If you asked a group of scholars to name the most important landmarks in the American story of the last half-century, they would list some or all of the following: the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Watergate, the sexual revolution, the invention of the computer chip, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the end of the Cold War, the creation of the Internet, the emergence of AIDS, the terrorist attacks of September 11, and the two wars in Iraq. Looking abroad, these scholars might include other developments: the rise of Japan as a major economic power in the 1970s and ’80s, the emergence of China in the 1980s from its self-imposed isolation, and the spread of nuclear weapons.
Missing from most lists would be the rise and fall of double-digit U.S. inflation. This would be a huge oversight.
We have arrived at the end of a roughly half-century economic cycle dominated by inflation, for good and ill. Its rise and fall constitute one of the great upheavals of our time, though one largely forgotten and misunderstood. From 1960 to 1979, annual U.S. inflation increased from a negligible 1.4 percent to 13.3 percent. By 2001 it had receded to 1.6 percent, almost exactly what it had been in 1960. For this entire period, inflation’s climb and collapse exerted a dominant influence over the economy’s successes and failures. It also shaped, either directly or indirectly, how Americans felt about themselves and their society; how they voted and the nature of their politics; how businesses operated and treated their workers; and how the American economy was connected with the rest of the world. Although no one would claim that inflation’s side effects were the only forces that influenced the nation during these decades, they counted for more than most historians, economists, and journalists think. It’s impossible to decipher our era, or to think sensibly about the future, without understanding the Great Inflation and its aftermath.
Stable prices provide a sense of security. They help define a reliable social and political order. Like safe streets, clean drinking water, and dependable electricity, their importance is noticed only when they go missing. When they did just that in the 1970s, Americans were horrified. From week to week, people couldn’t know the cost of their groceries, utility bills, appliances, dry cleaning, toothpaste, and pizza. People couldn’t predict whether their wages would keep pace with prices. People couldn’t plan; their savings were at risk. And no one seemed capable of controlling inflation. The inflationary episode was a deeply disturbing and disillusioning experience that eroded Americans’ confidence in their future and their leaders.
There were widespread consequences. Without double-digit inflation, Ronald Reagan almost certainly would not have been elected president in 1980; the conservative political movement that he inspired would have emerged later or, conceivably, not at all. High inflation incontestably destabilized the economy, leading to four recessions (those of 1969–70, 1973–75, 1980, and 1981–82) of growing severity. High inflation stunted the increase of living standards through lower productivity growth. High inflation caused the stock market to stagnate; the Dow Jones Industrial Average was no higher in 1982 than in 1965. And it led to a series of debt crises that afflicted American farmers, the U.S. savings and loan industry, and developing countries.
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Afterward, declining inflation—“disinflation”—led to lower interest rates, which led to higher stock prices and, much later, higher home prices. This disinflation promoted the last quarter century’s prosperity. In the two decades after 1982, the business cycle moderated so that the country suffered only two relatively mild recessions (those of 1990–91 and 2001), lasting a total of 16 months. Monthly unemployment peaked at 7.8 percent in June 1992. As stock and home values rose, Americans felt wealthier and borrowed more or spent more of their current incomes. A great shopping spree ensued, and the savings rate declined. Trade deficits—stimulated by Americans’ ravenous appetite for cars, computers, toys, and shoes—ballooned. At the same time, this prolonged prosperity helped spawn complacency and carelessness, which ultimately climaxed in a different sort of economic instability and the financial turmoil that assaulted the economy in 2007 and 2008.
Who Was to Blame?
Double-digit inflation was not an act of nature or a random accident. It was the federal government’s greatest domestic policy blunder since World War II, the perverse consequence of well-meaning economic policies, promoted by some of the nation’s most eminent academic economists. These policies promised to control the business cycle but ended up making it worse.
The episode invites comparison with the war in Vietnam, the biggest foreign policy blunder in the post–World War II era. Both arose from good intentions: The one would preserve freedom; the other would expand prosperity. Both had intellectuals as advocates, whether economists or theorists of limited war. Both suffered from overreach and simplification; events on the ground constantly confounded expectations. But there is a big difference. One (Vietnam) occupies a huge space in historic memory. The other (inflation) does not.
This inflation had no comparable precedent in American history. Sudden bursts of inflation had occurred before, almost always during wars when the government printed more money to pay for guns, soldiers, ships, and ammunition. What happened in the 1960s and ’70s was different. America’s most protracted peacetime inflation was the unintended side effect of policies designed to reduce unemployment and eliminate the business cycle. It was a product of the power of ideas.
In the 1960s, academic economists argued—and political leaders accepted—that the economy could be kept permanently near “full employment” (initially defined as 4 percent unemployment). Booms and busts, recessions and depressions, had long been considered ugly and unavoidable aspects of industrial capitalism. But once people accepted the idea that the business cycle could be mastered, the self-restraint that had silently kept prices and wages in check gradually crumbled. New assumptions emerged. If government could prevent recessions, then companies could always count on strong demand for their products. All higher costs (including higher labor costs) could be recovered through higher prices. Similarly, if the economy was always near “full employment,” then workers could press for higher wages without facing job loss. If their current employers wouldn’t pay, someone else would. Government wouldn’t tolerate substantial unemployment; that was its promise. The result was a stubborn wage-price spiral. Wages chased prices, which chased wages. Inflation became self-fulfilling and entrenched.
Everything rested on an illusion, the Phillips Curve: the notion that there was a fixed tradeoff between unemployment and inflation. If true, that meant a society could consciously decide how much of one or the other it wanted. If, say, 4 percent unemployment and 4 percent inflation seemed superior to 5 percent unemployment and 3 percent inflation, then we could choose the former. The trouble was that the tradeoff didn’t exist, except for brief periods. In an important 1968 paper, the economist Milton Friedman explained that, if government tried to hold unemployment below some “natural rate,” the result would simply be accelerating inflation. Another economist, Edmund Phelps of Columbia University, developed the concept almost simultaneously. By their logic, governmental efforts to push unemployment down to unrealistic levels were doomed to failure.
What would actually happen in the 1970s—the constant acceleration of inflation—was foretold by Friedman and Phelps. But good ideas could not spontaneously displace the bad until actual experience demonstrated the differences, especially because the bad ideas were more politically attractive. For inflation to be reversed, the underlying politics and psychology had to change.