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By George P. Brockway, originally published February 6, 1989

1989-2-6 The Truth About InflationTitle

1989-2-6 The Truth About Inflation Dollar Sign

THERE ARE supposed to be two kinds of inflation, cost-push and demand-pull.  A benevolent

Providence is supposed to have provided them with the same cure: raising the interest rate or – if you prefer to do things indirectly – restricting the money supply. Last time out (“Bankers Have the Classic COLA,”NL, January 9), we looked at the panacea macro-economically and came up with the heretical conclusion that it caused inflation, rather than cured it. This should have occasioned no surprise, since medicine is a lot older than economics, and it was not until about a hundred years ago that your odds were better if you consulted a doctor than if you didn’t. Neoclassical economics has about caught up with Paracelsus.

The interest-rate panacea is, nevertheless, so solidly fixed in everyone’s pharmacopoeia that we’d better look at it micro-economically to try to discover its supposed merits. I should confess, at the outset, though, that having once met a payroll, as they used to say, I can’t imagine how raising the interest rate is expected to inhibit or prevent businesses from raising prices in response to the increased cost.

Every business must have money, and it therefore has to consider the cost of money, which is interest, whether it is a borrower or not. If it needs to borrow, interest is obviously a cost of doing business. If it is cash rich and doesn’t need to borrow, interest is an opportunity cost. By investing in its own business, it passes up the opportunity of lending its money to someone else and thereby earning the going rate of interest without working; so unless its own business can earn at least that much, it’s not worth continuing.

Interest is thus an inescapable element in doing business, and hardly a trivial one. Moreover, raising the rate not only affects every business, it does so geometrically. An increase in the interest rate is continuously compounded; the push is to an upward slope that becomes steadily steeper. Consequently, if the problem is cost-push inflation, upping the rate makes it worse.

In contrast, an increase in the price of oil is a one-time affair: It pushes most costs (not all, but most) up to a higher plateau, because oil is essential for the contemporary economy. At any given moment – now, for example – a certain quantity of it is used in myriad ways. At another moment – tomorrow, for example – the price may be doubled, thus doubling the economy’s outlay for oil and of course the percentage of total costs devoted to it. Producers, faced with the new cost, will raise their prices. They could maintain their profits if they just covered the increased cost of oil. In all probability, however, they will have been brought up to set their prices as a percentage markup on costs, and workers will have been brought up to expect their wages to be a certain percentage of costs.

Whether or not the new prices are enough to restore the balance among the factors of industry, they pretty quick-1yr each a new level and settle down there. Some industries and companies and workers may make out better than others, especially in the short run, yet by and large business soon goes on about as before. Prices are somewhat higher, to the detriment of people living on fixed incomes and of people who have lent money-and to the benefit of people who have borrowed money. But there is no reason for prices to rise above the new plateau unless the interest rate is tampered with.

When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) made its successful moves, the Federal Reserve Board characteristically reacted in precisely the wrong way. OPEC raised costs for almost all businesses, and they now needed more money to continue. The Reserve Board perversely tightened the money supply, hiking the interest rate. I suppose they thought that by hurting business they would reduce the need for oil and OPEC would then be forced to lower the price. If so, they forgot that we had, as Art Buchwald wrote, encouraged the sheiks to send their sons to Harvard Business School rather than to Bowling Green State to learn basketball. At any rate, OPEC’S response was the standard one of a modem business faced with falling demand. Instead of cutting the price (as a neoclassical economist would have done), they cut production (as a modern businessman would do).

To be sure, the Reserve Board did manage to induce a recession, and that did, after eight years of trying, eventually result in an oil glut and lower oil prices. Just as in Vietnam some of our more thoughtful military leaders occasionally destroyed a village in order to save it, the Reserve Board caused massive unemployment, widespread bankruptcies, a growing Federal deficit, disaster in Latin America and the Third World, and a loss of much of our overseas business – all in the effort to control the price of oil. It was not a rational trade-off; and micro-economically the fact remains that raising the cost of any of the factors of production, of which interest is one, is not the way to inhibit cost-push inflation.

Demand-pull inflation is described by the popular cliché of too much money chasing too few goods. What is in the back of everyone’s mind is either an auction where millions of dollars are unexpectedly bid for a painting, or the hyperinflation that occurred in Weimar Germany, or the bread riots of pre-Revolutionary France. Briefly let us note that modern business is nothing like an auction, that hyperinflation occurs only when a nation has un-payable debts denominated in a foreign currency, and that the failure of the bread supply caused, not general inflation, but a deflation of all other prices as desperate people sold whatever they could at distress prices in order to pay for bread.

