The Confusion Over Inflation

The Land of Funny Money

What are the economic problems caused by inflation, and why do economists often regard them with less concern than the general public? Consider a very short story: “The Land of Funny Money.”

One morning, everyone in the Land of Funny Money awakened to find that everything denominated in money had increased by 20%. The change was completely unexpected. Every price in every store was 20% higher. Paychecks were 20% higher. Interest rates were 20 % higher. The amount of money, everywhere from wallets to savings accounts, was 20% larger. This overnight inflation of prices made newspaper headlines everywhere in the Land of Funny Money. However, the headlines quickly disappeared, as people realized that in terms of what they could actually buy with their incomes, this inflation had no economic impact. Everyone’s pay could still buy exactly the same set of goods as it did before. Everyone’s savings were still sufficient to buy exactly the same car, vacation, or retirement that they could have bought before. Equal levels of inflation in all wages and prices ended up not mattering much at all.

When the people in Robert Shiller’s surveys explained their concern about inflation, one typical reason was that they feared that as prices rose, they would not be able to afford to buy as much. In other words, people were worried because they did not live in a place like the Land of Funny Money, where all prices and wages rose simultaneously. Instead, people live here on Planet Earth, where prices might rise while wages do not rise at all, or where wages rise more slowly than prices.

Economists note that over most periods, the inflation level in prices is roughly similar to the inflation level in wages, and so they reason that, on average, over time, people’s economic status is not greatly changed by inflation. If all prices, wages, and interest rates adjusted automatically and immediately with inflation, as in the Land of Funny Money, then no one’s purchasing power, profits, or real loan payments would change. However, if other economic variables do not move exactly in sync with inflation, or if they adjust for inflation only after a time lag, then inflation can cause three types of problems: unintended redistributions of purchasing power, blurred price signals, and difficulties in long-term planning.