Three days after the Camp David summit, the president's economic advisers served up to him a set of supposedly unified recommendations on inflation. But the consensus fell apart in the Oval Office, and Carter ordered his advisers to present him with a new set of option papers.
Last Friday the options were sent back to the White House for the decision by Carter. The president is now confronting critical choices in four major areas.
The first choice involves guidelines for wages and prices. The new element in the administration stance on inflation is that virtually all the president's advisers believe that wage and price increases need to be curtailed by specified, numerical guidelines.
Most of the advisers believe that 7 percent is the right limit for annual wage increases and 5.75 percent the right figure for annual price increases. But at least one senior adviser is against any guidelines on the grounds they won't work. Another favors a higher ceiling for wage increases on the grounds that 7 percent lags too far below the rise in cost of living.
The second critical choice turns on sanctions. The president has sworn off direct wage and price controls. He has also decided not to force his way by using strained interpretations of emergency legislation.
But if the guidelines are to have any force at all they must be accompanied by sanctions against those who do not play by the rules. Since wages will be the chief victim of the guidelines themselves, the sanctions, as a matter of fairness, go against business.
The president's advisers have pretty much decided that procurement - the giving and withholding of government contracts - represents the most effective form of punishment. But within that framework, detailed issues remain in doubt.
It is not clear whether companies ought to be made to accept the principle of guidelines before bidding for contracts, or be held responsible only when they are caught in a violation. Nor whether the guidelines ought to overrule existing contracts. Nor is it clear whether exceptions should be made in cases where cost-of-living increases have been written into existing contracts.
A third area for critical decision involves the programs of the federal government. Just as labor will accept sacrifices only if business follows suit, business will do its part only if it sees the government leading the way. Many government actions - from sugar legislation to protection against competition - are included.
But the centerpiece is the federal budget. The budget for fiscal 1980 points toward a deficit of well over $30 billion. Most of those concerned with social programs, and the budgetary process itself, would like to hold at that figure. The anti-inflationary hawks want the president to cut the programmed deficit to well below $30 billion.
A fourth choice centers on an administrator for the new program. Running the anti-inflation effort is a very big deal. It includes investigating companies and unions, negotiating with them, and applying general rules to a broad range of price and wage decisions.
The job can be done only by a person of varsity caliber who is given high prominence and applies his full-time efforts to fighting inflation. If only because they are too much occupied otherwise, and too little in harmony personally, neither Secretary of the Treasury Michael Elimenthal nor trade negotiator Robert Strauss can do the job well. As Hobart Rowan pointed out in this page not long ago, somebody new must be added.
The importance of making the right choice in the inflation area can hardly be exaggerated. Inflation itself is bad enough. The current rate, roughly 7 percent, means that prices double every 10 years.
Far worse is the impact on expectations. Businessmen do not invest. Holders of surplus dollars try to move into other currencies or gold. Voters panic into approving Proposition 13-type tax cuts that help the haves at the expense of the have-nots.
All these considerations ride on the president's decisions. In the past he has been able to waffle on inflation without paying a heavy cost except in lost time. But now the issue is No. 1. If he waffles again he will buy the kind of trouble that will even wipe out the glow of Camp David.