Last week a student in my MBA-level intermediate-macro seminar raised a provocative question. We were discussing the various kinds of (price) deflation and which kinds, according to Austrians, are benign and accommodate consumer preferences, and which are malignant and conflict with consumer preferences.
In view of the Austrian emphasis on inflationary monetary policy as the primary cause of the business cycle and the current financial crisis in particular, the student asked if Austrians considered any kind of inflation as "good" for the economy. I gave a short response in the affirmative and then thought about it more over the weekend. Here is the note on the subject that I wrote up for discussion in class tomorrow. (The last two paragraphs on free banking were not part of the original note.)
One kind of "good" inflation typically results when innovations and changes occur that permit people to economize on the amount of money they need to hold in their cash balances. For example, the introduction and increasing availability of credit cards bring about a decrease in the demand for money, which, all other things being equal, causes a general rise in prices. Credit cards operate as an alternative means of payment for many transactions and therefore reduce the amount of money people need to hold in currency and bank deposits in order to finance their anticipated exchanges at the prevailing level of prices.
These "excess" cash balances produce an increase in the demands for goods, the supplies of which have not increased. The result is that overall prices rise. But inflation here performs an important function: it reduces the buying power of the dollar to the point where money no longer is in excess supply, because people are now content to hold the total supply of money in existence in order to finance planned transactions at the new, higher level of prices. Another way of putting this is that the "real" money supply, that is, its total purchasing power in terms of goods, has been reduced to exactly the level desired by consumers.
What we might call "cash-economizing" inflation tends to occur as a result of any financial innovation, including the invention of money-market mutual funds, ATM machines, PayPal accounts, and so on. It may also result from organizational or technical innovations in business that promote vertical integration of operations, where capital goods previously exchanged between two independent firms are now produced and employed within the same firm.
Note that cash-economizing inflation is benign precisely because it is an outcome of individuals striving to optimize their property holdings through the voluntary exchange process. It is also noteworthy that this kind of inflation involves a one-shot increase in prices: once the new payment method or invention becomes broadly adopted, the decline in the demand for money ceases and prices stop rising. Lastly, inflation caused by people responding to opportunities to economize on their money holdings has no systematic effect on credit markets and the interest rate and therefore does not precipitate the business cycle.
A second type of good inflation is one that occurs as a result of a reduction in the supplies of goods and services caused by natural disasters, the depletion of natural resources, or increases in people's preferences for leisure (causing a decline in labor-force participation) or for present consumer goods (causing the nonreplacement or "consumption" of capital goods). All of these events bring about, sooner or later, a greater scarcity of exchangeable goods in the economy.
The reduction in the supplies of goods in the market, all other things being constant, including the stock of money, causes an excess demand for goods to emerge. Overall prices will naturally rise to restore equilibrium in goods' markets. This rise in prices both indicates the greater scarcity of available goods and ensures that they are allocated to the uses most highly valued by consumers.
Conversely, it may be said that there is a fall in the "exchange" demand for money, which is constituted by the goods offered for exchange. The decrease in the demand for money in exchange, with the supply of money unchanged, initially produces a surplus of money, because at the low prices prevailing, the supply of money offered exceeds the supplies of goods brought to market. Eventually, the buying power of the dollar adjusts downward, goods' prices are bid up, and all dollars offered are absorbed in exchange for the now-higher-priced goods.
Once again we note that, unlike the ongoing price inflation that is typically caused by central-bank expansion of the money supply, the inflation generated by diminished supplies of goods is a one-shot affair. Prices stop rising as soon as the supplies of goods and services stop decreasing and stabilize at the lower level consistent with the change in the economic data.
"Scarcity" inflation is thus socially beneficial because it facilitates economic calculation and smoothly operating markets in a situation in which people's preferences or their production opportunities have undergone a radical change. History has shown time and again — during wars, revolutions, sieges, and crop failures — that any attempt to repress scarcity inflation via price controls or centralized distribution of necessities results in calculational chaos, widespread poverty, and social disorder.
Our conclusion is, thus, that a rise in general prices driven by the demand for money always improves economic welfare as Austrians understand that term.
In the interest of full disclosure, I note that most modern Austrians who support free banking, while agreeing with me on scarcity inflation, would strongly disagree with me that cash-economizing inflation is benign. Writers such as Larry White, George Selgin, and Steve Horwitz insist that any change in total spending caused by shifts in the demand for money must be promptly undone by a change in the supply of money in the same direction. Thus under our current fiat-money system, if financial innovations occur that induce people to reduce their demand for cash balances and to exchange money more rapidly, then according to "free bankers," the central bank must contract the money supply in order to prevent the increase in prices that corresponds to people's voluntary choices.
This is a direct implication of the free bankers' "productivity norm," according to which the central bank must actively suppress "meaningless" changes in prices. Meaningless changes in prices include those caused by shifts in what free bankers characterize — misleadingly in my opinion — as "the velocity of money." Thus, free bankers become cheerleaders for a monetary deflation engineered by the central bank as a means of stifling a pattern of freely chosen exchanges of property that expresses consumer preferences for higher prices.
The position of free bankers is not only erroneous but paradoxical as well. They accuse Austrians of the neo–Currency School, created by Mises and Rothbard, of viewing deflation and inflation asymmetrically, favoring deflation while condemning inflation. But as I tried to demonstrate above, Austrians of the neo–Currency School are perfectly consistent in their attitudes toward rising and falling prices: both "inflation" and "deflation" are benign as long as they are in accord with the voluntarily expressed preferences of consumers. Not so the free bankers, who claim to be in favor of a freely competitive monetary system, but presume to know in advance what outcome the entrepreneurs operating in this system will bring about, namely, complete stability of a particular macroeconomic variable.
Thus, the real point at issue between the free bankers and their neo–Currency opponents is whether the productivity norm should be invoked to encourage the central bank to use its power to manipulate the money supply in order to stabilize "total spending," a meaningless, ex post macroaggregate. The free bankers answer, "Yes." Neo–Currency School Austrians accept Mises's dictum that rising and falling prices per se are meaningless in assessing the soundness of a monetary regime. As Mises wrote,
The notions of inflation and deflation are not praxeological concepts.… They impl[y] the popular fallacy that there is such a thing as neutral money or money of stable purchasing power and that sound money should be neutral and stable in purchasing power.…
However, those applying these terms are not aware of the fact that purchasing power never remains unchanged and that consequently there is always either inflation or deflation.