PRESIDENT CARTER'S intentions on inflation were not much in doubt even before his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors yesterday. It's the administration's stamina that is the question. The crucial thing now is presidential consistency in saying no to all those recurring temptations: the offer of crucial votes in the Senate in return for accepting this or that little bill, the opportunity to pacify a noisy lobby with another import quota. The president is reported to believe that in flation is now the most dangerous political issue facing him. That's probably true, and if he keeps the thought firmly in mind it will greatly simplify the unpleasant choices ahead of him.
The one genuinely unexpected element in the president's speech yesterday was his choice of the ubiquitous Robert Strauss to oversee this renewed campaign against inflation. As the president's trade negotiator, Mr. Strauss has had something to do with the trade restrictions that currently contribute to inflation. It was Mr. Strauss who was calling the steel companies during the coal strike and urging them to have their mining subsidiaries settle quickly; the results can be read in the subsequent jumps in steel prices. This new appointment, marking another stage in Mr. Strauss's rising influence, will give him a more direct interest in the other side of the matter.
To prescribe a remedy for inflation, it's necessary to see where it's coming from. For the past several years, U.S. inflation has been almost entirely circular. The current trend in prices is the result of rising prices in the past and the expectation of further rises in the future. The attempt on the part of everybody to make up for past erosion of earnings and profits, and to protect against it in the future, is now being written into all kinds of contracts, price lists and wage agreements.
The orginal sources of inflation, over the past dozen years, are legion. There was the deficit financing of the Vietnam War in the Johnson administration, and Mr. Nixon's reckless overstimulation of the economy in preparation for his reelection campaign. There has been the intermittent devaluation of the dollar. There was the tremendous surge in worldwide oil and grain prices. But since the 1974 - 75 recession, the inflation in this country has been carried forward mostly by force of habit.
There is, unfortunately, no simple remedy. Stabilizing prices will require a series of sacrifices large enough to be annoying but not sufficiently dramatic to qualify as heroism. There won't be any statues to the federal employees who get a cost-of-living raise of 5.5 per cent next October, when they were expecting 6-plus percent. But it is quite true that if everybody were always perfectly compensated for past inflation, the inflation rate would never drop. It is also true that if President Carter does not hold down the raises for the government's employees, he can hardly ask anyone else to hold back.
One particularly welcome indication from Mr. Carter is his intention of vetoing both the farm bill and the tuition tax credit, should a misguided Congress pass them. The tuition credit in particular is bad legislation for reasons that go far beyond its cost in dollars. But among their other defects, those bills are certainly inflationary.
Beyond that kind of example, Mr. Carter is going to have to rely heavily on voluntary cooperation. He can do a good deal to encourage it, by calling public attention to the people and the companies that break the rules. It is not unrealistic to hope that vigorous public monitoring can bring the inflation rate down half a percentage point a year. That's not an easy exercise, but there are no very attractive alternatives. Controls and guidelines are effective only for short periods. But it is now nearly seven years since Mr. Nixon's original price freeze, and no one can think that the job of grinding down the inflation rate is going to be a short one.