A lot of people seem really upset about inflation. I’ve previously discussed why this is a bit weird; inflation really just isn’t that bad. In fact, I am increasingly concerned that the usual methods for fixing inflation are considerably worse than inflation itself.
To be clear, I’m not talking about hyperinflation—if you are getting triple-digit inflation or more, you are clearly printing too much money and you need to stop. And there are places in the world where this happens.
But what about just regular, ordinary inflation, even when it’s fairly high? Prices rising at 8% or 9% or even 11% per year? What catastrophe befalls our society when this happens?
Okay, sure, if we could snap our fingers and make prices all stable without cost, that would be worth doing. But we can’t. All of our mechanisms for reducing inflation come with costs—and often very high costs.
The chief mechanism by which inflation is currently controlled is open-market operations by central banks such as the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and the European Central Bank. These central banks try to reduce inflation by selling bonds, which lowers the price of bonds and reduces capital available to banks, and thereby increases interest rates. This also effectively removes money from the economy, as banks are using that money to buy bonds instead of lending it out. (It is chiefly in this odd indirect sense that the central bank manages the “money supply”.)
As Krugman has rightfully pointed out, the worst pain of the 1970s was not the double-digit inflation; it was the recessions that Paul Volcker’s economic policy triggered in response to that inflation. The inflation wasn’t exactly a good thing; but for most people, the cure was much worse than the disease.
Most laypeople seem to think that prices somehow go up without wages going up, but that simply isn’t how it works. Prices and wages rise at close to the same rate in most countries most of the time. In fact, inflation is often driven chiefly by rising wages rather than the other way around. There are often lags between when the inflation hits and when people see their wages rise; but these lags can actually be in either direction—inflation first or wages first—and for moderate amounts of inflation they are clearly less harmful than the high rates of unemployment that we would get if we fought inflation more aggressively with monetary policy.
Economists are also notoriously vague about exactly how they expect the central bank to reduce inflation. They use complex jargon or broad euphemisms. But when they do actually come out and say they want to reduce wages, it tends to outrage people. Well, that’s one of three main ways that interest rates actually reduce inflation: They reduce wages, they cause unemployment, or they stop people from buying houses. That’s pretty much all that central banks can do.
There may be other ways to reduce inflation, like windfall profits taxes, antitrust action, or even price controls. The first two are basically no-brainers; we should always be taxing windfall profits (if they really are due to a windfall outside a corporation’s control, there’s no incentive to distort), and we should absolutely be increasing antitrust action (why did we reduce it in the first place?). Price controls are riskier—they really do create shortages—but then again, is that really worse than lower wages or unemployment? Because the usual strategy involves lower wages and unemployment.
It’s a little ironic: The people who are usually all about laissez-faireare the ones who panic about inflation and want the government to take drastic action; meanwhile, I’m usually in favor of government intervention, but when it comes to moderate inflation, I think maybe we should just let it be.
There’s also an important redistributive effect: When housing prices go up, people who own homes get richer, while people who rent homes get poorer. Since people who own homes tend to be richer to begin with (and landlordsare typically richest of all), rising housing prices directly increase wealth inequality.
This wasn’t a slow and steady climb; housing prices moved with inflation for most of the 1980s and 1990s, and then surged upward just before the 2008 crash. Then they plummeted for a few years, before reversing course and surging even higher than they were at their 2007 peak:
This variation tells me that policy matters. This isn’t some inevitable result of population growth or technological change. Those could still be important factors, but they can’t explain the strong varation between countries or even between cities within the same country. (Yes, San Francisco has seen more population growth than Detroit—but not that much more.)
Part of the problem, I think, is that most policymakers don’t actually want housing to be more affordable. They might say they do, they might occasionally feel some sympathy for people who get evicted or live on the streets; but in general, they want housing prices to be higher, because that gives them more property tax revenue. The wealthy benefit from rising housing prices, while the poor are harmed. Since the interests of the wealthy are wildly overrepresented in policy, policy is made to increase housing prices, not decrease them. This is likely especially true in housing, because even the upper-middle class mostly benefits from rising housing prices. It’s only the poor and lower-middle class who are typically harmed.
This is why I don’t really want to get into suggesting policies that could fix this. We know what would fix this: Build more housing. Lots of it. Everywhere. Increase supply, and the price will go down. And we should keep doing it until housing is not just back where it was, but cheaper—much cheaper. Buying a house shouldn’t be a luxury afforded only to the upper-middle class; it should be something everyone does several times in their life and doesn’t have to worry too much about. Buying a house should be like buying a car; not cheap, exactly, but you don’t have to be rich to do it. Because everyone needs housing. So everyone should have housing.
But that isn’t going to happen, because the people who make the decisions about this don’t want it to happen.
So the real question becomes: What do we do about that?
