BY MIDWINTER the inflation will probably still be rocketing along at the present rate or -- because of higher food prices -- perhaps a little faster. What's the next administration going to do about that? Mr. Carter's speech to the Press Club yesterday was an accurate and candid description of the way this country caught the disease of inflation. In contrast, Mr. Reagan attributes it all to government spending -- which he promises to cut in broad but unspecified ways. But both candidates must know that restraining inflation is going to take far larger changes than either of them has, so far, acknowledged.
The real reasons for the present upward march of prices are less the original shocks, like the huge increases in oil costs, than Americans' reactions to them. Most people seem to feel that, where they are not to blame for higher prices, it's unfair to hold them liable. That's an understandable reaction, but it's dangerous. Through all those cost-of-living formulas, formal or otherwise, the claims for compensation fuel the inflation.
What the country needs is a no-fault inflation program. You aren't personally to blame that the world price of oil is 10 times what it was in 1973. But each barrel of that oil coming into this country represents a real and inescapable drain on the wealth of all Americans collectively. As long as each individual demands compensation for it, and manages to pass the burden on to someone else, that cost will keep running in circles around the whole wage and price system. That's where the inflation is coming from.
Average incomes have not recently been keeping up with prices. But incomes are going to have to fall further behind, at least temporarily, if inflation is to be slowed effectively. That requires social consensus.
Among the major countries, inflation is highest in Italy, Europe's closest example of anarchy. The runner-up in inflation is Britain, deeply divided by the worst labor relations in the industrial world. Inflation is generally lowest in the countries where consensus is highest -- in Germany and Japan. The countries with high inflation are usually those with the lowest economic growth, and vice versa. It's possible to create an economy, like Italy's, in which everyone is continuously compensated by cost-of-living formulas for every price rise. But the idea that the same country can also provide expanding job opportunities and steadily rising living standards is a fantasy.
Since the inflation is nobody's fault and everybody's fault, everyone should pay equally. That's the no-fault principle. But it will require a high degree of consensus among Americans to share and absorb those painful costs. The main job of the president, over the next four years, will be to build that consensus.