Paul Greenberg

Some of us have seen this movie before -- and didn't much like it the first time.

The cast might have changed but the plot is the same: A president thinks he can keep spending-and-taxing, running up deficits and adding to the national debt, but escape the inescapable result: rising inflation. More dollars, less wealth. Why work, save, invest, put in overtime or start a business if the dollars you earn are worth less and less? Inflation is the most insidious of taxes, eroding people's savings, salaries, initiative.

As the economy stagnates, national morale turns into national malaise. Consumer confidence drops, and so does American confidence in general. The series of interlocked, complex operations that is the American economy starts to sputter.

Then comes the decisive blow: Unrest in the Middle East raises the price of oil to extortionate levels. It happened to Richard Nixon's presidency, then Jimmy Carter's. The oil shock ripples through the rest of the economy. Price controls -- and restrictions on domestic oil production -- only aggravate the crisis.

The result: long lines at the pump, shortages in general, and ever higher prices. The country reaps the worst of both undesirable worlds: stagnation and inflation. A new word has to be coined to describe the new combination: Stagflation. Unemployment, inflation, interest rates, all hit double digits. The misery index, unemployment plus inflation, rises sharply.

People feel trapped. As if they were on a treadmill headed down, down, down while prices keep going up, up, up. And there seems no way to get off. The intellectuals begin writing think pieces not about how to create the conditions for a robust recovery, but how to handle America's inevitable decline in the world. The country's leaders make empty excuses, put off the hard decisions necessary to reverse course, and temporize in general. Frustration grows. A sense of futility spreads. That's stagflation.

Today's sequel -- call it Stagflation II -- has only started filming. There is still time to yell "Cut!" before the unhappy ending is upon us again. But will this president wake up in time? So far he's been sleeping through the opening scenes.

Somebody needs to turn on the house lights and stop this production while there's still time. There's no shortage of decisive actions waiting to be taken. See the Bowles-Simpson report, with its list of ways to balance the budget. But there's little will to enact them. Somebody's favorite ox, or even calf, might be gored. And so the great ship that is the American economy stays on the same disastrous course, taking on water as it drifts toward ... the falls.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.