The HUMPHREY-HAWKINS bill, which sets a firm target of a 4 percent unemployment rate, to be attained by 1983, provides a nice illustration of the political dilemma that will dog President Carter over the next couple of years. As he tries to lead the country toward fiscal rigor and a lower inflation rate, he cannot help treading painfully on his party's traditional inclinations and sensitivities.
Any sustained drive to get unemployment down to 4 percent would be wildly inflationary. Mr. Carter understands that point perfectly, and he responds by dancing back and forth around it. On some days he describes the fight against inflation as his top priority, and on other days he renews his endorsement of Humphrey-Hawkins. This performances feeds the accusation that the administration has not established any clear and comprehensible direction in its economic policies.
The bill is being pushed mainly by the Congressional Black Caucus in response to a genuine and grievous social malaise. Unemployment rates among blacks run generally about twice as high as among whites, and the rates for blacks in their teens run around 40 per cent. Black politicians believe that the only effective strategy is to force unemployment for the whole country so low that the rates for blacks will necessarily be drawn into the tolerable ranges.
Unfortunately, it won't work. The unemployment rate in August was 5.9 percent. If it were to fall much below 5.5 per cent, it would begin to generate a great surge of wage inflation. Why? Because employers will bid against each other for skilled manpower before they will hire the unskilled. Unemployment in this country today is not a simple matter of not enough jobs. It is, above all, the threshold difficulty of entering, or reentering, a sophistricated and demanding economy.
The inflationary implications of the bill have brought it to a standstill in the Senate. It now exists there in three versions. One, reported by the Banking Committee, adds a requirement that, as unemployment descends, the inflation rate must also be brought to zero by 1983. There you have the dilemma. If the bill is passed in the House version, in deference to the Black Caucus and Democratic Party tradition, it threatens to undercut the new and urgent ncessity to reduce inflation. If the bill is passed with the zero-inflation requirement, it becomes merely absurd. The chance of a zero rate of inflation within five years is as remote as, unfortunately, a 4 percent unemployment rate.
In either case, Congress would try to establish goals by legislation that are obviously unattainable in reality. Humphrey-Hawkins is a bad bill for a fundamental reason: The U.S. government ought not make promises that it cannot keep, and that it knows it cannot keep.