THE CARTER ADMINISTRATION is now inching uneasily toward wage-price guidelines, a prospect that will be met in most places with mixed emotions. The mixture will be roughly one part resignation to two parts here-we-go-again. President Carter and his economic advisers are entitled to a measure of sympathy. Nobody understands the limitations and vulnerabilities of guidelines better than they. Guidelines are not their first choice as an instrument of economic policy to reduce inflation. Unhappily, they have become the only choice available immediately.
President Carter and his staff have given much earnest effort to the exercise that they call deceleration. In principle, it was a simpler and sounder idea than guidelines. It meant that everyone settled for increases of compensation, profits and prices that would be a little lower each year than the year before. But everyone politely explained to the president that they couldn't afford to comply, because then everyone else would take advantage of them.
The voluntary guidelines that the White House now contemplates consist merely of a couple of percentages to which the administration wnats wage and price increases held. Violators will be indentified and exhorted. Some of them may find it more difficult to do business with the federal government. But compliance rests mainly on public spirit and a consensus in favor of restraint. The phase during the last venture along these lines, in the mid-1960s, was "moral suasion." As it turned out, moral suasion worked fairly well for several years until the summer of 1966, when an airline mechanics strike and, more generally, the pressures generated by the Vietnam War destroyed the guidelines.
How long, and how well, can they be expected to work the next time around? The climate is less favorable now than in the Johnson years. In the early 1960s the country was accustomed to great stabilty of prices. In the lat 1970s, after a decade of high inflation, enforcing compliance is a matter of breaking ingrained habits.
The Johnson guideline was simply the rate at which labor productivity was rising - 3.2 percent a year. It means that an annual wage increase of 3.2 percent was not inflationary. Since the inflation rate was lower than that, the guideline offered working people a real increase in purchasing power. Currently, of course, that relationship has reversed itself. The inflation rate is vastly higher than productivity. Inflation is evidently going to run about 8 percent this year while the increase in productivity, for reasons that no one fully understands, is zero. Over the past year, in fact, it has been negative. In these circumstances, any wage guideline lower than the inflation rate promises the average wage earner a reduction in real purchasing power - not a very attractive proposition in political terms. The labor unions disliked the guidelines 15 years ago, and have become only more hostile with the passage of time.
Wage and price guidelines can provide one modest but useful service. They can spotlight, and bring some pressure on, the people who try to grab unusually large increase. But guidelines alone do not consititute an economic policy, and they cannot significantly change the basic inflation rate. To do that requires a much broader range of actions: to increase business investment, to reduce the foreign-trade deficit, to hold down oil consumption, to stablize the international value of the dollar.
When President Carter announces his guidelines, they will stir up a lot of attention. For a time all the papers, including this one, will be full of arithmetic lessons. Amidst the torrent of numbers and hopeful forecasts, readers will need to keep it in mind that wage and price guidelines constitute, at best, no more than first aid for inflation.