There is an important debate now taking place among monetary policy analysts over the question of "capacity utilization." Its resolution will tell us much about the future course of the U.S. economy.
The theory is that if the economy has substantial unused capacity for production, then monetary policy can be expansive without the risk of inflation. Unused capacity in the economy would include unemployed workers and idled plant and equipment that could be used to produce goods and services if the demand was there.
For almost 3 years, the Federal Government has done everything in its power to stimulate demand by increasing the money supply, easing credit conditions, tax rebates, and a huge budget deficit. According to standard economic theory, these measures should have compensated for the lack of private demand and helped restore economic growth.
To a certain extent, growth results from restoring a degree of inflation. The theory is that huge budget surpluses and a restrictive monetary policy instituted a period of deflation--falling prices, the opposite of inflation. Purchasing power was drained from the economy, putting downward pressure on prices, which caused profits to evaporate and forced severe cost cutting, including mass layoffs and a rise in unemployment.
It is often argued that no deflation existed because the general price level, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, never fell. But this doesn't mean that monetary policy, which fundamentally determines the prices level, was not in fact deflationary. It's just that there is a long time lag before it affects the CPI. Moreover, there are many problems with how the CPI is constructed that cause it to persistently overstate inflation.
For this reason, many economists look at commodity prices and other indicators that react much faster to changing monetary conditions than the CPI. Almost all of these are signaling a turn away from deflation and toward inflation. These include a sharp increase in the price of gold, a fall of the dollar against foreign currencies, and a rise of long-term interest rates, which mainly reflect inflationary expectations, relative to short-term rates.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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