EDITOR'S NOTE: When it comes to fighting inflation in the US, it seems as if everyone’s seeing only half the picture. While the White House is fixated on monetary policy (the Fed) to combat rising prices, people are fixated on fiscal policy (the White House) to ease inflation. Both have it wrong, but only Washington has the immediate power to do something about it. And if it takes both monetary and fiscal policy to fix the economy, the fiscal side of the equation has gone AWOL. The Fed can only do so much. If it’s stepping on the brakes, the government has its foot on the gas. A frustrating scenario, the article below explains how this lack of coordination is fanning the flames of our overheating economy.
At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two ways to fight inflation. One involves the central bank raising interest rates to throttle the money supply. In another, elected officials craft policies that temper demand and increase supply in the economy. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
- But right now, the United States is relying almost exclusively on the first. It's putting pressure on the economy and financial system that would be less severe with a more balanced mix of inflation-fighting tools.
Why it matters: Fiscal policy is AWOL in the campaign to bring down prices, with a mix of policies that are either neutral or tend to make inflation worse by stimulating demand.
- In turn, it's making the Fed's job harder and the pain of bringing down inflation worse, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget argues in a new paper.
The tradeoffs: There's a reason the Federal Reserve is the arm of government primarily responsible for keeping inflation in check.
- It's staffed by technocrats with independence from the rest of the government, so it can move nimbly and decisively, even in ways that will prove politically unpopular.
- It controls interest rates and other tools that have powerful effects on demand. If the Fed moves aggressively to bring down inflation, as it is now, it will eventually work.
- But its tools are flawed. Steep interest rate increases disproportionately wallop housing and other interest-rate sensitive industries. It risks financial breakdowns and global disruption, and has the side effect of discouraging investment that would improve the medium-term outlook.
By contrast, fiscal policy is haphazard and slow-moving. It depends on the unpredictable Rube Goldberg machine of Congressional lawmaking.
The options: In its paper, CRFB identifies several areas where congressional action could help reduce inflation. These include:
- Reducing demand directly, through either tax increases or spending cuts
- Boosting the supply side of the economy by removing Social Security work disincentives in hopes of pulling more people into the labor force
- Using targeted policies aimed at prices, such as reducing Medicare reimbursement rates that might help curtail health care inflation
What they're saying: "Monetary policy has only one tool, and it's a pretty good tool, but if you push on it too hard, it can cause serious financial turmoil and slower long-term growth by reducing investment," Marc Goldwein, the policy chief at CRFB, tells Axios.
- "It would be better when inflation is this high to give it assistance, supplementing it with policies that can directly reduce prices," he said.
- "What's unique about this moment is just how large the inflation-fighting effort is going to have to be and therefore how difficult it will be for the Fed to do it alone."
Originally published by Axios.