Steve Chapman

There is no indication that inflation is heating up this time, either. Investors wouldn't be snapping up three-year Treasury notes at 1 percent if they were expecting their purchasing power to be ravaged by wolves at any moment.

It's true that if the Fed pumps too many dollars into the financial system, it will eventually mean too much money chasing too few goods, pushing prices through the roof. But in the aftermath of the near-death experience of 2008, banks have been happy to hang on to cash rather than lend it out. By a broad measure known as M2, the money supply has been growing very slowly.

What Bernanke has done to ward off a catastrophic collapse is not at odds with keeping inflation down. In fact, a decade ago it was recommended to the Japanese central bank by Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, who was famed for his aversion to inflation.

The spike in commodity prices has raised fears of a 70s-like wage-price spiral: Prices climb, so workers demand pay raises, which causes their employers to raise prices again, which sparks another round of wage increases.

But you can't have a ham sandwich without ham, and you can't have a wage-price spiral when unemployment is high, workers have little bargaining power and pay is stagnant. Wages and salaries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are up only 0.4 percent in the past year. Raise your hand if your pay is spiraling -- upward, I mean.

The last epidemic of inflation, in the 1970s and early '80s, was a searing experience, from which the Federal Reserve learned lessons it has no desire to repeat. Is inflation coming back? Sure. Right after the Ford Pinto.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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