I’ve gone a few rounds with some readers over this, but the reason I don’t want policymakers to be worrying about inflation is that we’re very close to a period of deflation. The recently released March CPI numbers, for example, saw the cost of living falling. That was nice for me, personally, since I have a job and I don’t think I’m at great risk of being laid-off in the short term. But it’s very troubling for the economy as a whole. The party line was that we shouldn’t panic about deflation because the “core” CPI—excluding volatile food and energy prices—was slightly positive.
But via Ryan Avent at his new Portfolio.com digs, I see that “more than 60 percent of the gain in so- called core prices came from an 11 percent jump in tobacco products,” a jump that was tied to a one-off tax increase to pay for children’s health care expansion.
The economy, in other words, is still under huge deflationary pressure. And that’s very bad. Businesses that are able to expand will tend to choose not to expand if they anticipate that prices will drop. And consumers will tend to delay discretionary purchases if they anticipate that prices will drop. And these deflationary expectations can form positive feedback and get us into a cycle out of which it’s very hard to break.