Manchin wants to call it the Inflation Reduction Act, but it probably won’t actually reduce inflation very much. But some economists—even quite center-right ones—think it may actually reduce inflation quite a bit, and we basically all agree that it at least won’t increase inflation very much. Since the effects on inflation are likely to be small, we really don’t have to worry about them: whatever it does to inflation, the important thing is that this bill reduces carbon emissions.
Honestly, it’ll be kind of disgusting if this actually does work—because it’s so easy. This bill will have almost no downside. Its macroeconomic effects will be minor, maybe even positive. There was no reason it needed to be this hard-fought. Even if it didn’t have tax increases to offset it—which it absolutely does—the total cost of this bill over the next ten years would be less than six months of military spending, so cutting military spending by 5% would cover it. We have cured our unbearable headaches by finally realizing we could stop hitting ourselves in the head. (And the Republicans want us to keep hitting ourselves and will do whatever they can to make that happen.)
So, yes, it’s very sad that it took us this long. And even 60% of our current emissions is still too much emissions for a stable climate. But let’s take a moment to celebrate, because this is a genuine victory—and we haven’t had a lot of those in awhile.
Well, this feels like a milestone: Paul Krugman just wrote a column about a topic I’ve published research on. He didn’t actually cite our paper—in fact the literature review he links to is from 2014—but the topic is very much what we were studying: Asymmetric price transmission, ‘rockets and feathers’. He’s even talking about it from the perspective of industrial organization and market power, which is right in line with our results (and a bit different from the mainstream consensus among economic policy pundits).
The phenomenon is a well-documented one: When the price of an input (say, crude oil) rises, the price of outputs made from that input (say, gasoline) rise immediately, and basically one to one, sometimes even more than one to one. But when the price of an input falls, the price of outputs only falls slowly and gradually, taking a long time to converge to the same level as the input prices. Prices go up like a rocket, but down like a feather.
Many different explanations have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, and they aren’t all mutually exclusive. They include various aspects of market structure, substitution of inputs, and use of inventories to smooth the effects of prices.
One that I find particularly unpersuasive is the notion of menu costs: That it requires costly effort to actually change your prices, and this somehow results in the asymmetry. Most gas stations have digital price boards; it requires almost zero effort for them to change prices whenever they want. Moreover, there’s no clear reason this would result in asymmetry between raising and lowering prices. Some models extend the notion of “menu cost” to include expected customer responses, which is a much better explanation; but I think that’s far beyond the original meaning of the concept. If you fear to change your price because of how customers may respond, finding a cheaper way to print price labels won’t do a thing to change that.
But our paper—and Krugman’s article—is about one factor in particular: market power. We don’t see prices behave this way in highly competitive markets. We see it the most in oligopolies: Markets where there are only a small number of sellers, who thus have some control over how they set their prices.
Krugman explains it as follows:
When oil prices shoot up, owners of gas stations feel empowered not just to pass on the cost but also to raise their markups, because consumers can’t easily tell whether they’re being gouged when prices are going up everywhere. And gas stations may hang on to these extra markups for a while even when oil prices fall.
That’s actually a somewhat different mechanism from the one we found in our experiment, which is that asymmetric price transmission can be driven by tacit collusion. Explicit collusion is illegal: You can’t just call up the other gas stations and say, “Let’s all set the price at $5 per gallon.” But you can tacitly collude by responding to how they set their prices, and not trying to undercut them even when you could get a short-run benefit from doing so. It’s actually very similar to an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma: Cooperation is better for everyone, but worse for you as an individual; to get everyone to cooperate, it’s vital to severely punish those who don’t.
In our experiment, the participants in our experiment were acting as businesses setting their prices. The customers were fully automated, so there was no opportunity to “fool” them in this way. We also excluded any kind of menu costs or product inventories. But we still saw prices go up like rockets and down like feathers. Moreover, prices were always substantially higher than costs, especially during that phase when they are falling down like feathers.
Our explanation goes something like this: Businesses are trying to use their market power to maintain higher prices and thereby make higher profits, but they have to worry about other businesses undercutting their prices and taking all the business. Moreover, they also have to worry about others thinking that they are trying to undercut prices—they want to be perceived as cooperating, not defecting, in order to preserve the collusion and avoid being punished.
Consider how this affects their decisions when input prices change. If the price of oil goes up, then there’s no reason not to raise the price of gasoline immediately, because that isn’t violating the collusion. If anything, it’s being nice to your fellow colluders; they want prices as high as possible. You’ll want to raise the prices as high and fast as you can get away with, and you know they’ll do the same. But if the price of oil goes down, now gas stations are faced with a dilemma: You could lower prices to get more customers and make more profits, but the other gas stations might consider that a violation of your tacit collusion and could punish you by cutting their prices even more. Your best option is to lower prices very slowly, so that you can take advantage of the change in the input market, but also maintain the collusion with other gas stations. By slowly cutting prices, you can ensure that you are doing it together, and not trying to undercut other businesses.
