THE LATEST inflation figures will set off another wild search for a quick solution. Over the past several months, the Consumer Price Index has been rising at an annual rate of nearly 16 percent. If that rate were to continue, today's prices would double by October 1984 -- or to put it the other way, your dollar would be worth half as much. Everybody agrees that the prospect is intolerable. But there's no agreement at all on remedies.
Mandatory wage and price controls are a bankrupt idea -- but the idea seems to be coming back into fashion, with the support of people who see no other recourse. First, Sen. Edward Kennedy came out for controls, then a couple of prominent economists did, than a couple of investment bankers. They argue, correctly, that inflation is being aggravated by people's expectations of more inflation.
But they further argue that a sharp, hard freeze on wages and prices, followed by rigorous controls, will break that habit of inflationary expectations. The trouble with the theory is that it's been used once before -- by the Nixon administration in 1971-1973 -- and people remember how it turned out. If controls were reimposed now, most people would, in fact, expect another short period of good behavior, followed by regulatory anomalies and shortages, followed by bad temper and litigation, followed by decontrol and another great surge of price increases like those in 1973.
Confidence in renewed controls would be quickly eroded by the awkward reality that they could not reach the sources of most of the current inflation. Gasoline prices have led the Consumer Price Index upward over the past year; gasoline is already controlled, but the controls can't hold down the costs of foreign oil. Anothe major contributor has been interest rates; they are being pushed up by the government itself, in its struggle to restrain lending. Medical costs have been rising fast; the administration's hospital cost control bill was beaten decisively in the House last November. As for food, controlling the prices of agricultural products is impossible, and the last attempt at it, in 1973, was a disaster.
Controls work best on wages and on the prices of manufactured goods. But wages have consistently lagged inflation, and most manufacturing companies have been treating the present voluntary guidelines as though they were already mandatory. Their price increases have generally been the kind that a control system would have had to allow.
If President Carter wants to move fast on inflation, he has only one lever that will make much difference. He will have to start cutting his budget, rapidly and severely -- not only next year's budget but the current one. The current budget slid even further out of balance after Congress finished work on it last fall. The deficit is now running well over $40 billion -- far too high for a time of accelerating inflation. Sharp cuts in spending are an unhappy solution, for they imply higher unemployment. But it's time to stop pretending that there can be any quick, clean, painless end to this inflation.