Ever since the financial crisis struck, and the Federal Reserve began “printing money” in an attempt to contain the damage, there have been dire warnings about inflation — and not just from the Ron Paul/Glenn Beck types.
Thus, in 2009, the influential conservative monetary economist Allan Meltzer warned that we would soon become “inflation nation.” In 2010, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development urged the Fed to raise interest rates to head off inflation risks (even though its own models showed no such risk). In 2011, Representative Paul Ryan, then the newly installed chairman of the House Budget Committee, raked Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, over the coals, warning of looming inflation and intoning solemnly that it was a terrible thing to “debase” the dollar.
And now, sure enough, the Fed really is worried about inflation. You see, it’s getting too low…at barely above 1 percent by the Fed’s favored measure...
Why is low inflation a problem? One answer is that it discourages borrowing and spending and encourages sitting on cash. Since our biggest economic problem is an overall lack of demand, falling inflation makes that problem worse.
Low inflation also makes it harder to pay down debt, worsening the private-sector debt troubles that are a main reason overall demand is too low.
So why is inflation falling? The answer is the economy’s persistent weakness, which keeps workers from bargaining for higher wages and forces many businesses to cut prices. And if you think about it for a minute, you realize that this is a vicious circle, in which a weak economy leads to too-low inflation, which perpetuates the economy’s weakness.
And this brings us to a broader point: the utter folly of not acting to boost the economy, now.
Whenever anyone talks about the need for more stimulus, monetary and fiscal, to reduce unemployment, the response from people who imagine themselves wise is always that we should focus on the long run, not on short-run fixes. The truth, however, is that by failing to deal with our short-run mess, we’re turning it into a long-run, chronic economic malaise...