The Intercept story “Inflation is Good For You” argues that “Inflation is bad for the 1 percent but helps out almost everyone else.”
After denying the threat of inflation, then claiming that it is transitory and that it would fade away, the mainstream is finally admitting a wave of unprecedented inflation for the foreseeable future. So now the story is that inflation is good for the poor. President Biden claims that a massive expansion of government spending will actually reverse inflation.
The Intercept story has more holes than swiss cheese, but I want to rebut the central thesis of the article. Is inflation bad? Spoiler: the worst aspect of inflation is not rising prices or eroding savings, but the censorship of price signals required for a thriving economy.
Demand-Pull Theory Doesn’t Explain Inflation
The unstated theory of the author and the mainstream economic model that guides the monetary policy of the world’s central banks is Keynes’ model of Demand-Pull Inflation. The theory goes like this: when aggregate demand exceeds the value of aggregate supply, producers raise prices. In response, governments can raise interest rates to reduce demand, slow economic growth, and end inflation. Problem solved!
If the master planners at the Federal Reserve simply need to pull a few levers to fix the economy, why has the global economy had a series of boom-bust cycles ever since the Fed was founded in 1913? The usual excuse is that the government simply hasn’t imposed enough regulations to stop the pesky capitalists from screwing up their central planning.
The Austrian economic school provides a comprehensive response to Keynes’ economics. Say’s law (Jean-Baptiste Say, 1803) provides a simple refutation of Keyne’s demand-pull theory. In order for someone to buy goods, he must first produce something of value to obtain the money needed to pay for those goods. Production is the source of all economic growth, not consumption. Economic growth is an increase in supply, not an increase in consumers demanding more. To consume the product of others’ labor, you must first produce something they find valuable. Government edict can change what goods are produced, but it cannot magically command new workers, factories, and materials into existence.
What Is Inflation?
Milton Friedman famously said, “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.“ Inflation is a broad decrease in the purchasing power of money caused by governments creating new money. And boy have they been creating it.
Since Covid 19 began, the M2 supply has jumped from $15 trillion to almost 20 trillion dollars. Quick quiz: if the same amount of economic activity is served by 40% more dollar bills, what will happen to prices? It’s not a question of if but when.
The question of why the government had to print so much money is a long and shameful tale, but the ultimate result is inevitable: massive inflation.
Inflation is much worse than the official numbers suggest:
First, in an economy with a hard (fixed) money supply, we should have deflation proportional to the rate of economic growth.
Second, the United States has been able to hide away most inflation, mostly by exporting dollars as a global reserve currency.
Third, the official deficit numbers are misleading because much government spending (like government-backed student loans and mortgages and quantitative easing) doesn’t end up on the books.
What we are seeing now is not the beginning of a period of higher inflation, but an unprecedented expansion of the money supply causing the Fed to lose control of the narrative and have to admit it in official indexes.
So Why Is Inflation Bad?
The problem is not that prices are going up. If prices merely increased by some steady amount each year, we could adapt to them, just as employees expect a 3-4% base salary raise every year to match inflation. Likewise, producers and lenders would have no problem adapting to a universal increase in the price level.
The problem with inflation is that it’s not a universal increase in price. Inflation is what happens when politicians print new money to hand it out to their constituents instead of raising taxes. Raising taxes is hard but running printing presses (physical or digital) is easy.
To understand why inflation is harmful, we need to understand what prices are: prices are signals about which activities are valuable to people. When the price of a good goes up, producers direct more resources into the production of that good. When the wage of a job goes up, more workers are directed to that industry. This “invisible hand” of the market continually optimizes human activity to direct human effort to the most valuable activity.
The main evil of inflation is that it corrupts this information flow. Inflation begins when governments give new money to favored groups. The recipients of new money spend it at the current price, whereas the downstream users of that money spend it at a higher, inflated price. Instead of prices signaling which activities are socially valuable, they signal activities supported by the government’s printing presses. Inflation corrupts the economic harmony that directs resources to their most valuable use.
If you remember one thing, it should be this:
“Fiat” is another word for “decree” or “edict.” It’s called “fiat money” because governments force people to use their money by decree. Through inflation, fiat money forces people to allocate their lives to the causes the government’s money benefits instead of those they would voluntarily choose for themselves.
