Politics Visits the Dismal Science

A lot of people, myself included, avoid serious dealing with economics. You hear their gurus make pronouncements clouded with jargon, impenetrable concepts, and fixed ideas. They frequently disagree and like to argue. Many disdain the world of politics, though that is a living part of economics.

Now Larry Summers, the king of controversy, has joined with Ezra Klein on his show in a long but surprisingly enlightening discussion about the present inflation, how it developed, and what to do about it. This may be intimidating to some of you, yet very illuminating if you choose to get into it.

The problem both of them confront is the heavy downside of the strong U.S. economy. Both seem to agree that Biden’s American Rescue Plan was needed and welcome. But “it ran the economy hot.” Notwithstanding obvious benefits to the labor market, Summers believes, our virulent inflation resulted. Planners seemingly ignored the long-term consequences of runaway demand.

And the doctor who prescribes you painkillers that make you feel good to which you become addicted is generous and compassionate, but ultimately is very damaging to you. And while the example is a bit melodramatic, the pursuit of excessively expansionary policies that ultimately lead to inflation, which reduces people’s purchasing power, and the need for sharply contractionary policies, which hurt the biggest victims, the most disadvantaged in the society, that’s not doing the people we care most about any favor. It’s, in fact, hurting them.

For Summers this echoes and replays what happened in 1982, when Paul Volcker came in and instituted draconian reforms that finally tamed record inflation, though at the cost of a recession. There was outrage among many of the lefties, but the medicine worked. Now, once again, demand is out of whack, meaning too much money chasing too few goods. Ezra Klein seemingly accepts this but asserts that supply disruptions have played a role too: Ukraine and China and Covid have had their effects.

I think they both agree that the Fed must act soon and strongly. There is really no other instrument to control what seems likely—a long-term inflation of some 6% a year. The politics of all this become pretty obvious. Politico tells us:

Democrats worry about growth-killing [Fed] rate hikes in the middle of a midterm election year. But inflation is even worse for them politically. Recent polls show that price spikes are by far the top concern among voters. An NPR/Ipsos survey showed that 40 percent of Americans are worried about higher prices and 94 percent are aware of rising costs for food, energy, housing and other items.

One aspect of all this struck me. Left-leaning Democrats typically look for immediate relief to help the beleaguered victims (and counter the upcoming threat of the midterms). Bernie Sanders and others have proposed windfall excess profits taxes on Big Oil. Others want to rescind the federal gas tax.

More conservative Democrats like Larry Summers look for longer-term, painful fixes. I’m reminded of the blowback President Biden received for speaking his mind about Putin. He took a lot of undeserved flak for that, much of it from his own administration, which “overreacted and undercut him.” The State Department and the Kremlin both signaled unhappy long-term consequences from his remark.

Not everyone is on the same page regarding Putin, and unfortunately not everyone is on the same page regarding inflation. Summers and Klein did try to bridge that gap in a good, reasoned exchange.