Front Page Titles (by Subject) Causes and Consequences of the Inflation of Our Time - Capital, Expectations, and the Market Process
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Causes and Consequences of the Inflation of Our Time - Ludwig M. Lachmann, Capital, Expectations, and the Market Process 
Capital, Expectations, and the Market Process: Essays on the Theory of the Market Economy, ed. with an Introduction by Walter E. Grinder (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Causes and Consequences of the Inflation of Our Time
The subject with which I am to deal is of an economic, but at the same time of a historical nature. While inflationary processes have been the concern of economists for almost as long as coherent economic thought can be said to have existed, any comparison between the outstanding features of “the inflation of our age” and those of other epochs, such as my subject clearly requires, involves the perspective of history. This dual nature of my task presents a problem of method and approach. This problem stems, not from any fundamental incompatibility between the economic and the historical approach, but from a certain tendency inherent in modern macro-economic analysis. In economic analysis, as in all generalizing thought, we build in our minds “models” of reality by deducing necessary consequences from hypotheses arbitrarily chosen. Of course we are all aware that the more “realistic” our assumptions are, the closer to reality we may hope our conclusions to be. But since it is always impossible to include the whole of reality in our set of assumptions, the selection of the components of this set cannot but be arbitrary. The historian studying the changes which a given society has undergone through time faces the same problem of selection since he, too, has to confine himself to a limited number of features. There is thus, in principle, insofar as the arbitrary selection of topics for inclusion in either the analytical model of the economist or the “observation model” of the historian is concerned, no incompatibility at all between the two approaches.
But the recent development of economic theory in the direction of a stronger emphasis on macro-economic problems analysed in terms of variables and the relationships between them, makes it in fact very unlikely that an economist constructing a model of inflation and a historian studying inflationary processes through time, will both select the same features as of primary importance, and will abstract from the same features as of only secondary significance. The modern economist, immersed as he is in examining systems of functional relationships between macro-variables, has to abstract from the human purposes, attitudes, and ideas which lie behind them, while the historian can hardly follow him in this practice as these very things form the essential subject-matter of all history.
Reprinted from South African Journal of Economics 35 (December 1967).
We hear much nowadays of consumption functions, input-output tables, and capital-output ratios. Nobody bothers to explain why, in a world of rapid changes in attitudes, tastes, and techniques, such variables as these should be expected to subsist, nor why, if there is change, such change should follow a definite and predictable pattern. But it must surely be clear that where our task is the explanation of change in time, no argument in which human ideas and attitudes which might prompt such change are ignored or abstracted from, will be worth serious consideration. When we try to explain the specific character of the inflationary processes of our time it must be one of our foremost tasks to grant ideas and attitudes a prominent place in our scheme of explanation.
When we look at any of our price indices, whether of wholesale or consumer prices, either before or after 1958, it is the relentless character of the annual price rises which leaves the most striking impression. Between 1939 and 1966 we find not a single year in which the price index is not higher than in the preceding and lower than in the next year.
Two contrasting aspects of this situation appear to us to call for notice. On the one hand, one cannot but be surprised at the extent to which this state of affairs has come today to be generally accepted as a perhaps undesirable, but inevitable feature of economic life in advanced Western society. We all know that we are living in a world in which prices can only rise but never fall. When we speak of “fighting inflation,” what we really mean is that we hope to reduce the rate of price rise. Perhaps, in our bolder moments, we even imagine a period of stable prices which might last a number of years. But I have never met anybody, economist or layman, who actually thought that the continuous price rise of the last three decades might one day be reversed and that we may live to see a decade or so of falling prices. I imagine that if such a person were to turn up at this conference, he would at once create something of a sensation.