Inflation Is A Hidden Tax
All taxes are signals which force people to produce goods they would not voluntarily produce. But taxes are different from inflation in that both the tax burden and the recipients of tax income are generally auditable by the electorate. Inflation is a hidden tax that subtly changes the incentives throughout an economy to erode its ability to produce wealth.
Because it’s hidden, inflation is highly addictive to the political system. Government programs depend on printing money to a far larger extent than official deficit numbers suggest. Even if there was suddenly a broad awareness of the harms of inflation and a political movement to curtail it, moving to a sound money system absent a complete collapse of the dollar regime would still be outside the realm of possibility.
Inflation Wrecks The Structure Of Production
Why is the economy suffering from shortages of seemingly everything? It has nothing to do with a “chip shortage,” or the Suez canal blockage, or just-in-time manufacturing. These are only the symptoms. The root cause of the “everything shortage” is the government’s manipulation of the money supply.
One of the main disagreements of the Austrian school with Keynesian economics is the emphasis it places on the structure of capital. Capital is not a monolithic blob of “aggregate supply”, but a hierarchy of lower and higher-order goods. In order to produce consumer goods, capital must be employed. To make your Venti Frappuccino (first-order good), a barista uses an espresso grinder (second-order good). The grinder requires steel and microchips (third-order goods).
When the government created new money for the stimulus programs, that money first went to consumers, who voted with their wallets to shift the structure of capital from the production of higher-order (production) goods to lower-order (consumption) goods. Inflation robbed producers with low time preference and redistributed the loot to consumers with a higher time preference. The shortages were a result of inflation eating the “seed corn” of capital needed to maintain and expand production.
So what should happen when an external shock (such as pandemics and lockdown policies) constrains production and changes demand patterns? The economy needs to re-structure to rebuild the structure of production to reflect the new reality. Uncertainty causes consumers to save more, which frees up higher-order capital to shift to new demand trends. Capital can focus on producing PPE, webcams, home exercise equipment, and consumer groceries rather than restaurant supplies, office buildings, airliners, etc.
The inflation-powered stimulus packages attempted to “freeze” the economy in pre-pandemic spending levels and thus crippled the adjustment to the new reality. The rest was inevitable.
The Myth of Idle Capital
President Biden claims that the “Build Back Better” stimulus package will reverse inflation by “reducing bottlenecks” in the economy. This thinking is straight of out Keynes’s General Theory (1936). Keynes believed that government spending is needed to put “idle” resources to work and stimulus the economy.
William H. Hutt refuted this idea in “The Theory of Idle Resources” (1939). Politicians cannot create new capital and labor. They can only force people to do the government’s bidding rather than what individuals believe is in their best interest. If some capital is idle, it’s because it currently provides no economic value to people. “Build Back Better” is just the latest version of the belief that the government’s central planning is more efficient than the price mechanism of the free market. Though Mises, Hutt, and many others refuted these ideas in the 1930s, the backdoor of fiat money allows politicians to try the same failed policies without consequences.
Does Inflation Help The Poor?
The Intercept claims that inflation is good for the poor because it will make debts easier to pay off. Supposedly, rich lenders will suffer while the poor are granted a reprieve.
Do you really believe the elites suffer more under any economic policy? While banks may lose some money, they are also the first recipients of new government money!
There are many reasons why the poor always suffer the most from inflation:
* A far larger percentage of poor households’ income is used for basic needs.
* The wealthy get most of their income from inflation-protected assets like real estate, business interest, and stocks.
* The prices of basic goods increase faster than luxury goods.
* Families with low incomes will be pushed into poverty, while the middle and upper classes can cut down on luxuries.
* Debt is a wealth-maximizing strategy for the wealthy, while it’s a survival strategy for the poor.
* Although existing mortgages and student debt will depreciate, interest rates on new debt will go up dramatically!
Though the very idea that inflation helps the poor is absurd on its face, it’s not the fundamental error of the article. The central problem is the idea that high inflation is just the price we pay for economic growth. If you have understood the above description of inflation, you should understand that this is another way of saying that government central planning of the economy is more efficient than the market. If you believe that, look up the thriving economies of the USSR, North Korea, Venezuela, or Cuba.