October’s inflation reading was the highest since the recession of 1991. November’s is the highest since the 1982 recession, at an annualized 6.8 percent. The reason inflation is usually highest during recessions is because governments attempt to restart growth through a combination of monetary and fiscal policy. It is troubling that today’s inflation is happening while the economy is growing and unemployment is low.
In fact, the misery index is now in double digits, which rarely happens outside of recessions. The misery index is the inflation rate plus the unemployment rate—economist Arthur Okun came up with it as an easy-to-use statistic for President Lyndon Johnson’s benefit, and it remained a key statistic throughout the stagflationary 1970s. It may be time to dust it off again.
While unemployment is a very low 4.2 percent, when combined with 6.8 percent inflation, the misery index currently stands at 11. For context, its all-time high was 21.9 in June 1980. It was below 5 for a good chunk of the 1950s, and was at 5.3 in April 2015. See a historical chart from the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s FRED database here.
Inflation happens when the money supply grows faster than the supply of goods and services, as I explained earlier. In today’s case, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down large swathes of the economy for an extended period. Even if the money supply had remained stable, the supply of goods and services temporarily went down. The effects are still being felt in today’s supply chain problems.
But economic fundamentals remained healthy. There was no financial crisis or popped housing bubble. People hunkered down for a while, and are in the process of coming back. This is why COVID-era growth has bounced back in close tandem with increased vaccination rates and decreased caseloads. When people feel safe to open back up, they do—and nothing is stopping them except for bad public policy.
Both Congress and President Biden responded to a different type of recession with the same tools. The result is high inflation during a period of growth. The solution is to spend less and get money supply growth back in sync with growth in goods and services. Instead, Congress continues to spend at a record rate, with more likely on the way. The Fed has indicated that it will taper back monetary growth, but not until next year.
Policy makers are unlikely to do the right thing on the money side. But they can help the goods and services side by removing trade barriers, getting rid of unneeded occupational licenses, speeding up years-long permit processes, repealing the shipping cost-raising Jones Act, liberalizing trucking regulations, and other deregulatory measures. These would spark growth while helping to tame inflation—and without adding to the deficit.