Economists, on the other hand, notoriously slow to grasp and absorb into their thinking historical change in thought and institutions that happens during their own life-time, have thus far been reluctant to probe the implications of the facts mentioned for theory and practice. Recent discussions of the so-called “reverse yield gap” are evidence of this reluctance the main reasons for which have to be sought in the history of economic thought. So much of our thinking on prices and monetary matters, classical, neo-classical, and Keynesian, is consciously or subconsciously based on the assumption of a world of prices flexible in both directions, upward and downward, that our reluctance to recast some of our conceptual tools in a mould more appropriate to a world of unidirectional price change is not perhaps altogether surprising. Nor is it inexcusable. When we remember that all modern economists are trained to think in equilibrium terms, in terms of a coherent “economic system” of which the “price system” forms part, we shall find it easy to understand why their minds boggle at what Sir John Hicks has called The Fixprice Method,1 a description by which, as its author puts it, “It is not implied ... that prices are never allowed to change—only that they do not necessarily change whenever there is demand-supply disequilibrium.”2
After all, even Keynes, as late as in his Treatise on Money of 1930, assumed prices flexible in both directions. It is only natural that the facts of the new situation should permeate our thinking but gradually and that we are slow, perhaps slower than we should be, to come to grips with them.
On the other hand, it is not often realised what a new situation it really is that we confront. It gradually came into existence, so far as I can judge, in the course of the 1920s. Before that time prices often did fall, even as late as in the years immediately after the First World War. In that world, so different from ours, it was generally taken for granted that periods of rising prices will be followed by falling prices.
Perhaps the most striking example of this change is found in the fact that a hundred years ago, in what was already an industrial economy, it was taken for granted that the results of inflation have to be wiped out by deflation and falling prices: the liquidation of the “Greenback period” in America in the years after the Civil War took the form of a prolonged process of deflation. Between 1865 and 1879, with a mild rise in the stock of money which had been inflated between 1861 and 1865, a very rapid rise in the gross social product caused a “drastic and sustained price decline.” As Schumpeter put it, in those 14 years, “the economic organism was allowed to grow into its monetary coat.” As Professor Friedman and Mrs. Schwartz have described it, “The price level fell to half its initial level in the course of less than fifteen years and, at the same time, economic growth proceeded at a rapid rate.... Their coincidence casts serious doubts on the validity of the now widely held view that secular price deflation and rapid economic growth are incompatible.”3
While prices were halved within 14 years, the net national product doubled between 1869 and 1879. Net national product per capita (at 1929 prices) rose from 188 to 295 dollars.4 The rapid growth was not confined to manufacturing industries in which employment increased by one-third during the decade.
“The number of farms rose by over 50 per cent from 1870 to 1880 for the U.S. as a whole. The average value per acre apparently increased despite the sharp decline in the price of farm products—clear evidence of a rise in economic productivity. The output of coal, pig iron, and copper all more than doubled and that of lead multiplied sixfold.”5
Why do all these facts sound to us like tales from a lost world? This is an economic no less than a historical question.
Inflation means that the social product falls short of the total claims made upon it. The “real value” of each money claim is then reduced by the price rise. With given claims a sufficient rise in the social product may eliminate inflation. But in a growing economy inflation will become endemic if the rate of growth of claims continues to exceed the rate of growth of the social product. This is evidently the situation of Western society today. The fundamental cause of our inability to stop the inflation of our age is our inability to control the creation of claims to shares in the social product.
It may be thought that the problem might be at least mitigated, if not cured, by inducing at least some holders of claims to postpone them. No doubt increased savings will reduce inflationary pressure. But in a world in which prices do not fall, such persuasion as is required to make people save more is increasingly less likely to succeed as these holders realise that by postponing their claims they can only lose but never gain. They are far more likely to convert their claims into real resources which, if at some hazard, may be turned into sources of future real income streams, thus safeguarding them against certain loss. But this of course means that such claims are not postponed but, on the contrary, currently exercised.
Every attempt to assess the major causes of the inflation of our age will therefore have to start from the fact of the creation of excessive claims to the social product. Here we have to distinguish, more carefully than has been done in the past, between the sources of such claim creation and the monetary channels through which the claims are exercised. Economists appear to have taken it for granted that control of inflation means control of the monetary channels through which such claims flow. We shall have to take a wider view. But it may well be, as a matter of history, that at a time when the number of possible sources of such excessive claims was small, virtually confined to governments and large business concerns with easy access to the capital and money market, control of the monetary channels was in itself sufficient to check inflation.
History shows many examples of successful anti-inflationary credit policy. In our world the sources of claim creation are more diffuse while our monetary system is, at the same time, more complex and more difficult to control. We can no longer take it for granted that successful control of the monetary channels means success in the struggle against inflation.
