Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential election for many reasons—energy woes, taxes and regulations, crises in Iran and Afghanistan, discomfort with the sexual revolution, a vague yet unmistakeable "crisis of confidence" that Reagan's Democratic rival, President Jimmy Carter, infamously described in his 1979 "malaise" speech. But all that took second place to a single, highly specific metric: inflation.
By October 1979, Americans agreed by an overwhelming margin that inflation was the most important issue facing the country. A New York Times/CBS News poll found that 40 percent of the country named it as their top concern, more than twice the number that picked the next biggest concern, energy. That 40 percent figure arguably understated the public's sense of alarm: Another 20 percent said inflation was an important problem (if not the most important), and 8 percent said the nation's biggest issue was "the economy," which could easily cover concerns about stagnant wages and rising prices. Even those who named "energy" were likely worried about supply constraints and spiraling costs.
It's not hard to understand why Americans were so concerned. Inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, hit 13.3 percent in 1979, its highest level in more than three decades. In 1980, that figure came in at an only-slightly-reduced 12.4 percent. All of this came in the context of a decade that saw dramatically slower overall economic growth than in the previous two decades, and a substantial reduction in typical family income, even as two-earner households became more common with the mass entry of women into the workforce. Inflation was eating into family earnings, to the point where some were making more on paper yet found themselves with reduced buying power.
By summer 1979, the vast majority of Americans (84 percent) told Gallup that the country was on the wrong track. Inflation was the single metric by which the country's failures and foibles could be measured. It was the country's most pressing problem. The question was what the next president was going to do about it.
American politicians had tried to control inflation before. The presidents and power brokers of the 1970s had tried price controls, public campaigns, pressure programs, blame games, and attempts to redefine basic economic terminology. The parties differed on the specifics, but both seemed to agree that the voting public and the private sector were to blame, not the bureaucrats and politicians in charge.
Inflation, in short, was a political problem, in the sense that it caused problems for politicians. But it wasn't one America's politicians knew how to solve.
On the contrary, America's political class had spent the '70s failing to fix inflation, or actively making it worse, often with policies designed to address other political and economic problems. That decade's price hikes were prolonged and exacerbated by political decisions born of short-term thinking, outright cowardice, and technocratic hubris about policy makers' ability to enact sweeping changes and manage the macroeconomy.
Now, more than 40 years later, it's (kind of, sort of) happening again.
We Were All Keynesians Then
Inflation came to a head as a political issue in 1980, but the story began more than a decade earlier. The spirit of that era was captured in a December 1965 cover story for Time, dedicated to the economist John Maynard Keynes. After declaring in its title that "We are all Keynesians now," Time touted the near-total domination of Keynes' theories of macroeconomic management.
Keynes was initially thought of as "little but a left-wing mischief maker," Time reported, but by the mid-1960s his ideas had "been so widely accepted that they constitute both the new orthodoxy in the universities and the touchstone of economic management in Washington. They have led to a greater degree of government involvement in the nation's economy than ever before in time of general peace." The story went on to quote White House budget director Charles L. Schultze, who said, "We can't prevent every little wiggle in the economic cycle, but we now can prevent a major slide." The economy, in the view of many Washington power brokers, had been solved. Such was the confidence of the age.
Schultze was first appointed as a deputy in the White House budget office by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, and he would later serve as President Lyndon B. Johnson's budget chief as well as Carter's top economic adviser, creating a continuity of policy between nearly two decades of Democratic administrations.
Johnson was the Oval Office architect of what became known as the Great Society, explicitly portrayed as a sequel-in-spirit to the New Deal of the 1930s. In addition to the health care programs Medicare and Medicaid, the Great Society featured a bundle of programs designed to lift up the poor, which Johnson dubbed the War on Poverty. Kennedy had already embarked on an anti-poverty initiative, structured as a 10-city demonstration program. But Johnson wanted more than a series of pilots.
In his memoir, The Vantage Point, Johnson wrote of his dissatisfaction with that narrower approach. He was determined to "not start small." Instead, his program "had to be big and bold and hit the whole nation with real impact.…I didn't want to paste together a lot of existing approaches. I wanted original, inspiring ideas." Johnson exploited the nation's grief over the assassination of Kennedy to advance and expand a government-centric liberal agenda. And thus, historian Steven F. Hayward notes in The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, the "cautious, incremental approach of the demonstration project was swept aside in favor of a mad dash to an immediate national program." Bigger programs were better programs, not because there was any evidence that bigger was better, but because bigger programs were an end unto themselves.
