We are now on the eve of the administration's much-heralded Anti-Inflation Week which, like the equally celebrated Energy Week of 1977, will no doubt be launched as the "moral equivalent of war" - and probably with as little result, unless it is unexpectedly backed up by non-nonsense enforcement.
This is the second time in six months that President Carter has declared verbal war on inflation, but the new offensive is not likely to be taken any more seriously by the public than previous ones as long as it excludes mandatory restraints.
The American people learned long ago that the government, when confronted with what it deems a genuine crisis, doesn't hestitate to impose appropriate discipline, be it gasoline rationing, wage-price controls, higher taxes, or whatever. And when that has happened, the public has invariably responded patrictically. At the same time, however, the public has come to believe that when the government calls merely for voluntary half-measures, the emergency can't be as acute as Washington says.
Hence the public has paid little or no attention to the administration's repeated alarms over inflation. Recently Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal frankly admitted that inflation had worsened and "we have not been able to lick it." Far from it.
In the first 18 months of Carter's presidency, prices climbed 11.4 percent, and the inflation rate is now twice what it was when Gerald Ford left office. The average price increase under Carter is higher than under any other post - World War II president.
Nevertheless, the word is that the administration's new "war" on inflation will again depend largely on "voluntarism," along with moral and psychological haranguing, plus possibly some unspecified "incentives and disincentives."
A presidential fireside chat is to be followed by a national anti-inflation road show, starting on Wednesday in St. Louis, with Cabinet members and other key officials touring the country to whip up public support. Shades of former president Gerald Ford's ill-fated WIN campaign, which was supposed to Whip Inflation Now.
There is also to be a new anti-inflation "czar," succeeding Robert Strauss, who was appointed last spring by Carter to talk inflation to death. The able Strauss tried, but even his gift of gab wasn't up to it. His successor will be a czar in name only, for real czars have absolute authority, and that's not in the cards for the prospective appointee.
Carter's earlier anti-infltion drive was rightly seen by Arnold Weber, once the director of the Nixon Cost of Living Council, as a "sort of decoy operation . . . creating the illusion of involvement and action without creating the basis for action."
Yet, although a growing majority of the American people favor wage and price controls, Carter keeps on insisting that he won't turn to them. He believes that the government's chief role is to lead by exhortation and example. But took at the example:
In January, with Carter's concurrence, there is to be a record increase in Social Security taxes (boosting the cost of living) and a hefty cut in income taxes, swelling the federal deficit. "That is complete madness," says Lester Thurow, the MIT economic scholar.
"Somebody has to hold the line on spending," Carter has said, "and I am willing to do it even if it means I have to take the political consequences." Nonetheless, he joined Congress in raising the minimum wage, boosting farm price supports, and imposing new trade barriers against cheap imports, all at a cost of countless billions and more inflation.
Simultaneously, the administration acquiesced in a huge pay boost (.39 percent over 3 years) for coal miners. With that example, how can the White House get other labor leaders to accept voluntarily a ceiling of 7 percent for future wage increases? The Teamsters have already indicated they won't take less than the miners.
The only practical solution in the opinion of many labor leaders is mandatory wage and price controls. Even George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, has come around to this view, despite his earlier opposition. If Carter is going to embark on voluntary wage and price guidelines, Meany now says, he might as well "go all the way" to full controls.
In recent days, the president has tried to put the blame for spending and inflation on Congress by vetoing a public-works bill costing about a billion dollars more than the White House was willing to approve.
In rebuttal, congressional leaders promptly noted that the federal budget Carter first sent to the Hill this year contemplated a $60 billion deficit. That deficit is now expected to be only $38 billion, chiefly because Congress cut the president's budget by $22 billion. "A tremendous achievement," in the words of Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.