In a successful effort to win labor's consent for wage restraint, President Carter last October solemnly promised America's union leaders that he would not "fight inflation with your jobs." Today he is about to pay dearly for betraying that pledge.
The president now makes no bones about his intention to curb, or rather try to curb, inflation by a deliberately induced recession. To practical labor leaders, "recession" is simply a euphemism for unemployment, which, in the end, is what it always comes down to.
The hostile reaction in labor circles to the administration's anti-inflation program is growing almost by the day, even among union leaders who have generally been friendly to Carter. Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, who has remained neutral in the Democratic presidential primary contest, has begun organizing a broad coalition to oppose Carter's so-called anti-inflation budget, which is largely based on reduced social and employment programs.
The new coalition calls the revised budget a "misguided approach to fighting inflation that runs counter to the general welfare of the American people, especially the weak, the poor, the handicapped, minorities and the young and elderly of our society."
Kirkland himself labels Carter's program as "sheer madness" that will add half a million people to the unemployment rolls. It is a modest estimate. In the last month alone, total employment dropped by 297,000, while the unemployment rate was climbing from 5.8 percent to the present 6.2 percent.
The administration itself estimates the rate will rise to around 7.5 percent by the end of the year, which means at least a million additional Americans will be out of work in the not too distant future. Sen. Edward Kennedy's estimate is 1.5 million.
According to Barry Bosworth, the former director of Carter's Council on Wages and Prices, the recession approach would require increasing the unemployment rolls by a million workers for two years just to reduce the inflation rate by one percentage point. Since the rate is now around 18 percent, forcing it below double digits would mean putting about 10 million out of work.
In the face of this, it is not surprising that the once docile AFL-CIO is threatening to bolt the "national accord" it reached with the White House last fall and to abandon the administration's wage-price program.
But doubts over Carter's economic policies are not confined to labor. Both the stock and bond markets are in a state of collapse. Housing construction has declined almost to the recession levels of 1974-75. Most private economists foresee a declining gross national product.
Arthur Burns, the conservative former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, believes Carter's method of fighting inflation will only hasten and deepen the coming recession. He doubts that balancing the budget will cut inflation materially.
Felix Rohatyn, the New York financier who backed Carter in 1976, now describes the president's economic policies as "spastic," like "somebody whose muscle actions aren't coordinated with their brain functions and their words." Rohatyn sees the revised budget as a "prescription for recession."
Nonetheless, Carter's answer to attacks on his program is that "it suits me fine." He continues to praise the Federal Reserve Board, now headed by Paul Volcker, for its tight money and credit policies, which have driven interest rates to historic heights.
At a recent White House dinner, Volcker was asked if the Fed's restrictions would provoke a recession and unemployment. "Yes," he is quoted as replying, "and the sooner the better."
Carter is more and more being compared with Herbert Hoover. The budget cuts, says Douglas Fraser, head of the United Auto Workers, "are Hooverism resurrected." Jerry Wurf, president of the nation's largest union of government workers, says, "Cut through all the rhetoric, and what you have is a return to the economic philosophy of Hoover."
Actually, that is not altogether fair to Hoover. He didn't intentionally pull the house down; the roof just cavedin when the stock market crashed on that notorious "Black Tuesday." So there's a difference between Carter's recession and Hoover's depression. The latter, at least, didn't premeditate it.