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PRICES have been increasing at the fastest rate in decades, but we haven’t been having a debate about inflation.
We’ve been having five. We might do a better job of thinking through the issues if we distinguish among them.
The first debate concerns the magnitude of the current inflation: how long it will last and how high it will get.
It started last spring, when some economists sounded the alarm that we were likely to see the highest inflation in a generation.
Others argued first that inflation would remain subdued and then that it would prove “transitory.”
It has now stayed high for long enough that Federal Reserve (Fed) chairman Jerome Powell has retired the term.
How harmful this inflation is has touched off a second debate.
Optimists have claimed that it will help many, maybe even most, Americans because it allows borrowers to repay their loans with devalued dollars.
The pessimists, who have the public on their side, have emphasised that the real value of wages has fallen over the last year.
Debate No.3 takes up what is behind the inflation.
Some politicians and activists point to corporate greed and increasing business concentration. But these explanations don’t explain: Business concentration didn’t fall for four decades starting in the 1980s and then suddenly rise last year, and it’s hard to believe greed followed this pattern either.
The more serious dispute concerns the extent to which disruptions stemming from Covid-19 have caused higher prices, and to what extent the overstimulation of the economy has.
In other words, how much of the problem is “supply” and how much “demand”?
This debate leads quickly to the fourth one: What should we do to combat inflation?
Among the proffered solutions: slowing down the Fed’s asset-buying, raising interest rates, cutting regulations to address shortages, restraining federal spending and – this one is the favourite for the corporate-greed theorists – imposing price controls.
And from there we move to the fifth one: How much of this is President Joe Biden’s fault? No prize for guessing the line of division on that one.
All of these debates are obviously related. Gauging how much harm inflation has done depends, for example, on what’s causing it: A supply-generated inflation should not be expected to help borrowers and or to be easily countered by the Fed. But mixing up these issues can lead to mistakes.
Biden supporters have sometimes pointed to supply-chain disruptions as a way to deny inflation is his fault.
His opponents often prefer to put the focus on loose fiscal policy, which makes his culpability clear. But this way of looking at the issues is just a groove we’ve fallen into.
The current inflation can be largely a supply issue and, at the same time, one Biden ought to be doing more to address.