The messy true story of the last time we beat inflation

“The monetary tightening inaugurated by Volcker was one part of an entire deflationary policy repertoire that also included union-busting and the creation of a global supply chain to hold down the costs of labor, components, and commodities.”

“The Fed might be able to choke off credit to slow investment and job creation, but it can’t create the real-world political, legal, and logistical systems that in the past have kept prices down even amid economic growth.
To truly tame prices, we can’t just turn off the money hose. We have to plan for more concrete long-term solutions to a lack of labor, commodities, and goods.”

“Volcker’s shock and central bank independence happened at the same time as Ronald Reagan’s anti-union effort; the emergence of New Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who were less sympathetic to organized labor than their New Deal and Great Society forebears; and the collapse of union membership across almost every sector of the economy except government. Volcker and his central banker colleagues were keenly aware of the importance of union power to increasing wages: The minutes of Fed meetings show that these policymakers fixated on the ability of unions to set wages even after many academic economists had moved on from the subject.”

” Just as Volcker’s rate hikes coincided with a bipartisan anti-union push, so the rise of central banks paralleled the acceleration of globalization and the creation of a world-spanning super-efficient “just in time” supply chain. New logistics infrastructure, trade deals, and methods of inventory management allowed firms to get cheap commodities and components from the other side of the world astonishingly quickly. Globalization also reinforced the attack on unions, since it allowed businesses to move factories to countries with weaker labor laws, humbling labor leaders of industrialized economies. After the 1980s, and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, markets began to integrate many formerly communist countries with large, well-educated — but poorly paid — workforces and ample natural resources. The creation of global supply chains depended in large part on a relatively calm geopolitical scene, with no serious confrontations between “great powers,” who generally seemed to be on the same page regarding globalization.”

“It’s this model of globalization that is currently breaking down, leading to volatile rising prices. As anyone who has ordered a piece of furniture in the last two years can tell you, “just in time” has become a thing of the past. Instead of speedy manufacturing getting imported from any nation on earth, now we import their supply chain bottlenecks, as, say, plumbing component manufacturers in China hamstrung by that country’s “zero-Covid” policy hold up house completions in the United States.

While supply chain bottlenecks were widely predicted to ease in 2022, geopolitics got in the way. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent economic retaliation rocked global energy supplies, a particularly troubling economic disruption since energy is a vital component of nearly every product, and further poisoned relations between wealthy Western countries and Russia’s key ally, China, where so much of the stuff Americans buy is made. Instead of getting more cheap electronics from China, the world’s second-largest economy, the US is sanctioning the chip industry there.

If the Federal Reserve is largely removed from the internal dynamics of the labor market, it has even less to do with foreign policy and geo-strategic maneuvering.”

“We don’t want policymakers to make the mistake of fighting the last war. If we leave inflation up to the central bankers rather than continuing the push for coordinated investments in cost-saving renewable energy and dense housing, or policies that reverse the shrinkage of the labor supply since the pandemic, we won’t so much beat inflation as resign ourselves to a poorer, less-resilient future.”

What the 1970s Can Teach Us About Today’s Inflationary Politics

“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.”

” 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.”

Humanity was stagnant for millennia — then something big changed 150 years ago

“It really looks that we had as much technological change and progress between 1870 and today as we had between 6000 BC and 1870 AD. We packed what had previously been nearly eight millennia of changes in the underlying technological hardware of society, which required changes in the running sociological code on top of that hardware. To try to pack what had been eight millennia worth of changes before in 150 years is going to produce an awful lot of history.

Before 1870, most of history is how elites run their force-and-fraud, domination-and-extraction mechanism against a poor peasantry so that they, at least, can have enough, and so that their children are only two inches shorter than we are, rather than five or six as the peasants are. It’s about how the elites elbow each other out of the way as they eat from the trough. And it’s about the use they make of their wealth for purposes good and ill, of civilization and destruction.

But if you’re enough of a Marxist, like me, to say that the real motor of history is the forces of production, their changes, and how society reacts for good or ill to changing forces of production, then yes, [1870 to 2010] has to be as consequential because there’s as much technological change-driven history as there is in entire millennia before.”

“you look worldwide and you take my index of technological progress, and it [grows by] less than half a percent per year from 1770 to 1870. That’s based on exploitation of really cheap coal and also on the productivity benefits of falling transport costs that gather all of the manufacturing in the world into the place [the United Kingdom] where it’s most productive and most efficient, because it’s the place where coal is cheapest.

I was struck by a line I came across from the 1871 version of John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy: “Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toll of any human being.”

Say you have some slowdown in global technological progress after 1870 because the cheapest coal has already been mined and the deeper coal is hard to find, and say that you have some other slowdown because you don’t get the boost from gathering manufacturing in places where it’s productive. We might well have wound up right with a steampunk world after 1870: a world with about the population of today, but the living standards of 1870 on average.

That’s what the pace of progress was, except that we got the industrial research lab, the modern corporation, and then full globalization around 1870. The industrial research lab rationalized and routinized the discovery and development of technologies; the corporation rationalized and routinized the development and deployment of technologies; and globalization diffused them everywhere.”

Why Won’t the Biden Administration Join Gorsuch in Seeking To Overrule These Racist SCOTUS Precedents?

“Between 1901 and 1904, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a series of cases, collectively known as the Insular Cases, which asked whether the Constitution should fully apply to the residents of Puerto Rico and other territories recently acquired by the U.S. after its victory in the Spanish-American War. The Court held that the Constitution did not fully apply in those U.S.-held territories.
The Insular Cases have been severely criticized—then and now—for being the product of racist and imperialist thinking. The legal scholar Walter F. Pratt Jr., author of The Insular Cases: The Role of the Judiciary in American Expansionism, described the legal arguments involved as “largely racially motivated,” since the Court effectively held that “the people of the new territories were unfit to become citizens.”

A similar criticism of the Insular Cases was recently voiced by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who argued that “the Insular Cases have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes. They deserve no place in our law.””

“Gorsuch also added his voice to those calling for the Insular Cases to be wiped off the books. “The time has come to recognize that the Insular Cases rest on a rotten foundation,” Gorsuch wrote. “And I hope the day comes soon when the Court squarely overrules them.”

Alas, the Department of Justice under President Joe Biden apparently sees things differently. As The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes recently reported, “the Biden administration told the Supreme Court Monday that it should not take up a case [Fitisemanu v. United States] about citizenship rights for American Samoa even though advocates say it would give justices a chance to upend a series of century-old precedents that have been roundly denounced as racist.””