The Inflation Red Herring

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      Rather than panicking about inflation, we should be worrying about what will happen to aggregate demand when the funds provided by fiscal relief packages dry up. Many of those at the bottom of the income and wealth distribution have accumulated large debts – including, in some cases, more than a year’s worth of rent arrears, owing to temporary protections against eviction.

      Reduced spending by indebted households is unlikely to be offset by those at the top, most of whom have accumulated savings during the pandemic. Given that spending on consumer durables remained robust during the past 16 months, it seems likely that the well-off will treat their additional savings as they would any other windfall: as something to be invested or spent slowly over the course of many years. Unless there is new public spending, the economy could once again suffer from insufficient aggregate demand.

      Moreover, even if inflationary pressures were to become truly worrisome, we have tools to dampen demand (and using them would actually strengthen the economy’s long-term prospects). For starters, there is the US Federal Reserve’s interest-rate policy. The past decade-plus of near-zero interest rates has not been economically healthy. The scarcity value of capital is not zero. Low interest rates distort capital markets by triggering a search for yield that leads to excessively low risk premia. Returning to more normal interest rates would be a good thing (though the rich, who have been the primary beneficiaries of this era of super-low interest rates, may beg to differ).

      To be sure, some commentators look at the Fed’s balance-of-risk assessment and worry that it will not act when it needs to. But I think the Fed’s pronouncements have been spot on, and I trust that its position will change if and when the evidence does. The instinct to fight inflation is embedded in central bankers’ DNA. If they don’t see inflation as the key problem currently facing the economy, neither should you.

      Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction

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