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George Stigler

Maybe a Nobel Prize winner has to get used to sudden fame before he learns not to be so blunt. Then again, perhaps a straightforward attitude is what helped win the prize.

Whatever, George J. Stigler, winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Economics, has a reputation for bluntness. An academic, unlike a politician, does not have to temper his remarks with diplomacy. For example:

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* On social security: ''There will be a political revolt against it.''

* On supply-side economics: ''It's nonsense to talk about either supply or demand.''

* On use of the words ''depression'' and ''recession:'' ''That's just lingo. It doesn't mean anything.''

* On government help for ailing US industries: ''Let the market decide that. I shouldn't think it would be a matter for the Congress to decide which industries should be our long-run saviors.''

* On efforts to shield US industries from imports: ''There's a huge wave of protectionism going on at the present time. Very alarming.''

* On the Nobel Prize: ''Accidents of longevity and accidents of a dozen other sorts determine who gets it.''

Presumably, Dr. Stigler will be somewhat more diplomatic in his acceptance speech when he and the other Nobel winners receive their awards at a ceremony in Stockholm Dec. 10.

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Recently, as he was beginning to prepare that speech, the University of Chicago professor was interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor at his office in one of the university's granite-walled medieval-style buildings here.

Pressures to change the social-security system, Dr. Stigler predicts, will not come from retirees or those about to retire, but from workers who keep having to pay higher taxes to support it.

''I have no doubt that in the long run there'll be such drains imposed upon the younger workers in the population by the present system that there will be a political revolt against it,'' he said. ''The question is when, how fast, and what form it takes.''

''Everybody in the world thinks social security is now untenable in its present rates and its present tax structure. And it was lifted to a new level in the '70s. It was just unnecessary.'' Some of the benefits that were added in the last 20 years, as well as some of the taxes, will have to be reduced, he believes, if the system is to survive politically and financially.

The expansion of the social-security system, he noted, is typical of the growth in federal expenditures in the last two decades. That is why he is concerned that last year's tax-cutting legislation and this year's Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act may ''cancel each other out.

''I think the only way you control the growth of federal expenditures - and there's been an astonishing, ferocious growth for about 20 years - is by reducing revenues.

''Now, what the President couldn't do, apparently, either because of his lack of command of the Congress or because of lack of backing from the public, is to begin a strong containment of public expenditure.''

It was remarks like that which caught the attention of White House reporters in October, after Dr. Stigler was invited to a congratulatory meeting with President Reagan. Until White House aides gently whisked him out of the press room, Stigler managed to call supply-side economics a ''gimmick'' and a ''slogan ,'' and had declared the US economy to be in a ''depression.''

A native of Renton, Wash., Stigler received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1938. Twenty years later, after teaching posts that included Brown University, the London School of Economics, and Columbia University, he returned to his alma mater as Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of American Institutions.

Recalling his remarks about supply-side economics, Dr. Stigler says, ''I was speaking as an academic. And in academic economics, there's no standard theory or corpus of things that are called 'supply-side economics.'. . .It's nonsense to talk about either supply or demand.''

There is a common analogy in economics, Stigler says, that uses a pair of scissors and paper. ''You need both of them. And you need both supply and demand to determine the operation of financial markets. I had that in mind (at the White House).''

However, he adds, it is ''perfectly sensible for society not to put obstacles in the way of efficient production, which are supply-side considerations.''

He continues: ''I have great doubts. . . that that kind of removal of obstacles to efficient production would be the method by which you would correct inflation. I think it would be the method by which you would correct declines in productivity and failures of national wealth to rise, but . . . the Laffer curve kind of game in which you can cut taxes and increase revenues has a very limited role in this world, if any.''

The credit for the drop in the inflation rate, Professor Stigler believes, can be shared by both the Reagan administration and the Federal Reserve Board.

''I don't think they're separate,'' he says. Even though Fed chairman Paul A. Volcker was appointed by President Carter, Stigler argues, the Fed is not immune to other factors such as the gradual replacement of members of the board by new appointees, discussions and pressures from the Treasury Department and the President's Council of Economic Advisers, and the passage of time.

''I have to say,'' he adds, ''that if Carter had won (in 1980) - and it's a guess and I wouldn't know how to prove it - I would have expected the rate of inflation to be higher at the present time than it is, even with the same chairman at the Fed.''

The reason prices came down, Dr. Stigler believes, ''was the strenuous, rigorous - maybe excessively rigorous - game of control we had the first six months of this year.''

As to his use of the dreaded word ''depression,'' Dr. Stigler dismisses it as ''just lingo. It doesn't mean anything.''

''Of course, we don't have the 25 percent unemployment we had in 1932. On the other hand, in the old days, the language was different. The famous textbook of Gottfried Haberler was called 'Prosperity and Depression.' And there weren't namby-pamby words like recession.''

''I've been saying,'' Stigler adds, smiling, ''that when (House Speaker Thomas P.) Tip O'Neill invites me to Washington, because I assume that's where I'll get my next invitation, I'm going to say next spring that I think we're out of depression and back into recession.''

Although questions for Dr. Stigler often turn to public-policy issues like taxes and the recession, the citation accompanying his Nobel Prize took note of his studies of ''the causes and effects of public regulation.'' So when Professor Stigler, who has advocated broad deregulation of many industries, is asked if he thinks the trend toward deregulation has gone far enough, he responds with a question of his own.

''Are you asking what a benevolent dictator would like or what a president, living in Washington, in that climate, can do?''''They've done some things I like, such as the deregulation of the oil industry. That was a shambles of shortages, surpluses, and absurd bonanzas and non-bonanzas. That's terminated. I think that's a brilliant stroke.

''On the other hand, they're afraid to touch the sacred cow of natural gas, which I would like to see deregulated. But it's one thing to ask a professor what he would like, and its another to ask a president what he can possibly get done.''

As for regulations designed to control pollution, Stigler says they are ''kind of inefficient,'' spending money that could be used for other purposes.

''We have,'' he notes, ''an antipollution system that seems primarily designed to keep industry from migrating from the North and East to the South and West. That is, it's okay to have high pollution in one area, provided you don't add to it. But if you're in another area, where there isn't any pollution, you can't add to that, either.

''That's just absurd from a social point of view. It might cost very little to build a plant that was sensible for the Southwest, and yet you can't do it because they have to meet the same pollution standards they do in heavily smogged areas.''

Many of the industries in the North and East are considered ''basic'' industries, like automobiles and steel. While they pay for antipollution measures, they are also trying to stay in business, partly by seeking protection from imports. Dr. Stigler believes neither Congress nor protectionism should be used in the fight for these firms' survival.

''Let the market decide that,'' he said. ''I shouldn't think it would be a matter for the Congress to decide which industries should be our long-run saviors.''

At the same time, he notes ''there is a huge wave of protectionism going on at the present time. Very alarming. And we're likely to have it, and have it in painful forms, until we have a substantial business recovery. Every industry that's been hit. . .is going to run down to Washington, to say 'let's stop these guys from importing.' ''

Finally, Professor Stigler's reaction to winning the Nobel Prize and the $157 ,000 that goes with it was approached in the academic manner he has used in over 40 years of teaching: scientifically and humorously.

''One of my hobbies is the study of science, including the sociology of science,'' he says. ''And you wonder what the fuss is about. You know, I haven't contributed anything to economics in the last month. So I'm really the same person I was a month ago.''

There is one possible ''cost'' in the prize, he admits. ''There must be a lot of people who fall right on one side or the other side of getting it. And accidents of longevity and accidents of a dozen other sorts determine who gets it.

''But I don't think it does much harm.''

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