The country can relax. Inflation is now in the hands of Madison Avenue. The word is that President Carter has enlisted the advertising industry in his drive to curb the cost of living.
It may seem strange that an industry hitherto known for its genius in promoting spending should now be called on the help subdue it. Nevertheless, the Advertising Coundil is working with the administration on a "multimedia" campaign focused on the theme, "We can all beat inflation if we just use our dollars and sense."
It sounds like something conceived by the wonderful folks who gave us "Whip Inflation Now" (better known as WIN), which was launched with 21 guns by Gerald Ford to spearhead his psychological war on inflation back in 1974. It was so juvenile and palpably inadequate that it was soon laughed off the scene, accompanied by soaring prices that finally climbed to a 12 percent inflation rate -- the highest on record until recently topped by the 13-plus rate under Carter.
The advertising writers helping the Carter administration have developed a booklet "to alert the American public to the dangers of continued inflation." One suggestion (from an adman no less says, "If you don't think you can afford something, don't buy it." Were the American people to take that seriously, the country would collapse like a punctured tire.
If Carter is looking to former presidents for hints on how to handle inflation and also win reelection, he would be better advised to take a tip from Richard Nixon. Like Carter, Ford relied of feeble wage and price guidelines, resulting in both recession and inflation, or "stagflation." He also ended up being the only incumbent president to be defeated since 1932. Although Nixon had denounced mandatory wage-price controls all his political life, he abruptly embraced then in 1971 when inflation began going up and he began going down in the polls.
With controls holding prices to about a third of what they are today, Nixon's easy money policy produced such prosperity that he carried 49 out of 50 states in his record 1972 reelection. Later he abandoned controls, but only after he was safely back in the White House.
President Carter says that "whatever it takes to control inflation, that's what I will do." Except, among other things, the following:
Initiate mandatory wage and price controls. Effectively curtail importation of foreign oil. Nationalize the profiteering oil industry. Control domestic oil profits instead of phasing them out. Stop federal deficits. Balance the budget. Eliminate farm price supports. End maritime subsidies. Repeal protective tariffs and quotas for steel, textiles, cheese, television sets and other goods. Trim inflationary, non-productive military spending. Reform taxation to stimulate productivity. Reduce Social Security payroll deductions. Clamp a ceiling on runaway interest rates.
So, understandably, Carter's pledge to stop inflation is a qualified one. What he is really saying, along with the American public, is that inflation is the worst of all economic diseases, except for most of the cures for it.
The one cure -- mandatory wage and price controls -- that is consistently favored by a majority of the public is the one that Carter still says he will not adopt. Only a couple of weeks ago, however, the president said he fully supported the Federal Reserve Board's new tight money/high interest rate policy, but he already is weakening on that stand.
The president is currently saying that "interest rates are too high," and he is telling the labor unions that he won't "fight inflation with your jobs." When Paul Volcker, chairman of the Fed, warned a few days ago that "the standard of living of the American people has to decline," the president promptly said, "I don't agree."
In the wake of the Volcker policy, the stock market has already suffered a $200 billion loss, and the prime interest rate has soared to an alarming new high of 15 percent. It's not hard to see why the president is uneasy, and why Labor Secretary Ray Marshall was emboldened to say that the Fed's policies "are a very inefficient way to deal with inflation."
It's not hard, either, to see why a leader of Carter's own party, Sen. Henry Jackson, is now predicting that "clearly, the American people, out of sheer frustration, are going to demand mandatory controls, and you're going to see them enacted into law in 1980 by the Congress."
The Wall Street Journal, an avid opponent of controls, convened a crosssection of Midwest Americans last week to discuss inflation. The panel, it reported, was unanimously for wage and price regulation.