The Fed’s Mandate To Pick Your Pocket – The Real Price Of Inflation

Inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon.” – Milton Friedman

This oft-cited quote from the renowned American economist Milton Friedman suggests something important about inflation. What he implies is that inflation is a function of money, but what exactly does that mean?

To better appreciate this thought, let’s use a simple example of three people stranded on a deserted island. One person has two bottles of water, and she is willing to sell one of the bottles to the highest bidder. Of the two desperate bidders, one finds a lonely one-dollar bill in his pocket and is the highest bidder. But just before the transaction is completed, the other person finds a twenty-dollar bill buried in his backpack. Suddenly, the bottle of water that was about to sell for one-dollar now sells for twenty dollars. Nothing about the bottle of water changed. What changed was the money available among the people on the island.

As we discussed in What Turkey Can Teach Us About Gold, most people think inflation is caused by rising prices, but rising prices are only a symptom of inflation. As the deserted island example illustrates, inflation is caused by too much money sloshing around the economy in relation to goods and services. What we experience is goods and services going up in price, but inflation is actually the value of our money going down.

Historical Price Levels

The chart below is a graph of price levels in the United States since 1774. In anticipation of a reader questioning the comparison of the prices and types of goods and services available in 1774 with 2018, the data behind this chart compares the basics of life. People ate food, needed housing, and required transportation in 1774 just as they do today. While not perfect, this chart offers a reasonable comparison of the relative cost of living from one period to the next.

 

Chart Courtesy: Oregon State LINK

Three characteristics about this chart leap off the page.

  1. Prices were relatively stable from 1774 to 1933
  2. Before 1933, disruptions in the price level coincided with major wars
  3. The parabolic move higher in price levels after 1933

Pre-1933

As is evident in the graph, prior to 1933 major wars caused inflation, but these episodes were short lived. After the wars ended, price levels returned to pre-war levels. The reason for the temporary bouts of inflation is the surge in deficit spending required to fund war efforts. This type of spending, while critical and necessary, has no productive value. Money is spent on making highly specialized technical weaponry which are put to use or destroyed. Meanwhile, the money supply expands from the deficit spending.

To the contrary, if deficit spending is incurred for the purposes of productive infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, dams, and schools, the beneficial aspects of that spending boosts productivity. Such spending lays the groundwork for the creation of new goods and services that will eventually offset inflationary effects.

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