August 31, 2011

THE PROBLEM IS CALLED USURY:

The I-word: Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff has spent his career fighting inflation. Now he thinks it might just save the economy. (Leon Neyfakh, 8/28/11, Boston Globe)

You might say that Kenneth Rogoff has been one of the guards. As a research economist at the Federal Reserve during the first half of the 1980s, he helped ensure that the word "inflation" would never again flash across American TV screens. His reputation as a conservative-minded inflation hawk followed him from the Fed to the International Monetary Fund to his current position in the economics department at Harvard.

But then came the financial crisis of 2008, and the ensuing slump. And as the economy has continued to stagnate, Rogoff, 58, has become the flag-bearer for an unlikely position: that as we struggle to help the economy find its way out of the darkness, inflation could be the answer. It's time, Rogoff says, to put Reagan's "hit man" to work for the good guys.

Over the past several years, Rogoff has emerged as one of the world's leading experts on the history of financial crises and how they work, a unique perch that has given him a long view on what is happening to our economy and what lies ahead. In the bestselling 2009 book "This Time Is Different,'' he and Carmen Reinhart , currently a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics , laid out a detailed analysis of financial crises that have taken place around the world going back 800 years, and they put forth an alarming idea about our current predicament. What we're going through, they argued - what we've been going through ever since the subprime mortgage crisis - has not been just a typical recession, as our leaders have been treating it, but something much worse, something that demands altogether different tools to stop it.

One of these tools, Rogoff believes, is a temporary burst of inflation. And for the past several weeks, as the stock market has convulsed and debate raged over the Fed's next move, he has been making his case publicly, through syndicated opinion columns, high-profile TV appearances, and numerous interviews. It's an argument that Rogoff himself admits is "radical," and one he says he'd rather not be making. But as he sees it, what's holding the country back from recovery is not just a lack of consumer confidence or suppressed demand, as in a normal recession, but an immense overhang of debt: thanks to the collapse of the real-estate bubble, millions of American families owe so much to banks that they're focusing all their energy on paying down their debts instead of spending their money on new investments. There will be no recovery until the painful process of working through that debt is behind us, Rogoff argues, and an increase in the annual inflation rate, which has floated around 2 percent since the early 1990s,would make it easier for debtors to pay down what they owe.


Inflation was such a massive problem for so long that it's understandable that it has taken folks thirty years top accept that we're in the midst of a deflationary epoch. But the ones--especially gold bugs--who still can't grasp it have no excuse.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 31, 2011 6:28 AM
  
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