Stagflation Is, Always and Everwhere, a Keynesian Phenomenon by John Butler Atom Capital
Although it might seem odd for a school of economics to largely ignore the role of money in the economy, this is indeed the case with traditional Keynesian economics. Declaring in 1963 that, “Inflation is, always and everywhere, a monetary phenomenon,” Milton Friedman sought to place money at the center of economics where he and his fellow Monetarists believed it belonged. Keynesian policies continued to dominate into the 1970s, however, and were blamed by the Monetarists and others for the ‘stagflation’ of that decade—weak growth with rising inflation. Today, stagflation is re-appearing, the inevitable result of the aggressive, neo-Keynesian policy responses to the 2008 global financial crisis. In this report, I discuss the causes, symptoms and financial market consequences of the new stagflation, which could well be worse than the 1970s.
The Golden Age of Keynesianism
During the ‘Roaring 20s’, U.S. economists mostly belonged to various ‘laissez faire’ or ‘liquidationist’ schools of thought, holding that economic downturns were best left to sort themselves out, with a minimal role for official intervention. President Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (in)famously represented this view following the 1929 stock market crash when he admonished the government to stay out of private affairs and allow businesses and investors to “Liquidate! Liquidate! Liquidate!”
The severity of the Depression caught much of the laissez-faire crowd off guard and thus by 1936, the year John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory, there was a certain open-mindedness around what he had to say, in particular that there was a critical role for the government to play in supporting demand during economic downturns through deficit spending. (There were a handful of prominent economists who did warn that the 1920s boom was likely to turn into a big bust, including Ludwig von Mises.)
While campaigning for president in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously painted Herbert Hoover as a lasseiz faire president, when in fact Hoover disagreed with Mellon. As Murray Rothbard and others have demonstrated, Hoover was a highly interventionist president, setting several major precedents on which FDR would subsequently expand. But all is fair in politics and FDR won that election and subsequent elections in landslides.
With the onset of war and the command war economy it engendered, in the early 1940s the economics debate went silent. With the conclusion of war, it promptly restarted. Friedrich von Hayek fired an early, eloquent shot at the Keynesians in 1946 with The Road to Serfdom, his warning of the longer-term consequences of central economic planning.
The Keynesians, however, fired back, and with much new ammunition. Beginning in the early 20th century, several U.S. government agencies, including the Federal Reserve, began to compile vast amounts of economic statistics and to create indices to aggregate macroeconomic data. This was a treasure-trove to Keynesians, who sought quantitative confirmation that their theories were correct. Sure enough, in 1947, a new, definitive Keynesian work appeared, Foundations of Economic Analysis, by Paul Samuelson, that presented statistical ‘proof’ that Keynes was right.
One of Samuelson’s core contentions was that economic officials could and should maintain full employment (ie low unemployment) through the prompt application of targeted stimulus in recessions. As recessions ended, the stimulus should be withdrawn, lest price inflation rise to a harmful level. Thus well-trained economists keeping an eye on the data and remaining promptly reactive in response to changes in key macroeconomic variables could minimize the business cycle and prevent Depression.
For government officials, Samuelson’s work was the Holy Grail. Not only was this a theoretical justification for an active government role in managing the economy, as Keynes had provided; now there was hard data to prove it and a handbook for just how to provide it. A rapid, historic expansion of public sector macroeconomics soon followed, swelling the ranks of Treasury, Commerce, Labor Department and Federal Reserve employees.
Chicago and the ‘Freshwater’ Dissent
Notwithstanding the establishment of this new economic mainstream and a public sector that wholeheartedly embraced it, there was some dissent, in particular at the so-called ‘freshwater’ universities of the American Midwest: Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota and St Louis, among others.
Disagreeing with key Keynesian assumptions and also with Samuelson’s interpretation of historical data, Monetarists mounted an aggressive counterattack in the 1960s, led by Milton Friedman of the Chicago School. Thomas Sargent, co-founder of Rational Expectations Theory, also took part.
The Chicago School disagreed that there was a stable relationship between inflation and employment that could be effectively managed through fiscal policy. Rather, Friedman and his colleagues argued that Keynesians had made a grave error in largely ignoring the role of money in the economy. Together with his colleague Anna Schwarz, Friedman set out to correct this in the monumental Monetary History of the United States, which re-interpreted the Great Depression, among other major events in U.S. economic history, as primarily a monetary — rather than demand-driven phenomenon. Thus inflation, according to Friedman and Schwarz, was “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” rather than a function of fiscal policy or other demand-side developments.
By the late 1960s the dissent played a central role in escalating policy disputes, due primarily to a prolonged expansion of U.S. fiscal policy. Following Keynesian policy guidance, the government responded to the gentle recession of the early 1960s with fiscal stimulus. However, even after the recession was over, there was a reluctance to tighten policy, for reasons both foreign and domestic. At home, President Johnson promised a ‘Great Society’: a huge expansion of various programs supposedly intended to help the poor and otherwise disadvantaged groups. Abroad, the Vietnam War had escalated into a major conflict and, combined with other Cold War military commitments, led to a huge expansion of the defence budget.
De Gaulle and International Dissent
In the early 1960s a handful of prescient domestic observers had already begun to warn of the increasingly inflationary course of U.S. fiscal and monetary policy (Henry Hazlitt wrote a book about it, What Inflation Is, in 1961.) In the mid-1960s this also became an important international topic. Under the Bretton-Woods system, the U.S. was obliged to back dollars in circulation with gold reserves and to maintain an international gold price of $35/oz. In early 1965, as scepticism mounted that the U.S. was serious about sustaining this arrangement, French President Charles De Gaulle announced to the world that he desired a restructuring of Bretton-Woods to place gold itself, rather than the dollar, at the center of the international monetary system.
This prominent public dissent against Bretton-Woods unleashed a series of international monetary crises, roughly one each year, culminating in President Nixon’s decision to suspend ‘temporarily’ the dollar’s convertibility into gold in August 1971. (Temporarily? That was 43 years ago this month!)
The breakdown of Bretton-Woods would not be complete until 1973, when the world moved formally to a floating-rate regime unbacked by gold. However, while currencies subsequently ‘floated’ relative to one another, they collectively sank in purchasing power. The price of gold soared, as did the price of crude oil and many other commodities.
Rather than maintain stable prices by slowing the growth rate of the money supply and raising interest rates, the U.S. Federal Reserve fatefully facilitated the dollar’s general devaluation with negative real interest rates. While it took several years to build,