Nevertheless it remains true that one major cause of the inflation of our age lies in the high degree of elasticity of our supply of money. With a metallic money the inflationary process we have witnessed during the last three decades would have been impossible. A system of credit money in which the creation of money requires little beyond agreement between lender (bank) and borrower, and in which a large and widely held stock of near-money assets will at once start flowing into any gap opened by a “credit squeeze,” is evidently something very different from, and far more unwieldy than, anything the central bankers of la belle époque ever had to contend with.
A second major source of the inflation of our age we have to find in the manner in which prices of industrial goods are determined in our world. These are very largely “list” or catalogue prices. In the case of resale price maintenance the producer even determines the price which the consumer will have to pay. But with or without resale price maintenance, the producer in the large majority of cases determines the price at which he will sell the product to his customer who is a “price taker”: he can only accept the price or refuse to buy. The producer is his own price setter. In setting his price, to be sure, the producer must take his bearings from the market and has to take account of the elasticity of demand confronting him. But, firstly, in our age of inflation most producers have learnt to distinguish between the short-run elasticity of demand immediately after a price increase and the long-run elasticity which will prevail once the economy has digested another bout of all-round inflation. Secondly, to take one's orientation from sales expectations is in principle something different from taking it from current market prices. The latter is not a mere figment of the imagination of economic theorists building models of “perfect competition.” In the nineteenth century world such a mode of orientation really existed.
Price setting by industrial producers is a relatively new phenomenon, and a concomitant of the decline of the wholesale merchant as an economic intermediary. Before 1900, in a world in which most goods were produced by relatively small-scale producers, prices were set in markets dominated by merchants whose economic function it was to equate a demand and a supply the sources of which were equally beyond their control. Maximising their profits meant for them maximising their turnover. Hence they had to fix equilibrium prices reflecting every change in either supply or demand. Marshallian market equilibrium theory largely reflected this concrete situation which prevailed in the real world at the time when Marshall wrote. What matters for us is that this type of market required price flexibility in both directions if merchants were to maximise turnover. Producers and consumers alike had no choice in accepting these flexible market prices. The separation of the function of price setter from that of producer was thus the basis of price flexibility.
The modern consumer is still in the position of a price taker, but the modern producer is not. Having assumed the function of price setter left vacant by the demise of the wholesale merchant,6 he naturally exercises it in such a fashion as to maximise his long-run profits rather than, as the merchant did, his short-run turnover. He will deal with an excess supply by reducing his output rather than by letting price drop. He can afford, as his forebear could not, to let his conduct at every moment be prompted by expectations largely reflecting rule-of-thumb interpretations of the contemporary world. He will avoid anything that might “spoil the market.” And since he knows, as we all do, that he is living in a world of unidirectional long-run price change, and that any cost economy within his reach will sooner or later be swallowed up by wage demands, he will be loath to reduce his price even where he could gain an immediate market advantage. To reduce price when one knows very well that before long one will have to raise it again is not sound business strategy.
A cost increase, on the other hand, can be converted into a price increase by a stroke of the pen where producers are price setters. Of course, fear of “spoiling the market” may act here, too, as an obstacle. But long experience has by now taught our producer that in granting wage demands, where all his competitors are in the same position as he is, he need not hesitate to recoup himself by a price increase, and that so far as the relative price of his product to product prices outside his industry is concerned, the next round of wage increases in the country will soon rectify his position.
We now come to the third, and most important, cause of our inflation: the relentless nature of wage demands following upon one another, industry by industry, in what by now in most industrial countries has become a customary and well-established pattern. The subject is only too familiar.7 We shall confine ourselves to three comments designed to set the phenomenon in historical perspective.
Our first two causes, while being necessary major conditions of inflation, are really only conditions. Neither the elastic nature of money supply nor the modern method of fixing industrial prices could by themselves have produced the phenomena we all know. As regards the “administered prices” in particular, there is little reason to doubt that modern industrialists would prefer stable prices and costs to unidirectional change in both. The really decisive force of our inflation has to be sought in the driving power of trade unions, and the environment, intellectual and institutional, within which they operate today.