Krugman’s explanation and ours are not mutually exclusive; in fact I think both are probably happening. They have one important feature in common, which fits the empirical data: Markets with less competition show greater degrees of asymmetric price transmission. The more concentrated the oligopoly, the more we see rockets and feathers.
They also share an important policy implication: Market power can make inflation worse. Contrary to what a lot of economic policy pundits have been saying, it isn’t ridiculous to think that breaking up monopolies or putting pressure on oligopolies to lower their prices could help reduce inflation. It probably won’t be as reliably effective as the Fed’s buying and selling of bonds to adjust interest rates—but we’re also doing that, and the two are not mutually exclusive. Besides, breaking up monopolies is a generally good thing to do anyway.
It’s not that unusual that I find myself agreeing with Krugman. I think what makes this one feel weird is that I have more expertise on the subject than he does.
While a return to double-digits remains possible, at this point it likely won’t happen, and if it does, it will occur only briefly.
This is no doubt a major reason why the dollar and the pound are widely used as reserve currencies (especially the dollar), and is likely due to the fact that they are managed by the world’s most competent central banks. Brexit would almost have made sense if the UK had been pressured to join the Euro; but they weren’t, because everyone knew the pound was better managed.
But it’s always a little surreal for me to see how panicked people in the US and UK get when our inflation rises a couple of percentage points. There seems to be an entire subgenre of economics news that basically consists of rich people saying the sky is falling because inflation has risen—or will, or may rise—by two points. (Hey, anybody got any ideas how we can get them to panic like this over rises in sea level or aggregate temperature?)
Hyperinflation is a real problem—it isn’t what put Hitler into power, but it has led to real crises in Germany, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere. Once you start getting over 100% per year, and especially when it starts rapidly accelerating, that’s a genuine crisis. Moreover, even though they clearly don’t constitute hyperinflation, I can see why people might legitimately worry about price increases of 20% or 30% per year. (Let alone 60% like Argentina is dealing with right now.) But why is going from 2% to 6% any cause for alarm? Yet alarmed we seem to be.
I can even understand why rich people would be upset about inflation (though the magnitudeof their concern does still seem disproportionate). Inflation erodes the value of financial assets, because most bonds, options, etc. are denominated in nominal, not inflation-adjusted terms. (Though there are such things as inflation-indexed bonds.) So high inflation can in fact make rich people slightly less rich.
But why in the world are so many poor people upset about inflation?
Inflation doesn’t just erode the value of financial assets; it also erodes the value of financial debts. And most poor people have more debts than they have assets—indeed, it’s not uncommon for poor people to have substantial debt and no financial assets to speak of (what little wealth they have being non-financial, e.g. a car or a home). Thus, their net wealth position improves as prices rise.
The interest rate response can compensate for this to some extent, but most people’s debts are fixed-rate. Moreover, if it’s the higher interest rates you’re worried about, you should want the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England not to fight inflation too hard, because the way they fight it is chiefly by raising interest rates.
I admit, I question the survey design here: I would answer ‘yes’ to both questions if we’re talking about a theoretical 10,000% hyperinflation, but ‘no’ if we’re talking about a realistic 10% inflation. So I would like to see, but could not find, a survey asking people what level of inflation is sufficient cause for concern. But since most of these people seemed concerned about actual, realistic inflation (85% reported anger at seeing actual, higher prices), it still suggests a lot of strong feelings that even mild inflation is bad.
So it does seem to be the case that a lot of poor and middle-class people really strongly dislike inflation even in the actual, mild levels in which it occurs in the US and UK.
The main fear seems to be that inflation will erode people’s purchasing power—that as the price of gasoline and groceries rise, people won’t be able to eat as well or drive as much. And that, indeed, would be a real loss of utility worth worrying about.
But in fact this makes very little sense: Most forms of income—particularly labor income, which is the only real income for some 80%-90% of the population—actually increases with inflation, more or less one-to-one. Yes, there’s some delay—you won’t get your annual cost-of-living raise immediately, but several months down the road. But this could have at most a small effect on your real consumption.
To see this, suppose that inflation has risen from 2% to 6%. (Really, you need not suppose; it has.) Now consider your cost-of-living raise, which nearly everyone gets. It will presumably rise the same way: So if it was 3% before, it will now be 7%. Now consider how much your purchasing power is affected over the course of the year.
For concreteness, let’s say your initial income was $3,000 per month at the start of the year (a fairly typical amount for a middle-class American, indeed almost exactly the median personal income). Let’s compare the case of no inflation with a 1% raise, 2% inflation with a 3% raise, and 5% inflation with a 6% raise.
If there was no inflation, your real income would remain simply $3,000 per month, until the end of the year when it would become $3,030 per month. That’s the baseline to compare against.
If inflation is 2%, your real income would gradually fall, by about 0.16% per month, before being bumped up 3% at the end of the year. So in January you’d have $3,000, in February $2,995, in March $2,990. Come December, your real income has fallen to $2,941. But then next January it will immediately be bumped up 3% to $3,029, almost the same as it would have been with no inflation at all. The total lost income over the entire year is about $380, or about 1% of your total income.
If inflation instead rises to 6%, your real income will fall by 0.49% per month, reaching a minimum of $2,830 in December before being bumped back up to $3,028 next January. Your total loss for the whole year will be about $1110, or about 3% of your total income.
Indeed, it’s a pretty good heuristic to say that for an inflation rate of x% with annual cost-of-living raises, your loss of real income relative to having no inflation at all is about (x/2)%. (This breaks down for really high levels of inflation, at which point it becomes a wild over-estimate, since even 200% inflation doesn’t make your real income go to zero.)
This isn’t nothing, of course. You’d feel it. Going from 2% to 6% inflation at an income of $3000 per month is like losing $700 over the course of a year, which could be a month of groceries for a family of four. (Not that anyone can really raise a family of four on a single middle-class income these days. When did The Simpsons begin to seem aspirational?)
But this isn’t the whole story. Suppose that this same family of four had a mortgage payment of $1000 per month; that is also decreasing in real value by the same proportion. And let’s assume it’s a fixed-rate mortgage, as most are, so we don’t have to factor in any changes in interest rates.
With no inflation, their mortgage payment remains $1000. It’s 33.3% of their income this year, and it will be 33.0% of their income next year after they get that 1% raise.
With 2% inflation, their mortgage payment will also fall by 0.16% per month; $998 in February, $996 in March, and so on, down to $980 in December. This amounts to an increase in real income of about $130—taking away a third of the loss that was introduced by the inflation.
With 6% inflation, their mortgage payment will also fall by 0.49% per month; $995 in February, $990 in March, and so on, until it’s only $943 in December. This amounts to an increase in real income of over $370—again taking away a third of the loss.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that it’s one third; the proportion of lost real income you’ll get back by cheaper mortgage payments is precisely the proportion of your income that was spent on mortgage payments at the start—so if, like too many Americans, they are paying more than a third of their income on mortgage, their real loss of income from inflation will be even lower.
And what if they are renting instead? They’re probably on an annual lease, so that payment won’t increase in nominal terms either—and hence will decrease in real terms, in just the same way as a mortgage payment. Likewise car payments, credit card payments, any debt that has a fixed interest rate. If they’re still paying back student loans, their financial situation is almost certainly improved by inflation.
This means that the real loss from an increase of inflation from 2% to 6% is something like 1.5% of total income, or about $500 for a typical American adult. That’s clearly not nearly as bad as a similar increase in unemployment, which would translate one-to-one into lost income on average; moreover, this loss would be concentrated among people who lost their jobs, so it’s actually worse than that once you account for risk aversion. It’s clearly better to lose 1% of your income than to have a 1% chance of losing nearly all your income—and inflation is the former while unemployment is the latter.
Indeed, the only reason you lost purchasing power at all was that your cost-of-living increases didn’t occur often enough. If instead you had a labor contract that instituted cost-of-living raises every month, or even every paycheck, instead of every year, you would get all the benefits of a cheaper mortgage and virtually none of the costs of a weaker paycheck. Convince your employer to make this adjustment, and you will actually benefit from higher inflation.
So if poor and middle-class people are upset about eroding purchasing power, they should be mad at their employers for not implementing more frequent cost-of-living adjustments; the inflation itself really isn’t the problem.
Labor markets have been behaving quite strangely lately, due to COVID and its consequences. As I said in an earlier post, the COVID recession was the one recession I can think of that actually seemed to follow Real Business Cycle theory—where it was labor supply, not demand, that drove employment.
I dare say that for the first time in decades, the US government actually followed Keynesian policy. US federal government spending surged from $4.8 trillion to $6.8 trillion in a single year:
That is a staggering amount of additional spending; I don’t think any country in history has ever increased their spending by that large an amount in a single year, even inflation-adjusted. Yet in response to a recession that severe, this is exactly what Keynesian models prescribed—and for once, we listened. Instead of balking at the big numbers, we went ahead and spent the money.
And apparently it worked, because unemployment spiked to the worst levels seen since the Great Depression, then suddenly plummeted back to normal almost immediately:
Nor was this just the result of people giving up on finding work. U-6, the broader unemployment measure that includes people who are underemployed or have given up looking for work, shows the same unprecedented pattern:
The oddest part is that people are now quitting their jobs at the highest rate seen in over 20 years:
This phenomenon has been dubbed the Great Resignation, and while its causes are still unclear, it is clearly the most important change in the labor market in decades.
In a previous post I hypothesized that this surge in strikes and quits was a coordination effect: The sudden, consistent shock to all labor markets at once gave people a focal point to coordinate their decision to strike.
But it’s also quite possible that it was the Keynesian stimulus that did it: The relief payments made it safe for people to leave jobs they had long hated, and they leapt at the opportunity.
When that huge surge in government spending was proposed, the usual voices came out of the woodwork to warn of terrible inflation. It’s true, inflation has been higher lately than usual, nearly 7% last year. But we still haven’t hit the double-digit inflation rates we had in the late 1970s and early 1980s:
As a result, the price of durable goods actually rose, when it had previously been falling for decades. That broader pattern is worth emphasizing: As technology advances, services like healthcare and education get more expensive, durable goods like phones and washing machines get cheaper, and nondurable goods like food and gasoline fluctuate but ultimately stay about the same. But in the last year or so, durable goods have gotten more expensive too, because people want to buy more while supply chains are able to deliver less.
This suggests that the inflation we are seeing is likely to go away in a few years, once the pandemic is better under control (or else reduced to a new influenza where the virus is always there but we learn to live with it).
But I don’t think the effects on the labor market will be so transitory. The strikes and quits we’ve been seeing lately really are at a historic level, and they are likely to have a long-lasting effect on how work is organized. Employers are panicking about having to raise wages and whining about how “no one wants to work” (meaning, of course, no one wants to work at the current wage and conditions on offer). The correct response is the one from Goodfellas [language warning].
For the first time in decades, there are actually more job vacancies than unemployed workers:
This means that the tables have turned. The bargaining power is suddenly in the hands of workers again, after being in the hands of employers for as long as I’ve been alive. Of course it’s impossible to know whether some other shock could yield another reversal; but for now, it looks like we are finally on the verge of major changes in how labor markets operate—and I for one think it’s about time.
It seems like an egregious understatement to say that the last couple of years have been unusual. The COVID-19 pandemic was historic, comparable in threat—though not in outcome—to the 1918 influenza pandemic.
At this point it looks like we may not be able to fully eradicate COVID. And there are still many places around the world where variants of the virus continue to spread. I personally am a bit worried about the recent surge in the UK; it might add some obstacles (as if I needed any more) to my move to Edinburgh. Yet even in hard-hit places like India and Brazil things are starting to get better. Overall, it seems like the worst is over.
This pandemic disrupted our society in so many ways, great and small, and we are still figuring out what the long-term consequences will be.
But as an economist, one of the things I found most unusual is that this recession fit Real Business Cycle theory.
Real Business Cycle theory (henceforth RBC) posits that recessions are caused by negative technology shocks which result in a sudden drop in labor supply, reducing employment and output. This is generally combined with sophisticated mathematical modeling (DSGE or GTFO), and it typically leads to the conclusion that the recession is optimal and we should do nothing to correct it (which was after all the original motivation of the entire theory—they didn’t like the interventionist policy conclusions of Keynesian models). Alternatively it could suggest that, if we can, we should try to intervene to produce a positive technology shock (but nobody’s really sure how to do that).
For a typical recession, this is utter nonsense. It is obvious to anyone who cares to look that major recessions like the Great Depression and the Great Recession were caused by a lack of labor demand, not supply. There is no apparent technology shock to cause either recession. Instead, they seem to be preciptiated by a financial crisis, which then causes a crisis of liquidity which leads to a downward spiral of layoffs reducing spending and causing more layoffs. Millions of people lose their jobs and become desperate to find new ones, with hundreds of people applying to each opening. RBC predicts a shortage of labor where there is instead a glut. RBC predicts that wages should go up in recessions—but they almost always go down.
But for the COVID-19 recession, RBC actually had some truth to it. We had something very much like a negative technology shock—namely the pandemic. COVID-19 greatly increased the cost of working and the cost of shopping. This led to a reduction in labor demand as usual, but also a reduction in labor supply for once. And while we did go through a phase in which hundreds of people applied to each new opening, we then followed it up with a labor shortage and rising wages. A fall in labor supply should create inflation, and we now have the highest inflation we’ve had in decades—but there’s good reason to think it’s just a transitory spike that will soon settle back to normal.
This makes it the exception that proves the rule: Now that you’ve seen a recession that actually resembles RBC, you can see just how radically different it was from a typical recession.
Moreover, even in this weird recession the usual policy conclusions from RBC are off-base. It would have been disastrous to withhold the economic relief payments—which I’m happy to say even most Republicans realized. The one thing that RBC got right as far as policy is that a positive technology shock was our salvation—vaccines.
Indeed, while the cause of this recession was very strange and not what Keynesian models were designed to handle, our government largely followed Keynesian policy advice—and it worked. We ran massive government deficits—over $3 trillion in 2020—and the result was rapid recovery in consumer spending and then employment. I honestly wouldn’t have thought our government had the political will to run a deficit like that, even when the economic models told them they should; but I’m very glad to be wrong. We ran the huge deficit just as the models said we should—and it worked. I wonder how the 2010s might have gone differently had we done the same after 2008.
Over the last 20 years, real per-capita GDP has risen from $46,000 to $56,000 (in 2012 dollars):
It’s not just increasing inequality (though it is partly that); real median household income has increased over the same period from $62,500 to $68,700 (in 2019 dollars):
The American Enterprise Institute has utterly the wrong interpretation of what’s going on here, but their graph is actually quite informative if you can read it without their ideological blinders:
Over the past 20 years, some industries have seen dramatic drops in prices, such as televisions, cellphones, toys, and computer software. Other industries have seen roughly constant prices, such as cars, clothing, and furniture. Still other industries have seen modest increases in prices that tracked overall inflation, such as housing and food. And then there are some industries where prices have exploded to staggering heights, such as childcare, college education, and hospital services.
Since wages basically kept up with inflation, this is the relevant comparison: A product or service is more expensive in real terms if its price grew faster than inflation.
It’s not inherently surprising that some prices would rise faster than inflation and some would rise slower; indeed, it would be shocking if that were not the case, since inflation essentially just is an average of all price changes over time. But if you look closely at the kinds of things that got cheaper versus more expensive, you can begin to see why the statistics keep saying we are getting richer but we don’t feel any richer.
The things that increased the most in price are things you basically can’t do without: Education, childcare, and healthcare. Yes, okay, theoretically you could do without these things, but the effects on your life would be catastrophic—indeed, going without healthcare could literally kill you. They are necessities.
The things that decreased the most in price are things that people have done without for most of human history: Cellphones, software, and computer software. They are newfangled high-tech goods that are now ubiquitous, but not at all long ago didn’t even exist. Going without these goods would be inconvenient, but hardly catastrophic. Indeed, they largely only feel as necessary as they are because everyone else already has them. They are luxuries.
This even explains why older generations can be convinced that we are richer than the statistics say: We have all these fancy new high-tech toys that they never had. But what good does that do us when we can’t afford our health insurance?
Housing is also an obvious necessity, and while it has not on average increased in price faster than inflation, this average washes out important geographic variation.
Over the same period, Detroit’s housing prices plummeted, then returned to normal, and are now only 30% higher than they were 20 years ago (comparable to inflation):
It’s hardly surprising that the cities where the most people are moving to are the most expensive to live in; that’s basic supply and demand. But the magnitude of the difference is so large that most of us are experiencing rising housing prices, even though on average housing prices aren’t really rising.
Put this all together, and we can see that while by the usual measures our “standard of living” is increasing, our financial situation feels ever more precarious, because more and more of our spending is immediately captured by things we can’t do without. I suggest we call this effect necessitization; our consumption has been necessitized.
Healthcare is the most extreme example: In 1960, healthcare spending was only 5% of US GDP. As recently as 2000, it was 13%. Today, it is 18%. Medical technology has greatly improved over that time period, increasing our life expectancy from 70 years in 1960 to 76 years in 2000 to 78 years today, so perhaps this additional spending is worth it? But if we compare 2000 to 2020, we can see that an additional 5% of GDP in the last 20 years has only bought us two years of life. So we have spent an additional 5% of our income to gain 2.6% more life—that doesn’t sound like such a great deal to me. (Also, if you look closely at the data, most of the gains in life expectancy seem to be from things like antibiotics and vaccines that aren’t a large part of our healthcare spending, while most of the increased spending seems to be on specialists, testing, high-tech equipment, and administrative costs that don’t seem to contribute much to life expectancy.)
Moreover, even if we decide that all this healthcare spending is worth it, it doesn’t make us richer in the usual sense. We have better health, but we don’t have greater wealth or financial security.
AEI sees that the industries with the largest price increases have the most government intervention, and blames the government; this is clearly confusing cause with effect. The reason the government intervenes so much in education and healthcare is because these are necessities and they are getting so expensive. Removing those interventions wouldn’t stop prices from rising; they’d just remove the programs like Medicaid and federal student loans that currently allow most people to (barely) afford them.
But they are right about one thing: Prices have risen much faster in some industries than others, and the services that have gotten the most expensive are generally the services that are most important.
Why have these services gotten so expensive? A major reason seems to be that they are difficult to automate. Manufacturing electronics is very easy to automate—indeed, there’s even a positive feedback loop there: the better you get at automating making electronics, the better you get at automating everything, including making electronics. But automating healthcare and education is considerably more difficult. Yes, there are MOOCs, and automated therapy software, and algorithms will soon be outperforming the average radiologist; but there are a lot of functions that doctors, nurses, and teachers provide that are very difficult to replace with machines or software.
Suppose we do figure out how to automate more functions of education and healthcare; would that solve the problem? Maybe—but only if we really do manage to automate the important parts.
Right now, MOOCs are honestly terrible. The sales pitch is that you can get taught by a world-class professor from anywhere in the world, but the truth is that the things that make someone a world-class professor don’t translate over when you are watching recorded video lectures and doing multiple-choice quizzes. Really good teaching requires direct interaction between teacher and student. Of course, a big lecture hall full of hundreds of students often lacks such interaction—but so much the worse for big lecture halls. If indeed that’s the only way colleges know how to teach, then they deserve to be replaced by MOOCs. But there are better ways of teaching that online courses currently cannot provide, and if college administrators were wise, they would be focusing on pressing that advantage. If this doesn’t happen, and education does become heavily automated, it will be cheaper—but it will also be worse.