It wasn't so much that the War on Poverty itself drove inflation, but Johnson's unchecked ambitions for new federal programs and economic intervention set the stage for the economic turmoil of the 1970s. His desire for "big and bold" federal programs summed up the policy hubris that ran through the political establishment, especially but not only among liberals.
By far the biggest components of the Great Society were the health care programs, Medicare and Medicaid, which swiftly outpaced their initial spending projections and coincided with rapid expansions of health care spending in the economy. Before Medicare and Medicaid began in 1966, health care spending as a share of the economy had held steady at around 5 percent of GDP. By 1980, that figure was nearly 9 percent and rising quickly. Overall federal spending exploded in the late 1960s, growing at double-digit rates most years, partly because of Great Society spending and partly due to the escalating costs of the war in Vietnam.
Most economists and politicians of the era misunderstood the causes of inflation. As inflation began to tick up in the late 1960s, Johnson's Council of Economic Advisers blamed monopolies; their solutions were a mix of antitrust and bully-pulpit pressure. Johnson employed a tactic that came to be called "jawboning," which Time, comparing Johnson's approach with Nixon's, described in 1969 as involving "White House pressure on specific industries against specific price increases."
President Richard Nixon also pressured business to hold down prices and wages, but the inflation rate continued to climb. In 1965, Nixon had insisted that "the lesson that government price fixing doesn't work is never learned," and during his presidential campaign he promised he would "not take this nation down the road of wage and price controls." But when inflation hit 6 percent in 1971, that's exactly what he did.
In August 1971, Nixon delivered a prime-time speech in which he announced that he was officially "ordering a freeze on all prices and wages throughout the United States for a period of 90 days" and appointing "a Cost of Living Council within the government" tasked with working "with leaders of labor and business to set up the proper mechanism for achieving continued price and wage stability after the 90-day freeze is over."
It was a transparently political move designed to counter the widespread sense that his economic plan consisted of simply doing nothing about inflation. That perception had cost Republicans a dozen House seats in Congress in the 1970 midterm election, and Nixon was no doubt well aware of the toll that inflation could take on a politician's fortunes. Thus, Nixon's Executive Order 11615 called for the establishment of a Pay Board and a Price Commission to manage the economy following the initial 90-day freeze, with the goal of eventually lifting the control—after the next election. The price controls were popular at the time, and Nixon won reelection in 1972, but the price increases didn't stop.
Undeterred, Nixon briefly reinstated a freeze on prices in 1973. Not only did he fail to learn the lesson that price controls don't work, he made the same mistake twice.
After Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal, his successor, Gerald Ford, resorted to jawboning voters, pleading with them to "whip inflation now," or "WIN" by cutting their expenses, living a little more frugally, and wearing catchphrase-printed pins on their lapels. Inflation, apparently, could not possibly have been the fault of politicians or policy makers. It had to be someone else. For Johnson, the culprit was corporations. For Nixon, it was employers paying unapproved wages. For Ford, it was the voters themselves.
By the time Carter became president, inflation so bedeviled the administration's fortunes that it produced sentences from American officialdom like this one: "Between 1973 and 1975 we had the deepest banana that we had in 35 years, and yet inflation dipped only very briefly."
Banana was the word that Alfred Kahn, the top economist on Carter's inflation task force, had taken to using instead of recession. Despite Nixon's price controls and Ford's WIN campaign, prices had surged throughout the decade. Under Carter, they spiked yet higher.
When Carter eventually faced Reagan in a head-to-head debate, just days before the 1980 election, the issue inevitably arose. Carter was asked about the rapid rise in inflation during his tenure, with increases in the Consumer Price Index jumping from 4.8 percent in 1976 to more than 12 percent in 1980. "Can inflation," the moderator wondered, "in fact be controlled?"
Carter dodged and deflected, blaming OPEC for raising oil prices and defending his lackluster economy on the grounds that "the recession that resulted this time was the briefest we've had since the Second World War." Plus, he said, job creation was strong, with 9 million new jobs. He insisted that Reagan's plan to cut income taxes could result in a 30 percent inflation rate. And, in a follow-up, he returned to the old idea that it was the economic indulgences of the American people that were most relevant to rising prices. "We have demanded that the American people sacrifice," he said.
When Reagan got a chance to answer a version of the same question, he flipped Carter's response: "I think this idea that has been spawned here in our country, that inflation somehow came upon us like a plague and therefore it's uncontrollable and no one can do anything about it, is entirely spurious," he said. He noted Carter's broken promises on the economy, cited the millions of Americans still out of work, and rebuked the president for trying to escape blame. Carter, Reagan said, had blamed "the people for inflation, OPEC, he's blamed the Federal Reserve System, he has blamed the lack of productivity of the American people, he has then accused the people of living too well and that we must share in scarcity, we must sacrifice and get used to doing with less. We don't have inflation because the people are living too well. We have inflation because the government is living too well."
