Inflation is near a 40-year high. Central banks around the world just promised to intervene. However, a critical factor that is driving up prices remains largely overlooked: an explosion in profits. In 2021, US non-financial profit margins have reached levels not seen since the aftermath of the second world war. This is no coincidence. The end of the war required a sudden restructuring of production which created bottlenecks similar to those caused by the pandemic. Then and now large corporations with market power have used supply problems as an opportunity to increase prices and scoop windfall profits. The Federal Reserve has taken a hawkish turn this month. But cutting monetary stimulus will not fix supply chains. What we need instead is a serious conversation about strategic price controls – just like after the war.
Today economists are divided into two camps on the inflation question: team Transitory argues we ought not to worry about inflation since it will soon go away. Team Stagflation urges for fiscal restraint and a raise in interest rates. But there is a third option: the government could target the specific prices that drive inflation instead of moving to austerity which risks a recession.
To use a metaphor: if your house is on fire, you would not want to wait until the fire eventually dies out. Neither do you wish to destroy the house by flooding it. A skillful firefighter extinguishes the fire where it is burning to prevent contagion and save the house. History teaches us that such a targeted approach is also possible for price increases.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers suggests that the best historical analogy for today’s inflation is the aftermath of the second world war. Then and now there was pent up demand thanks to high household savings. During the war this was a result of rising incomes and rationing; during Covid-19 that of stimulus checks and shutdowns. At both times supply chains were disrupted. This is as far as the White House advisers’ interpretation of the parallel between the two episodes goes. What they do not tell us is that the inflation after the war was not without an alternative.
During the second world war the Roosevelt administration imposed strict price controls and instituted the Office of Price Administration. In comparison with the first world war, price rises were low, while the increase in output was almost beyond imagination. After the war, the question was what to do with the price controls. Should they be released in one big bang as southern Democrats, Republicans and big business were urging? Or did price controls have a role to play in the transition to a postwar economy?
Some of the most distinguished American economists of the 20th century called for a continuation of price controls in the New York Times. This included the likes of Paul Samuelson, Irving Fisher, Frank Knight, Simon Kuznets, Paul Sweezy and Wesley Mitchell, as well as 11 former presidents of the American Economic Association. The reasons they presented for price controls also apply to our present situation.
They argued that as long as bottlenecks made it impossible for supply to meet demand, price controls for important goods should be continued to prevent prices from shooting up. The tsar of wartime price controls, John Kenneth Galbraith, joined these calls. He explained “the role of price controls” would be “strategic”. “No more than the economist ever supposed will it stop inflation,” he added. “But it both establishes the base and gains the time for the measures that do.”
President Truman was aware of the risks of ending price controls. On 30 October 1945, he warned that after the first world war, the US had “simply pulled off the few controls that had been established, and let nature take its course”. And he urged, “The result should stand as a lesson to all of us. A dizzy upward spiral of wages and the cost of living ended in the crash of 1920 – a crash that spread bankruptcy and foreclosure and unemployment throughout the Nation.” Nevertheless, price controls were pulled in 1946, again triggering inflation and a boom-bust cycle.
Today, there is once more a choice between tolerating the ongoing explosion of profits that drives up prices or tailored controls on carefully selected prices. Price controls would buy time to deal with bottlenecks that will continue as long as the pandemic prevails. Strategic price controls could also contribute to the monetary stability needed to mobilize public investments towards economic resilience, climate change mitigation and carbon-neutrality. The cost of waiting for inflation to go away is high. Senator Manchin’s withdrawal from the Build Back Better Act demonstrates the threat of a shrinking policy space at a time when large scale government action is in order. Austerity would be even worse: it risks manufacturing stagflation. We need a systematic consideration of strategic price controls as a tool in the broader policy response to the enormous macroeconomic challenges instead of pretending there is no alternative beyond wait-and-see or austerity.