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Cooking the Books1: Stating the obvious

Edmund Phelps won the 2006 Nobel prize for economics for research into the interplay between prices, unemployment and inflation expectations. A press release gave the reasons:

Phelps suggested that in setting prices and negotiating wages, employers and workers make judgements about future inflation that in turn influence the inflation outcome. As a consequence, the long-run rate of unemployment is not affected by inflation but only determined by the functioning of the labour market. The academy said the theoretical framework Phelps developed in the late 1960s helped economists understand the causes of soaring prices and unemployment in the 1970s. Phelps's work has fundamentally altered our views on how the macroeconomy operates.” (http://money.cnn.com/2006/10/09/news/newsmakers/phelps_nobel.reut/index.htm)

Phelps's explanation for inflation amounts to the circular argument that rising prices cause rising prices. This doesn't really explain anything about contemporary capitalism and it doesn't explain those periods of capitalist history when the general price level (including the price known as a wage or salary) was stable or falling.

The real explanation is to be found outside the circle of rising prices, in the government issuing more currency than is needed for economic transactions to take place. Whenever and wherever currency inflation has taken place, rising prices have been the result. It is of course true that once the psychology of inflationary expectations is established, employers and unions will want to take into account future inflation rates when determining wage levels. But the real underlying explanation (currency inflation) is radically different from Phelps's superficial view that rising prices cause rising prices.

Up to the 1970s the ruling theory in economics was the Phillips Curve. This basically said that there was a trade-off between inflation and unemployment: we could have higher inflation and lower unemployment or lower inflation and higher unemployment. Until the 1970s, that is, when we had both rising inflation and rising unemployment. That discredited the Phillips Curve. But what would economists tell the ruling class now? According to Phelps, the message is: unemployment is not affected by inflation. Brilliant! Give that man a Nobel prize! But even this isn't quite right, since it is possible for inflation to get seriously out of control, causing economic dislocation and rising unemployment as in Weimar Germany in the 1920s.

Phelps is right to say that the long-run rate of unemployment is determined by the functioning of the labour market. But this is something we have said for many years well before Phelps. Can we have our Nobel prize now?