Similarly, some aspects of healthcare provision can be automated, but there are clearly major benefits to having actual doctors and nurses physically there to interact with patients. If we want to make healthcare more affordable, we will probably have to find other ways (a single-payer health system comes to mind).
For now, it is at least worth recognizing that there are serious limitations in our usual methods of measuring standard of living; due to effects like necessitization, the statistics can say that we are much richer even as we hardly feel richer at all.
What is the most saccharine, empty, insincere way to end a letter? “Sincerely”.
Whence such irony? Well, we’ve all been using it for so long that we barely notice it anymore. It’s just the standard way to end a letter now.
This process is not unlike inflation: As more and more dollars get spent, the value of a dollar decreases, and as a word or phrase gets used more and more, its meaning weakens.
It’s hardly just the word “Sincerely” itself that has thus inflated. Indeed, almost any sincere expression of caring often feels empty. We routinely ask strangers “How are you?” when we don’t actually care how they are.
I felt this quite vividly when I was applying to GiveWell (alas, they decided not to hire me). I was trying to express how much I care about GiveWell’s mission to maximize the effectiveness of charity at saving lives, and it was quite hard to find the words. I kept find myself saying things that anyone could say, whether they really cared or not. Fighting global poverty is nothing less than my calling in life—but how could I say that without sounding obsequious or hyperbolic? Anyone can say that they care about global poverty—and if you asked them, hardly anyone would say that they don’t care at all about saving African children from malaria—but how many people actually give money to the Against Malaria Foundation?
Or think about how uncomfortable it can feel to tell a friend that you care about them. I’ve seen quite a few posts on social media that are sort of scattershot attempts at this: “I love you all!” Since that is obviously not true—you do not in fact love all 286 of your Facebook friends—it has plausible deniability. But you secretly hope that the ones you really do care about will see its truth.
Where is this ‘sincerity inflation’ coming from? It can’t really be from overuse of sincerity in ordinary conversation—the question is precisely why such conversation is so rare.
But there is a clear source of excessive sincerity, and it is all around us: Advertising.
Every product is the “best”. They will all “change your life”. You “need” every single one. Every corporation “supports family”. Every product will provide “better living”. The product could be a toothbrush or an automobile; the ads are never really about the product. They are about how the corporation will make your family happy.
Consider the following hilarious subversion by the Steak-umms Twitter account (which is a candle in the darkness of these sad times; they have lots of really great posts about Coronavirus and critical thinking).
Kevin Farzard (who I know almost nothing about, but gather he’s a comedian?) wrote this on Twitter: “I just want one brand to tell me that we are not in this together and their health is our lowest priority”
Why is this amusing? Because every other corporation—whose executives surely care less about public health than whatever noble creature runs the Steak-umms Twitter feed—has been saying the opposite: “We are all in this together and your health is our highest priority.”
We are so inundated with this saccharine sincerity by advertisers that we learn to tune it out—we have to, or else we’d go crazy and/or bankrupt. But this has an unfortunate side effect: We tune out expressions of caring when they come from other human beings as well.
Therefore let us endeavor to change this, to express our feelings clearly and plainly to those around us, while continuing to shield ourselves from the bullshit of corporations. (I choose that word carefully: These aren’t lies, they’re bullshit. They aren’t false so much as they are utterly detached from truth.) Part of this means endeavoring to be accepting and supportive when others express their feelings to us, not retreating into the comfort of dismissal or sarcasm. Restoring the value of our sincerity will require a concerted effort from many people acting at once.
For this project to succeed, we must learn to make a sharp distinction between the institutions that are trying to extract profits from us and the people who have relationships with us. This is not to say that human beings cannot lie or be manipulative; of course they can. Trust is necessary for all human relationships, but there is such a thing as too much trust. There is a right amount to trust others you do not know, and it is neither complete distrust nor complete trust. Higher levels of trust must be earned.
But at least human beings are not systematically designed to be amoral and manipulative—which corporations are. A corporation exists to do one thing: Maximize profit for its shareholders. Whatever else a corporation is doing, it is in service of that one ultimate end. Corporations can do many good things; but they sort of do it by accident, along the way toward their goal of maximizing profit. And when those good things stop being profitable, they stop doing them. Keep these facts in mind, and you may have an easier time ignoring everything that corporations say without training yourself to tune out all expressions of sincerity.
Then, perhaps one day it won’t feel so uncomfortable to tell people that we care about them.
Though central banks are a cornerstone of the modern financial system, I don’t think most people have a clear understanding of how they actually function. (I think this may be by design; there are many ways we could make central banking more transparent, but policymakers seem reluctant to show their hand.)
