If an athlete injures himself and suffers great pain, we'd recognize the shortsightedness of giving him painkillers to keep him going. The pain might be masked, but at the risk of greater injury later.
That's a good analogy for the inflationary policies now pursued by Washington. These policies may temporarily "stimulate the economy," but they also disguise and aggravate the underlying problems. We will all pay a serious price.
Policy makers have thrown caution to the wind. Twelve-digit dollar figures are tossed about casually. The other day, after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson changed course -- yet again -- and announced that the Federal Reserve would commit $800 billion more in "new loans and debt purchases," The New York Times reported, "Fed and Treasury officials made it clear that the sky was the limit."
The total federal commitment to date is over $7 trillion.
The Fed had given up trying to make it easier for banks to lend to each. Now, the Times reports, it "is directly subsidizing lower mortgage rates ... doing so by printing unprecedented amounts of money, which would eventually create inflationary pressures if it were to continue unabated."
When we hear that the U.S. Treasury is doing this or the Federal Reserve is doing that, we should remember that these agencies are run by mere mortals, and as such, they cannot know how to "fix" something as complex as an economy. But they certainly are capable of wrecking one.
That's what their inflationary policies will do.
In a free market, prices do more than tell us what we have to pay for things. They are messages emitted by an intricate communications system that inform us of the relative scarcity of resources, labor and consumer goods, and the relative intensity of consumer demand. Thanks to prices, we can tell producers how we rank our preferences, and they in turn can arrange production according to our priorities. Without prices, economic coordination is impossible, which is why attempts at state planning produce, in Ludwig von Mises's words, "planned chaos."
We associate inflation with a rising price level, but equally important, relative prices change when new money is created. That garbles the messages. As Mises writes, "The additional quantity of money does not find its way at first into the pockets of all individuals; ... [P]rice changes which are the result of inflation start with some commodities and services only. ... [T]here is a shift of wealth and income between different social groups."
The Fed gives money to AIG or Citicorp, but not to Lehman Brothers, or you and me. The new bank reserves also push interest rates below what the market would have set, further distorting production by encouraging investment plans to be made on the basis of artificially low rates.
How can the economy straighten itself out if it is being systematically skewed by government inference with prices?
We are in the mess we're in precisely because of earlier government interference. Easy mortgage terms and guarantees contrived a housing boom and irresponsible lending that could not be sustained. The consequences have shaken the foundation of the financial industry. But instead of freeing the market and allowing the errors to be corrected, the government is seducing the economy into a whole new set of errors. That will lead to the next bust.
"But doesn't the government have to act?" people ask. "We can't just let financial companies fail!"
I say, Why not?
Jim Rogers, the successful investor and author, puts it well: "Why are we bailing out Citibank? Why are 300 million Americans having to pay for Citibank's mistakes? The way the system is supposed to work [is this]: People fail. And then the competent people take over the assets from the failed people, and then you start again with a new stronger base. What we're doing this time is ... taking the assets from the competent people, giving them to the incompetent people, and saying, "OK, now you can compete with the competent people." So everybody's weakened: The whole nation is weakened, the whole economy is weakened. That's not the way it's supposed to work."