Paul Krugman and Steve Waldman having been puzzling of late about why inflation is so viscerally opposed by the dreaded one percent (even more so by the ultra-dreaded 0.01 percent). Here’s how Krugman phrased the conundrum.
One thought I’ve had and written about is that the one percent (or actually the 0.01 percent) like hard money because they’re rentiers. But you can argue that this is foolish — that they have much more to gain from asset appreciation than they have to lose from the small chance of runaway inflation. . . .
But maybe the 1% doesn’t make the connection?
Steve Waldman, however, doesn’t take the one percent — and certainly not the 0.01 percent — for the misguided dunces that Krugman suggests they are. Waldman sees them as the cunning, calculating villains that we all (notwithstanding his politically correct disclaimer that the rich aren’t bad people) know they really are.
Soft money types — I’ve heard the sentiment from Scott Sumner, Brad DeLong, Kevin Drum, and now Paul Krugman — really want to see the bias towards hard money and fiscal austerity as some kind of mistake. I wish that were true. It just isn’t. Aggregate wealth is held by risk averse individuals who don’t individually experience aggregate outcomes. Prospective outcomes have to be extremely good and nearly certain to offset the insecurity soft money policy induces among individuals at the top of the distribution, people who have much more to lose than they are likely to gain.
That’s all very interesting. Are the rich opposed to inflation because they are stupid, or because they are clever? Krugman thinks it’s the former, Waldman the latter. And I agree; it is a puzzle.
But what about the poor and the middle class? Has anyone seen any demonstrations lately by the 99 percent demanding that the Fed increase its inflation target? Did even one Democrat in the Senate – not even that self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders — threaten to vote against confirmation of Janet Yellen unless she promised to raise the Fed’s inflation target? Well, maybe that just shows that the Democrats are as beholden to the one percent as the Republicans, but I suspect that the real reason is because the 99 percent hate inflation just as much as the one percent do. I mean, don’t the 99 percent realize that inflation would increase total output and employment, thereby benefitting ordinary workers generally?
Oh, you say, workers must be afraid that inflation would reduce their real wages. That’s a widely believed factoid about inflation — that inflation is biased against workers, because wages adjust more slowly than other prices to changes in demand. Well, that factoid is not necessarily true, either in theory or in practice. That doesn’t mean that inflation might not be associated with reduced real wages, but if it is, it would mean that inflation is facilitating a market adjustment in real wages that would tend to increase total output and total employment, thereby increasing aggregate wages paid to workers. That is just the sort of tradeoff between a prospective upside from growth-inducing inflation and a perceived downside from inflation redistribution. In other words, the attitudes of the one percent and of the 99 percent toward inflation don’t seem all that different.
And aside from the potential direct output-expanding effect of inflation, there is also the redistributional effect from creditors to debtors. A lot of underwater homeowners could have sold their homes if a 10- or 20-percent increase in the overall price level had kept nominal home prices from falling below nominal mortgage indebtedness. Inflation would have been the simplest and easiest way to avoid a foreclosure crisis and getting stuck in a balance-sheet recession. Why weren’t underwater homeowners out their clamoring for some inflationary relief?
I have not done a historical study, but I cannot think of any successful political movement or campaign that has ever been carried out on a platform of increasing inflation. Even FDR, who saved the country from ruin by taking the US off the gold standard in 1933, did not say that he would do so when running for office.
Nor has anyone ever stated the case against inflation more eloquently than John Maynard Keynes, hardly a spokesman for the interests of rentiers.
Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security but [also] at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth.
Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become “profiteers,” who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery.
Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose. (Economic Consequences of the Peace)
One might say that when Keynes wrote this he was still very much of an orthodox Marshallian economist, who only later outgrew his orthodox prejudices when he finally saw the light and wrote the General Theory. But Keynes was actually quite explicit in the General Theory that he favored a monetary policy aiming at price-level stabilization. If Keynes favored inflation it was only in the context of counteracting a massive deflation. Similarly, Ralph Hawtrey, who famously likened opposition to monetary stimulus, out of fear of inflation, during the Great Depression to crying “fire, fire” during Noah’s Flood, favored a monetary regime aiming at stable money wages, a regime that over the long term would generate a gradually falling output price level. So I fail to see why anyone should be surprised that a pro-inflationary policy would be a tough sell even when unemployment is high.
But, in thinking about all this, I believe it may help to distinguish between two types of post-traumatic-inflation stress disorder. One is a kind of instinctual aversion to inflation, which I think is widely shared by people from all kinds of backgrounds, beliefs, and economic status. After arguing and pleading for higher inflation for over three years on this blog, I am a little bit embarrassed to make this admission, but I suffer from this type of post-traumatic-inflation stress disorder myself. I know that it’s weird, but every month when the CPI is announced, and the monthly change is less than 2%, I just get a warm fuzzy feeling inside of me. I know (or at least believe) that people will suffer because inflation is not higher than a measly 2%, but I can’t help getting that feeling of comfort and well-being when I hear that inflation is low. That just seems to be the natural order of things. And I don’t think that I am the only one who feels that way, though I probably suffer more guilt than most for not being able to suppress the feeling.
But there is another kind of post-traumatic-inflation stress disorder. This is a purely intellectual disorder brought on by excessive exposure to extreme libertarian dogmas associated with pop-Austrianism and reading too many (i.e., more than zero) novels by Ayn Rand. Unfortunately, one of the two major political parties seems to have been captured this group of ideologues, and anti-inflationary dogma has become an article of faith rather than a mere disposition. It is one thing to have a disposition or a bias in favor of low inflation; it is altogether different to make anti-inflationism a moral or ideological crusade. I think most people, whether they are in the one percent or the 99 percent are biased in favor of low inflation, but most of them don’t oppose inflation as a moral or ideological imperative. Now it’s true that that the attachment of a great many people to the gold standard before World War I was akin to a moral precept, but at least since the collapse of the gold standard in the Great Depression, most people no longer think about inflation in moral and ideological terms.
Before anti-inflationism became a moral crusade, it was possible for people like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who were disposed to favor low inflation, to accommodate themselves fairly easily to an annual rate of inflation of 4 percent. Indeed, it was largely because of pressure from Democrats to fight inflation by wage and price controls that Nixon did the unthinkable and imposed wage and price controls on August 15, 1971. Reagan, who had no interest in repeating that colossal blunder, instead fought against Paul Volcker’s desire to bring inflation down below 4 percent for most of his two terms. Of course, one doesn’t know to what extent the current moral and ideological crusade against inflation would survive an accession to power by a Republican administration. It is always easier to proclaim one’s ideological principles when one doesn’t have any responsibility to implement them. But given the current ideological commitment to anti-inflationism, there was never any chance for a pragmatic accommodation that might have used increased inflation as a means of alleviating economic distress.