The Past and Future of American Affluence
Written by Robert J. Samuelson
The Lost History
History is what we say it is. If you asked a group of scholars to name the most important landmarks in the American story of the past half century, they would list some or all of the following: the war in Vietnam; the civil rights movement; the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation; the sexual revolution; the invention of the computer chip; Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980; the end of the Cold War; the creation of the Internet; the emergence of AIDS; the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; and the two wars in Iraq (1991 and 2003). Looking abroad, these scholars might include other developments: the rise of Japan as a major economic power in the 1970s and 1980s; the emergence of China in the 1980s from its self-imposed isolation; and the spread of nuclear weapons (to China, India, Pakistan and others). But missing from any list would be the rise and fall of double-digit U.S. inflation. This would be a huge oversight.
We have now arrived at the end of a roughly half-century economic cycle dominated by inflation, for good and ill. Its rise and fall constitute one of the great upheavals of our time, though one largely forgotten and misunderstood. From 1960 to 1979, annual U.S. inflation increased from a negligible 1.4 percent to 13.3 percent. By 2001, it had receded to 1.6 percent, almost exactly what it had been in 1960. For this entire period, inflation’s climb and collapse exerted a dominant influence over the economy’s successes and failures and much more. Inflation and its fall shaped, either directly or indirectly, how Americans felt about themselves and their society; how they voted and the nature of their politics; how businesses operated and treated their workers; and how the American economy was connected with the rest of the world. Although no one would claim that inflation’s side effects were the only forces that influenced the nation over these decades, they counted for more than most people including most historians, economists and journalists think. It’s impossible to decipher our era, or to think sensibly about the future, without understanding the Great Inflation and its aftermath. Continue reading ‘The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath’