Did the Stagflation of the 70s Ever Exist In the First Place?

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In a conversation with Dean Baker recently, I learned something interesting. This won’t be new to anyone deeply familiar with inflation statistics, but it was new to me. Maybe it will be new to you too.

The general subject is the stagflation of the 70s, which ushered in supply-side economics and the Reagan era. More specifically, the issue is the measurement of inflation during part of this era. Housing costs are incorporated into the CPI by measuring rents, but prior to 1982 it was done by directly measuring the price of buying a house. In an era when interest rates were steady, this didn’t matter much, but when interest rates went crazy in the mid-70s it made a big difference, overstating inflation by about two percentage points. If you correct for this, and also take a look at exactly when the worst periods of stagflation occurred, you get this:

If you correct the inflation figures and account for the two oil shocks of the 70s, the period from 1970-85 looks remarkably steady. Inflation and GDP growth are both running at about 4 percent for nearly the entire time.

I don’t have the chops to relitigate this, but the question it raises is: Did stagflation ever even exist? Was there anything seriously wrong with the economy of the 70s other than a pair of oil shocks we had no control over? Would the economy have recovered normally after the second oil shock even if Paul Volcker hadn’t created a huge recession? Feel free to litigate in comments.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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