BALANCING THE BUDGET will lower the inflation rate only very slightly, according to the best economic forecasts. But to balance it will be painful. It will mean cutting, among other things, some of the grants and benefits that Americans have come to regard as theirs by right. Why bother? Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has forcefully raised that question, and he isn't alone. If balancing the budget will cause such anguish and dissension, for so little advantage, why go to the trouble?
Because, first of all, inflation is now accelerating and it is necessary to take at least the steps that seem likely to keep it from getting worse. Readers and voters have by now presumably learned to be skeptical about economic forecasts. Over the past decade the standard forecasting methods have repeatedly and grossly underestimated the trend of inflation. It seems pretty clear that American society is much more sensitive to inflationary forces, and responds in ways that make them much worse, than the forecasts have ever warned.
The present inflation has had many sources. It is wrong to argue, as a few ideologues still do, that all of it is owed to budget deficits along. But it would be equally wrong to suggest that the deficts -- consistent deficts, in good years as well as bad, for a dozen years consecutively -- have had nothing to do with it. Balancing the budget alone cannot stabilize prices. It's hardly worth doing unless it's going to be accompanied by other vigorous measures -- to strengthen wage and price guidelines, to raise investment and exports, to discourage speculative borrowing.
In cutting the budget, it will be especially important to reach those mechanisms that are helping to perpetuate and speed up inflation. For example, when the government raises interest rates, mortgage loans cost more. Mortgage interest counts heavily in the Consumer Price Index, and when the CPI goes up, it triggers increases in all the federal pensions benefits -- although few retired people are buying houses on their Social Security.
The reasons for inflation are no great mystery. American political practice, over the past decade, has developed an array of broad protections for individual citizens against many of the ancient hazards of life. These protections are immensely valuable to everyone. But they add up to a little more than the country can afford, and it's necessary to reduce them modestly. A rational remedy of inflation is less a matter of economic theory than of politics. It will require a president to persuade the whole country that the burden of the cuts is being equally shared throughout society, for a goal that is worth the sacrifice.
Merely cutting the federal budget is not an adequate program to end inflation. But it will be hard to take seriously any program that does not show visible progress toward bringing the budget into balance.