The Great Myth of the Inflation Cure

Parents probably dream of sending their kid to the University of Chicago. Next to the Ivy League or Stanford, the Chicago school is near the top of the heap. Only 27 percent of applicants are admitted. To be among the roughly 15,000 means prestige and an education to build a lifetime on. The cost for tuition and fees: $39,381. Room and board is another $12,000 or so. Add books and other stuff, and the total Chicago-school experience costs $54,290 a year.

Students learn from the likes of University of Chicago economics professor Casey B. Mulligan, who believes what the economy needs right now is a little inflation in all the right places to make things better. Professor Mulligan writes for the “Economix” section of the New York Times, which goes about the task of “Explaining the Science of Everyday Life.”

Mulligan writes that normally inflation is harmful, but “these days inflation may do less harm than good.” He points out that the prices of most goods march upward over time and that this “general increase in consumer prices is called inflation.” Of course that’s not true. The increase in prices is the result of inflation, which is the increasing of the supply of money: thus the term “inflating” the money supply.

The Chicago economist then writes that the Federal Reserve is charged with limiting inflation, “which it can do over the long run by limiting the supply of money and similar assets in the hands of the public.”

In the long run, the Federal Reserve has decimated a dollar’s value down to 2 cents in the just short of a century it has been around. In August of 1971, M2 money supply was $685 billion, in March 2011, M2 was $8.9 trillion.

Mulligan writes that people complain about rising prices, but forget that their wages are going up at the same time, so consumer purchasing power is unharmed. Inflation-adjusted wages have been flat to negative. It has taken two incomes to pay for a household for decades now. Perhaps Mulligan should get out more.

Seniors should quit bitching, according to Mulligan because, “Social Security benefits automatically increase with wages in the economy, and thereby automatically increase with inflation in the long run.” However, according to Social Security Online,” Under existing law, there can be no COLA [cost-of-living adjustment] in 2011.” Why?

“As determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is no increase in the CPI-W [Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers] from the third quarter of 2008, the last year a COLA was determined, to the third quarter of 2010.”

So the government says there is no price inflation and so no COLA for you, retirees. Retirees know better and so does John Williams at Shadowstats, who says prices are increasing at a 10 percent rate.

Government spending leads to government borrowing, which leads to inflation when central banks create money out of nowhere to fund that debt. However, the Chicago economist claims his work shows that inflation is not associated with increased government spending.

Rightly, Mulligan points out that taxes crimp saving and investment. But for his big finish, Mulligan claims that since so many people are underwater on their mortgages and because this is hampering economic growth, “an inflation that harmed banks and helped homeowners might be an overall improvement.”

One gets the impression that in Mulligan’s ivory-tower world, Ben Bernanke creates money like Picasso painted a picture. After careful contemplation, staring at the canvass (economy), Ben dabs his brush into his palette, and then, calmly and carefully, applies the proper color and amount of paint (money), a gentle stroke, in just the right spot.

F.A. Hayek, who joined the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago in 1950, believed that money printing could not be used to assure total employment or to pump up the prices of desired assets whether they be houses or something else. It was impossible for central bankers to know where the money would go or what the exact effects would be.

Hayek said,

“In the study of such complex phenomena as the market, which depend on the actions of many individuals, all the circumstances which will determine the outcome of a process … will hardly ever be fully known or measurable.”

So while Mulligan sees Bernanke with a fine-tipped artist’s brush, the Fed is actually using a spray gun with an unknowable fan size. The money goes some places and not others.

There are bubbles in art prices, while tract-home prices sink. Catfish prices are jumping, but television prices are sinking.

Peter Klein wrote that while at Chicago Hayek found himself among a dazzling group, with an economics department led by Frank Knight, Milton Friedman, and later George Stigler.

Back in 1950, having Hayek and Knight teach your kid economics would have been worth the price. But $50,000 for Professor Mulligan’s theories? Try the Mises Academy instead.

Doug French
Whiskey & Gunpowder

May 9, 2011

Douglas French is president of the Mises Institute and author of Early Speculative Bubbles & Increases in the Money Supply and Walk Away: The Rise and Fall of the Home-Ownership Myth. He received his master’s degree in economics from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, under Murray Rothbard with Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe serving on his thesis committee. French teaches in the Mises Academy.