Reagan may not have been correct about every specific claim he made in that exchange, but it hardly mattered. He had highlighted the fecklessness of Carter—and, by implication, the past decade and a half of American presidents—on inflation. Faced with public anger over rising prices, they had blithely treated macroeconomic management as a solved problem, run up federal spending on ambitious social welfare programs, and deployed marketing gimmicks and economic controls they should have known would fail to resolve the underlying problem. In their self-centered hubris, in their refusal to admit that government could be the source of economic problems rather than the solution, they paved the way for Reagan's presidency.
The conservative policy realignment that Reagan ushered in—on taxes, military spending, foreign policy, and more—was thus a product of inflation. That inflation was in large part a product of a decade and a half of liberal overreach.
The clearest error in Reagan's retort to Carter was in his invocation of the Federal Reserve. Carter had, at times, blamed the central bank for inflation. But in that case, Carter wasn't simply deflecting. Through the 1960s and the 1970s, economic policy makers had believed there was a direct tradeoff between unemployment and inflation—and they had expressed a preference for inflation if it meant keeping unemployment down.
In the early 1960s, a pair of Nobel Prize–winning economists, Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow, argued that in order to keep unemployment around 3 percent, U.S. policy makers should be willing to accept that "the price index might have to rise by as much as 4 to 5 percent a year. That much price rise would seem to be the necessary cost of high employment." Both economists were close to Kennedy, who pushed for low interest rates, hoping to spur rapid economic growth.
This approach was passed on to successive administrations. By 1971, reeling from political backlash to a recession, Nixon reportedly said, "We'll take inflation if necessary, but we can't take unemployment," according to William Greider's 1987 book Secrets of the Temple.
Nixon, too, made it known that he wanted cheap interest rates and easy money, pressuring his newly installed Fed chief, Arthur Burns, to follow through. In 1971, he said that "what we're going to do first is have an expansionary budget," according to David Frum's 2000 book How We Got Here. "We also, according to Dr. Arthur Burns, will have an expansionary monetary policy, and that will, of course, be a monetary policy adequate to meet the needs of an expanding economy." And from December 1971 to December 1972, the country's money supply grew precipitously, from $228 billion to $249 billion. Nixon's economic plans were never secret or hidden. He wanted more federal spending, and the grease of expansionary monetary policy came from the Federal Reserve.
Another Nobel Prize–winning economist, Milton Friedman, famously said that "Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output." One might quibble that declines in supply can produce the same effect, even if the money supply stays constant. But the principle is sound. The causes of inflation may be complex and multitudinous, but they boil down to too much money chasing too few goods.
In the 1970s, that is exactly what happened in the American economy, often by design. As Frum wrote, "The United States had consciously chosen to inflate its currency. It made that choice because of the political ideology and personal weakness of the men entrusted with the job of managing the American economy: their utopianism, their arrogance, and then finally their cowardice."
The inflation that vaulted Reagan into office was not an accident or an incidental effect of policy. It was the result of deliberate policy choices.
In late January 2021, just days after President Joe Biden was sworn into office, The New York Times published an article whose headline declared that the new president was pursuing "the biggest stimulus in history."
The details were still coming together, the Times noted, but the plan's backers were more focused on headline numbers than policy specifics. They wanted a spending package that was big, almost independent of what was in it. "It's better to err on the side of too much rather than too little," Moody's Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi told the Times. "Interest rates are at zero, inflation is low, unemployment is high. You don't need a textbook to know this is when you push on the fiscal accelerator."
Biden echoed this line in his pitch for the bill, which quickly came together as a $1.9 trillion package dubbed the American Rescue Plan. "Let me be clear," he tweeted in February 2021. "The risk in this moment isn't that we do too much—it's that we don't do enough. Congress must pass the American Rescue Plan to change the course of this pandemic and start our economic recovery."
Critics, including some economists associated with the Democratic Party, warned that Biden's determination to go big could set off an inflationary spiral. Among the most prominent of those critics was Harvard economist Lawrence Summers, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, who in February 2021 wrote in The Washington Post that "while there are enormous uncertainties, there is a chance that macroeconomic stimulus on a scale closer to World War II levels than normal recession levels will set off inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation, with consequences for the value of the dollar and financial stability."
Biden ignored Summers' call for a substantially smaller bill. The president flatly rejected a Republican counteroffer that would have cut the bill's cost to about $600 billion in more narrowly targeted pandemic relief. He offered no substantial criticism of the idea; he simply objected that it was too small.
