When all the budget-cutting dust settles later this year, probably after the 1981 budget is balanced, the nation's basic inflation rate will still be as high or higher than it was last year, most economists believe.
Even President Carter's economic advisers expect the inflation rate to be running 10 percent or more. That is about what it was last year, according to every measure of inflation except the consumer price index, which rose 13.3 percent because of the distorted way in which housing costs are counted.
If that's true, what's all the shouting about? Why are all the politicians bracing themselves for the election-year pain of cutting spending more than $15 billion from what Carter originally planned in order to balance the budget?
Because, if the administration and Congress don't balance the budget, inflation shows every sign of getting steadily worse and some critical parts of the economy are slipping into chaos.
A balanced budget has become a symbol in the minds of many people, particularly those making decisions in financial markets, not just of the government's ability to control inflation but the economy as well.
The present near-crisis is the result in part of the latest run-up in inflation, which in turn has come largely from the oil cartel's most recent price increases and the reflection of these in U.S. oil prices, now coming out from under federal controls. Also a factor in the present uneasiness is the stubborn refusal of the economy to fall into recession.
These two factors are linked, since most economists believe a full-fledged recession is the only way to undercut inflation in 1980.
Balancing the budget for 1981, and trimming $4 billion or so out of the money yet to be spent in 1980, would demonstrate the administration's intent to keep tightening fiscal policy until that, and the sky-high interest rates being generated by Federal Reserve monetary policies, combine to produce a recession.
At some point, there will be a recession. Few economists believe the nation has entered some strange new economic world in which declining family incomes and soaring interest rates have no depressing effect whatever on the willingness and ability of consumers and business to spend money.
It is simply taking a far larger dose of tight money, higher taxes and gouging by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries than anyone had expected would be needed to cause a recession.
By traditional standards, the 1981 budget Carter sent to Congress in January already incorporated the biggest swing toward economic restraint since 1968 when the Vietnam war tax surcharge was enacted. With the new cuts and higher revenue estimates flowing from higher inflation, the revisions Carter will propose next week are expected to make it $20 billion tighter still.
The recession, administration economists hope, will put enough slack into labor markets -- in other words, raise unemployment enough -- to keep the rate of wage increases from taking off in 1980, pushing the basic inflation rate well above 10 percent.
While everyone acknowledges that outsize wage gains have not been a major cause of the recent speed-up in inflation, wages and fringe benefits together have been going up at more than a 9 percent annual rate. In a world of falling productivity -- that's the output of goods and services for each hour worked -- such increases in compensation translate into an inflation rate of 10 percent or more, even when OPEC is not doubling the price of oil.
In the present situation, any successful attempt by labor to try to make up for the bite taken from workers' real incomes by oil prices would push wages to a new, higher plateau. But the inflation rate would follow in lock step and the added income would buy the workers no more than it did before.
The modest goal of Carter's policy this year was to prevent that from happening. That is still the goal, only events have made it much harder to achieve.
Yet in the view of the majority of economists, that is all that can realistically be accomplished in 1980. Some analysts believe more sweeping measures, including wage and price controls, which Carter has ruled out, would do more.
But the first step everybody seems to want is a balanced budget. It has assumed such symbolic importance that without it, any package of policy changes Carter might propose next week would not be considered strong enough to make much differrence in the inflationary outlook.
So now the squeeze is on. Members of Congress with their rhetoric have left themselves little choice but to cut spending. Deciding what is likely to produce a polical donnybrook.
Some individuals and institutions are going to have to get by on less federal largess in 1981 than they expected. Some of those idividuals will be the unemployed. Some may be Social Security beneficiaries. Others almost certainly will be state employes who are paid with federal revenue-sharing money. Still others will be farmers, members of the public who want to visit national parks, or perhaps people paying for Coast Guard services that formerly were free.
In short, most of the public will feel the pinch in some way large or small.
A year from now if inflation indeed is still running 10 percent or more and the budget is balanced, what will the public think?
The public could well be bitter by then because all the fuss over balancing the budget has probably begun to raise expectations about a drop in inflation far above what the new policy can deliver.
As Charles L. Schultze, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said recently, reducing inflation is a 10-year, a 12-year job. Balancing the budget in 1981 is only a necessary small first step.