J. W. Mason – Who Is Winning the Inflation Debate?

There has been much debate about the cause of inflation. The ruling class says it is greedy workers, a number of progressive economists say it is greedy corporations. The latter appear to be right.

J. W. Mason is Associate Professor of Economics at John Jay College, City University of New York and a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute

Cross-posted from Josh’s blog The Slackwire

This article originally appearded in Barron’s

Is inflation fundamentally a macroeconomic problem – a sign of an overheated economy, an excess of aggregate demand over supply? Or is it – at least sometimes – better understood in microeconomic terms, as the result of producers in various markets setting higher prices for their own reasons? 

Not long ago, almost all economists would have picked door No. 1. But in the postpandemic world the choice isn’t so clear.

The answer matters for policy. If the problem is too much spending, then the solution is to bring spending down — and it doesn’t matter which spending. This is what interest rate hikes are intended to do. And since wages are both the largest source of demand and the biggest single component of costs, bringing down spending entails higher unemployment and slower wage growth. Larry Summers – perhaps the most prominent spokesman for macroeconomic orthodoxy – predicted that it would take five years of above-5% unemployment to get inflation under control. He was widely criticized for it. But he was just giving the textbook view.

If inflation is driven by dynamics in particular markets, on the other hand, then an across-the-board reduction in demand isn’t necessary, and may not even be helpful. Better to address the specific factors driving price increases in those markets – ideally through relieving supply constraints, otherwise through targeted subsidies or administrative limits on price increases. The last option, though much maligned as “price controls,” can make sense in cases where supply or demand are particularly inelastic. If producers simply cannot increase output (think, automakers facing a critical chip shortage) then prices have little value as a signal, so there’s not much cost to controlling them.

The debate between these perspectives has been simmering for some time. But it’s reached a boil around Isabella Weber, a leading exponent of the microeconomic perspective. Her recent work explores the disproportionate importance of a few strategic sectors for inflation. Weber has probably done more than any other economist to bring price controls into the inflation-policy conversation.

A recent profile of Weber in the New Yorker describes how she has become a lightning rod for arguments about unconventional inflation policy, with some of her critics going well beyond the norms of scholarly debate.  

This backlash probably owes something to the fact that Weber is, biographically, a sort of anti-Summers. While he is a former Treasury secretary and Harvard president who comes from academic royalty (two of his uncles won economics Nobels), she is young, female, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a department best-known for harboring heterodox, even radical, thinkers. (Full disclosure: I got my own economics doctorate there, though well before Weber was hired.) Some prominent economists embarrassed themselves in their rather obvious professional jealousy, as the New Yorker recounts.

But even more than jealousy, what may explain the ferocity of the response is the not unjustified sense that the heterodox side is winning.

Yes, central banks around the world are hiking interest rates – the textbook response to rising prices. But the debate about inflation policy is much broader than it used to be, in both the U.S. and Europe.

Weber herself served on the committee in Germany that devised the country’s “price brake” for natural gas, which is intended to shield consumers and the broader economy from rising energy prices while preserving incentives to reduce consumption. In the wake of the New Yorker piece, there was a furious but inconclusive debate about whether a “brake” is the same as a “control.” But this misses the point. The key thing is that policy is targeted at prices in a particular market rather than at demand in general.

Such targeted anti-inflation measures have been adopted throughout Europe. In France, after President Emmanuel Macron pledged to do “whatever it takes” to bring down inflation, the country effectively froze the energy prices facing households and businesses through a mix of direct controls and subsidies. Admittedly, such an approach is easier in France because a very large share of the energy sector is publicly owned. In effect, the French measures shifted the burden of higher energy costs from households and businesses to the government. The critical point, though, is that measures like this don’t make sense as inflation control unless you see rising prices as coming specifically from a specific sector (energy in this case), as opposed to an economy-wide excess of demand over supply. 

Even economists at the International Monetary Fund – historically the world’s biggest cheerleader for high rates and austerity in response to inflation – acknowledge that these unconventional policies appear to have significantly reduced inflation in Europe. This is so even though they have boosted fiscal deficits and GDP, which by orthodox logic should have had the opposite effect.

The poster child for the “whatever it takes” approach to inflation is probably Spain, which over the past two years has adopted a whole raft of unconventional measures to limit price increases. Since June 2022, there has been a hard cap on prices in the  wholesale electricity market; this “Iberian exception” effectively decouples electricity prices in Spain from the international gas market. Spain has also adopted limits on energy price increases to retail customers, increased electricity subsidies for low-income households, reduced the value-added tax for energy, and instituted a windfall profits tax on energy producers. While the focus has been on energy prices (not surprisingly, given the central role of energy in European inflation) they have also sought to protect households from broader price increases with measures like rent control and reduced transit fares. Free rail tickets aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of anti-inflation policy, but it makes sense if the goal is to shift demand away from scarce fossil fuels.

This everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to inflation is a vivid illustration of why it’s so unhelpful to frame the debate in terms of conventional policy versus price controls. While some of the Spanish measures clearly fit that description, many others do not. A more accurate, if clunkier, term might be “targeted price policy,” covering all kinds of measures that seek to influence prices in particular markets rather than the economy-wide balance of supply and demand.

More important than what we call it is the fact that it seems to be working. Through most of the postpandemic recovery, inflation in Spain was running somewhat above the euro-area average. But since summer 2022 – when the most stringent energy-price measures went into effect – it has been significantly below it. Last month, Spain saw inflation fall below 2%, the first major European country to do so.

Here in the U.S., direct limits on price rises are less common. But it’s not hard to find examples of targeted price policy. The more active use of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, for example, is a step toward managing energy prices more directly, rather than via economy-wide spending. The Russian sanctions regime — though adopted, obviously, for other reasons — also has a significant element of price regulation. 

The Inflation Reduction Act is often lampooned as having nothing to do with its name, but that’s not quite right. Instead, it reflects a very different vision of inflation control than what you’d get from the textbooks. Rather than seeking to reduce aggregate demand through fiscal contraction, it envisions massive new public outlays to address problems on the supply side. It’s a sign of the times that a closely divided Congress could pass a vast expansion in federal spending as an anti-inflation measure. 

Meanwhile, there’s growing skepticism about how much rate hikes have actually achieved. Inflation has declined steeply without Summers’ prescribed three years of over-5% unemployment, or indeed any noticeable rise in unemployment at all. By connventional measures, demand is no weaker than it was a year ago. If it’s interest rates that brought down inflation, how exactly did they do so?

To be sure, hardly anyone in either camp correctly predicted the 2021 surge in inflation, or its equally dramatic decline over the past year. So it’s too soon to declare victory yet. But for the moment, it’s Team Weber and not Team Summers that seems to be gaining ground.

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