PRESIDENT CARTER intends to present the country with a sweeping plan for the renewal of its economy, he told the National Urban League the other day. It is to appear in about a month -- perhaps on Labor Day. The president proposes to modernize industries, sharpen their ability to compete abroad and to put "millions and millions and millions of people back to work." That's a large promise. One awaits the details with interest.
The recession and its rising unemployment rate have Mr. Carter very much on the defensive, and he wants to make it clear that he's on the side of economic growth. There's a certain irony to that.
Here's one-question quiz on recent history: under which of the last six presidents did the number of jobs in the country grow most rapidly? Answer: under Mr. Carter. In the three and half years since January 1977, employment has expanded precisely twice as fast as did under President Kennedy, the man who got America moving again.
Much of it happened for reasons that are not directly related to the Carter administration and its policies. Some of it is the result of the same miscalculations that have also pushed up the inflation rate over the past three years. But if you consider it fair to blame Mr. Carter for the recession, the same rule of fairness also requires you to give him credit for the level of employment.
How can both employment and the unemployment rate be higher than when Mr. Carter took office? They can because a larger proportion of Americans than ever wants to work. Even now, with the economy approaching the bottom of a recession, a substantially higher proportion of the American adult population is employed than when Mr. Carter took office. The national economy has in fact generated jobs at a very successful pace over these three and a half years. The oddity is that Americans have precisely the opposite impression. Most people seem to think of these years as a time of economic stagnation and slack performance. Growth has indeed been poor by several important measures -- but not in terms of jobs.
Two large political elements are visible here. One is Mr. Carter's characteristic inability to convey to the country an accurate sense of the national condition and direction. The other is the widespread American habit of paying little attention to the actual number of jobs, while the quarrels over the funding of federal jobs programs attract endless attention.
If economic policy now attempts to protect jobs at any cost, the effect will certainly be higher inflation and less efficiency. Conversely, a policy designed for stable expansion and productivity over the long haul will certainly cost some jobs -- at least temporarily. It will mean pushing down employment in industries that are overbuilt, like steel, or that need to produce with less labor, like automobiles. It's going to be necessary to move people out of their accustomed work in mature or declining industries into jobs with better futures. That may well prove to be the hardest and most painful responsibility of economic politics over the next four years.