There was no risk in overreach. The only danger was in doing too little.
This attitude was in many ways a holdover from the 2007–'08 financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed. The prevailing sense among many economists, pundits, and politicians on the left was that despite passing a nearly $900 billion stimulus package shortly after taking office—the largest ever at the time—the Obama administration had been too cautious and conservative in its response. The Federal Reserve had effectively lowered interest rates to zero and held them there for more than a decade, and it had expanded the money supply through multiple rounds of monetary stimulus called "quantitative easing." Yet they felt the Great Recession dragged on for so long because that historically large response was insufficient. This time would be different. There would be no such timidity. As that January 2021 Times article said, "Supporters of a 'hot' economy see a chance to correct the mistakes of the last recession."
Under Obama, Democrats had not only passed a sweeping stimulus plan; they had pushed through the Affordable Care Act, the largest single expansion of federal social spending in decades. And they had increased the federal government's regulatory oversight in myriad ways, especially regarding the environment. Obama had often described his legislative achievements as middle-of-the-road compromises, but they were nothing if not ambitious.
And then there was President Donald Trump, who throughout his presidency publicly pressured the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low and to keep pursuing bond-buying monetary expansions. "We have the potential to go up like a rocket if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing," Trump tweeted in April 2019. "Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!" Inflation was low, in other words, so there was no real risk to stepping on the gas. Why not push the economy even harder? Even before Biden stepped into the Oval Office, Trump wanted to run the economy hot.
When the COVID-19 pandemic set in, Congress passed and Trump signed the CARES Act, the largest fiscal stimulus in history. Combined with several follow-up packages, pandemic relief spending ultimately totaled about $6 trillion, all deficit-financed. Among those bills' provisions were checks of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child for most households in the country, $800 billion in forgivable loan programs for businesses, and a new federal unemployment benefit so large that many beneficiaries actually earned more being out of work than they had while employed. The Trump and Biden administrations took other actions, including suspending the repayment of student loans and temporarily prohibiting evictions for people who failed to pay rent. The American Rescue Plan passed under Biden included a temporary program of monthly checks doled out to the vast majority of American parents.
So even as a pandemic and associated restrictions on business activity wreaked havoc on the economy, American bank accounts swelled. From March 2020 to January 2022, according to the Brookings Institution, American households socked away $2.5 trillion in "excess savings," mostly in the form of bank deposits. Some of this was due to the circumstances of the pandemic, which depressed spending on travel and eating out. But much of it was a direct result of policies that showered easy cash on American households. "Although labor-market income was quite weak early in the pandemic," the Brookings report says, "federal benefits more than compensated overall."
Americans were flush with cash and stuck at home. So they bought stuff. Couches, vinyl records, large televisions, large bottles of whiskey, webcams, desk chairs, sweatpants, clothes that weren't sweatpants but somehow felt like sweatpants—anything that would make an extended stay at home more comfortable was suddenly a hot commodity. Good luck finding a new video game console at the $500 retail price: On eBay, PlayStation 5 consoles regularly sold for over $1,000.
And people bought food. So much food. During the early days of the pandemic, grocery store shelves were bare; meat, especially, was difficult to find. The worst shortages were mostly resolved within a few months, but prices for in-demand items marched steadily upward and some supply issues persisted. By summer 2021, it was so difficult to find chicken wings that Wingstop, a chicken wing chain, launched Thighstop, a new brand intended to move consumers away from their core product.
Pandemic-era labor costs and supply-chain kinks contributed to the problems, but demand for durable goods and home-cooked food had gone through the roof. Despite the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, this was a classic, practically textbook inflationary scenario. Too much money was chasing too few goods.
Prices began to rise.
Days of Deflection
At first, the Biden administration dismissed concerns about inflation, arguing that it would be "temporary." In June 2021, as the annual inflation rate ticked up to 5.4 percent, Biden said, "Our experts believe, and the data shows, that most of the price increases we've seen were expected and expected to be temporary."
But prices kept rising. In December, after the year-over-year rate hit 6.8 percent, Biden admitted that inflation was a "real bump in the road" but also predicted that the economy had reached the "peak of the crisis." It hadn't. Prices rose every month for more than a year. In June 2022, the annual inflation rate hit 9.1 percent, the highest since November 1981.
As prices continued to soar, Biden and his allies stopped insisting it would be temporary. Instead they said it wasn't their fault. In late 2021, then–White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the "root cause" was the pandemic. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), following a cohort of left-leaning policy activists, blamed greedy corporations "exploiting the pandemic to raise prices on everyday essentials." In late 2021, The New York Times reported that "as rising inflation threatens his presidency, President Biden is turning to the federal government's antitrust authorities to try to tame red-hot price increases." The president didn't blame OPEC, but when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Biden administration found its own foreign culprit: Inflation became "Putin's price hike."
