Larry Summers spoke at the Economic Club of Washington in 2009.
FOR THE better part of a year, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has been warning that pumping trillions of dollars into the economy in the name of pandemic relief and economic stimulus was likely to have a dangerous side effect: reawakening the sleeping dragon of inflation.
In a February column for The Washington Post, for example, Summers expressed concern about the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which was then making its way through Congress and would soon be signed into law by President Biden. The measure authorized hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to state and local governments and provided 85 percent of American households with direct payments of $1,400 per person. That much stimulus, wrote Summers, was apt to "set off inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation."
A month later, Summers warned again that Democrats were "taking substantial risks" by injecting such massive amounts of money into the economy.
"I know the bathtub has been too empty," he said, "but ... think about what the capacity of the bathtub is and how much water we're trying to flow into it."
Summers, a former Harvard president and director of the National Economic Council under President Barack Obama, is a liberal Democrat, but liberals and Democrats sneered at his forebodings. Biden's top economic adviser, Jared Bernstein, told reporters that Summers's inflation alarms were "flat-out wrong." The New Republic pronounced Summers "finally, belatedly, irrelevant." Paul Krugman, the progressive economist, Nobel laureate, and New York Times columnist, said that to worry about inflation amid the pandemic was to miss the forest for the trees. "Think of it as disaster relief or like fighting a war," Krugman told Summers in a debate. "When Pearl Harbor gets attacked, you don't say, 'How big is the output gap?' "
Krugman has spent the past year downplaying the prospect that Washington's unprecedented spending binge would trigger a surge in inflation. "How Not To Panic About Inflation," he headlined a March column, one of many he has written in 2021 on that theme; among the others were "The Week Inflation Panic Died" in June and "History Says Don't Panic About Inflation" last week.
But while Krugman, President Biden, and others on the left kept insisting there was no reason to be worrying about inflation, inflation grew steadily worse. Last week, the Labor Department confirmed that consumer prices had risen 6.2 percent in October compared with a year ago, the fifth consecutive month in which the increase had been above 5 percent. The United States is experiencing its biggest inflationary spike in 31 years, and it's going to get worse for American households before it gets better: The inflation rate for wholesale goods — a fairly reliable indication of where consumer prices are headed — rose even faster in October than the retail rate.
Everything costs more than it did a year ago. The price of gasoline, motor fuel, eggs, used vehicles, beef, fresh fish, furniture, and televisions are all up by double-digit percentages. New cars and trucks experienced the biggest jump in prices the federal government has ever recorded. With Thanksgiving around the corner, turkeys cost 22 percent more than they did last year.
Inflation in the 1970s persisted for years, and was made worse by rising unemployment and steep interest rates.
As prices climb, the purchasing power of salaries falls. After adjusting for inflation, real wages today are 2.2 percent lower than they were in 2020. That's the flip side of inflation: The number on your paycheck may be unchanged, but you can afford less and less. Even if you shop at Dollar Tree.
This is what happens when the government unleashes an avalanche of spending, flooding the economy with trillions of dollars it can't afford, and insisting against all evidence that it won't lead to inflation, or that the higher prices will only be temporary, or — as Biden claimed recently — that more government spending will somehow reduce inflation. Or even, as some in the media are now contending, that rising inflation is something to celebrate. There was a time when you had to tune in to a comedy show to hear something like that.
Millions of Americans still recall the inflation of the 1970s, when the country was whipsawed by double-digit inflation and painfully high interest rates. It was a "terrible period," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in May. "No one wants to see that happen again."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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