Putting to one side the probability that there is no such thing as demand pull inflation, we may doubt whether raising the interest rate will prevent too much money from chasing too few goods. A high interest rate no doubt chills the ardor of borrowers and thus may be thought to hold down the amount of money in circulation. Not all borrowers, however, are chilled equally. Speculators find high rates stimulating. Of course, money that goes into speculating doesn’t go into consuming; it chases paper, not goods; as far as consumption (or production, for that matter) is concerned, it might as well not exist.

Consumers, for reasons thought important by Professor Franco Modigliani and others, are said to try to maintain their accustomed or desired standard of living. They will shoulder heavy debts at usurious rates to do so. Hence their readiness to assume mortgages at more than double the maximum legal interest rate of a few years ago; hence the cavalier expansion of credit-card borrowing; and hence the failure of high interest rates to impede the chase for goods. In fact, because high interest rates have proved acceptable to consumers, the consumer loan business, once left to frowned-upon outsiders, has become attractive to banks-with the paradoxical probability that high rates have resulted in more money chasing goods, not less.

The famed bottom line, on the other hand, forces a more circumspect demeanor on businesses; few of them find it profitable to expand when the cost of financing is well up in the double-digit range. Many find it impossible to go on (right now, in this supposedly prosperous time, corporations are going bankrupt at a greater rate than at any time since the Great Depression). So high interest rates, while having only a minor effect on demand, have a major effect on supply. Whether or not there is more money in the chase, there are fewer goods in the running. To put it more generally, there are fewer goods than there might have been otherwise.

OUR HALF-CENTURY-LONG preoccupation with inflation is a sign of a profound confusion of American-even of global mind and will. Since World War II, inflation has been regarded as a pandemic disease, and a panacea has been sought. But social ills are specific, not universal, and corrective policies must be similarly specific.

If inflation were all prices going up together, a few people would be befuddled, but no one would be hurt much. As early as David Hume it was recognized that moderately rising prices stimulate the vital juices of entrepreneurs. As recently as the current “prosperity” it has been evident that business can readily accommodate itself to pretty steep inflation if it is fairly steady.

The trouble is that even moderately rising prices can be devastating to people living on fixed incomes, because they have no way of protecting themselves. This is a specific ill (there are others). Specific treatments are available, and some of them have been successfully applied. In 1966 Medicare began to protect the aged from one of the most crushing burdens of old age, and at the same time to provide millions with health care that otherwise would have been denied them. Since 1972 the Social Security COLAS have done much to prevent many of the retired from falling into poverty.

Some now say that the aged have it too good. This is a dubious proposition, but it is not to the point. The point is that the mentioned policies have had an effect. A specific ill was perceived, a specific treatment was devised, specific cures were effected, the cures may be judged, and specific improvements in them can be made. In contrast, the conventional theory of inflation that regards it as a pandemic ailment can propose only the panacea of a growing underclass of the chronically unemployed, and a narrowing overclass of those who have been able to make the Bankers’ COLA work for them.

Because interest payments are made pursuant to contract and continue years, often decades, into the future, the heavy hand of the Bankers’ COLA will be upon us, no matter what we do, for years to come. In the meantime our urgent task is to free ourselves, our politicians and our bankers from thralldom to the most dismal view of this dismal science.

The New Leader

Originally published October 6, 1986

BERYL W. SPRINKEL has given up on monetarism, at least for now. He said as much in a speech recently and stirred some excitement because of who he is. Not only is he the possessor of the most striking public name since Orval Faubus ; he is the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and presumably talks things over with President Reagan, so what he says may foreshadow a shift in Administration policy.

Monetarism has had the great tactical advantage of massaging the egos of the wealthy, and especially of conservative bankers who serve the wealthy. It has as many definitions as it has definers, but all of them are based on the Quantity Theory of Money, a very old idea that treats money as simply another commodity. It then seems plausible to say that at any given moment a country has a certain quantity of money and a certain price level, at which, for example, a subscription to THE NEW LEADER costs $24 (and is a bargain).  Suppose that at midnight tonight President Reagan or Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker or the Sugar Plum Fairy decreed that every dollar you have is hereafter worth two dollars. Would you now be able to buy two subscriptions, sending one to an intellectually needy friend?

