What is inflation and why is it bad ?
From a theoretical view, at least four basic schemata commonly used in considerations of inflation can be distinguished.
The quantity theory
The first of these and the oldest is the view that the level of prices is determined by the quantity of money. The ratio of the stock of money that people want to hold to the value of the transactions they perform each year (or the inverse of this ratio, called the velocity of circulation) is supposed, in the simplest version of this view, to be fixed by such factors as the frequency of wage payments, the structure of the economy, and saving and shopping habits. So long as these remain constant, the price level will be directly proportional to the supply of money and inversely proportional to the physical volume of production. This is the celebrated quantity theory, going back at least as far as David Hume in the 18th century. But the theory assumes that productive capacity is fully employed, or nearly so. Because, in fact, the extent to which productive capacity is used varies a great deal—indeed, sometimes more than the level of prices—the quantity theory fell into disfavour between World Wars I and II, when the level of activity provided more reasons for anxiety than did the long-run movement of prices.
In a refined version, the quantity theory was revived by Milton Friedman and other University of Chicago economists in the 1950s and ’60s. Their basic contentions were that short-period changes of the money supply are, in fact, followed (after a varying interval) by changes in money income and that the velocity of circulation, though it fluctuates to some extent with the money supply, tends to be fairly stable, especially over long periods. From this, they concluded that the money supply, while not a reliable instrument for controlling short-term movements in the economy, can be effective in controlling longer term movements of the price level and that the prescription for stable prices is to increase the money supply regularly at a rate equal to that at which the economy is estimated to be expanding.
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Against this, it has been argued that in highly developed economies the supply of money varies largely with the demand for it and that the authorities have little power to vary the supply through purely monetary controls. The correlations observed by this so-called Chicago school between money supply and money income are attributed by their critics to variations in the demand for money to spend, which elicit partial responses from supply and are followed after an interval by corresponding changes in money income. The relative stability of the velocity of circulation is attributed by them to the facility with which the supply of money accommodates itself to demand; they argue that insofar as supply may be restricted in the face of rising demand, velocity will increase, or (what really amounts to the same thing) new sources of credit, such as trade credit, will be exploited.
The Keynesian theory
The second basic approach is represented by John Maynard Keynes’s theory of income determination. The key to it is the assumption that consumers tend to spend a fixed proportion of any increases they receive in their incomes. For any level of national income, therefore, there is a gap of a predictable size between income and consumption expenditure, and to establish and maintain that level of national income it is only necessary to fix expenditure on all nonconsumption goods and services at such a level as to fill the gap. Apart from government outlays, the main constituent of this nonconsumption expenditure is private investment. Keynes supposed investment to be fairly sensitive to the rate of interest. The latter, in turn, he supposed to be negatively related, up to a point, to the stocks of “idle” money in existence—in effect, positively related to the velocity of circulation of money. He held, moreover, that there is a floor below which long-term interest rates will not fall, however low the velocity of circulation. These relationships between interest and idle money (or the velocity of circulation) have been pretty well supported empirically.
John Maynard Keynes, detail of a watercolour by Gwen Raverat, c. 1908; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London
The chief importance of the Keynesian approach and various elaborations of it is that they provide a framework in which governments can endeavour to manage the level of activity in the economy by varying their own expenditures and receipts or by influencing the level of private investment. This has been a principal basis of policy in many industrialized countries since the mid-20th century. Difficulties in practice have sprung from uncertainty about, or changes in, the underlying quantitative relationships and the existence of uncertain time lags in their operation, which make it hard to deal effectively with unforeseen contingencies. The uncertainty and weakness of the relation between interest rates and private investment are another source of difficulty. Many economists believe, however, that the approach has led to better control over short-term changes in employment and real income.
In the form in which it has just been stated, however, the Keynesian approach does not offer much insight into movements of the price level. The simplest variant of it that will do so is based on the view that inflation arises entirely from attempts to buy more goods and services than can be supplied—i.e., more than can be produced at the “full employment” level of activity. If, for example, government expenditure is higher than the difference between production and consumption at the level corresponding to full employment, there is an “inflationary gap.” The market process closes this gap by a bidding up of prices to the point at which the difference between income and consumption, in money terms, is big enough to accommodate the government expenditure. (In an economy open to foreign trade, the gap may be closed wholly or in part by the creation of an import surplus). The theory fails to account for the experience in the decades after World War II of continuous inflation in conditions that do not suggest the existence of an inflationary gap.