Will voluntary programs to fight inflation and save energy work, if given the backing of the White House and the major civic, business and labor groups in the country? Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of President Ford, there are many people who think that not much can come of voluntary efforts at mobilizing the country. Only mandatory programs, such as wage-price controls and enforcement of anti-monopoly and other laws will take the spiral out of inflation, they say. It is true that major programs and proposals for reducing energy consumption and bringing down prices require a vigorous working of our legal system. The recent economic summit meetings are filled with specific recommendations to do just that.
But there remains a unique role for mass mobilization of consumers, business and government to exert, within the existing range of their discretion, a self-restraint and self-discipline that would work toward a more efficient and stable-price economy.
While the government and the auto industry can achieve more fuel-saving automobile engines, motorists can reduce their driving and speed substantially right away. Walking, public transit, where available, and car pooling are the customarily suggested ways.
Likewise, while government and the oil industry are the principal determinants of oil prices, with the government thus far doing the oil industry’s bidding, consumers can reduce temperatures and factories can cut down promptly on the use of fuel.
For voluntary efforts by consumers to have a chance of working, two conditions are needed. First, consumers must feel that the efforts they are asked to undertake are fair and won’t boomerang. To have consumers use less electricity and gas, as they were asked to do last year by the utilities, only to find the utilities later asking state governments for higher rates because their revenues were declining, is destructive of any voluntary program. In this case, consumers did reduce their energy usage and got higher rates as a result.
Second, any voluntary program must have goals which are not only supported by the public but also measurable in terms of any progress. People often don’t believe their individual effort is of any consequence.
To overcome that attitude requires a clear goal and a progress report periodically. This is so whether dealing with reduction of energy consumption by the nation’s schools, reduction of industrial or home fuel use, or increased consumer savings and decreased consumer debt.
In a meeting of citizens with President Ford on October 12, I suggested that any voluntary program has to enlist not just individual consumers but also business and government. These institutions voluntarily waste a good deal of energy at all levels and their programs fuel inflation. They should not escape sharing a substantial burden of discipline themselves if they wish consumers to do the same.
With models of performance in business and government, consumers will have a greater feeling of fairness about what they are being asked to do.
There was some resistance among White House staff to the inclusion of business and government in these voluntary programs. Historically, institutions are rarely asked to share the burdens with individual citizens. If consumers are asked to reduce this and that by 5 per cent, asked Carol Foremen of the Consumer Federation of America, then why shouldn’t the oil industry be asked to reduce their swollen profits by 5 per cent in the spirit of voluntarism?
The White House meeting that day was a cooperative groping for ways to launch a voluntary mobilization of the country which would go beyond frenetic exhortation. One way to do this is to take a list of measurable goals, identify the principal groups who can achieve these goals, and try to obtain their adherence during a sixty day period. If at the end of this period, there is insufficient adherence, then it will become known that there just isn’t enough voluntarism to make a systematic effort work.
If, on the other hand, there is a sizable amount of support, there follows a “go date” for the program to get underway with reliable reporting of progress or the lack thereof by the White House.
Columnist Sylvia Porter, the chairperson of the Citizens Working Committee, asked the participants at that White House meeting to express their skepticism first. There was skepticism unless a strategy of fairly and effectively getting voluntary efforts underway would be worked out and regularly measured for effect.
If mass mobilization begins to work, there will emerge a civic consciousness and participation that will shape laws and public policy in the long run that are truly equitable and democratically rooted.