Did the Carter Administration learn anything from this spring's disaster in the silver market?
If they did, you wouldn't know it to look at the candidates the White House is considering for a crucial commodity regulatory assignment.
The main lesson from the silver scandal is that American commodity markets are no longer the parochial province of farmers, grain traders and professional speculators.
When silver prices soared, they distorted, the producer price index and wrinkled other economic indicators, depressed the value of the dollar overseas and even created a crime wave among silver thieves.
When the speculative bubble burst, it set off panic selling on Wall Street, pushed major brokerage houses toward bankruptcy and forced the Federal Reserve Board chairman to ignore his own anti-inflation strategy and authorize a bail-out bank loan.
As James Stone, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission put it, the silver crash "threatened the very financial fabric" of the nation.
So who is the White House pushing for a vacancy on Stone's commission, a job that could be critical to adapting commodity regulation to the changing market place?
An international economist? A financial market pro? Another aggressive young regulator like Stone? Even a politically well-connected hack?
Sorry, try this list:
A commodity salesman who works for a company that's under investigation for manipulating meat prices.
A lawyer for a giant farm cooperative that had to be exempted from antitrust laws to legalize its influence on prices.
A cattle farmer from Michigan.
A junior bureaucrat from Iowa.
That's it. Four white males whose resumes give no clue that they could have helped prevent the silver scandal or could cope with the rapidly changing commodity market.
The White House personnel office already has rejected a farmer's daughter from Colorado who was a trained artificial inseminator, a female professor from Iowa and a reporter from Chicago.
The bureaucrat apparently is the leading candidate. His name is Jamie Wade, and he is deputy insurance commissioner of Iowa, in charge of regulating that state's securities business. (Another former occupant of that job, Washington lawyer Glen Willet Clark was turned down for a CFTC appointment last year.)
Wade now considered a more likely nominee than the previous front-runner, William Butcher, who runs a farm in central Illinois and sells commodities for Ray E. Friedman and Co.
The Friedman company, known as Refco, is one target of a meat market manipulation probe by a House Government Operations subcommittee, headed by Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal (D-N.Y.).
The company was fined $250,000 by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange last year for "serious and repeated violations" of rules for cattle futures trading, the topic Rosenthal is interested in. The fine was the biggest the exchange has ever levied against a member firm.
Butcher wasn't linked to the Refco fine, but the topic would surely cloud a confirmation hearing.
The two other candidates still under consideration are Milton Brown, a cattleman from Michigan, and William Eastwood, a lawyer for Spencer Foods, a division of the giant Land-O-Lakes Cooperative.
The antitrust exemption that gives farm co-ops extraordinary power to set prices for products without regard to the rest of the economy closely parallels the commodity market situation.
What's good for the markets often isn't so good for the rest of the country, as the silver situation shows.
Even absent the silver fiasco, there are plenty of other problems in commodity trading that demand a regulator with experience outside agribusiness.
Barely half the volume of the commodity exchange these days deals with farm products. They trade contracts for future delivery of Treasury bills, home mortgages, precious metals and now are talking about futures on common stocks.
The Treasury bill trading has raised fears within the Treasury Department that the market for government securities could be disrupted by speculative activity. The Federal Reserve Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission both have reservations about the stock futures idea.
The White House has had more than a year to find someone to face these issues, but the CFTC job is still vacant. By law it has to be filled with someone who claims to be a Republican, but the $50,000-a-year patronage post obviously isn't going to a GOP activist.
The importance of the appointment is made clear by the debate now going on at the commodity agency over remedies for the silver situation.
Chairman Stone favors strict limits on the holdings of speculators but has had to settle for less because the other commissioners don't agree with him.
While still weeding out candidates for the CFTC vacancy, the White House also is playing games with Read P. Dunn Jr. over his reappointment to the commission.
Dunn is the CFTC member who most impressed congressional silver investigators. Last fall he began warning other federal agencies to watch the silver market.
Dunn is a Democrat but not a loyalist to Stone, and the White House has gone out of its way to tell people it is interviewing other candidates for his job.
Rather than dump a perfectly good Democrat and nominate an uninspired Republican for the increasingly important regulatory agency, the White House ought to immediately reappoint Dunn and quickly fill the vacancy with someone who knows the nuances of the financial markets.
Wasn't it Jimmy Carter who chose to call his autobiography "Why Not the Best?"