Another way to say “collapse of the currency” is to say “hyperinflation.” Hyperinflation is when inflation feeds on itself and takes off beyond control. You can have stable 2 to 3 percent inflation. But you can’t have stable 10 percent inflation. When everybody assumes 10 percent, all the forces that produced 10 percent push it to 20 percent, and then 40 percent, and soon people are lugging currency in a wheelbarrow, as in the famous photos from Weimar Germany.
Thirty years ago, we peered into this abyss and pulled back just in time. As inflation neared its peak of more than 13 percent, Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Using his control over the money supply, Volcker purposely plunged us into a deep recession, which is the only certain remedy. Carter got blamed for both the inflation and the recession that cured it. The columnist Robert Samuelson tells the story in his book, just out in paperback, The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath.
Even 13 percent inflation was a nightmare. A stable currency is firm ground on which you can build a life. Inflation turns life into Through the Looking-Glass: you have to run faster and faster to stay in the same place. Saving is for suckers, and money needs to be spent sooner rather than later. Planning even a year or two ahead becomes nearly impossible. Worst of all, economically, the hard knocks and lucky breaks of life, which people generally accept when they are distributed by fate, become politicized, and therefore embittering. Stop fighting, and you start losing.
Furthermore, as Samuelson notes, the damage is more than just economic. These days everyone is disenchanted with civic institutions and government. They hate the press, they loathe Congress, and so on. Studies by foundations puzzle over why. Was it the ’60s? No, it was the late ’70s and early ’80s, when government failed to deliver on its obligation to provide a stable currency.
Samuelson worries that “the entire episode” may “slip from our collective consciousness.” I’ll spare you the Santayana and just say that if we are doomed to repeat this particular bit of the recent past, the press has failed in its self-imposed obligation to be the “first draft of history.”
According to the considerable discussion of inflation on the Web, my alarm is misguided. Every economist I admire, from Paul Krugman and Larry Summers on down, is convinced that inflation will remain low for as long as we can predict. Greg Mankiw, who was George W. Bush’s economic adviser, has examined the evidence in his New York Times column and concluded that a return of debilitating inflation is pretty unlikely (although “current monetary and fiscal policy is so far outside the bounds of historical norms” that who can say for sure?). Krugman has charged that inflation fearmongering is a nefarious Republican plot. The Congressional Budget Office (usually known by its nickname, “the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office”) projects inflation rates of less than 2 percent for the next decade. Some say the real danger is the opposite: deflation, or prices (and wages) going down across the board.