Holy Cow! History: brutal inflation, 1974 style

“…The Wholesale Price Index – a precursor to what’s happening on the consumer front – rose 2.3% last month. This carried the increase in wholesale prices over the past month. year to 22.6%, the highest rate in a quarter century and nearly double the rise in the cost of family living.

Sounds like a story ripped from today’s headlines. These words came from a news article, okay – November 17, 1974, New York Times.

Almost 50 years ago, America was in the same economic boat as it is today. The phrase “rampant inflation” entered the national vocabulary when retail prices rose, then rose again, then rose again. Worse still, it seemed there was no end in sight. Inflation came, took root and decided to stay for a while.

Over time, ever-increasing prices led to the birth of another term: “the misery index”. He combined inflation and unemployment rates to catalog the harm the two were inflicting on Americans.

Politicians are hypersensitive to economic inconveniences. With trust in government badly eroded by the twin debacles of the Vietnam War and Watergate, it seemed Washington was not up to the task of fighting a serious foe on the financial front.

So the only president who has never been elected to the presidency had an idea.

We could beat inflation by wearing buttons. No seriously. He did.

Gerald Ford was DC’s first Mr. Nice Guy. A star Michigan college football player and World War II veteran, he was elected to Congress in 1948, rising through the Republican ranks and eventually becoming Minority Leader in 1965. His dream was to end his career as a Speaker of the House. But with Democrats firmly entrenched on Capitol Hill, that seemed unlikely. (Indeed, the GOP would not claim the house until 1994). Ford seemed destined to spend his days being just another guy in a gray flannel suit.

Then fate intervened. When President Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned due to neglect from his previous term as governor of Maryland, Ford was chosen to serve as vice president. When Nixon was forced to walk the plank above Watergate, fate smiled once more.

Initially popular with the public and pundits, President Ford’s popularity took a serious hit when he pardoned his predecessor for crimes Nixon may have committed while in office. Its approval ratings were falling as rapidly as inflation drove prices up. Just 60 days after taking office, Ford knew he had to act quickly to keep his presidency from sliding into the ditch.

This is where the WIN button comes into our story.

In early October 1974, the new president launched his campaign to enlist ordinary Americans in the fight against inflation. He asked them to send him their 10 suggestions to stop rising prices. (That was way before David Letterman’s 10 best comedies lists, remember.)

He followed that with a gadget. Addressing a joint session of Congress on Oct. 8, many Americans expected to hear the details of his plans to stave off rising prices. But when they turned on their TVs that night, they saw their president wearing a bright red button with “WIN” in bold, capital letters.

WIN, Ford explained, stood for “Whip Inflation Now.” He attempted to resurrect the spirit of public support that had made the war effort a success in World War II some 30 years earlier. He encouraged all Americans to wear WIN buttons as a sign of solidarity.

However, baby boomers and their older generation parents were in no mood to sacrifice. Hitler and Hirohito weren’t hiding off this time. Americans have seen their hard-earned dollars go to big corporations and corporations. And they wanted Washington to stand up to them rather than cultivating gardens and carpooling as Ford suggested.

Economists politely pointed out that such small steps by the public would barely make a dent in inflation. The actors had fun. They got a lot of laughs wearing the button upside down and explaining that “NIM” stands for “No Immediate Miracles”.

The Whip Inflation Now campaign died quickly, killed by a combination of laughter and indifference. WIN buttons have quietly followed the path of Edsel, New Coke and other classic Hindenburgs of marketing.

You can still find them for sale on eBay and in antique stores.

But you better grab one quick; with Washington’s reckless fiscal policy “spending like there’s no tomorrow” and fueling inflation, their price will soon rise.

Holy Cow! The story is written by novelist, former television journalist and die-hard history buff J. Mark Powell.

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