Inflation politics

Amidst the current national concern about unemployment and recession, it is difficult to recapture the public mood about the US economy back in 1980. Consumer price increases were roaring along at 12.4 percent - high enough to make inflation the number one economic ''problem'' in that presidential election year. Compare that attitude to the widespread apathy - or even skepticism - about the current inflation rate of less than 5 percent, the lowest since 1976.

President Reagan, not surprisingly, is attempting to wrest political gain from the latest (September) inflation figures, which for that month work out to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.1 percent. Mr. Reagan, for example, in recently chiding a group of reporters, argued that ''since all of you seem to feel I'm to blame for unemployment, I'll take the credit'' for the lower inflation rate. Democrats, not unexpectedly, dismiss the latest price figures as merely reflecting a weak economy. Says Tip O'Neill: ''Hoover could point to an inflation rate of zero in 1930 and a negative inflation rate of 2 percent by 1932.''

What then, with such diverse political views of the present economy, can one reasonably say about the drop in the rate of inflation during the past two years?

Surely the nation could not have tolerated much longer the high inflationary rates of the 1970s. It is now clear to economists that inflation virtually wiped out gains in individual earnings during that decade, even as the distribution of income became more unequal.

The rich became richer, the poor poorer. Thus, the task for national policymakers (including the Federal Reserve Board) was clear: Inflation had to be brought under control. That, in turn, meant that the Fed had to institute stringent controls on the growth in the nation's money supply, even as the Congress and the White House had to cut back on federal spending.

In that sense, the drop in inflation during recent months is a necessary - and overdue - economic adjustment. But whether either political party should attempt to capitalize on the drop - either in a positive or adverse sense - is questionable. The tight money policy launched under the Democrats, combined with the cutbacks in social spending pursued by the Republicans, have contributed to the worst economic slump since the depression. Nor can either party be smug about the federal deficit for fiscal 1982, a record $110 billion.

Yes, there are many positive economic signs in the economy, including the lower inflation rate, falling interest rates, the recent stock market rally, and the responsibility shown by Chrysler workers in not voting for a strike at this time.

But there is still much that yet needs to be done to pull up the giant American economy, including reducing massive federal deficits that will be in place throughout the next several years; rebuilding the infrastructure; retraining workers; shifting from declining to high-growth industries.

Steps like these are national in scope. As such, they will require the cooperation of the nation's entire political leadership. When the economy is finally back on track, and both inflation and unemployment are conquered, there will be more than enough praise to be shared. Until then a little political modesty seems in order.

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