In Congress and in the media, talk of price controls returned. In August 2022, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D–N.Y.) introduced the Emergency Price Stabilization Act, which calls for the federal government to "build the capacity to establish limits on the growth of certain prices, and to otherwise strategically regulate such prices, in order to stabilize the cost of essential goods and services." A Princeton historian and an Amherst economist argued in The Washington Post that World War II–era price controls were a "total success" and that targeted price caps could effectively fight inflation again.
Biden congratulated himself when a Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that there was no overall inflation for the single month of July 2022: "I just want to say a number: zero. Today, we received news that our economy had zero inflation in the month of July. Zero percent," Biden said in August. The same report showed the year-over-year inflation rate—the most common way of discussing inflation data—at 8.5 percent.
Once again, there was talk of a recession. At the end of July, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released preliminary data showing two consecutive quarters of negative growth, a common colloquial definition of a recession. Recessions are formally determined, though, by a small, secretive group of economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research, who often wait months or years to announce that one is happening or has happened. On social media, there were endless pedantic debates about whether or not to use the "r" word. The economy was in a technical mystery state; it had become a sort of Schrödinger's banana.
Biden declared early in 2022 that fighting inflation would be his top priority, but declined to take straightforward steps to do so. The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimated that a package of tariff reductions could reduce one measure of inflation by 1.3 percentage points, leaving a typical U.S. household with an additional $797, but Biden resisted calls to reduce costly trade barriers.
Instead, his inflation-fighting commitment mostly turned out to mean he'd rebrand his familiar economic agenda as a set of inflation-fighting tools. In August, Congress passed and Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, a package of climate and health care spending programs paired with a corporate tax hike. It was essentially a scaled-down version of the "Build Back Better" plan that Biden had pursued the previous year, when inflation hadn't been a priority.
Despite its name, there was little reason to expect the law to have much impact on inflation, especially in the short term. Analysts at the Penn Wharton Budget Model, a macroeconomic simulator often used to extrapolate the effects of federal policy, concluded that "the Act would have no meaningful effect on inflation in the near term." At best, it might reduce inflation by 0.1 percentage points several years after enactment, and even that was in doubt. "These point estimates," the authors concluded, "are not statistically different from zero, indicating a low level of confidence that the legislation would have any measurable impact on inflation." Similarly, analysts at JPMorgan Chase said the law would have "almost no effect" on the expected growth in prices.
The White House's position was that the bill would help struggling families by making drugs, health insurance, and energy more affordable. The bill included a system of de facto price controls for drugs in Medicare; extended subsidies for individual market health insurance under Obamacare, the biggest benefit of which would go to six-figure earners; and various subsidies and tax credits designed to promote green energy, including an electric vehicle subsidy that, thanks to various "Buy American" rules, would apply to no vehicles now on the market.
In short, the bill was supposed to fight inflation by hiding the true cost of goods and services through federal subsidies and price regulations. Maybe Nixon was right after all: "The lesson that government price fixing doesn't work is never learned."
This Is the Remix
If Democrats perform poorly in the November midterms or Biden loses the 2024 presidential election, it will be because of a complex array of reasons, some political, some social, some economic, some psychological, some within Biden's power to affect, some totally beyond his control. But as in 1980, all of those issues will probably take second place to a single specific metric, one that in its way serves as a catch-all for all the others.
Controversies over shifting racial norms dominate social and political discourse. Youth-driven trends in sexual identification and behavior have left many upset and unsettled. Trust in institutions is at an all-time low. There is a prevailing sense of apocalypticism: Books and op-ed pages regularly raise the prospect of a new civil war. In June 2022, Gallup reported that 87 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. America is once again facing a crisis of confidence.
And once again, polls show that rising prices top all other priorities for voters.
Is America of 2022 simply repeating the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s? It isn't a note-for-note remake, but it does feel rather like a remix, a collage of historically familiar elements rearranged and repackaged in an updated aesthetic. If there is a lesson to be learned from the inflationary drama of the recent past, it is that inflation is to some degree a policy choice, made for political reasons. And thus, as with Reagan in the 1980s, it has both policy and political consequences.
This time, however, the next Republican presidential nominee won't be Reagan. The resulting political and policy revolution, whatever form it takes, will almost certainly be one that Biden and his fellow Democrats find far from agreeable. When they object, it will be worth remembering: They chose this path. They were warned. And they have no one to blame but themselves.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Inflation, Remixed".