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There – that wasn’t so hard, was it? Meaning that if a national government (including its central bank) wants to get inflation down, it’s not a rocket science-type challenge. Elected officials (or dictators) can cut public spending, monetary authorities like America’s Federal Reserve can tighten monetary policy, and voila. Receiving less financial juice, consumers stop consuming so much, businesses stop investing and hiring so robustly, and the lower level of economic activity begins depriving sellers of pricing power – at least if they want to keep their sales up. 

Moreover, these governments can enjoy the benefits of a venerable economic adage: an effective cure for high prices is high prices. That is, at some point, regardless of government policies, goods and services begin getting unaffordable. So businesses and consumers alike don’t buy so much of them, and the reduced demand also forces sellers that want to keep sales up to start marking them down.

At least that’s a message that’s easy to take away from the today’s new official report on U.S. “Personal Income and Outlays,” which, as usual, contains data on price increases and consumer spending, and which shows a softening in both.

Before delving into the specifics, however, it’s important to point out that (1) less economic activity means less prosperity – and in many instanaces can mean much worse – for most of the population; and (2), the higher inflation has become, the more belt tightening is needed, and the more economic suffering must be imposed, in order to bring it to levels considered acceptable. And since the new, better numbers from Washington still reveal price increases near multi-decade highs, it figures that returning to satisfactory inflation will require many Americans to experience significantly more economic pain.

In other words, the “soft landing” that Fed officials in particular describe as the goal of their anti-inflation policy – that is, taming inflation while still fostering some growth – still looks like much less than a sure bet. Even Fed Chair Jerome Powell acknowledges this.

Powell and many others insist that even if the landing is hard, the anti-inflation medicine will be necessary, since, in his words, “Economies don’t work without price stability.” Often they add that the steps necessary to defeat inflation will also help cure the economy of its long-time addiction to bubble-ized growth – that is, prosperity based on credit conditions that are kept way too loose, that deprive producers of the market-based disciplines needed to keep prosperity sustained, and that in fact spur so many bad and even reckless choices by all economic actors that they inevitably end in torrents of tears.

I’m sympathetic to these arguments, but the main point here is that killing off inflation per se has always been first and foremost a matter of will – which has clearly been lacking for too long. Avoiding recession, conversely, is no great accomplishment, either: Just keep inflating bubbles with easy money. It’s fostering soundly based, sustainable growth that’s been the challenge that American leaders have long failed to meet.

As for the specifics, let’s start with the inflation figures contained in today’s report from the Commerce Department. They’re somewhat different from the more widely covered Consumer Price Index (CPI) tracked by the Labor Department, but this Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) price index matters a lot because it’s the inflation measure favored by the Fed, which has major inflation-fighting responsibilities.

On a monthly basis, “headline” PCE inflation (the broadest measure) bounced up from April’s 0.2 percent (the weakest such figure since the flatlline of November, 2020) to 0.6 percent (the worst such figure since March’s 0.9 percent). The “core” figure (which strips out food and energy prices supposedly because they’re volatile for reason largely unrelated to the economy’s fundamental vulnerability to inflation), increased sequentially in May by 0.3 percent for the fourth straight month. Those are the smallest such increases since September, 2020’s 0.2 percent.

These results are one sign that spending has fallen off enough to prevent still strong energy inflation from bleeding over into the rest of the economy – just about all of which uses energy as a key input. And indeed, the new Commerce release reports that adjusting for inflation, personal consumption fell on month (by 0.4 percent) for the first time since last December (1.4 percent).

As known by RealityChek regulars, the annual rates of change are usually more important than the monthly, because they gauge developments over longer time periods and are therefore less likely to be thrown off by short-term developments or sheer statistical randomness. And encouragingly, they tell a similar story. The headline annual PCE inflation rate of 6.3 percent was the same as April’s, and lower than March’s 6.6 percent. Annual core PCE inflation dropped to 4.7 percent from April’s 4.9 percent and hit its lowest level since last November’s 4.7 percent – another sign that because consumers have pulled back, hot inflation in energy isn’t stoking ever stronger price rises elsewhere.

No one could reasonably call today’s inflation report “good” – especially since the baseline effect (which RealityChek readers know throughout 2021 produced annual inflation rates that were unusually high because of a catch-up effect from the unusually low inflation results of 2020) is gone. In other words, price increases much higher than the Fed’s two percent target rate are persisting.

But to this point, anyway, these increases aren’t coming faster – which is crucial because one reason inflation is so feared is its tendency to feed upon itself.

As pointed out above, though, weakening inflation by tanking the economy is no great triumph of economic policy. Worse, it’s all too easy to conclude from recent history that, even though a recession hasn’t officially arrived, once it does, most politicians will rev up the spending engines again, and (successfully) pressure the Fed to at least stop the tightening. And inflation will take off again. 

There’s a much better inflation-fighting alternative that’s available, at least in principle:  Increase the nation’s sagging productivity growth.  Boosting business’ efficiency enables companies to deal with cost increases — including wage hikes — without passing them on to consumers.  But a productivity rebound seems nowhere in sight, seemingly leaving the nation stuck in a pattern of blowing up bubbles to achieve periods of acceptable growth and employment, popping them at least occasionally to keep prices in check, and hoping the whole Ponzi scheme can somehow continue indefinitely.