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Cooking the Books 1: Sinned against not sinners

PAY RISES DONT CAUSE INFLATION – AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH FOR DARLING” was the headline in the Daily Telegraph of a recent article by the unspeakable Simon Heffer (25 June, www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/06/25/do2503.xml) . He was criticising the increasingly strident calls by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for pay restraint so as not to fuel inflation. Heffer’s argument was that as rising prices have been caused by the government allowing too much money to get into circulation they can’t be stopped by holding back wages.

We have to admit that he is basically right. Insofar as rising prices in Britain are not due to other factors such as rising world oil and food prices (since rising prices and inflation are not the same), if the government overissues the currency, i.e. puts more into circulation than enough to make payments, pay taxes, settle debts, etc, then all prices will tend to rise. As wages are a price – the price of a person’s ability to work, or what Marx called their labour power – they too will rise. So to blame inflation on wage increases is wrong.

So, sometimes a nasty person can be right. Heffer reminds us that another obnoxious character, Enoch Powell, was saying this about inflation in the 1960s. He quotes something Powell said about the wage restraint policy of the Wilson Labour government. Powell was even clearer in a speech he made on 20 November 1970 about the similar policy of the Heath Tory government:

Wage claims, wage awards, strikes, do not cause rising prices, inflation, for one simple but sufficient reason – they cannot. There never was a strike yet which caused inflation, and there never will be. The most powerful unions, or groups of unions, which was ever invented is powerless to cause prices generally to rise ... in the matter of inflation, the unions and their members are sinned against, not sinning. In the matter of inflation, the unions and their members are as innocent as lambs, pure white as the driven snow”.

We couldnt agree more and said so at the time. There is, however, a point of difference. Heffer (and Powell himself sometimes) suggests that it is government spending as such that causes inflation (Heffer is a mad marketeer who wants to reduce government spending and interference so as to let the market rip). But this is not necessarily the case. If it is financed by overissuing the currency, government spending will have this effect, but inflation is not due to the particular way the excess money is spent (in this case by the government to finance its spending) but to the fact that it has been issued in excess.

Darling may be cleverer than Heffer gives him credit for. The job of all governments is to preside over the operation of the profit system and to try to ensure that profits are protected and maximised. So they are always against pay increases, irrespective of whether or not prices are increasing. Darling may just be using the current spurt in prices as a pretext to reiterate what is a permanent policy of all governments.