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The Deeper Anxieties of the Inflation Hawks

Summary:
Following an increase in consumer prices during the first quarter of the year, commentators who were already wringing their hands about inflation have now doubled down on their position. But the economic arguments used to justify such fears simply do not stand up to scrutiny. AUSTIN – In a recent commentary for The Washington Post, former US Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence H. Summers stated that “the consumer price index rose at a 7.5 percent annual rate” in the first quarter of 2021. I could not reproduce this number from the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI-U website, which reports a year-on-year increase (April 2020-April 2021) of 4.2%, driven largely by a sharp 49.6% rebound in gasoline prices from their pandemic crash.

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Following an increase in consumer prices during the first quarter of the year, commentators who were already wringing their hands about inflation have now doubled down on their position. But the economic arguments used to justify such fears simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

AUSTIN – In a recent commentary for The Washington Post, former US Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence H. Summers stated that “the consumer price index rose at a 7.5 percent annual rate” in the first quarter of 2021. I could not reproduce this number from the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI-U website, which reports a year-on-year increase (April 2020-April 2021) of 4.2%, driven largely by a sharp 49.6% rebound in gasoline prices from their pandemic crash. When food and energy prices are excluded, the inflation rate over the past year comes to just 3%.

Odder still is Summers’s rationale for projecting future inflation risks:

“Inflationary pressures are mounting from the boost in demand created by the $2 trillion-plus in savings that Americans have accumulated during the pandemic; from large-scale Federal Reserve debt purchases, along with Fed forecasts of essentially zero interest rates into 2024; from roughly $3 trillion in fiscal stimulus passed by Congress; and from soaring stock and real estate prices.”

This is odd logic, beginning with the conjecture that savings cause inflation. John Maynard Keynes argued the reverse: excess savings are withheld from demand, causing unemployment. And Summers’s own neoclassical school normally holds that high savings are a good thing, because they sustain low interest rates and lead to more business investment. So far as I know, no economist has ever before suggested that savings, as such, cause...

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