WASHINGTON - Let me admit up front: I am a Paul Volcker fan.
As everyone should know, Volcker became chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1979 when double-digit inflation was entrenched and there was widespread pessimism that it could be tamed.
The country's mood resembled today's. Fatalism was widespread. America was "ungovernable." The future would be worse than the present.
Escalating price increases shattered people's confidence that their wages and savings would keep pace. Government's periodic forays against inflation seemed futile. They often caused recessions and brought only temporary relief.
When the economy recovered, inflation roared back worse than ever.
Enter Volcker. He suppressed inflation the old-fashioned way: through punishing tight credit. Banks' interest rates to prime customers topped 20 percent; home mortgage rates rose to 15 percent.
The economy dived. The monthly unemployment rate peaked at 10.8 percent, still the highest since the Great Depression.
Though widely vilified, Volcker maintained the credit squeeze to purge inflationary psychology: the belief by workers and firms that they could raise wages and prices with impunity.
Volcker was supported by Ronald Reagan; no other plausible president, Republican or Democrat, would have permitted Volcker to continue austerity until it achieved its goal.
By the summer of 1982, this seemed within sight. Volcker relaxed credit.
That year, inflation was less than 4 percent, down from 13 percent in 1979. The subduing of double-digit inflation triggered a 25-year economic boom.
As important, it demonstrated that government could govern. Seemingly intractable problems (in 1980, runaway inflation was the country's No. 1 problem) could be mastered. Optimism revived.
Now Volcker has launched a new crusade: reversing the erosion of public trust in government. He's creating an institute to propose practical solutions to problems faced by governments at all levels.
For all my admiration of Volcker, this seems a bridge too far.
The problem, of course, is real. Polls are unambiguous.
At the end of the Eisenhower administration in the late 1950s, nearly three-quarters of Americans said they trusted the government to "do what is right" all or most of the time.
Now that's only 26 percent, finds a Pew survey done in January.
To be sure, some gloom reflects the prolonged economic slump. Specific events also have depressed trust: the war in Vietnam; Watergate and President Nixon's resignation; President Clinton's impeachment; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.