Listening to President Carter at the National Press Club the other day, one had to admire his ability to articulate the economic issues in a completely convincing way. His bright blue eyes intense and serious, Carter sounded authoritative, intelligent and completely in command.
Skillfully, he dissected Ronald Reagan's economic promises, showing the contradiction between the Republican candidate's pledge of a balanced budget by 1983 and massive across-the-board tax cuts coupled with beefed-up spending programs for defense, the merchant marine and fatter Social Security benefits designed to lure the votes of elderly citizens.
And yet, as the words pour out, and sound so good -- you sit there and wonder what it all means, because you've heard it all before from Carter. You look at the record of his administration and remind yourself that the rhetoric may be superb, but the performance has been lousy.
Starting off his speech, the president promised to describe what is happening to our economy "right now." The United States and other oil-importing nations had been shocked by a doubling of oil prices in the past year. Thus (no other causative factor was mentioned), the nation had been suffering from high inflation and high unemployment.
"But fortunately, our nation has been able to withstand this blow," he continued. "The economic outlook has now brightened. We see the beginnings of recovery, we see a reduction in inflation, an increase in the number of jobs, a decline in the unemploymet rate. I'm confident about our future, not simply because the immediate outlook is improving, but because at long last, our country is coming to grips with some of its chronic, underlying economic problems."
Let's look at that closely and see what the president was really saying. First, it is disingenuous, to say the least, to blame the entire economic mess (high inflation and high unemployment) on the oil cartel. Like Richard Nixon before him, President Carter has done little to prevent the build-up of petropower.
That aside, Carter refuses to acknowledge his own considerable responsibility for the economy's current woes. At the beginning of his term, he misjudged (as did his advisers) the depth of the underlying inflationary forces in the economy.
Thus, the initial policy was to stimulate the economy at the wrong time. Then came a raft of mistakes that accentuated inflation -- ranging from overgenerous agricultural supports to politically motivated textile quotas and steel trigger prices that helped keep prices high. Carter has yet to evolve an anti-inflation program that works, or one that has dampened the inflationary expectations of individuals and businessmen.
As to unemployment itself, the Carter administration consciously adopted a policy toward the end of 1979 -- including the endorsement of sky-high interest rates -- that fostered recession in an unsuccessful effort to control inflation. Now, it reeks of political opportunism when Carter re-reads history and says that interest rates are too high.
The president then allowed himself the optimistic prediction that a recovery is at hand, with both inflation and unemployment coming down. This has been the administration pitch for the past few weeks, although many other economists believe that the recovery from recession -- if indeed it is a true recovery -- may be so shallow that the nation will suffer a "double-dip" -- that is, a new decline late this year or beginning in 1981. In all likelihood, the probability is that the economy is not making any decided move up or down at this moment.
So there is really nothing to write home about. But listening to Carter, one is supposed to get the feeling that after suffering like hell over the past couple of years -- not because of any failings of the Carter administration, but because of OPEC. -- things are righting themselves. "A new American renaissance" lies ahead, the president said.
It's a lovely dream. But the reality is something else. The core rate of inflation is stil 9 percent. High interest rates, which have a devastating impact on housing, other construction, municipal borrowings and economic activity in general, will be with us for the foreseeable future.
The president has outlined no coherent economic plan to deal with these problems. Neither has Ronald Reagan. The nation would be better. off if the two major candidates leveled with us. But laying out the prospect for painfully slow growth would fit the political strategy of neither man. At least, John Anderson seems to be respecting the intelligence of the American people by refusing to promise them a rose garden.