A comprehensive program to battle inflation was set before Ronald Reagan by his economic advisers last week. While details are unsettled and potential flaws abound, the marriage of strategy and tactics is impressive.
Into that dinosaur, the U.S. government, the Reaganites may be able to fit an economic brain.
The starting point of Reaganomics, of course, is a massive tax cut designed to promote initiative and to free scarce resources.
The crucial question, given that longstanding commitment, was how to hold down government spending, the better to limit deficits with their impact on inflation.
Senior Reagan advisers -- including Donald Regan who will go to the Treasury and Casper Weinberger who is to be defense secretary -- favored major cuts in spending. But the "supply-side" theorists, strong in the Congress and represented in the adminstration by David Stockman who will become budget director, argued that such reductions were economically unnecessary and politically murderous.
A theoretical resolution of that conflict was developed and presented by Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. The theory is that chronic inflation is fed by expectations of more inflation to come and that the engine of these expectations is the federal budget. According to Greenspan, steady rises in expenditures and deficits have convinced the private sector that the government accepts high inflation as normal.
In consequence, the theory continues, labor and business constantly move to push up wages and prices. The structure of borrowing has changed, and may corporations and not a few financial institutions are shaky. Investors are so finely tuned to government economic policy that minor variations cause dizzying ups and downs in the markets.
The only wat to break inflationary expectations, the theory concludes, is to demonstrate an iron will to bring government spending under control. It follows that control must be asserted dramatically early in the new administration. At the meeting last Wednesday, which Greenspan attended, it was the consensus that an emergency program for spending cuts will be served up in the first few weeks after the inaugural.
Tactically, there are many different ways to cut the budget. But two approaches recommend themselves to the Reganites.
First, they do not favor going to the mat against massive programs and trying to knock them out with a single legislative Sunday punch. Instead, their idea is to reverse the slow creep whereby programs started as small bits of help for people in trouble and then built up over the years by imperceptible additions. For example, the Reaganites have in mind small, initial cuts in such Social Security programs as student loans, personal disability and early retirement. Those initial changes would graduate over the years until they added up to truly significant reductions.
As a vehicle for initiating graduated reductions, the Reaganites are eyeing the Budget Reform Act of 1974. That measure set up House and Senate budget committees, which are charged with establishing spending ceilings. If the outlays voted by the other committees of Congress exceed those limits, then the budget committees can order the other committees to chop appropriations.
As it happens, the two budget committees are currently led by strong believers in federal spending restraint -- Pete Domenici, the New Mexico Republican on the Senate side, and James Jones, the Oklahoma Democrat on the House side. Both could start early hearings on a new budget resolution for fiscal 1981.
Present estimates are that spending in fiscal '81 will rise to $660 billion, leaving a budget deficit of $60 billion. That is a huge increase over the $630 billion spending and $30 billion deficit authorized by the last budget resolution. So it is not unreasonable to think that the budget committees would put a new limit of, say, $645 billion on federal spending.
As a means of reaching that limit, the budget committees to adjust various programs. While the 1981 gains would be small, the long-term impact would be considerable. Thus tiny cuts now would amount over the years to a serious lid on federal spending.
Difficulties in the way of that approach small cuts do not exist in the budget committees. The authority of the budget committees over the other committees is untested. Equally untested -- and far more important -- is the fundamental notion that expectations born of federal budget actions are the driving force behind inflation.
But one fear, acute in the quarter at least, has been eased. The Reagan administration is not merely a bundle of glib slogans and knee-jerk reactions. Right or wrong, it is approaching the hard problems that confront the country by trying to think them through in a systematic way.