In my last post, I talked about the likelihood of inflation in the U.S. in the near future and I was trying to debunk some of the theories that claim the opposite. I will continue on that note today and talk about one issue that is supposed to make inflation an impossibility during an economic downturn: the output gap.
The “output gap” is a measure of the difference between economic activity in an economy when times are sustainably good, and when there is a downturn. A lot less goods and services are produced during an economic crisis, for obvious reasons, and that is what accounts for the output gap.
Most economists who are currently advising the Obama administration or who are given time in the media are pointing to this output gap. They are saying that the current level of production in the U.S. economy is “unnaturally low”, and hence there is a lot of “slack” in the economy.
This slack, it is thought, can simply be filled in by printing more money, in order to save the economy. Because of the slack, inflation will not be created because the money printing is simply making up for the consumption which has disappeared, but should still be there, it is thought.
In other words, they are saying that the level of production today in the U.S. is not as high as it’s “supposed to be”.
In reality, they are saying that factories are “supposed to” produce more cars, TVs and clothes, and that people are “supposed to” get more haircuts and eat out more often.
But why should this be? Who says that there’s a “natural level” at which consumption should be? Definitely not me…
Please take a look at the model that I drew up in the beginning. This is an illustration of the U.S. economy. The important thing to see in the model is that both consumption and economic output will very likely be lower in 2009 compared to what they were in 2006. My model explains the very simplest of economic linkages: output follows consumption, or put in other words: supply follows demand.
Since the crisis started, demand has gone down rapidly all across the economy. Demand for houses, labor, haircuts and basically everything else has gone down. Naturally, there would be no point in producing any of those things if nobody wants to pay for them, so production goes down.
In order to find out what happened to the demand, what made it go down, one must look at what was fueling it, where the money was coming from.
Maybe the country had an export good, the price of which suddenly dropped like a rock. This recently happened to Russia and its oil. Consumption in Russia consequently went down because a lot of money disappeared.
Maybe the country had a brain drain of people which made key industries less productive. This happened in Zimbabwe when the country expelled its white farmers. A lot of money disappeared, and, incidentally, the Zimbabwean government tried the trusty method of printing money, with less than fabulous results.
There are many ways in which an economy can get in trouble, but no matter what, during times of crises, consumption and output will go down. Where was the money coming from in the U.S.? The answer is: credit.
Wages in the U.S. have been stagnant for over 30 years, and in order to make up for that, Americans have been taking loans to fuel consumption. Credit is the very thing that disappeared in this crisis, and that is what is decreasing demand.
In order for the output gap to be closed without anything radically changing in the economy, credit would have to come back as an economic force just as strong or stronger than before. We all know that that is not going to happen, so where does that leave us?
If there are no prospects of this gap being closed by new credit, then there is no slack in the economy, and money printing will simply be the futile and devastating activity it was in Germany and Zimbabwe.
The gap would have to be closed by something else, such as a more successful export industry. If, by some miracle, the U.S. export industry were to become extremely successful within a matter of months, so that the trade gap could be closed and turned into a surplus, then maybe the theory of the output gap could be relevant. The U.S. would have to stage an unprecedented economic miracle. Somehow I don’t see that as very likely.
The theory of the output gap can be relevant in normal economic times, when simply analyzing small ups and downs. But this theory is wholly irrelevant in a structural crisis or a depression.
In conclusion: the theory of the output gap is false and irrelevant because it is based on a notion of the imminent return of the credit-fueled good times. Using this theory as a justification to print money has been done before, with disastrous inflation as a result.
The economy is not "supposed to be" anything. It is only what you make it in to!
Moreover, I advise that the winner-takes-all voting system should be destroyed.