Media April 2010

My Inflation Nightmare

Am I crazy, or is the commentariat ignoring our biggest economic threat?

In short, I can’t help feeling that the gold bugs are right. No, I’m not stashing gold bars under my bed. But that’s only because I lack the courage of my convictions.

My fear is not the result of economic analysis. It’s more from the realm of psychology. I mean mine. The last time I wrote about this subject, The Atlantic’s own Clive Crook called me a “fiscal sado-conservative.” I would put it differently (you won’t be surprised to hear). Maybe, at least on economic matters, I’m a puritan. The recession we’ve been going through did not occur for no reason. Even though serious misbehavior by the finance industry triggered it, sooner or later it was bound to happen. For a generation—since shortly after Volcker saved the country, and except for a brief period of surpluses under Bill Clinton—we partied on borrowed money. We watched a real-estate bubble get larger and larger, knowing but not acknowledging that it had to burst. Then it did burst, and George W. Bush slunk off to Texas, leaving Barack Obama to clean up the mess. Obama has done the right things, mostly, pushing through a huge stimulus package and bailing out a few big corporations and banks. Krugman says we need yet another dose of stimulus, and maybe he’s right.

But this cure has been one ice-cream sundae after another. It can’t be that easy, can it? The puritan in me says that there has to be some pain. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been plenty of economic pain. But that pain has come from the recession itself, not the cure.

My specific concern is nothing original: it’s just the national debt. Yawn and turn the page here if you’d like. We talk now of trillions, not yesterday’s hundreds of billions. It’s not Obama’s fault. He did what he had to do. However, Obama is president, and Democrats do control Congress. So it’s their responsibility, even if it’s not their fault. And no one in a position to act has proposed a realistic way out of this debt, not even in theory. The Republicans haven’t. The Obama administration hasn’t. Come to think of it, even Paul Krugman hasn’t. Presidential adviser David Axelrod, writing in The Washington Post, says that Obama has instructed his agency heads to go through the budget “page by page, line by line, to eliminate what we don’t need to help pay for what we do.” So they’ve had more than a year and haven’t yet discovered the line in the budget reading “Stuff We Don’t Need, $3.2 trillion.”

There is a way out. It’s called inflation. In 1979, for example, the government ran a deficit of more than $40 billion—about $118 billion in today’s money. The national debt stood at about $830 billion at year’s end. But because of 13.3 percent inflation, that $830 billion was worth what only $732 billion would have been worth at the beginning of the year. In effect, the government ran up $40 billion in new debts but inflated away almost $100 billion and ended up with a national debt smaller in real terms than what it started with. Ten percent inflation for five years (if that were possible) would erode the value of our projected debt nicely—but along with it, the value of non-indexed pensions, people’s savings, and so on. The Federal Reserve is independent, but Congress and the White House have ways to pressure the Fed. Actually, just spending all this money we don’t have is one good way.

Compared with raising taxes or cutting spending, just letting inflation do the dirty work sounds easy. It will be a terrible temptation, and Obama’s historic reputation (not to mention the welfare of the nation) will depend on whether he succumbs. Or so I fear. So who are you going to believe? Me? Or virtually every leading economist across the political spectrum? Even I know the sensible answer to that.

And yet …

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Michael Kinsley is a columnist for The Atlantic. More

Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. He has an accomplished record in print, television, and online. He graduated from Harvard, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and came back to study at Harvard Law. While in his third year of law school, Kinsley began working at The New Republic. He was named editor and wrote that magazine's famous TRB column for most of the 1980s and 1990s. He also served as editor at Harper's, managing editor of Washington Monthly, and American editor of The Economist. Kinsley was a panelist on CNN's "Crossfire" from 1989 to 1995. In the mid-1990s, Kinsley started working for Microsoft and became the founding editor of the company's online journal, Slate. He worked as a senior writer and columnist at The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire in 2010. In 1999, the Columbia Journalism Review named him Editor of the Year, and in 2010 he was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. He is famous for defining a gaffe as the moment when a politician tells the truth.

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