In my previous post, I pointed out that inflation (measured by both the GDP price deflator and the Personal Consumption Price Index) in the fourth quarter has fallen back to a level well below the Fed’s 2% target. Indeed, it is running at nearly the lowest rate since the end of World War II. Later, when reading this post by Noah Smith commenting on this post by John Taylor’s (also see Taylor’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal), it occurred to me that, viewed from the perspective of the current rhetoric about sound money and proposals to eliminate the dual mandate of the Fed and impose on the Fed a single unambiguous mandate of maintaining price stability, it is hard to understand why some people are so harshly critical of Mr. Obama’s record as President. If price stability is really the alpha and omega of monetary policy, then, based on his success in keeping inflation low, shouldn’t Mr. Obama be rated the most economically successful President in living memory?
If, despite President Obama’s stellar record in suppressing inflation – either directly or through his re-appointment of Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman — is not enough to mollify the critics who loudly assert that the only macroeconomic objective of the Federal Reserve Board should be to ensure price stability, doesn’t that suggest that they actually care about more than price stability and that calls for the Fed to stop paying attention to anything but the rate of inflation are perhaps less than 100% sincere? After all, inflation is lower now than it was during the administration of Ronald Reagan, and aside from his reputation as the quintessential Conservative, Reagan is also viewed as the slayer of inflation and the very paragon on a sound money man. So I thought that it might be useful to go back and see what the Reagan administration itself had to say about inflation while it was in office.
So herewith I provide a few excerpts from the Annual Reports of the Council of Economic Advisers published in the Economic Report of the President during the Reagan Presidency.
The tendency toward a slight increase in inflation over the year was also registered by the producer price index. Over the 6 months ending June, the index for total finished goods fell at annual rate of 0.9 percent,but over the second half of the year this index rose at 2.0 percent annual rate. Even so, inflation by this measure was lower than that in the recession phase of the cycle. The GNP implicit price deflator, the broadest measure of inflation, rose by 4.0 percent over the four quarters of the year. (p. 190)
The gradual reduction in inflation assumed by the Administration does not depend on a policy assumption that such a result will be “forced” by deliberate actions to choke off economic growth whenever there is any sign of a rise in inflation. Rather, the decline in inflation is the anticipated outcome of the assumed steady and predictable monetary and fiscal policies. As with real growth, it is expected that inflation may sometimes be higher and sometimes lower than the Administration assumption, but that the trend will be downward as indicated. (p. 199)
Although it is common for inflation to fall somewhat during the early stages of business cycle recoveries, few observers anticipated that the inflation rate would remain so low during a recovery as rapid as that experience in 1983-84. The inflation rate rose slightly in the second half of 1983 and early 1984, but there was no apparent tendency for the rate to rise further. Indeed, over the course of 1984 the inflation rate declined somewhat. However, inflation is still higher than desireable, and it worth noting that the services component of the CPI in 1984 showed some signs of slightly rising inflation. (p. 44)
The inflation outlook for 1985 is good. With moderate expansion in the money aggregates and continuing real growth, the inflation rate, as measured by the GNP deflator, is expected to average 4.3 percent over the four quarters of 1985. (p. 62)
After being lower than expected in 1985, the inflation rate, as measure by the GNP deflator, is expected to rise somewhat in 1986. Rapid monetary growth throughout 1985 as well as the depreciation of the dollar are expected to place upward pressure on prices. The projected rise in near-term inflation, however, is expected to be temporary, provided that a policy of gradual money-growth reduction is pursued. (p. 23)
The unsatisfactory economic performance associated with the rise of inflation and the adjustment problems that arise during disinflation provide a clear lesson: reacceleration of inflation must prevented. The surest way to avoid the costs of both inflation and disinflation is to avoid the policies that lead to an acceleration of inflation. Moreover, the experience of the past 3 years has indicated that substantial economic growth can occur without rekindling inflation. (p. 70)
More than 4 years of economic expansion, with the inflation rate remaining near or below 4 percent and interest rates declining to their lowest levels in 9 years, have laid te foundation for sustainable real growth with moderate inflation. (p. 19)
The inflation rate is 1987 is forecast to return to the 3.5 to 4 percent range of recent years, before the decline in oil prices temporarily depressed the inflation rate in 1986. Specifically the GNP deflator is forecast to rise at a 3.6 percent annual rate during 1987, after a 2.2 percent rate of increase during 1986. (p. 58)
Higher oil prices and higher import prices increased the 1987 inflation rate (as measured by the CPI) above the very low rate recorded in 1986. Higher import prices also are expected to contribute to consumer price inflation in 1988. However, after a year of slow growth of monetary aggregates, and in view of the expected slowing of real economic growth, acceleration of inflation is not seen as a likely danger in 1988. On a fourth-quarter to fourth-quarter basis, the CPI is forecast to rise 4.3 percent in 1988, a small decline from the rise in 1987. The GNP deflator, which is not affected directly by import prices, is forecast to rise 3.9 percent in 1988. (pp. 48-49)
An important legacy of this Administration is the refocusing of economic policy. The Administration deemphasized short-run stabilization policies; worked to provide a stable policy environment with market-based incentives for productive behavior, including low inflation; and attempted to extricate private markets from burdensome regulations. The strength and durability of the current expansion bear testimony to the soundness of these policies. In December 1988, the current economic expansion entered its seventh year, making it the longest peacetime expansion and the third longest on record. Most impressively, the inflation rate has not risen during this expansion, but has remained in the neighborhood of 3 to 4 percent. (pp. 258-59)
So it seems that President Reagan and his economic advisers thought that they were doing well to keep inflation at 4 percent a year. Sure, they would have liked to get the inflation rate down a bit, but they weren’t prepared to risk even a slowdown in the rate of decrease in unemployment to reduce inflation, much less tolerate any increase in the unemployment rate. Promised reductions in the rate of inflation below the steady 3.5-4% rate that prevailed for the most part after the recovery started in 1983 just kept getting deferred further and further into the future. Is that a record that John Taylor would like the next President of the United States to emulate?