Inflation and the Right

Here’s some disquieting news:

The Consumer Price Index rose 0.4 percent in January, a bigger gain than economists had predicted. Over the last 12 months, the index has surged by 4.3 percent, one of the highest year-over-year rates in decades, the Labor Department said.

The rise was led by increases in the costs of food, gasoline, shelter, and transportation. The so-called core inflation rate, which excludes food and gasoline prices, ticked up 0.3 percent last month.

The core rate is 2.5 percent above its level in January 2007, above the Fed’s recognized comfort zone ceiling of 2 percent.

This is bad for all the usual reasons, but I think it is also worrisome for its political implications. I suspect that higher inflation helps movement conservatism. The reason is simple: when prices are going up, people need more money–quickly. And movement conservatism has a ready answer: we’ll give you a tax cut. Now, of course, the vast majority of the tax cuts are for the super-rich, but under inflationary conditions, that literally doesn’t matter to voters: they need the money.

Movement conservatism gathered steam in the inflationary period of the late 70’s. It’s no accident that Ronald Reagan triumphed in the high-inflation year of 1980. California’s 1978 Proposition 13 property tax cutting initiative wasn’t anything new: it had been proposed and had failed miserably in years previous. The difference was inflation: people needed the money (this was particularly true with the property tax, because people can’t eat their higher house prices).

As economic policy, tax cutting in inflationary times is madness, because it just stimulates demand. But the politics are very clear. And I think that they help conservatives.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.