Not likely. The first order of business at 275 Seventh Avenue tomorrow morning would be to raise the subscription price to $48. The same thing would happen throughout the economy, so that, subject to considerable slippage because of existing contracts, doubling the quantity of money would merely double the prices of goods and services.

The plausibility of the theory was great in the days when money appeared to be merely a physical object-gold, silver, seashells, or whatnot. But money never was merely a physical object (for reasons, I refer you to my book Economics: What Went Wrong and Why), and it certainly is not now. It is, as the late Professor John William Miller said in The Midworld, a functioning object. That is, it is an object, all right -a piece of metal, a piece of paper, a blip on a computer screen-but what matters is how it functions, not its physical composition. It is not simply another commodity; it is a standard or a control, as is, say, language or a yardstick. A language functions whether it is embodied in sound waves or marks on paper, and a yardstick functions whether it is made of maple or stainless steel. Of course, it doesn’t much matter what a hammer is made of, either, but a hammer is merely a useful tool (glue, or nuts and bolts, could do the job as well as nailing), while nothing can be built-space cannot be organized-without some measuring object.

This may sound pretty metaphysical, and it is, but I’m afraid we must go a step further in that direction. The Quantity Theory will acknowledge that, as a practical matter, it is difficult-indeed impossible-to count the amount of money a nation has. The very existence of the different quantities – M-l, M-2, M-3, and the rest – underlines the point. On the other hand, it is also impossible, as a practical matter, to count the number of electrons in a burst of energy. With electrons, however, it is possible to say that there is a definite number (despite our not knowing precisely what it is), that the number stands in some definite relation (which may also be unknown) to something else, and that therefore we can construct equations capable of yielding reliable predictions.

The trouble with money is that there is not ever a definite amount of it, just as there is not ever a definite number of thoughts expressed in language. Like language, money doesn’t even exist except as it is functioning. “If the coin be lockt up in chests,” wrote David Hume, ‘” tis the same thing with regard to prices as if it were annihilated.” What is true of coin is surely true of credit, the fundamental form of money.

This truth reveals itself in two consequences, one theoretical and one practical. The theoretical consequence is that the attempt to state the Quantity Theory in an equation (MV = PY) results in a sterile tautology. In words, the equation says that the quantity of money (M) times the velocity of its circulation (V) is equal to the general price level (P) times the goods produced (Y). For a fuller explanation I must again refer you to my book; but for present purposes it is enough to see that MV’=PY essentially says that the amount of money paid for goods is equal to the sum of the prices charged for them – which is not much to say.

Practical trouble comes when the attempt is made to use MV =PY as a guide to public policy. If your purpose is to increase production, you look at the equation and decide that all you need to do is to increase the money supply or speed up its circulation, at the same time holding the price level down. On the basis of historical studies that made his reputation, Professor Milton Friedman concluded that the economy could not sustain a steady growth faster than 3-4 per cent a year, that therefore the money supply should be expanded at that rate, and that any faster rate would be inflationary.

From Jimmy Carter’s appointment of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Volcker in 1979 until Beryl Sprinkel’s speech this summer, Milton Friedman was the guru of American economic policy (he is still a guru in GreatiBritain). These seven years have not been an unruffled calm. At the start, the prime rate jumped from just under 10 per cent to 15 per cent, and continued upward until it hit 21.5 per cent after the 1980 election. The inflation rate followed (note the emphasis, which we may examine another day), reaching about 13.5 per cent at the end of Volcker’ s first year in office. Then we had the deliberate depression of 1981-83, driving unemployment from a little over 6 million in 1979 to almost 12 million in 1983. Since that time we’ve had something called “recovery,” punctuated by happenings called “growth corrections,” with unemployment still over 8 million, even counting part-time dishwashers as employed.

During these seven years Friedman has steadily complained that his religion was hardly being tried, and that Volcker was a false prophet. For though Volcker’s policy has been to stop worrying about the interest rate and instead to control the money supply, he never has come close to bringing the yearly increase of M-1 or M-2 down to 4 percent. Consequently, Friedman has been in the comfortable position of taking credit for whatever has turned out well, while disowning whatever has gone wrong.

