Holy Cow! Historical past: Whipping inflation, 1974-style

“… The wholesale price index – a harbinger of what’s to come on the consumer front – was up a staggering 2.3 percent last month. As a result, the wholesale price rose to 22.6 percent last year, the highest rate in a quarter century and nearly double the increase in family living costs.”

Sounds like news snatched from today’s headlines. Those words came from a news article, all right – the New York Times, November 17, 1974.

Almost 50 years ago, America was economically in the same boat as it is today. The phrase “runaway inflation” entered the nation’s vocabulary as retail prices rose, then rose a little further, and then rose again. Worse, it seemed like there was no end in sight. Inflation had arrived, taken root and decided to stay for a while.

Over time, ever-rising prices led to the birth of another term: the “misery index.” It combined inflation and unemployment rates to catalog the damage both were doing to Americans.

Politicians are overly sensitive to economic inconveniences. With confidence in the government badly eroded by the twin debacles of the Vietnam War and the Watergate War, Washington seemed unequal to the task of fighting a serious enemy on the financial front.

Then the only president who was never elected president had an idea.

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

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

Then fate came into play. When President Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew resigned from his previous tenure as governor of Maryland because of sleaze, Ford was elected vice president. When Nixon was forced to walk the plank over Watergate, fate smiled again.

Originally popular with the public and pundits alike, President Ford’s popularity suffered a severe blow when he pardoned his predecessor for any crimes Nixon might have committed during his tenure. His approval ratings fell just as quickly as inflation drove up prices. Barely 60 days in office, Ford knew he had to act quickly to keep his presidency from sliding into a ditch.

This is where the WIN button comes into our story.

As October 1974 dawned, the new president launched his campaign to rally ordinary Americans to fight inflation. He asked her to send him her 10 suggestions to stop rising prices. (That was way before David Letterman’s top 10 comedy lists, remember.)

This was followed by a gimmick. At a joint session of Congress on Oct. 8, many Americans expected to hear details about his plans to slash back higher prices. But when they turned on their TVs that night, they saw that their president wore a bright red button with “WIN” in bold capital letters.

WIN, Ford explained, stands for Whip Inflation Now. He sought to revive the spirit of public support that had made the war effort so successful some 30 years earlier during World War II. He encouraged all Americans to wear WIN buttons as a show of solidarity.

However, the baby boomers and their Greatest Generation parents were in no mood for sacrifice. This time Hitler and Hirohito weren’t lurking offshore. Americans saw their hard-earned dollars go to faceless big business and corporations. And they wanted Washington to oppose them, rather than planting gardens and carpooling, as Ford has suggested.

Economists politely pointed out that such small public moves would do little to dampen inflation. Comedians had a great day. They drew big laughs by wearing the button backwards and explaining that “NIM” stands for “No Immediate Miracles”.

The Whip Inflation Now campaign died a quick death, killed by a combination of laughter and indifference. WIN buttons quietly went the way of Edsel, New Coke, and other classic marketing Hindenburgs.

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

But you’d better grab one quick; With Washington’s “spend like there’s no tomorrow” reckless fiscal policy bringing inflation back to life, its price will soon rise.

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