THE CONSUMER price index took another
bad bounce in June, the statisticians report. It's an unwelcome reminder that despite high unemployment and low industrial production, inflation is still very much with us. But the inflation rate is slowly and painfully coming down. The past two months' CPI figures overestimate the basic pace of inflation, just as the figures earlier in the year underestimated it. That basic rate is currently somewhere around 7 percent a year.
That's down significantly from the level it had reached when Mr. Reagan came into office--but unemployment is up significantly. The question now, not only for Mr. Reagan but for the country as well, is whether to stay on the present path, following the present policy--and, if so, how far.
The resignation of Murray L. Weidenbaum from the chairmanship of the president's Council of Economic Advisers is the latest in a conspicuous series of economists' departures from this administration. The White House reports that Mr. Weidenbaum wishes to return to academic life. Given the choices confronting the White House, who wouldn't? The administration is still hoping that its original strategy will begin to take hold, belatedly, and create jobs. But it's not easy to see how that might happen in the present circumstances, however desirable that might be.
It's necessary to consider, once again, ways to restrain inflation at a lower cost in unemployment and damage to the country's economic structure. That, certainly, ought to be the most urgent concern of Mr. Weidenbaum's successor. The possibilities, unfortunately, are not very promising. Wage and price controls won't work. But, promising or not, the prospect of steadily rising unemployment requires another attempt at an alternative.
It would have to be a consensus, of one sort or another, on wages. While rising wages alone are not responsible for the great inflation of the past decade and a half, they have done much to perpetuate it. Automatic wage increases, based on a previous year's price rises, are the mechanism that carry past inflation into the future. Voluntary wage guidelines and restraints do not have a good reputation in this country. But perhaps it's worth recalling that the last attempt to use them, in the Johnson administration, blew up only under the pressures of rapidly tightening labor markets in the early stages of the Vietnam War.
Today, in very different circumstances, guidelines might well prove more effective--particularly if Mr. Reagan used his pulpit to make people understand that big wage increases for some people mean unemployment for others. Mr. Reagan can't do it alone. It would require the help of a great many other Americans, employers and employees. Voluntary national cooperation on wage inflation will never be wholly effective. But it would certainly be preferable to the present policy, which amounts to enforcing restraint by destroying jobs and businesses.