Congress is on a spending binge. With all the calls for bailouts, economic stimulus and other assorted handouts, there is a real risk of inflation in our future. If we do have a rapid inflation, it’s likely that members of Congress, as they did in the financial meltdown, will blame it on everybody except themselves. Before Congress begins to shirk their responsibility, let’s understand what an inflation is and is not.
Several prices rising are not inflation. Only when prices across the board rise is there inflation. But just as in the case of diseases, describing a symptom does not necessarily tell us the cause. That is the same with inflation; it is a symptom of something else. Nobel Laureate and noted monetary theorist Milton Friedman explained, “[I]nflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, in the sense that it cannot occur without a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.” Put another way, inflation results from an increase in the supply of money relative to the demand for money.
That being the case, who is responsible for inflation? It’s not you or I because if we privately increased the supply of money to finance profligate spending, we would be charged with counterfeiting and go to prison. The Federal Reserve Bank, our central bank, is the only entity legally permitted to increase the supply of money, to finance Congress’ profligate spending. The Federal Reserve Bank is supposed to be independent but it typically accommodates the wishes of Congress and the White House.
Central banks are villains in most countries; ours is just not as bad as others. In 1946, Hungary’s central bank gave it the world’s highest inflation rate. Prices doubled every 16 hours creating an annual inflation rate of 13 quadrillion percent. Last October, Zimbabwe’s central bank produced history’s second highest rate of inflation. Prices doubled every 25 hours, giving it an annual inflation rate of 80 billion percent. By comparison, Germany’s inflation rate, which brought about the social disruption responsible for Hitler’s rise to power, was a mere 30,000 percent that saw prices doubling every four days. You say, “Williams, that couldn’t happen here.” Except during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1861, our inflation has never exceeded 20 percent, but keep in mind that any hyperinflation was once 20 percent.
Knowing the dangers posed by central banks, we might ask whether our country needs the Federal Reserve Bank. Whenever I’m told that we need this or that government program, I always ask what we did before. It turns out that we did without a central bank from 1836, when President Andrew Jackson closed the Second Bank of the United States, to 1913 when Federal Reserve Act was written. During that interval, we prospered and became one of the world’s major economic powers.
The justifications for Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was to prevent bank failure and maintain price stability. Simple before and after analysis demonstrates that the Federal Reserve Bank has been a failure. In the century before the Federal Reserve Act, wholesale prices fell by 6 percent; in the century after they rose by 1,300 percent. Maximum bank failures in one year before 1913 were 496 and afterward, 4,400. During the 1930s, inept money supply management by the Federal Reserve Bank was partially responsible for both the depth and duration of the Great Depression.
It is not wise for us to permit a few people on the Federal Reserve Board to have life and death power over our economy. My recommendation for reducing some of that power is to repeal legal tender laws and eliminate all taxes on gold, silver and platinum transactions. That way there would be money substitutes and the government money monopoly would be reduced and hence the ability to tax - some people would say steal from - us through inflation.
Walter E. Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist and a professor of economics at George Mason University.