A Counterfactual Look at Inflation
When I mention the Fed-induced inflation, I often get the response, "Inflation is really low. You're wrong about the Fed." And I'm sure many of you have heard the same comments. But this view does not consider the counterfactuals and what-ifs of monetary policy. Ironically, when the Fed wants to defend itself, we're always asked to imagine how much worse the crisis would have been without them. We are never asked to imagine a better scenario without the Fed.
Prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve, deflation was a fairly common occurrence in the business cycle. When a boom builds, inflationary expansion hits the market. After a bubble pops, the economy contracts, often causing deflation. Despite the propaganda, deflation isn't that bad.
One common argument against deflation is falling wages. However, most economists agree that there is some resistance to downward pressure on wages. Have you noticed that wage cuts rarely ever happen in the private sector? Companies either squeeze more effort out of fewer employees or they fire people. Outside the government, furlough days and wage cuts are practically unseen.
Individuals are weird about their pay on the margins. Even a small wage cut will infuriate workers, while a 3% raise to meet inflation will make them very happy -although their purchasing power has remained the same. The disgruntled workforce is usually not worth the savings.
The primary difference between the negative effects of inflation and deflation are who benefits. With inflation, the giant corporations get the low interest rates first and expand before inflation filters through the economy. The guy living on a fixed income or collecting the same salary suffers the most. With deflation, the companies take the hit, but the workers now have higher purchasing power with their salary. Of course if deflation is too rapid or too prolonged, the company will see a significant drop in revenues leading to fewer workers. And that's where problems can arise. But something like a 3 to 4% deflation for a year or two isn't the end of the world. And an even milder deflation isn't a big reason for concern. During the 1800s - a period of amazing growth for the United States - there were some very long deflationary periods.
With this in mind, the topic of 2 to 3% inflation is only a discussion about the tip of the iceberg. The real question is, "What would the CPI be without the Fed?" It's hard to say for sure, but it probably wouldn't be 2 or 3% inflation. It would rather be something like 5 or 6% deflation. If you look at it through this lens, then the Fed is already inflating at 7 to 9% inflation per year. Furthermore, this means things could get out of hand quickly. If the natural contracting of the economy ends, we could suddenly see a rapid pickup in inflation where these numbers are openly evident.
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