Will Alfred E. Kahn ever shut up?
That question may seem a harsh one when applied to someone as able as the president's chief anti-inflation fighter, but a growing number of Kahn's friends and colleagues, including many high-level policymakers, are asking it.
In the past several weeks, Kahn's uninhibited pronouncements have so jolted the administration's official policy line that onlookers have begun to wonder seriously whether Kahn might have damaged the anti-inflation program.
On Wednesday, Kahn nearly blew the Teamsters union settlement out of the water praising the drivers' 30 percent wage hike as moderate, undercutting efforts by union leaders to couch it as generous to help sell the pact to their membership.
On Thursday, Kahn blew fuses at the White House by admitting publicly that there had been "bending of the standards" in the Teamsters settlement . White House officials had been fearful that conceding that point might open the door to demands for similar guideline-stretching in other talks.
That same day, he also made a settlement intended to deny that the administration ever would impose wage-price controls. Kahn said that, rather than controls, he thought it was more likely that the government "will throw on the monetary and fiscal brakes to such an extent that 10 million would be thrown out of work."
Last Monday, against White House pleading, the wage-price chief again cautioned his audience that, if the anti-inflation program were not successful, the only alternatives would be recession or controls. One result was a banner headline in one newspaper reading. "Kahn Warns of Mandatory Controls."
And last month, when the administration was trying to walk around some politically volatile new profits figures, kahn branded the statistics "a catastrophe." Most other top Carter economic officials had viewed the high profits as helping to spur needed investment.
Admittedly, not everyone who listens to Kahn's pronouncements shudders at what he says. If he is bombing here in Washington, he's playing well in Peoria, where people view his candor as a refreshing change from more traditional statements.
"The folks out there love his frankness and openness," says one administration oficial who keeps track of voter sentiment around the country. "We may think he's free-wheeling in Washington, but out in the hinterlands they respect him for telling it like it is."
Kahn even has some reluctant fans among Carters's key economic aides. "I'm really envious of Fred," a high official, said. "If I said some of those things, I'd be crucified, but Fred can get away with them. He's really so lovable about it, you want to give him a kiss."
But in less-lighthearted moments, there are some serious questions whether Kahn's foot-in-mouth public policy posture isn't hurting the wage-price program more than it's helping, and, by implication, whether the talented former Civil Aeronautics Board chairman really is the man for the job.
Not only has Kahn made statements that many officials say have undermined the administration's broad policy efforts, but there also is widespread criticism that he has done a decidedly mediocre job in running the anti-inflation program:
Insiders say Kahn has paid almost no attention to the formal wage-price program, virtually ignoring the guidelines to delve into more esoteric areas, such as government regulation.
It is said that Kahn waited interminably to recruit even askeleton staff and get his operation going. Even now, his lieutenants include only a handful of close aides, each of whom, by necessity, is spread very thin. As a result, some critics say, the group's pace is relatively plodding.
The impact of Kahn's operation is difficult to discern, even for high-level colleagues in the administration. While officials routinely defend Kahn as doing well in his job, few, even at top policymaking levels, can recall what it is he is doing.
Kahn's defenders portray him as a talented, highly intelligent economist and a thoroughly human sort of man, and cite his widely praised record at the CAB, where he singlehandedly presided over successful partial deregulation of the airline industry. And few in Washington dispute that assessment.
But critics suggest that, while Kahn performed well in the relatively narrow field of airline deregulation, he is in over his head in overseeing the broader wage-price program, where the need is more for a politician and arm-twister.
Except for his spectacular public statements, Kahn has tended to limit himself to more of an academic's interest in less-spectacular, narrower issues such as relaxing cheese import quotas and selling raw materials from stockpiles. (He didn't win either fight.)
In an interview recently on the balcony outside his cluttered Old Executive Office Building suite, Kahn was circumspect about such criticism, and unapologetic for either his lapses or his performance.
"I have a much more poignant sense of how much harder it is to do these things," he said, remininiscing about his first few months of operations. "I feel a little like someone who wanted to be a free spirit," he said, "and has been doused with cold water."
While Kahn may be competent and imaginative as an economist, there are growing contingents both inside and outside the administration who believe he is a disaster as a public figure, no matter how well his act is playing in Peoria.
Those connected with the Teamsters negotiations say Kahn's characterization of the contract unnecessarily risked jeopardizing the whole settlement. His admission that the guidelines had been "bent" could create problems in the coming auto workers' talks.
Similarly, Kahn's warning about monetary and fiscal brakes and unemployment came just at a time when top Carter policymakers are considering urging the Federal Reserve Board to tighten its money and credit policies to cool the economy.
And his repeated mention of the possibility of controls often has revived business fears that Carter may try to use them.
After Kahn prematurely embraced the Teamsters settlement last week, union spokesman Bernard Henderson openly fumed that "that idiot out there is trying to shoot down our contract with his idiotic statements."
Kahn's associates know he's anything but an idiot, but wonder if he will ever shut up. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption, By James K.W. Atherton-The Washington Post; Picture 2, no caption, ByLarry Morris-The Washington Post