Anxiety and Inflation

Caveat: I am not an economist.  I took two econ courses in college. 

Having warned you, I must ask, why do we have inflation?  Why must the prices of goods and services go up in a never-ending cycle while we avoid the dreaded deflation?  Economists will give all kinds of reasons for this and many are very valid.  Having observed this “macro” phenomenon for decades I wonder if there might be one more factor – anxiety.

Classic economics teaches that you make an enterprise more profitable by increasing productivity or reducing labor costs.  Thus, costs have been reduced by both automation increasing productivity and the much lower component of offshoring jobs to lower labor cost countries.  This enables goods and services to be delivered more profitably.  In effect, the cost of goods sold has been reduced.  The enterprise enjoying these advantages can take the added profit and do several things: 1. Reduce the price of the item and retain the profit as before, 2. Increase worker pay while maintaining a steady profit, 3. Increase profits and the vaunted “shareholder value” and 4. Increase the item price which increases profits even more and do nothing to return any of the profits to the workers. For decades, manufacturers have utilized “value engineering” to lower product costs while increasing profits.  Of the four choices above, number four increases inflation far more than the other three.  Choice number four would also explain why American worker productivity has risen by 77 percent since 1973 while inflation-adjusted worker wages have increased by 12% in the same period (1).  Productivity has increased 620% more than wages.  My college econ courses taught that if you work hard and produce more efficiently, that the market will reward you.  My parents believed in that because it was true from 1945 to 1965.  But the facts today say otherwise.  It just ain’t true anymore. Our nation (and Europe) is incredibly efficient at producing things.  But real costs of living have been going up (due to inflation) while worker wages haven’t budged for decades.   In real terms, this means that the standard of living has been declining for most people and lots of folks have a hard time getting by.  The riots in France have to do with the president trying to tackle climate change with a gasoline and diesel fuel tax (and that is a noble cause), but at the same time, the president is ignoring the regressive nature of the tax.  The citizens’ complaints basically say that they are barely getting by from one month to the next while the president is tackling problems of a much longer-term nature.  And they are right. You cannot tackle lofty, long-term problems when the people can barely take care of their basic necessities.  Where have all the profits gone?  To the top.  Wealth has accumulated at the top of the economic Eiffel tower faster than any time in human history.  One group of people watching another grab all the profits they can feels anxious because they might be left behind, so the watching group does it too.  This becomes an anxious spiral of doing something because everybody else does.  As long as the power and money grab game goes unchecked, it spirals out of control. The brilliance of a democratic system has less to do with the power of the people, and much more with the orderly transition of power.  When the professional associations, regulations and laws have all been tweaked and hammered to favor a tiny minority at the expense of the vast majority, we move into an unstable position.  Jesus addressed this instability many times in his ministry – far more than he talked about love.  I pray for orderly transitions in the years ahead, but it may be costly.