Inflation Is Hurting Average People Right Now

The standard left analysis of inflation says it’s a concern of elites and not the masses. This couldn’t be more wrong: working people are the ones suffering under inflation.

A man looks over the meat selection at a Tops Super Market in Greenville, New York, October 27, 2022. (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images)

Back during the print era, we used to say you don’t read your publicity, you weigh it. Reading Adam Tooze’s recent Substack post, “The return of TINA & the impasse of 2022 inflation politics,” made me think we need some digital equivalent. The piece is in part a response to my long Jacobin screed on inflation, but I barely recognize myself in anything he wrote.

It’s hard to reduce 6,800 words to a paragraph or two, but let me recount some of my main points. Historically, the Left has been reluctant to talk about inflation — it’s seen as an elite concern, not one of the working class. When this current round of inflation took hold in the spring of 2021, both liberals and leftists largely dismissed it as temporary, yet another side effect of COVID-19. Inflation denialism has receded, but there’s still a serious reticence on the topic.

The standard left class analysis of inflation, that it’s a concern of elites and not the masses, couldn’t be more wrong. Periods of high inflation in the US — notably the late 1970s and early 1980s and the last eighteen months — have been times of real wage decline (that is, pay just doesn’t keep up with price increases). And inflation hits poorer households harder than rich ones.

For a recent example of this, we can turn to the Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse Survey, a regular look at the economic, physical, and psychological well-being of Americans that the Bureau has been doing since the early COVID-19 era. The most recent iteration, for early October, reports nearly half (47 percent) of respondents finding price increases to be “very stressful,” and another quarter (28 percent) finding them “moderately stressful,” for a combined 75 percent. Just 5 percent say “not at all.” Among those in households with income under $25,000, the combined total is 86 percent; among those pulling in $200,000, it’s 47 percent.

The survey also shows sharp increases in the number of people having difficulties paying their bills, and more reliance on credit cards and drawing down savings than last year. Those who had some money are running out of it, and those who didn’t are going deeper into the hole.

Tooze oddly doesn’t consider this except in passing — “what has taken center stage is a feverish debate about the cost of living.” Instead, he seems disappointed that so little attention has been paid to the effects of inflation on reducing the real value of debt. As I argued in my piece, surveys show little popular interest in that angle, either because it’s too abstract or too secondary to the daily burden of paying for food and electricity.

From that, though, he leaps to an unsupported conclusion: “If you frame inflation as a problem of the cost of living, it seems, there really is no alternative but to end inflation by all means necessary. Even Jacobin magazine — the flagship journal of the American new new left . . . chimes in with this chorus, denouncing inflation and unconventional monetary policy as an attack on the American working-class.” He seems to think that’s my argument, though it’s hard to tell, given that he quotes none of it, paraphrases only a fraction of it tendentiously (“unconventional monetary policy”), and then links to the piece.

Among other things, I argued that ten years of near-0 interest rates and trillions of dollars of Federal Reserve infusions into the financial markets — “unconventional monetary policy” — led to a risky set of asset bubbles like crypto, pointless and unprofitable startups, and (most damaging to the working class) a real estate bubble that led to huge increases in house prices and rents. Not a word from Tooze on that.

He then makes a strange argument: “From a historical point of view moments of inflation have undeniably been moments of opening for the left — think of the 1914-1925, 1940s and 1970s. But if the latest issue of Jacobin is anything to go by, there seems little appetite for such a militant politics of collective organization in the current moment.” I’d love nothing more than militant collective organization, but it’s hard to square those comments with the historical record. (Since it’s not clear whether he’s talking about the US or Britain, I’ll address both.)

First, 1914–1925. In Britain, there was a sharp inflation from 1915 through 1920, which was followed by deflation and depression from 1921 to1923. There was a brief respite, but the deflationary depression resumed and lasted through the 1930s. The major industrial action of the inflationary period was The Battle of George Square in 1919, which was mainly about shortening the workweek to provide jobs for demobilized soldiers and not a reaction to the inflation. There were larger industrial actions, as measured by lost workdays, in 1921 and 1926, when the deflationary depression had set in, including a (failed) general strike.

In the US, there was also a sharp postwar inflation that turned into deflationary depression in the early 1920s, which ushered in the Roaring Twenties. These were not moments of impressive agitation (a contrast with the deflationary decades of the late nineteenth century).

Second, the 1940s. There was some inflation during World War II, which was partly suppressed by price controls. Judged by lost workdays, there wasn’t much strike activity in Britain. The National Health Service was founded in 1945, but that drew on decades of prewar agitation. The US saw some labor militancy in the late 1940s, but the decade ended with the “Treaty of Detroit” in 1950, in which the United Auto Workers gave up on the right to negotiate over management issues in exchange for regular wage increases and pension and health benefits.

It was a good deal for workers, but it also marked the onset of “business unionism,” the surrender of any political role for unions, and their transformation into service organizations. That was followed by the politically placid Eisenhower years.

And finally the 1970s. There was plenty of agitation in Britain, beginning with a coal strike in 1972 and ending with the mass strikes of the “Winter of Discontent” in 1979 — which sadly was followed by the election of Margaret Thatcher. In the US, the early part of the decade saw an upsurge of strikes, including the postal walkout of 1970, the topic of an excellent 1999 Baffler article by Christian Parenti. But that was before the decade’s inflation took off. As inflation got worse in the late 1970s, the Right gained ground at the elite and popular level.

What’s impressive about all three of these inflationary periods is that they were followed by reactionary turns, whether it’s the Republican administrations of the 1920s, the Eisenhower torpor of the 1950s, or the transatlantic crackdown of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s.

As for ending inflation “by all means necessary,” who said that exactly? Not me. Tooze returns this phantasmic point a bit further down: “I want simply to register this remarkable convergence of analyses around the conclusion that there is no alternative to stopping inflation as quickly as possible. And to ask, in a Keynesian spirit, whether that is really persuasive.”

This is a strange invocation of John Maynard Keynes, who mostly wrote at a time when the world economy was stuck in a deep depression that just wouldn’t cure itself the way the textbooks said it should. We aren’t in a situation like that. We’re in a situation where inflation is at a multi-decade high in much of the world, which is putting a serious crimp on living standards despite a 3.5 percent US unemployment rate, one of the lowest in modern history.

I would say that a decade of hyper-loose money papered over a lot of structural problems with the US economy, like low public and private investment levels, falling unionization rates, and the lack of a civilized welfare state. If the Fed’s ceasing to pump trillions of fresh money into the markets and nudging up interest rates to 4 percent — still 4 points below the rate of inflation — causes an economic crisis and mass unemployment, then we should address those structural problems rather than dreaming about another decade of exceptional monetary indulgence. Or take a page from the more radical side of Keynes, who evocatively if vaguely called for “a somewhat comprehensive socialization of investment,” which isn’t on many agendas these days. As I argued at the end of my essay, we should be using this period of inflation to think about transcending capitalism, not apologizing for the monetary printing press.