In “Recession Risk Is Rising, Economists Say,” Gwynn Guilford and Anthony DeBarros of The Wall Street Journal described on April 10 the likely effect of “a heavy-handed response” to inflation from the Federal Reserve.” The subtitle warns: “Forecasters raise probability of economic contraction in next 12 months to 28% as Fed tightens to beat back inflation.”
Let’s look at how the article describes why we have inflation in the first place. It’s representative of much in the media.
It opens: “Economists see a growing risk of recession as the relentlessly strong U.S. economy whips up inflation, likely bringing a heavy-handed response from the Federal Reserve.” Later, it states that Amy Crews Cutts “expects higher, more persistent inflation than her peers, largely because its main drivers are commodity prices, exacerbated by war in Ukraine.”
So inflation in, among other things, commodity prices is caused by increases in commodity prices. And it’s worsened by Putin.
The article refers again to the survey: “Twenty-seven percent of respondents pointed to wage growth or a tight labor market as the biggest inflationary threat.” Those greedy workers—what a terrible time for them to decide they’d like to make more money. They must be working for Putin. Time for a “heavy-handed response.”
Only when you get to a quotation from Robert Fry does the article hint that the problem is government policies: “The problem is really excess demand, resulting from last year’s fiscal and monetary policies.” But that’s way into the article, and tucked away from plain sight.
According to the main line of the article’s thinking, which is consistent with so much of what we read nowadays, it will be the Fed’s sad duty to take action to cure this vexatious inflation and therefore perhaps to cause a recession—hopefully, however, just a Goldilocks of a recession, if government continues its skillful intrusions into the private economy.
A similar statement from The Wall Street Journal of March 10 is expressed in this headline and subtitle: “What Is Inflation and What Causes It? What to Know: Pandemic-related forces and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have pushed up inflation to highest level in four decades.” Up from what? Not zero.
It couldn’t be the fault of the Fed in the first place, right? Back to the April 10 article as it paraphrases Cutts: “But though monetary policy has little impact on those prices, she said, the distressing level of overall inflation presses the Fed to act.” Time for an urgent futile gesture by the Fed—because the Fed isn’t the cause?
This seems to defy well-known facts about decades of monetary expansion—and also to defy common sense: If X must reduce Y to cure Z, why isn’t it a fair guess that X’s excessive Y caused Z, or at least contributed a lot to the cause? If the dentist, drill in hand, says you need to stop eating so much candy, shouldn’t you conclude that candy caused the cavities that you’re about to pay the price for? Or would you blame Putin? Similarly, if the cure for inflation is less funny money from the government, might a big cause of the inflation be too much funny money from the government?
Yes, correlation isn’t necessarily causation. But, in an effort to excuse or at least ignore the government’s malpractice, the government and much of the media invite us to believe that correlation isn’t necessarily correlation.
And why this contrast between inflation as a sort of condition and the necessary “heavy-handed response” that may lead to recession? Inflation destroys wealth, wages and lives. It steals money from the people and gives it to the debasing government. It’s called a “silent tax” by those who don’t listen to the outrage of the shopper at the supermarket or to the sorrow of the impoverished pensioner. It has destroyed countries and can do so again. Only the hand of the executioner is heavier in government, although inflation can even kill by reducing our standard of living. Aren’t inflationary policies at least as deserving to be called “heavy-handed” as whatever the Fed must do to reduce inflation? This is not to ignore the human suffering of recession but to urge a broader view of how the government immiserates us—grossly oversized government that finances itself by force with the credit of present and future taxpayers.
Back to causes: Yes, some higher prices are caused by non-governmental events: If the only widget factory in town is destroyed by arson, prices of used and imported widgets will go up until the town’s widget-making capacity is restored. But our current problem isn’t temporary (sorry, “transitory”) widget price increases in Smallsville, USA; it’s nationwide rising prices of almost everything. For a grim tabulation, see IWF’s inflation tracker. Only an arsonist with the size and impunity of the federal government has the power to destroy everything.
(We’re skipping lots of details here, including the quantity of money v. the velocity of money. The details wouldn’t change the basic analysis of how inflation is “explained.” And we haven’t discussed non-Fed actions of the central government that have contributed to the situation, such as our inflationary energy policy. It’s all one big federal government. Let our elite leaders allocate the blame among themselves. And let them allocate it across time, because the problem didn’t start with Biden’s inauguration, although it’s obviously worse since then.)
Etymology isn’t necessarily explanation, but “inflation” didn’t used to mean rising prices. The metaphor is the tell here, because elevation (the balloon flies higher) isn’t inflation (the balloon gets bigger). “Inflation” used to mean excessive expansion of the money supply. As a 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal put it, “From the 19th century up to the Eleventh New Collegiate Dictionary—issued in 2003—Webster’s defined inflation as what happens when a country prints too much money….” The article cites some support of the new definition and some of the old one, but the old one made more sense and was more honest: Calling rising prices “inflation,” as we now do, conflates (sorry) cause and effect and reduces the needed focus on government’s malpractice when it inflates the money supply.
It’s as if you got home from the dentist and were asked by your family how the visit went. “There might be a big bill for some work, although I have no idea why it was done. Maybe the dentist just wanted more money, like those greedy, inflationary workers we’re reading about. Just don’t ask me about cavities or candy!” Or it’s as if we redefined “tummy ache” to include “poisoning by arsenic.” If you think such matters of language don’t matter, please take that up with Orwell’s shade.
The truth should be told plainly—as plainly as by a Germanic intellectual whose first language wasn’t English: In the first part of a 1978 interview, available here, Friedrich von Hayek, the great Austrian School economist and political philosopher, spoke about inflation (and much else—enjoy the whole thing and the second part too). At about 40:13, the author of The Road to Serfdom says: “I hope that on Monday there will be a letter from me in The Wall Street Journal, which just suggests that I hope they would put in every issue, in headline letters, the simple truth: Inflation Is Made by Government and Its Agents; Nobody Else Can Do Anything About It.” Headline emphasis added, as Hayek requested. (Needless to say, his statement about “nobody else” wasn’t a call for more governmental interference in the market but for a reversal of governmental interference.)
I hope Hayek’s letter was published, though I couldn’t find it online. Even if it was published, I doubt Hayek ever got his requested headline—until now.
Privata is a pseudonym for a contributor, academic in nature, who prefers to work in the shadows.