Understanding The Roots And Causes Of Inflation

These other people form a second group. And this second group considers inflation to be very good for business. Why not? Isn’t it wonderful to sell more? For example, the owner of a restaurant in the neighborhood of a munitions factory says: “It is really marvelous! The munitions workers have more money; there are many more of them now than before; they are all patronizing my restaurant; I am very happy about it.” He does not see any reason to feel otherwise.

The situation is this: those people to whom the money comes first now have a higher income, and they can still buy many commodities and services at prices which correspond to the previous state of the market, to the condition that existed on the eve of inflation. Therefore, they are in a very favorable position. And thus inflation continues step by step, from one group of the population to another. And all those to whom the additional money comes at the early state of inflation are benefited because they are buying some things at prices still corresponding to the previous stage of the exchange ratio between money and commodities.

But there are other groups in the population to whom this additional money comes much, much later. These people are in an unfavorable position. Before the additional money comes to them they are forced to pay higher prices than they paid before for some—or for practically all—of the commodities they wanted to purchase, while their income has remained the same, or has not increased proportionately with prices.

Consider for instance a country like the United States during the Second World War; on the one hand, inflation at that time favored the munitions workers, the munitions industries, the manufacturers of guns, while on the other hand, it worked against other groups of the population. And the ones who suffered the greatest disadvantages from inflation were the teachers and the ministers.

As you know, a minister is a very modest person who serves God and must not talk too much about money. Teachers, likewise, are dedicated persons who are supposed to think more about educating the young than about their salaries. Consequently, the teachers and ministers were among those who were most penalized by inflation, for the various schools and churches were the last to realize that they must raise salaries. When the church elders and the school corporations finally discovered that, after all, one should also raise the salaries of those dedicated people, the earlier losses they had suffered still remained.

For a long time, they had to buy less than they did before, to cut down their consumption of better and more expensive foods, and to restrict their purchase of clothing—because prices had already adjusted upward, while their incomes, their salaries, had not yet been raised. (This situation has changed considerably today, at least for teachers.)

There are therefore always different groups in the population being affected differently by inflation. For some of them, inflation is not so bad; they even ask for a continuation of it, because they are the first to profit from it. We will see, in the next lecture, how this unevenness in the consequences of inflation vitally affects the politics that lead toward inflation.

Under these changes brought about by inflation, we have groups who are favored and groups who are directly profiteering. I do not use the term “profiteering” as a reproach to these people, for if there is someone to blame, it is the government that established the inflation. And there are always people who favor inflation because they realize what is going on sooner than other people do. Their special profits are due to the fact that there will necessarily be unevenness in the process of inflation.

III.

The government may think that inflation—as a method of raising funds—is better than taxation, which is always unpopular and difficult. In many rich and great nations, legislators have often discussed, for months and months, the various forms of new taxes that were necessary because the parliament had decided to increase expenditures. Having discussed various methods of getting the money by taxation, they finally decided that perhaps it was better to do it by inflation.

But of course, the word “inflation” was not used. The politician in power who proceeds toward inflation does not announce: “I am proceeding toward inflation.” The technical methods employed to achieve inflation are so complicated that the average citizen does not realize inflation has begun.

One of the biggest inflations in history was in the German Reich after the First World War. The inflation was not so momentous during the war; it was the inflation after the war that brought about the catastrophe. The government did not say: “We are proceeding toward inflation.” The government simply borrowed money very indirectly from the central bank. The government did not have to ask how the central bank would find and deliver the money. The central bank simply printed it.

Today the techniques for inflation are complicated by the fact that there is checkbook money. It involves another technique, but the result is the same. With the stroke of a pen, the government creates fiat money, thus increasing the quantity of money and credit. The government simply issues the order, and the fiat money is there.

IV.

The government does not care, at first, that some people will be losers, it does not care that prices will go up. The legislators say: “This is a wonderful system!” But this wonderful system has one fundamental weakness: it cannot last. If inflation could go on forever, there would be no point in telling governments they should not inflate. But the certain fact about inflation is that, sooner or later, it must come to an end. It is a policy that cannot last.

In the long run, inflation comes to an end with the breakdown of the currency; it comes to a catastrophe, to a situation like the one in Germany in 1923. On August 1, 1914, the value of the dollar was four marks and twenty pfennigs. Nine years and three months later, in November 1923, the dollar was pegged at 4.2 trillion marks. In other words, the mark was worth nothing. It no longer had any value.

Some years ago, a famous author, John Maynard Keynes, wrote: “In the long run we are all dead.” This is certainly true, I am sorry to say. But the question is, how short or long will the short run be? In the eighteenth century, there was a famous lady, Madame de Pompadour, who is credited with the dictum: “Après nous le déluge” (“After us will come the flood”). Madame de Pompadour was happy enough to die in the short run. But her successor in office, Madame du Barry, outlived the short-run and was beheaded in the long run. For many people, the “long-run” quickly becomes the “short-run”—and the longer inflation goes on the sooner the “short run.”

How long can the short run last? How long can a central bank continue inflation? Probably as long as people are convinced that the government, sooner or later, but certainly not too late, will stop printing money and thereby stop decreasing the value of each unit of money.

When people no longer believe this, when they realize that the government will go on and on without any intention of stopping, then they begin to understand that prices tomorrow will be higher than they are today. Then they begin buying at any price, causing prices to go up to such heights that the monetary system breaks down.

I refer to the case of Germany, which the whole world was watching. Many books have described the events of that time. (Although I am not a German, but an Austrian, I saw everything from the inside: in Austria, conditions were not very different from those in Germany; nor were they much different in many other European countries.) For several years, the German people believed that their inflation was just a temporary affair, that it would soon come to an end. They believed it for almost nine years, until the summer of 1923. Then, finally, they began to doubt. As the inflation continued, people thought it wiser to buy anything available, instead of keeping money in their pockets. Furthermore, they reasoned that one should not give loans of money, but on the contrary, that it was a very good idea to be a debtor. Thus inflation continued feeding on itself.

View single page >> |

This is the fourth lecture from Mises's "Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and ...

more
How did you like this article? Let us know so we can better customize your reading experience.

Comments

Leave a comment to automatically be entered into our contest to win a free Echo Show.