The main original function of trade unions, as of cartels, was to prevent a movement of otherwise competitive prices which had taken place during a boom from being reversed during the subsequent slump; no wage rate must ever be allowed to fall. Once this had become an article of faith generally accepted in modern mass society, trade unions had to assume a new function to justify their continued existence. An economy with stable wage rates and prices gradually falling with higher productivity holds no attraction for trade unions. While it may present difficult problems to the setters of “administered” prices, it makes trade unions redundant. The option for an economy with steadily rising wage rates is therefore a natural option for a type of organization which otherwise would be left without any significant economic function.
But how were trade unions able to make their interests prevail above all others, including the social interest in a stable price level? How exactly did it come about that the annual creation of excessive claims on the social product became part of the accepted ritual of modern society, a social norm the more compelling for being an unwritten norm?
It seems to us that this process is unintelligible unless we pay some attention to the historical changes which the institutions of collective bargaining have undergone in the last half-century. When in the early 1920s most countries of the West followed the British example and set up such institutions, adding arbitration by an “impartial” arbiter in some cases, the prevailing climate of opinion was still such that the market economy with its autonomous and coherent price system was largely taken for granted. Sceptics were silenced by pointing out to them that “bargaining” is of the essence of market activity and that “collective bargaining” is a more sophisticated, perhaps a more civilised, method of attaining equilibrium wage rates. Few doubted that the existence of prices coordinated by the price system would set fairly narrow limits to the area of wage bargaining.
As we all know, the outcome has been a very different one. Instead of the price system containing the area of wage bargaining within narrow limits, the autonomous price system has been destroyed in the process. The wage level of each industry is no longer governed by an autonomous price system existing independently of it. On the contrary, the price system, if we still can speak of such, has become today the cumulative result of all the industrial wage bargains and consequent price adjustments which have taken place in time. Life on the “wage standard” means that the prices of industrial goods, at each moment in time, reflect, not the relative strength of the forces of demand and supply, but the relative bargaining power of the various trade unions at the moments when the last bargains were struck. Nobody expects the present set of prices to last beyond the date at which the next wage agreement is due for revision.
The institutions of collective bargaining which half a century ago were so confidently expected to add new luster to the market economy, have instead destroyed the autonomous price system on which this economy must rest.
We must now turn to the consequences of our contemporary process of inflation. Some of these are so well known that we shall have to spend very little time on them. But certain others are less familiar. It would seem, in particular, that the effects of our contemporary mode of price increases (discontinuous rather than continuous) on relative prices, and the functioning of the economic system as a whole, have thus far received too little attention.
It goes without saying that monetary policy in a world of unidirectional price change presents problems that were unknown to our grandfathers.8
Formerly, when a central bank was slow in pulling the anti-inflationary brakes, so that prices had actually risen before it took action, it knew that the price rise could and would be reversed. An error in timing could be rectified in time. In our world a central banker must have the eye of an eagle and the perceptive qualities of a cat to detect new sources of inflationary pressure at once; otherwise it will be too late. In our world an error in timing is not rectifiable. In fact, the soundest rule of monetary policy today is probably that we can never do too much to check inflation, because whatever we are doing will not be enough.
It is also pretty clear that lenders are now becoming reluctant to deliver their fortunes into the hands of the wage bargaining parties. The “reverse yield gap” and the present level of interest rates are of course merely the first signs of the growing awareness of what is going on. No doubt in time a standard of deferred payment other than current money, a standard beyond the reach of wage bargainers and obliging bankers, will be devised. Borrowers will discover that they can borrow more readily and at lower interest rates if they are willing to shoulder the risk of debt depreciation.9
I have been asked to devote some attention, in this paper, to the effects of our contemporary inflation on the distribution of incomes, but frankly do not find this a rewarding subject. In the first place, we lack a standard of comparison. Since all countries which have a market economy have been affected by this inflation, none can serve as a measuring rod. I find myself unable to conjure up an image of what our world would be like without this inflation.
Secondly, it seems unlikely that the classical scheme of the theory of income distribution, couched as it is in terms of classes of income recipients, yields any interesting results in the circumstances of our age. Of course fixed-income recipients suffer, but whether wage earners or profit earners gain more at their expense it is hard to say.
