THE CARTER ADMINISTRATION is caught once again in the central political dilemma of the times. There is a need for public action on inflation - but the need is not sufficiently clear or compelling to weld the country to a single purpose. The inflation rate is rising rapidly and unexpectedly. Everybody agrees that this deterioration is a serious matter.But it's not the kind of fire-alarm threat that induces people to make real sacrifices. Politicians have the uneasy feeling that things will have to get either better or worst before the political remedies can work.
But the politicians in the White House never have the luxury of being able to wait to see how things will turn out. President Carter is going ahead with his wage and price guidelines and, you would have to say, the guidelines are already getting tangled up in their own confusions and complexities. The administration has been briefing the interest, groups, and people's successive understandings and misunderstandings are tripping over each other's heels. The president will presumably offer the authoritative version tonight, when he addresses the country. But it won't be the kind of clear, concise explanation that answers all your questions. The guidelines are going to remind you of the instructions for your income tax.
People remember what happened last time. The business world, the labor movement and the government agencies themselves are full of people who recall clearly what they consider the defeats and losses that they suffered under earlier rounds of wage-price restraints, and they are determined not to let it happen again.
History makes a difference. Scholars have devoted a lot of attention to those earlier attempts at wage and price restraint, and their analyses offer a guide to the pitfalls that the White House is trying to avoid this time. Several years ago the Brookings Institution published a book on the past 30 years' experience with wage-price policy - "Exhortation and Controls," edited by Craufurd D. Goodwin - that is particularly illuminating. It contains a summary of a conference of some six dozen people who, in one administration or another, had been involved in wage-price programs.
They agreed that there are strong inflationary pressures built into the federal government itself. There is the peace-atany-price tradition in the Labor Department, demonstrated again this year in the coal miners' settlement. There is the Agriculture Department's tilt toward higher farm prices. The conference might also have mentioned Congress's inability to say no to lobbies like the veterans' organizations, which this year won another inflationary boost in pensions for non-combat disabilities.
But this conference of experienced people, of a wide range of political persuasions, agreed that the central challenge was to obtain a national consensus in support of restraint. No president has ever done it in peacetime. Fairness and efficiency are too often at war with each other. Charles L. Schultze, who is now chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers and a principal architect of the forthcoming plan, put it exactly: "The more you set standards down in law, the more you have it codified, the less flexible you can be and the more difficult it is to concentrate on those industries and those situations that really make a difference." He said it four years ago, but it's no less true today. The people at the conference agreed almost unanimously that, so far, American experience with wage-price policy has been unsatisfactory.
Why is Mr. Carter going to try it again? The choices are few. He has ruled out mandatory controls - and he's right about that. But leaves only the old-fashioned wringer - tight budgets and high interest, putting the economy slowly through a long, painful recession. Everyone who lives and works in this country has the most personal kind of reason to hope that Mr. Carter's guidelines work fairly well. If not, there will be more inflation, followed by rising unemployment and business decline. The outlook for the president's guidelines is not, to be frank, very promising. But awkward, irritating and sometimes unfair though they may be, they are far preferable to the invitable alternative - recession.