DURING WORLD WAR I, when units of the French army at Verdun refused to fight, a group of soldiers was reportedly chosen at random and executed for mutiny. The generals knew they were not necessarily the men who had led the mutiny, but they did not care. They were setting an example.
There is a little bit of the French army mentality at work in the Reagan administration. One by one, with some exceptions in the name of humanity and hardship, the administration has lined up agencies of the federal government and mowed them down. The slaughter is largely symbolic and in some sense, largely inane. Agencies bite the dust, even though, in some cases, the agencies are so small and their budgets so tiny as to make no difference at all when it comes to that great blob of a document, the federal budget.
It doesn't matter. All of this is being done in the name of the fight against inflation. In this cause is marshaled some of the most bombastic rhetoric ever heard on the tranquil shores of the Potomac. Ronald Reagan, barely in town, says he opened the closet to find "the worst economic mess since the Depression."
As a result, the Reagan administration is going around the countryside yelling emergency, emergency, and then using that declaration as the rationale for doing to the budget what Lizzie Borden did to her parents -- and with just about as much thought. This is not to say the federal budget is not an overblown mess. It is. And it is probably a good and healthy thing that those who had an emotional and philosophical stake in big and big hearted government, have been forced to step back. Even they are now conceding that not all their progeny are beautiful to behold.
But cutting the budget, even knocking the stuffings out of it, will not substantially decrease the inflation rate. The Congressional Budget Office last year estimated that a $20 billion cut in the federal budget would cause the inflation rate to decrease by (are you ready for this?) one-tenth of 1 percent. A $50 billion cut would mean a decrease of maybe three-quarters of 1 percent. When you're talking about an annual inflation rate of about 13 percent and when you are talking furthermore, of increases in the price of energy and food (You think decontrolling gas is going to save you money?), this tiny dent in the inflation rate is not something to write home about.
But the Reagan administration is going to do just that. It is coming on like some sort of ax-wielding maniac, making all these cuts in the name of the fight against inflation when in the aggregate the cuts won't really brake inflation and taken individually they will do nothing. Does cutting the budget for the humanities and the arts really save that much? Will private industry pick up the slack? Will it, for instance, fund a program now in existence that collects the oral histories of Italian immigrants? I doubt it and so, too, must budget director David A. Stockman.
It would be one thing if the Reagan administration declared itself philosophically opposed to many of these programs saying, in effect, that the federal government has no business in the humanities or the arts of subsidizing railroads. You could argue with that, although in a certain sense the argument was settled with the election. But that is not what the administration is saying -- at least not all it is saying. Instead, it is talking economics, not politics -- conservative economics to be sure, but economics nonetheless.
To justify the cuts on economic grounds is a different matter. The cuts are being made for the show of it, for pure symbolism, for a belief that in the long run they will result in an anti-inflation psychology. But how this psychology will take hold when prices are still going up is a mystery. And what will happen to the national sense of urgency when the budget is cut and inflation rate is not remains to be seen.
In the meantime, though, programs that are worthwhile -- programs that only the government can offer and perform well -- are being sacrificed. They are being considered not on their merits, but like those poor soldiers at Verdun, as examples. In this sense, the war against inflation is like any other. The guilty and the innocent alike will suffer.