Real Fiscal Responsibility 3; Carter: Inflation and Health Care
by Joseph M. Firestone, New Economic Perspectives
Here’s the third post in my series evaluating the fiscal responsibility / irresponsibility of the Governments of the United States (mostly the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Federal Reserve) by Administration periods beginning in 1977 with the Jimmy Carter term. My first post explained why I chose to start my evaluation with the Carter period, and also laid out my related definitions of fiscal sustainability, and fiscal responsibility.
It explained why fiscal responsibility is closely connected to the idea of public purpose, which I’ve laid out here. I also claimed that the Government of the United States has been fiscally irresponsible in every Administration period since 1977.
In my second post, I began by examining the problems of ending economic stagnation, and providing full employment at a living wage, and, I hope, by showing that the Government, during the Carter period, failed to solve either problem because of its commitment to deficit reduction, and budget balancing, in the service of hoped for inflation moderation. The remaining posts in this series will continue to document the claim that all the US Governments since 1977 have been fiscally irresponsible. This, one, the third in the series, will examine how the US Government failed in its efforts to create and maintain price stability, and also failed to provide a solution to the problem of providing the right of receiving health care to every American in need.
Creating and Maintaining Price stability
The Carter Administration sought price stability, and was convinced, mistakenly, that reducing the deficit and eventually balancing the budget would also bring the cost-push inflation in oil prices under control. In the pursuit of price stability, the President used his veto power (p. 40) on a heavily Democratic Congress of supposed allies when he vetoed a public works bill providing for $5 Billion in water projects in 1978, because be thought it was inflationary and full of pork. In addition, he vetoed or pocket vetoed a number of other bills passed by the Democratic Congress in pursuit of smaller Federal deficits and Government frugality.
Not that the Government ran very large deficits in those days in light of current ideas about large deficit spending. In fact, Congress, the President, and the Federal Reserve combined to reduce deficits very quickly after the Ford Administration. After 8 quarters when the Federal Government deficit ranged from 2.88%* of GDP to 6.50%, with 7 quarters exceeding 3% of GDP, the deficit was reduced during the Carter Administration to under 3% of GDP in the first quarter of 1977 and remained in the 0% to less than 3% range, with a low of 0.47%, for the rest of President Carter’s term.
These small Federal deficits were accompanied by small trade deficits by contemporary standards, ranging from a high of 1.21% of GDP to a low of 0.10%. In addition, there were five quarters of small trade surpluses during the Carter Administration, as well. In spite of this generally favorable context, the Government could not achieve price stability because its leaders in all branches were ideologically biased against using the right methods to control the cost-push oil inflation being caused by the spike in oil prices due to Saudi policy during these years. In fact, the Government mostly executed a textbook case of what not to do.
Cost-push inflation cannot be eliminated without killing the economy if one relies on increased taxes, reduced Government spending and high interest rates, which is the deficit hawk prescription. All that will and did do is to move toward macroeconomic and microeconomic austerity. The way cost-push inflation has to be fixed is through bringing alternative sources of supply, wage and price controls, and rationing online.
We know these last two measures are hard to take for Americans and hard to enforce. But they worked during WWII (pp. 95 – 120) even in a time of full employment, and would have worked again if the Congress and the Carter Administration would have employed them sufficiently vigorously. But even though the Administration and Congress did implement wage and price “guidelines” in 1978, and then moved on to tighter controls later, implemented by a Council of Wage and Price Stability, the prices affected were limited in scope, amounting to about half the prices in the economy, and the enforcement of standards wasn’t thoroughgoing, in part because the regulatory staff implementing the program was only 10% of the size of a comparable staff during the Nixon Administration.
As for bringing new supplies online, that is the best cure for cost-push inflation, but the problem with it is that it can take a good deal of time to work. Ironically, Jimmy Carter did initiate this cure for Saudi-induced oil inflation during his Administration, when he de-regulated natural gas production. The problem was that the new supplies did not begin to have an impact for some time. Eventually they did, but only after President Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, and only after the availability of more natural gas created an international oil glut, the primary reason for the fall of inflation in the Reagan Administration.
The secondary reason for the fall of inflation was Volcker backing off the Federal Funds rate. The Reagan recovery couldn’t have occurred without that; but, on the other hand, Volcker’s move wouldn’t have been effective if the oil price hadn’t already fallen.
So, the bottom line here, is that the Government did mostly fiscally irresponsible things in seeking price stability during the Carter Administration, while wrapping itself in the moral sanctimony of preaching the necessity for sacrifice. The one clearly good thing it did was to de-regulate natural gas. That eventually worked, and if Congress and the President had combined that with oil rationing and strict enforcement of price controls on domestic supplies, export controls on domestic oil, application of price controls on oil imports, and perhaps limited wage controls, then the economy could have survived without Paul Volcker’s Fed drying up the credit flow and producing a prolonged recession.
Implementing the right of health care for everyone
Carter promised passage of a national health insurance plan during his campaign, but when he was elected he backed off that idea as soon he was warned about the perceived likely inflationary impact of such legislation. This fear dogged his Administration and was a major factor in his inability to come to agreement with Teddy Kennedy and Russell Long on a bill that all three could support.
As his term passed, hesitation and delay resulted in his chance of passing a Medicare for All or other national health insurance bill slipping away, even though he had enormous Democratic majorities in both Houses during his first two years, and healthy majorities in his last two. His fear of inflation and concerns for fiscal responsibility as he defined it, prevented him from making a deal with Democrats supporting a single-payer system. He also insisted that any health reform bill had to safeguard a role for the private insurers.
At the time spending on health care amounted to 9% of GDP. Now that figure is at 18%. In retrospect, it is clear that the same beliefs about fiscal responsibility bothered him in this area as in the economic stagnation, full employment, and price stability issue areas. And also that his insistence on his mistaken fiscal responsibility notion, led to fiscally irresponsible policies, that, in turn, eventually led to the health care sector doubling the proportion of GDP it consumes on an annual basis, and also to many years of unnecessary fatalities, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and family breakups due to lack of universal health insurance.
In retrospect, this is one of areas of the Government’s biggest failures during the Carter Administration. The President was reluctant to make changes that excluded private interests, and to use the Government’s recently acquired greater policy space existing because the Government was now a sovereign fiat currency issuer to spend for the public purpose. His lack of faith in the ability of the Government to do things well, and his ideological faith in the superiority of the private sector to the Government as an agent of change, undermined his effectiveness in this as well as the other areas discussed thus far. It also has bestowed a very high cost on most Americans since 1981.
The Government, led by Carter during this period, could not even conceive of just letting the twin deficits (Trade and Budget) float, and accommodating the trade and import desires of the private sector. Had he been able to do so, he might have been been able to overcome stagflation, create prosperity, and produce low-cost universal health insurance for everyone.
Watch for my next post on the Government’s failure to legislate enduring educational reform during the period 1977 – 1981.
*My thanks to Professors Scott Fullwiler and Stephanie Kelton for kindly providing me with their quarterly time series data on Sectoral Financial Balances which I’ve drawn upon for the deficit, and GDP numbers I’ve used in this post.