Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Hooray for inflation

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 13, 2013 20:25 UTC

There have been some extraordinary headlines in recent days. Here’s the Economist: “The perils of falling inflation.” Here’s the Financial Times: “The eurozone needs to get inflation up again.”

For those with memories of hyper-inflation and “stagflation” in the 1970s, these cogent pleas for higher prices is heresy, an irresponsible clamor for the return of an ever-changing fiscal landscape that led to widespread misery and economic turmoil.

A little history. By the mid-’70s the Western world was engulfed in an inflation typhoon — with prices rising rapidly and out of control. As companies increased prices to keep up with the higher costs of basic raw materials — such as oil, deliberately hiked way beyond the norm by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries — trade unions demanded higher wages to protect their members’ standard of living. This led to higher costs, and higher prices, and so on.

The world became entangled in an apparently unstoppable upward spiral, like a crazy dog chasing its tail. Governments were blamed for it and broken by it, and new bold champions promising to slaughter the inflation dragon were elected in their place.

President Ronald Reagan here and Margaret Thatcher in Britain largely owed their precipitous rise to voters’ weariness with the curse of inflation. And they both turned to economist Milton Friedman as a savior.

Not in the spirit of Hayek

Nicholas Wapshott
May 14, 2013 18:50 UTC

It has been a bad couple of weeks for conservative social scientists. First a doctoral student ran the numbers on the study by Harvard’s Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that underpins austerity and deep public spending cuts as a cure for the Great Recession and found it full of errors. Then a policy analyst, Jason Richwine, who angered Senate Republicans trying to pass immigration reform with a one-sided estimate of the cost of making undocumented workers citizens, was obliged to clear his desk at the Heritage Foundation when it became known his Harvard dissertation suggested Hispanics had lower intelligence than “the white native population.”

It makes you wonder what Friedrich Hayek would have to say about such aberrant research. Hayek has become the patron saint of conservative intellectuals – and with good reason. He went head to head with John Maynard Keynes in 1931 in an effort to stop Keynesianism in its tracks. Hayek failed, but his attempt gave him mythical status among thinkers who deplore big government and central management of the economy.

Hayek became a conservative hero a second time with publication of his Road to Serfdom  (1944) that suggested the larger the state sector, the more there was a tendency to tyranny. Many of today’s Hayekians harden up Hayek’s carefully expressed thoughts to declare that all government is potentially despotic, while also ignoring his arguments in favor of governments providing a generous safety net for the less advantaged, including a home for every citizen and universal health care – perhaps because Americans were first introduced to Serfdom in a much truncated Reader’s Digest edition. They would do well to re-read the original.

Central bankers have abandoned Milton Friedman

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 17, 2012 18:38 UTC

It is a cruel irony of fate that 2012, the year that celebrates the centennial of Milton Friedman’s birth, is the year that marks the end of his preeminence as an influence over economic policy. Since the emergence in the early 1970s of stagflation – a corrosive combination of lack of growth matched by inflation in double figures – Friedman’s dictums on the causes and cures of rising prices have been the mood music behind management of many leading economies. Since the Great Recession took hold, however, the priorities of government economists have evolved, and once more growth and employment are emerging as the prime goals of public policy.

In the 33 years since Paul Volcker was made Federal Reserve chairman by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Friedman’s idea that inflation is the economy’s greatest danger has ruled the roost. So long as inflation is kept at around 2 percent, unemployment has been allowed to find its own level. But times have changed. At the first meeting of the Federal Reserve since Barack Obama’s re-election, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has made the creation of jobs a principal aim alongside keeping inflation in check.

In practice, this means interest rates will not be raised so long as unemployment remains above 6.5 percent and inflation is forecast to remain below 2.5 percent. With this tap on the tiller, Bernanke has quietly dispatched the Age of Friedman, replacing it with a policy that harks back to the Keynesian days when “full employment” was the sole target. (Technical note: In economics, “full employment” does not mean when everyone is employed; to allow for the churn as workers move among employers and other adjustments to the labor force, “full employment” is usually deemed to be when 94 percent to 97 percent of those seeking jobs are employed.)

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