WERE YOU FRIGHTENED by President Carter's talk of energy catastrophes? Are you fearful that we'll all begin living by candlelight when the great cutbacks start? You can relax. In his Monday speech, Mr. Carter invoked the rhetoric of great national urgency. But the detailed program that he recited to Congress on Wednesday night follows the counsel of deep caution and extreme gradualism. Nothing much, it appears, is going to happen for a long, long time.
The method of Mr. Carter's program is the right one. He would depend - mainly, although not exclusively - on higher prices and taxes to induce conservation.
Nobody likes paying more. But that's infinitely preferable to the harassment and inflexibility of comprehensive regulation and rationing. The program's general direction is admirable. But the languor with which it moves, as though this country had all the time in the world, is reason for acute concern.
The only measures effective immediately would be the tax credits for people who insulate their houses and industries that begin to install equipment such as solar heaters to save fuel. The taxes on big cars, and subsidies for little ones, would only reinforce the fuel-efficiency standards already required by law. The escalation of crude-oil prices would gently begin next year, at a barely perceptible rate of two or three cents a gallon. The federal standards for insulating new buildings would be moved up from 1981 to 1980. And so forth.
By this time next year, you'd need a magnifying glass to measure the impact. By 1980, the repercussions would be somewhat more perceptible. By then the price of gasoline would be up around 90 cents a gallon, and most drivers would be cutting down a little.But by that time there will also be at least 10 million more cars on the highway than there are today, and it would be some time in the next decade before the country's total demand for gasoline actually began to turn downward.
Mr. Carter is, of course, trying to keep economic disruption to a minimum and avoid the kind of shocks that hurt investment and employment. He's also trying to avoid exacerbating the regional conflicts that he mentioned on Monday. There are practical necessities here. A gradual program that Congress will pass is preferable, you might argue, to a sharper one that it would kill. But several questions come immediately to mind.
First: How long will it be, under this program, before oil imports stop rising and begin to fall?
Second: What does the United States do in the meantime about the treats of inordinate price increases abroad and the possibility of embargoes? "Our nation's independence of economic and political action is becoming increasingly vulneranble," Mr. Carter declared, accurately, as he talked about oil imports on Monday.Is he now suggesting that the country will have to tolerate that vulnerability, and even let it increase further, until some time in the next decade?
Third: There are three different rebate systems in the President's plan. Exactly how are these very large flows of money to be redistributed? The White House has suggested that part for welfare reform or to replace revenues lost through tax reform. The suggestion is apparently intended as an inducement to Congress. But does it mean that the rebate and redistribution issues are still wide open?
Now is the time to raise fuel prices, and particularly the gasoline tax. It needs to be done in an orderly fashion, but without the long delays that Mr. Carter contemplates. If the present national risk is as great as he described it on Monday, it requires a far more active response than he is now proposing,