The Inflation Path

To most people, inflation seems quite mysterious.  This is not without good reason.  

First of all, it’s an abstract concept.  Inflation is not when the price of some things go up.  Just because the price of gasoline or wheat increases doesn’t mean inflation is happening.  Inflation is when the price of everything, on average, goes up.  This concept isn’t just abstract, it’s almost impossible to measure over the short run.  Inflation isn’t usually obvious until it’s really climbing.

Another reason inflation seems so mysterious is because so many misunderstand when it is or isn’t happening.  Politicians and economists are notorious for saying inflation isn’t happening when it is, and saying inflation is happening when it isn’t.  Anyone paying attention would think inflation is completely inexplicable.

It’s not.  Inflation is simply when the money supply increases faster than production of goods and services.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy to measure, but we do know what it is.

Inflation is also terribly destructive.  As Keynes said, it is a very easy way for governments to confiscate tremendous amounts of wealth without the populous seeming to notice.  That is, until inflation gets very high.  Then it rips an economy and government apart (starting with the poorest, I might add).  

A quick look at history will reveal that few governments collapse because they have bad policies or default on debt, per se.  The thing that will destroy a country more easily than anything (besides war) is inflation.  The record is quite clear.

The path to inflation is also easily understood.  Many writers have described the process accurately, usually after an exhaustive study of history.  Peter Bernholz perhaps describes it best in Monetary Regimes and Inflation: History, Economic and Political Relationships.  

To start, you have a government conservatively financed with low taxes and limited power.  As the government extends its power over time, it gets to the point where it cannot raise taxes enough to further grow its power (people eventually refuse to pay the higher taxes either direct protest, or indirectly by violating the law).  At that point, a government starts to borrow.  The borrowing starts low and gets higher as time progresses.  At a certain point, the borrowing becomes high enough that those lending to the government demand higher interest rates.  That’s when things start to come apart, and that’s when the government starts creating money much faster than economic growth.  And, that’s when inflation goes ballistic and things finally come apart.

This path is not followed precisely each time, but that’s generally the path to high inflation.  

For example, some governments realize they are creating money too quickly and reign things in.  This is possible not solely because the people or government decide to be more rational, but because the size of government debt and spending is not too large relative to the rest of the economy.  It wasn’t hard for the U.S. to get inflation back under control after the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, and the 1970’s (Vietnam War), because our government debt and spending weren’t yet too high relative to the productive capacity of the economy.  But, it’s not necessarily the case that cooler heads can prevail if the debt is too great.

The best defense against inflation is a precious metal standard, usually gold or silver (and gold has been far superior to silver, historically).  

The next best thing is a paper money standard with an independent central bank (independent of political authorities–particularly elected officials).  Unfortunately, this “next best thing” has always and everywhere been an intermediate step on the way to high inflation, usually by way of making the central bank beholden to elected officials.

I mention this because Barney Frank, a Congressman more responsible for the housing crisis than Wall Street and all the banks in the U.S. put together, is currently suggesting we make our central bank, the Federal Reserve, beholden to elected officials.  Like F.D. Roosevelt tried to stack the Supreme Court to force his policies through, Barney Frank wants to make the Federal Reserve more directly swayed by the Congress.

Now, I’d like to step back to put my above comment into context.  The U.S. government has gone from being conservatively financed (we’ve had an income tax for less than half our history), to grabbing more and more power (economically, militarily, socially, etc.).  That power has been expensive, so much so that we had to start issuing larger and larger amounts of debt to finance that growth in power.  As that occurred, the U.S. went off its domestic gold standard in 1933 and off the international gold standard in 1971.  Since then, we’ve had higher and lower inflation (to the degree our independent central bank kept things in check–almost always against the will of politicians!).  With the growth of our welfare state, particularly in the form of Social Security and Medicare, our government has racked up tremendous financial obligations, far out-weighing our military spending or any other spending (including those dreadful bank bailouts).  

Governments get into trouble when debt grows to exceed 90% of the economy.  That’s when the economy slows because of the debt millstone around its neck.  We’re either there, now, or very close.  We also know that governments get into trouble when the deficit of spending versus tax revenues grows to over 20% of spending.  We’re around 30% now.

So, as our government has grown in power, it has gotten into so much debt that it is close to preventing the economy from growing its way out of the problem.  And, it has abandoned the best thing to prevent high inflation–a precious metal standard.  Added to this, there are elected officials who would like to remove our last line of defense–the independence of our central bank.  

Not good.

High inflation doesn’t have to happen here, but we are getting farther and farther out on a limb that can lead us to tumble off into serious trouble.  We can decide to turn around and scramble back toward the tree.  That would require us to keep our central bank independent at a minimum, and then get back on a precious metal standard.  It will also require us to reign in our government’s size relative to our economy (that means spending cuts and the restructuring of our tax system).

The inflation path is clear, and we keep taking steps down it.  Perhaps it’s time to turn around.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

The Inflation Path