Central banks “print money” and “set interest rates”. But how exactly do they do these things, and what on Earth do they have to do with each other?
The first thing to understand is that most central banks don’t actually print money. In the US, cash is actually printed by the Department of the Treasury. But cash is only a small part of the money in circulation. The monetary base consists of cash in vaults and in circulation; the US monetary base is about $3.6 trillion. The money supplycan be measured a few different ways, but the standard way is to include checking accounts, traveler’s checks, savings accounts, money market accounts, short-term certified deposits, and basically anything that can be easily withdrawn and spent as money. This is called the M2 money supply, and in the US it is currently over $14.1 trillion. That means that only 25% of our money supply is in actual, physical cash—the rest is all digital. This is actually a relatively high proportion for actual cash, as the monetary base was greatly increased in response to the Great Recession. When we say that the Fed “prints money”, what we really mean is that they are increasing the money supply—but typically they do so in a way that involves little if any actual printing of cash.
The second thing to understand is that central banks don’t exactly set interest rates either. They target interest rates. What’s the difference, you ask?
Well, setting interest rates would mean that they made a law or something saying you have to charge exactly 2.7%, and you get fined or something if you don’t do that.
Targeting interest rates is a subtler art. The Federal Reserve decides what interest rates they want banks to charge, and then they engage in what are called open-market operationsto try to make that happen. Banks hold reserves—money that they are required to keep as collateral for their loans. Since we are in a fractional-reservesystem, they are allowed to keep only a certain proportion (usually about 10%). In open-market operations, the Fed buys and sells assets (usually US Treasury bonds) in order to either increase or decrease the amount of reserves available to banks, to try to get them to lend to each other at the targeted interest rates.
Why not simply set the interest rate by law? Because then it wouldn’t be the market-clearing interest rate. There would be shortages or gluts of assets.
It might be easier to grasp this if we step away from money for a moment and just think about the market for some other good, like televisions.
Suppose that the government wants to set the price of a television in the market to a particular value, say $500. (Why? Who knows. Let’s just run with it for a minute.)
If they simply declared by law that the price of a television must be $500, here’s what would happen: Either that would be too low, in which case there would be a shortage of televisions as demand exceeded supply; or that would be too high, in which case there would be a glut of televisions as supply exceeded demand. Only if they got spectacularly lucky and the market price already was $500 per television would they not have to worry about such things (and then, why bother?).
But suppose the government had the power to create and destroy televisions virtually at will with minimal cost.
Now, they have a better way; they can target the price of a television, and buy and sell televisions as needed to bring the market price to that target. If the price is too low, the government can buy and destroy a lot of televisions, to bring the price up. If the price is too high, the government can make and sell a lot of televisions, to bring the price down.
Now, let’s go back to money. This power to create and destroy at will is hard to believe for televisions, but absolutely true for money. The government can create and destroy almost any amount of money at will—they are limited only by the very inflation and deflation the central bank is trying to affect.
This allows central banks to intervene in the market without creating shortages or gluts; even though they are effectively controlling the interest rate, they are doing so in a way that avoids having a lot of banks wanting to take loans they can’t get or wanting to give loans they can’t find anyone to take.
The goal of all this manipulation is ultimately to reduce inflation and unemployment. Unfortunately it’s basically impossible to eliminate both simultaneously; the Phillips curvedescribes the relationship generally found that decreased inflation usually comes with increased unemployment and vice-versa. But the basic idea is that we set reasonable targets for each (usually about 2% inflation and 5% unemployment; frankly I’d prefer we swap the two, which was more or less what we did in the 1950s), and then if inflation is too high we raise interest rate targets, while if unemployment is too high we lower interest rate targets.
What if they’re both too high? Then we’re in trouble. This has happened; it is called stagflation. The money supply isn’t the other thing affecting inflation and unemployment, and sometimes we get hit with a bad shock that makes both of them high at once. In that situation, there isn’t much that monetary policy can do; we need to find other solutions.
But how does targeting interest rates lead to inflation? To be quite honest, we don’t actually know.
The basic idea is that lower interest rates should lead to more borrowing, which leads to more spending, which leads to more inflation. But beyond that, we don’t actually understand how interest rates translate into prices—this is the so-called transmission mechanism, which remains an unsolved problem in macroeconomics. Based on the empirical data, I lean toward the view that the mechanism is primarily via housing prices; lower interest rates lead to more mortgages, which raises the price of real estate, which raises the price of everything else. This also makes sense theoretically, as real estate consists of large, illiquid assets for which the long-term interest rate is very important. Your decision to buy an apple or even a television is probably not greatly affected by interest rates—but your decision to buy a house surely is.
If that is indeed the case, it’s worth thinking about whether this is really the right way to intervene on inflation and unemployment. High housing prices are an international crisis; maybe we need to be looking at ways to decrease unemployment without affecting housing prices. But that is a tale for another time.