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Deflation vs. Dead man walking

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson's picture

[Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in American Thinker.]

To Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, deflation is regarded as Public Enemy Number One.

In the words of New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, the “real [economic] threat is deflation.” Krugman advocates additional and even more aggressive government deficit spending.

The normally on-target Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, international business editor of The London Telegraph, favors more “Quantitative Easing” (i.e., a policy whereby the Fed would create trillions of new dollars with which to buy government bonds and other financial junk) to prevent deflation.

Why is deflation — by which Bernanke et al. mean “widespread declining prices” — so feared?

First, we must distinguish between benign deflation and traumatic deflation.

In a truly free market with a monetary gold standard, benign deflation would be the norm. Human productivity, unfettered by government intervention, typically increases total wealth several percent per year, whereas it is geologically impossible for the supply of gold (money) to increase at that fast a rate, and so prices tend to trend gradually downward.

The deflation that is possible today is traumatic. It is what economists describe as a “variety-rapid decline” in prices and spending. That kind of inflation triggers an accelerating, self-reinforcing cycle of widespread bankruptcies (both personal and business) and soaring unemployment. Mountains of debt would be vaporized by a chain-reaction of defaults.

Make no mistake about it: We are talking about very hard times here. You can see why policymakers in Washington are scared to death of this kind of deflation.

No politician wants to face the wrath of the electorate by having such a wrenching deflationary cycle happen on his or her watch, so they will encourage Bernanke and the Fed to pull out all the inflationary stops to try to avert it.

Before you throw your support behind inflationary policies and hail the Fed and Uncle Sam as our economic saviors, there are two things you should understand:

1) The conditions that make us ripe for a traumatic deflation were caused by the very institutions that now propose to save us from it; and 2) deflation would be the lesser of two evils.

Traumatic deflations are the inevitable aftermath of prior massive inflationary bubbles. A bubble can’t burst if a bubble doesn’t exist. The sole cause of economic bubbles is government.

The Fed’s inflationary monetary policies — holding interest rates artificially low, thereby over-stimulating fundamentally uneconomic investments — caused the still-deflating housing and mortgage-backed security bubbles. Now, they are currently inflating bubbles in commodities, government bonds, and surely in other markets.

Government’s fiscal policies of tax and spend are the other culprits that warp production into unnatural, uneconomic patterns. Fiscal policies in a democratic system suffer from the same inescapable problem that plagues socialist economies:

The government cannot know what the people want nearly as well as the people themselves know, and so government inevitably over-stimulates production of things that people wouldn’t freely choose while depressing production of what the people do want. Hence, government “experts” make society poorer than it otherwise would be.

Today, due to decades of massive government distortions of economic activity, market forces are impelling us toward deflation. The official policy is that the Fed will try to thwart these market forces by issuing floods of new dollars (i.e., inflation).

Economically speaking, inflation is like heroin addiction. The “highs” are enjoyable, even exhilarating, when bubbles inflate and the good times roll — but underneath the surface, the health of the system is wasting away.

Just as the addict has to suffer the wrenching pains of withdrawal in order to recover his physical health, so our economy needs to endure the short-term pain of a deflation in order to purge decades’ worth of malinvestments, uneconomic patterns of production, and unfathomably massive amounts of unpayable debts.

The U.S. economy is a dead man walking — a zombie on life support. If we don’t bite the proverbial bullet and go through a painful cleansing, a healing period of deflation, the ultimate price we pay will be even worse.

Like the heroin addict who can’t kick his habit and eventually overdoses, someday the Fed will go too far in its inflationary policies. It will ignite a hyperinflation, thereby annihilating the dollar, wiping out the country’s capital — not to mention, the savings of the middle class — and totally collapsing the economy.

We can pay a painfully high price for past government follies sooner, or an even more horrendous price later.

Incidentally, a deflationary cleansing need not last a long time (e.g., Depression of 1920-21, when President Harding opted for market forces over government intervention).

However, a quick deflation isn’t possible today, because of our policymakers’ mindsets. Congress, the president, and Bernanke & Co. believe blindly in government interventions to try to “help” us. They don’t understand that such quackery leads to economic ruin.

[Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values ( at Grove City (Penn.) College.]


PAPAWBEEP's picture

Mark - awesome article. You,re right! The question now is what's the plan? How do we transition back to what our founders had in mind?

You can begin to understand HOW we make the transition at We are in the process of relaunching. Our plan will -
reduce government by 30-40% over ten years, create MILLIONS of new good paying jobs, lower taxes, help solve the heatlhcare dilema, sure up our pensions, transition and fix Social Security long-term, raise a self-reliant generation, show people how to fix problems with much less reliance on government.

Keep up the good work.

Rob Howell ESM, F
The Common Man with a Main Street Recovery Plan
Planet Eagle LLC
Cincinnati, OH

Observerofu's picture

"1)The conditions that make us ripe for a traumatic deflation were caused by the very institutions that now propose to save us from it; and 2) deflation would be the lesser of two evils."

This is exactly the issue. Between Ninja's naive view of this Governments ability to turn this ship around and those like Bacon that blindly follows the ideological train we have others simply rearranging the chairs on the Titanic as the list gets worse.

"Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt"
-Samuel Adams
Illegitimi non carborundum

PTC Observer's picture

Is as usual right on target, with some minor points I would agree with most of this.

The policymakers in Washington, like good nannies, are trying to save us from the throws of the market. It can't happen because the market is much bigger than any government's ability to control it.

We will pay dearly for all of this interference by our government. Social engineering doesn't work, it's just that simple.

NUK_1's picture

The only main disagreement I have is the idea that with a gold standard that inflation disappears and that you have benign deflation. There has been rampant inflation in countries with a gold standard throughout history and it's not quite as simple as Dr. Mark makes it sound in this article. In his defense, this is a column-length article and not an essay or in-depth research paper, so I wouldn't expect him to delve that deeply into the gold(or something else)-inflation-deflation-fiat money concepts.

As far as the government and the Fed attempting to soothe the worries of the people with "feel good" remedies and more of the same basic warped thinking that caused the carnage in the first place, he's dead-on. Politically, no one wants to admit that or that things will not be "better" fundamentally, though you might feel good for brief periods of time.

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