According to a recent CNBC survey, pessimism regarding the American economy is at an all-time high, with 69% of the public having a negative view. The leading reason is inflation in a weak economy. The latest report this week shows that inflation remains persistently high at near 5%, eroding slower-growing average weekly earnings year-over-year for 25 straight months.
The Federal Reserve recently raised its federal funds rate target for the 10th meeting in a row to 5.25%–the highest since August 2007. While these rate hikes were anticipated in light of ongoing inflation, they could have been avoided. But excessive government spending and money printing during the “boom” led to this government-failure bust, the effects of which we’ll feel for months and even years to come.
The sluggish economic growth has been rough on Americans, but inflation has been a killer. The survey also noted, “Just 5% say their household income is growing faster than inflation, 26% say it’s keeping pace, and 67% report they are falling behind.” This is devastating lower-income households’ standard of living.
The trend of declining real wages is particularly harmful to low-income Americans. But even the wealthy feel the effects, as more than half of higher-income Americans surveyed report spending less on eating out and entertainment. This has contributed to the anemic annualized economic growth of just 1.1% in the first quarter of 2023 after rising by only 0.9% from the fourth quarter of 2021 to the fourth quarter of 2022.
As prices increase, businesses spend more on production, making it more difficult to raise workers’ wages while remaining profitable. Employees who can’t be paid enough to fund costly goods like childcare and groceries, which have risen by 7.1% over the last year, spend less on other things or fall behind on their bills. Businesses earning less revenue will invest less, and so goes the vicious downward cycle.
Another hit on Americans has been the cost of shelter, which was up 8.1% over the last year even as there are signs that housing prices are cooling across the country. Still, housing prices have been “eclipsing the inflation rate by 150% since 1970.” This means many Americans can’t afford to own a home, and that’s getting further out of reach as mortgage rates have soared.
What’s to be done about inflation threatening Americans’ livelihoods? Legendary economist Milton Friedman had some advice about addressing sky-rocketing inflation that is valuable today.
There is one and only one basic cause of inflation: too high a rate of growth in the quantity of money—too much money chasing the available supply of goods and services,” he argues. “These days, that cause is produced in Washington, proximately, by the Federal Reserve System, which determines what happens to the quantity of money; ultimately, by the political and other pressures impinging on the System, of which the most important are the pressures to create money in order to pay for exploding Federal spending and in order to promote the goal of ‘full employment.’
Despite raising its target interest rate to fight inflation, the Fed has a bloated balance sheet of nearly $9 trillion, which is too high for disinflation to its target of an average 2% rate. When the Fed engages in excessive money printing compared with the supply of goods and services, inflation is the result, as Friedman described.
While it was appropriate for the Fed to raise its target rate, the ongoing increase to its balance sheet is just continuing to distort productive economic activity. And Congress must restrain spending. The national debt is nearly $31.5 trillion, with net interest payments on the debt set to exceed $1 trillion soon.
The government must borrow to finance the deficit when it spends more than it makes, driving up interest rates. Higher interest rates increase the cost of borrowing for businesses, leading to lower investment, which reduces the supply of goods and services. Add in the Fed buying the debt that increases the money supply with less supply of goods and services, resulting in more inflation.
House Republicans passed a debt ceiling bill that would return spending to 2022 levels and limit spending to just 1% growth over the next decade while eliminating other bad policies. Negotiations between the two parties continue, while a June 1 deadline looms. If they don’t reach agreement, it will make the debt issue an ongoing concern as defaulting on the debt nears, further raising interest rates that weaken the economy.
This means we can expect a deeper, longer recession. The Fed and Congress have a duty to stop flawed policies of excessive printing and spending, respectively. High inflation harms Americans, and the Fed and Congress must address this. If they don’t take action soon to address these government failures, the erosion of the American dream will continue.
The future of America depends on sound, pro-growth, pro-liberty policies instead that will let people prosper.
Originally published at Econlib.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.