be drowned.
Inflation is a political problem, and the basic question is whether the only way to get inflation down is to get unemployment up. That's an undesirable and unnecessary choice, but until someone can clearly explain to the public how the economy developed such a strong inflationary bias, it may be the only one we get.
We seem to be drifting toward, something of a standoff. Tight credit and government spending may prevent inflation from getting much worse, but the economy's inflation-prone institutions -- indexed wages and government benefits, various forms of government protection -- will create persistent price pressures that frustrate economic expansion, resulting in needless unemployment.
There's little doubt that, given time, the Federal Reserve's policy of slowly reducing the growth of the money supply would reduce inflation, but the key question is whether the Fed will be given time. No one really knows.
Because the current increases in the consumer price index (an 18 percent annual rate in January) are heavily influenced by rising interest rates and energy prices -- which may soon abate -- that index could slow in the next few months. But even avid devotees of money supply economics, who think that inflation is simply too much money chasing too few goods, don't believe the underlying rate of inflation will drop for at least a year.
In their view, changes in the money supply initially affect spending and only later change prices. That's why, they argue, the large increases in money supply growth in 1977 and 1978 didn't lead to a price explosion until late 1978 and 1979. By the same token, they say, cutbacks in money supply growth now will initially stem spending and affect prices in only 1981 or 1982.
All this underlines the perversity of practices that make wages and prices more rigid. The more quickly wages and prices react to reduce spending, the less the impact of a slowdown in money supply growth on economic output and employment. The Carter administration has had plenty of practical opportunities to make this point forcefully to the public, but it has deliberately missed most of them.
The best chance was the Chrysler Corp. appeal for rescue from bankruptcy. Instead of compelling the company and its workers to freeze wages -- already among the highest manufacturing wages in the country -- the administration sanctioned a wage increase that is far better than most workers will get. If it had taken a strong stand on Chrysler, the administration might have made it easier for Ford and General Motors to pare down their large wage settlements. Those settlements will now raise car prices and depress sales and employment.
As inflation adviser Alfred E. Kahn -- who favored tough action against Chrysler and the United Auto Workers -- once remarked, the Chrysler situation presented a microscopic model of the country's inflation and unemployment problems. A skillful leader could have treated it as such. But, in an election year, Carter apparently felt that he couldn't take the risk of opposing the UAW.
Government actions inevitably set a moral climate for private businesses, and the message that government has been sending out for years has been clear: Every one is entitled to a constantly rising standard of living. There is a nice, warming humanism to this attitude, but, ironically, it has spawned today's inflation and now threatens stagnation.
Stiff anti-inflation policies may initially lead to higher unemployment, but there is no necessity for low inflation and high employment to be permanently in conflict. The natural complement of a credible anti-inflation policy, though, is politically unappealing: harsh skepticism toward many of the constituencies that come to Washington looking for various forms of relief.
In retrospect, what was needed after the 1974-75 recession was a clear, unwaivering policy of reducing money supply growth, combined with a loudly proclaimed government resistance to special pleading. Businesses and workers need to know that government won't insulate them from every whim of the market or cure every blip in the unemployment rate by artificial "stimulus." This creates a cruel, but ultimately healthy uncertainty that checks natural instincts to raise wages and prices.
But government policy is almost always the prisoner of the most immediate problem, which then seemed unemployment. Carter's economists -- and a lot of others, too -- badly misjudged the economy's inherent tendencies to generate both jobs and inflation. Instead of choosing the slower, more durable road towards high employment, the administration adopted expansionary programs that achieved rapid employment growth at the expense of added inflationary pressures. We are now stuck with the results.
At a recent press briefing, Kahn was asked why the White House hadn't adopted a particular proposal that had been widely discussed in Congress and the press. An ex-professor, Kahn saw a golden opportunity to construct a sophisticated defense of his boss -- and he seized it.
Democracies, he said in effect, don't work smoothly. Presidents can't get too far out in front of public opinion. To have proposed the change -- readjusting the automatic increases in Social Security benefits for inflation -- would have looked tough-minded, but would have gone nowhere in Congress.
Kahn's basic point is dispiriting: Sometimes, only a crisis can achieve consensus, but by the time a crisis arrives, action may be too late or ill-considered. Catch 22. What Kahn did not say is that true leadership in democrates frustrates these self-destructive impulses. It's a matter of action, based on reflection.