In former times there may have been “profit inflations” in which wage earners suffered temporarily by the belated adjustment of wage rates. In our world, with the contemporary mode of price setting described above, profit recipients can recoup themselves partly at once by setting higher prices, but partly, so far as sales volume is concerned, only gradually as the new bout of inflation permeates the rest of the economy. As regards the distribution of real incomes, then, the most significant differences appear to exist not between wage earners and profit earners, but between people operating in different sectors of the economy. And these differences stem, not from the movement of absolute prices, but from the discontinuous mode of change of relative prices. This is most clearly seen in the case of the wage earners in any given industry. While they gain a relative advantage over all their fellow citizens every time their wage rates rise, they are on the losing side every time this happens in another industry. Nor is this a surprising result. Keynes, after all, showed that, except for the existence of fixed prices and incomes, changes in the wage unit will have no effect on the distribution of incomes. Of course, in our world there is no such thing as a “wage unit” and all the more interesting effects stem from relative wage and price changes.
We have to remember that far more important than these income changes are the capital changes concomitant with every inflation, the capital gains and losses made by debtors and creditors. With the hire-purchase system, workers may become debtors and thus benefit from inflation in a way for which no income statistics render an account, another reason why the analysis of inflationary processes in terms of real income changes seems so unrewarding. Perhaps I need to do no more than hint at the economic implications of the well-known fact that in an inflation the firms most heavily in debt will appear the most profitable, since the “return on the equity” here includes an element of capital gain. Such firms will naturally find it easier than their rivals to attract new capital for expansion. We may conclude that all inflation, quite apart from the effects on the relative price structure presently to be discussed, gives rise to a tendency towards a distortion of the capital structure. There is no longer an unambiguous criterion by which we could measure the relative performance of firms. Inflation offers another instructive example of how inseparable income and capital gains really are.
Let me now draw your attention to a contemporary phenomenon which is not usually regarded as a consequence of the inflation of our age: the appearance of schemes of Economic Development Programming, promoted by governments, in countries whose economic systems conform to the pattern of the market economy; of what the French call “indicative planning” by government agencies.
I shall argue that a case can be made for such programmes as guideposts to entrepreneurial decision-making in a world in which relative prices, no longer responsive to market forces, no longer flexible in both directions, have largely lost their erstwhile function of guiding entrepreneurs in their actions.
There can of course be no doubt that, seen politically, Economic Programming is simply an extension of the principle of the full employment policy. The modern welfare state, having once taken responsibility for permanent full employment, is compelled, by the very nature of the forces inherent in modern mass society, to take the next step and make itself responsible for the maximum growth rate of incomes. But why should it be thought that the achievement of this aim cannot be left to the play of the market forces in what is, after all, a market economy?
The answer usually given to this question is, perhaps not surprisingly, couched in Keynesian terms. Economists advocating indicative planning will, as a rule, tell us that the market economy may not at all times make full use of all existing resources, and that to achieve this requires a coordination of the expectations of all entrepreneurs which market forces alone are unable to accomplish.
I regard this as an inadequate answer. Keynes was exclusively concerned with unemployment in industrial society. In Britain and France at least, the two countries which have in recent years been the protagonists of indicative planning, there has been no serious unemployment for almost three decades; hence their planning can hardly be justified in Keynesian terms. But if we are to include among our terms of reference resources other than labour, as well as extend them to malemployment, rather than unemployment, of labour, we are in any case unable to use the Keynesian tools.
A much stronger case for indicative planning can be made by simply asking how relative prices in our world, set in most cases by a “mark-up” on existing wage rates and material costs which nobody expects to last, can possibly act as guideposts to entrepreneurial action. Evidently they cannot. Prices, in a world in which they cannot fall, cannot reflect the forces of demand; they are not equilibrium prices. It is true that even disequilibrium prices may guide entrepreneurs, but they obviously can do this only where they are free to move in response to demand as well as supply, and it is precisely this which in our world they cannot do any more.
