Biden Administration, Cronyism, Federal Debt, Fiscal Inflation, Fiscal policy, Friedrich Hayek, Hyperinflation, Inflation tax, Knowledge Problem, Modern Monetary Theory, Monetary policy, Money Printing, Nominal GDP Targeting, Pete Buttigieg, Real Bills Doctrine, Reichsbank, rent seeking, Ro Khanna
A remarkable proposal made recently by Representative Ro Khanna (D -CA) would have the Biden Administration impose price controls, which would be bad enough. Khanna also would like the federal government to cover the inflation losses incurred by Americans by having it directly purchase certain goods and services and resell them “cheap” to consumers. In fairness, Khanna says the government should attempt to take advantage of dips in prices for oil, food commodities, and perhaps other necessities, which of course would limit or reverse downward price changes. When asked about Khanna’s proposal, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden’s Transportation Secretary, replied that there were great ideas coming out of Congress and the Administration should consider them. Anyway, the idea is so bad that it deserves a more thorough examination.
Central Planners Have No Clothes
First, such a program would represent a massive expansion in the scope of government. It would also present ample opportunities for graft and cronyism, as federal dollars filter through the administrative layers necessary to manage the purchases and distribution of goods. Furthermore, price and quantity would then be shaded by a heavy political component, often taking precedence over real demand and cost considerations. And that’s beyond the crippling “knowledge problem” that plagues all efforts at central planning.
One of the most destructive aspects of allowing government to absorb a greater share of total spending is that government is not invested with the same budgetary discipline as private buyers. Take no comfort in the notion that the government might prove expert at timing these purchases to leverage price dips. Remember that government always spends “other people’s money”, whether it comes from tax proceeds, lenders, or the printing press (and hence future consumers, who have absolutely no agency in the matter). Hence, price incentives take on less urgency, while political incentives gain prominence. The loss of price sensitivity means that government expenditures are likely to inflate more readily than private expenditures. This is all the more critical at a time when inflation is becoming embedded in expectations and pricing decisions. Khanna thus proposes an inflation “solution” that puts less price-sensitive bureaucrats in charge of actual purchases. That’s a prescription for failure.
If anyone in Biden’s White House is seriously considering a program of this kind, and let’s hope they’re not, they should at least be aware that direct subsidies for the purchase of key goods would be far more efficient. It’s also possible to hedge the risk of future price increases on commodities markets, perhaps simply distributing hedging gains to consumers when they pay off. However, having the federal government participate as a major player in commodities options and futures is probably not on the table at this point … and I shudder to think of it, but it might be more efficient than Khanna’s vision.
A Fiscal Real Bills Doctrine
Khanna’s program would almost surely cause inflation to accelerate. Inflation itself a form of taxation imposed by profligate governments, though it’s an inefficient tax since it creates greater uncertainty. Higher prices deflate the real value of most government debt (borrowed from the public), assets fixed in nominal value, and incomes. Read on, but this program would have the government pay your inflation tax for you by inflating some more. Does this sound like a vicious circle?
Khanna’s concept of inflation-relief is a fiscal reimagining of a long-discredited monetary theory called the “Real Bills Doctrine”. According to this doctrine, rising prices and costs necessitate additional money creation so that businesses have the liquidity to pay the bills associated with ongoing productive efforts. The “real” part is a reference to the link between business expenses and actual production, despite the fact that those bills are expressed in nominal terms. The result of this policy is a cycle of ever-higher inflation, as ever-more money is printed. This was the policy utilized by the Reichsbank in Weimar Germany during its hyperinflation of 1922-23. It’s really quite astonishing that anyone ever thought such a policy was helpful!
In Khanna’s version of the doctrine, the government spends to relieve cost pressure faced by consumers, so the rationale has nothing to do with productive effort.
Financing and the Central Bank Response
It’s reasonable to ask how these outlays would be financed. In all likelihood, the U.S. Treasury would borrow the funds at interest rates now at 10-15 year highs, which have risen in part to compensate investors for higher inflation.
My bet is that Khanna imagines the Fed would simply “print” money (i.e., buy the new government debt floated by the Treasury to pay for the program). This is the prescription of so-called Modern Monetary Theory, whose adherents have either forgotten or have never learned that money growth and inflation is a costly and regressive form of taxation.
Most economists would say the response of the Federal Reserve to this fiscal stimulus would bear on whether it really ignites additional inflationary pressure. Of course, rather than borrowing, Congress could always vote to levy higher taxes on the public in order to pay the public’s inflation tax burden! But then what’s the point? Well, taxing at least has the virtue of not fueling still higher inflation, and the Fed would not have a role to play.
But if the government simply borrows instead, it adds to the already bloated supply of government debt held by the public. This borrowing is likely to put more upward pressure on interest rates, and the federal government’s mounting interest expense requires more financing. What then might the Fed do?
The Fed is an independent, quasi-government entity, so it would not have to accommodate the additional spending by printing money (buying the new Treasury debt). Either way, investors are increasingly skeptical that the growing debt burden will ever be reversed via future surpluses. The fiscal theory of the price level holds that something must reduce the real value of government debt (in order to satisfy the long-term fiscal budget constraint). That “something” is a higher price level. This position is not universally accepted, and some would contend that if the Fed simply set a nominal GDP growth target and stuck to it, accelerating inflation would not have to follow from Khanna’s policy. The same if the Fed could stick to a symmetric average inflation target, but they certainly haven’t been up to that task. Hoping the Fed would fully assert its independence in a fiscal hurricane is probably wishful thinking.
There are no choke points in the supply chain for bad ideas on the left wing of the Democratic Party, and they are dominating party centrists in terms of messaging. The answer, it seems, is always more government. High inflation is very costly, but the best policy is to rein it in, and that requires budgetary and monetary discipline. Attempts to make high inflation “painless” are misguided in the first instance because they short-circuit consumer price responses and substitution, which help restrain prices. Second, the presumption that an inflation tax can be “painless” is an invitation to fiscal debauchery. Third, expansive government brings out hoards of rent seekers instigating corruption and waste. Finally, mounting public debt is unlikely to be offset by future surpluses, and that is the ultimate admission of Modern Monetary Theory. A fiscal real bills doctrine would be an additional expression of this lunacy. To suggest otherwise is either sheer stupidity or an exercise in gaslighting. You can’t inflate away the pain of an inflation tax.