09 June 2012

In Defense of GwBC: Conclusion

I am confident I have accomplished all I meant to accomplish with this series of posts, stimulated as they were by Gravelle's critique of my book, GwBC. In conclusion, I will speak to the notion, widespread today, and present in Gravelle's review, that a moderate and non-accelerating level of inflation is a good thing, in that it is predictable on the one hand and it accomodates the growing demand for money that comes with a growing population and economy on the other. This notion is presumably why Gravelle instructed me that only an "accelerating" rate of inflation should be considered "easy money."

This underlying idea is a fallacy. Price level unpredictability is one of the kinds of harm that inflation can do, but not the whole of it by any means. Yes, if every price and every wage reliably increases at, say, 2 percent a year every year: buyers, sellers, lenders, investors and so forth can all quickly become accustomed to this, draft contracts that presume it, etc. The predictability would be a positive thing, and the debasement of the currency would be merely a matter of form, not something that ought to bug anyone. That is what many economists (and Gravelle) seem to presume actually happens in real-world inflation when they write as if a “non-accelerating” rate is benign.

But in the real world, the average price levels measured by consumer prices indexes and so forth are just that, averages. If we know that the CPI has increased 2% over the last year we have no reason to believe that every good – even every good and service explicitly included in the CPI – even any respectably large number of those goods for that matter -- has increased by that benign-seeming amount. Nor do we know that there is some narrow range of possibility around 2% where most price changes comfortably reside. You can of course quickly get in over your head trying to wade a stream with an “average” depth of only half a foot.

A related point: new money infused into the economy doesn’t come into it all at once. It isn’t as if helicopters have dropped it evenly over the whole landscape, or as if we could all wake up one random morning with more money in our bank accounts than we had thought we had the day before.

No … money enters the economy because the Federal Reserve buys assets. If you’re one of the lucky few who get to sell assets to the Fed then, poof!, the new money suddenly appears in your bank account first. The new money in time radiates outward from the first recipients to those with whom they do business, and so forth, out to ‘the economy at large’ if we may. But the process is a sloppy one, and it does in the nature of things create winners and well as losers. It redistributes real wealth and creates perverse incentives, even if it is kept at a slow and non-accelerating rate over time.

A related fallacy is the notion that inflation is a good thing because a growing economy needs a growing money supply. Why? In a free market the prices will automatically adjust should the economy grow more rapidly than the money supply. Suppose the money supply is linked to gold, and privately held gold supplies are freely convertible into paper notes. If the supply of gold falls beneath demand, gold becomes more valuable. This means that gold in jewelry is converted into monetary use, and gold coins that had been hoarded, stashed away in a safe, are brought out and put back into circulation. Also, promising gold mining operations become more valuable and people line up to invest in mining technologies.

In the meantime, since gold is becoming more valuable, in such an economy, prices of all non-monetary goods are falling. We’ve just conjured up a deflationary scenario. A lot of energy has gone into persuading people that deflation is necessarily disastrous, but there is no evidence it needs to be.

My final thought in this connection is the eminently pragmatic one, that we shall all have to do a lot of new thinking, in matters economic and financial, in order to get ourselves out of the mess in which through the old thinking, still the mainstream thinking, we have gotten ourselves.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.