IN FAIRNESS, Friedman’s gospel has been more modest than that of his followers – a not unusual situation in the history of religions. He argues that because government does not handle money as well as profit-seeking individuals, it should do the barest minimum and should be constitutionally required to balance its budget. His argument in favor of a fixed rate of expansion in the money supply is basically that discretionary control by the Federal Reserve Board has been so awful, almost anything would be an improvement.

Nevertheless, the reasoning behind a low fixed rate of expansion is based on MV = PY: If the money supply expands faster than production, the price level must rise. If, however, the price level remains constant, a monetary expansion would necessarily expand production. For a considerable period now the price level has remained constant, or as near as doesn’t matter, while the money supply has been increasing twice or three times as fast as Friedman recommends. If the professor had his theory right, we should be experiencing the biggest boom in history. It seems the boom isn’t happening or about to happen, so Sprinkel has given up on monetarism.

What went wrong? Well, I’ll tell you: The monetarists have their metaphysics wrong. Money is not a commodity, it is a functioning object. You can’t count it; you use it to do your counting. Since you can’t count it, you can’t fit it into an equation. Beryl Sprinkel is gradually waking up to this fact-and, presumably, his boss is too.

Now, that’s dandy; better late than never, and all that. Except the awakening comes after a night that has destroyed forever the livelihood of millions of older men and women, and has condemned millions of younger men and women to a lifetime of hanging around street corners. It has made a few rich people very rich, and many poor people poorer than ever. It has deliberately stagnated the economy, with the result that in five and a half years the actual GNP has run roughly a trillion dollars less than potential GNP. Simultaneously, another trillion dollars has been taken out of the civilian economy by heating up the arms race. Finally, as a third trillion dollars has flowed into the stock markets, the rate of investment in productive enterprise has fallen.

So they goofed. So who’s perfect? The trouble is, none of this grief was necessary. As early as a speech Knut Wicksell made on April 14, 1898, it has been clear that banks don’t create money, business does. The textbooks continue to say banks create money by making loans, but Wicksell showed the initiative comes from businesses that want to borrow, not from banks that want to lend. Writers as various as Hayek and Keynes developed the idea, and businessmen have always known in their hearts that it is true. Only a fool or a knave borrows money simply because a bank wants to lend it[1]. The banking system can stifle an active economy with high interest rates, but it takes more than low rates to breathe life into a dormant economy.

What does it take? Good morale. Keynes talked of “animal spirits”; unfortunately the expression has the flavor of a biologically determined force that could be let loose if you changed your breakfast cereal. The neoclassical “Keynesians” (who try to press Keynes back into the mold of a classical economist) emphasize incentives to investment, like tax credits; regardless of the incentives, though, investment has languished.

Friedman has permitted himself the observation that rather than money, “The real wealth of a society depends much more on the kind of institutional structure it has, on the abilities, initiative, driving force of its people, on investment potentialities, on technology on all of these things.” Yet he would forbid corporations to concern themselves with the moral consequences of their business, to engage in unpaid public service, or to exercise charity. What is left? The naked bottom line. And what is the naked bottom line? Greed.

Morale is related to, but different from, morals. Greedy people are not necessarily immoral, just as self-sacrificing people are not necessarily moral. But the morale of greedy people is bad. Their universe is ungracious, ungenerous, constricted, pessimistic, often cynical.

As it happens, greedy people are in the ascendance in America today, and the fact of the matter is that the economy has gone just about as far as it can go on the greed standard. The economy is stagnant because its rewards are outrageously skewed in favor of those who already have more than they know what to do with[2].

According to the monetarist theory, these people should be putting their extra money into stepping up production, for the ultimate benefit of all. But they are not fools. Twenty-two per cent of the nation’s industrial capacity is already standing unused: What would be the sense of producing more things no one can buy? So the extra money goes into speculation, an activity that incidentally increases the cost of capital and further inhibits enterprise.

It would be pretty to think that, in giving up monetarism, the Administration will reverse itself and try to rationalize the distribution of income, thus incidentally increasing demand. But the probability is otherwise. Our morale has been so corrupted by the ideal of private greed that it will no doubt be decades before we enjoy again the eagerness with which we once faced the world.

The New Leader


[1] Editor’s note – or, based on the sub-prime lending bubble of the late 2000’s, an individual borrower as greedy as the Wall Street market makers intent on collateralizing fraudulent loans

[2] Editor’s italics…  sounds far too familiar in 2012

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