We simply no longer have a price “system” worthy of this name. The existing structure of relative prices reflects the history of past wage bargains and is thus nothing more than the cumulative result of a series of historical accidents. Of course it is governed by relative costs, but is no longer affected by disequilibrium of demand and supply. What does affect it are new wage bargains. A fall in demand for our product consequent upon a price rise may be safely disregarded for the good Keynesian reason that new wage bargains in other industries will in any case modify the demand for our product. Our price lasts as long as our wage bargain does. Everybody knows it and acts accordingly.
As I have pointed out elsewhere,10 the opponents of Economic Programming have sometimes harmed their cause by claiming more for the price system of the market economy than can fairly be done. In particular, we must beware of confusing the general equilibrium system of Walras and Pareto, which assumes a stationary world, with the market economy of the real world. In the former all action is determined by present prices, while in the real world entrepreneurs will have to let themselves also be guided by expectations of future prices and sales. But while it is true that in an uncertain world present prices cannot offer entrepreneurs more than a basis of orientation for their plans, it is also true that the disappearance of this basis must constitute a serious loss. In the light of this fact it is easy to understand how the idea could gain ground that economic growth might be promoted by offering entrepreneurs another basis of orientation, in lieu of the vanished price system, couched this time in terms of coordinated expectations about future quantities of goods. The market economy, having lost its traditional steering-wheel, is to be offered another device for the coordination of expectations. If this account of the background of the idea of Economic Programming is accepted, it would also explain why in most programmes prices play such a minor part.
The question then arises whether it is really possible to estimate future output trends for a large number of goods while disregarding their relative prices. The programming of economic development will largely have to be guided by available resources. The aim must be to overcome shortages in some sectors coexisting with unused resources in others. Can this aim be achieved without a price system in which relative prices reflect the relative scarcity of goods? Is it likely that the planners can do better here than the market can?
We have to remember that the shortages and surpluses we are able to observe in our world are as likely to be the result of short-run price distortion as of long-run trends. A surplus in the supply of a certain good and the corresponding excess capacity in the industry producing it may be simply due to the fact that its price has recently risen ahead of other prices, while a shortage may be due to a wage level which has not been revised for a long time. The surplus will probably vanish once other prices start moving upward and the shortage disappear after the next wage rise. I do not deny that surpluses and shortages which are due to other causes, and therefore of a less ephemeral nature, exist in our world. Of course in a world of unexpected change many such causes exist. My point is that we are quite unable to distinguish surpluses and shortages indicative of long-run trends from those reflecting relative price distortion. At the moment of observation it is impossible to tell the one kind from the other. In this respect the economist-planners are no better off than the entrepreneurs. In a world in which quantities and prices are no longer coordinated by market forces neither can by itself any longer serve as a useful guide to action.
It seems therefore that the same event the existence of which appears to call for a new basis of orientation for the entrepreneurial assessment of long-run trends, viz. the disappearance of a coherent price system governed by demand and supply, must by the same token deprive this new basis of orientation of any economic significance it might have.
Professor H. M. Robertson, the first discussant, felt that the title of Professor Lachmann's paper was inadequate. Professor Lachmann had discussed “Causes and Consequences of the Inflation of Our Time,” but he had also discussed causes and consequences of our ways of thinking about inflation in these times. He had thrown doubt on the usefulness of the currently fashionable macro-economic variables when discussing the phenomenon of inflation. But he had then assumed that a particular once-for-all change in attitudes and techniques had occurred in the last 30 years, and that henceforth, for all time, a maxim of policy would persist which had, historically speaking, only very recently become widely accepted, viz. that whenever there was any threat to the maintenance of full employment, action would be taken to increase the flow of money incomes sufficiently to take up the slack, wherever it appeared, and regardless of the labour shortages which would be caused elsewhere in the economy. Professor Robertson asked whether this recent revolution in thought was so complete that it had now come to a standstill and could be written into the macro-economic functions which would describe, explain, and govern all post-Keynesian economies, though any such variables, or rather, parameters, would have been absent from the functions appropriate to pre-Keynesian economies.
In his paper the author had fairly and squarely joined the ranks of the institutionalists, but he did not carry his institutionalism far enough. The institutions judged responsible ought to be described and analysed in some detail.
Undoubtedly there might be flashes of truth in the view that the really decisive force of our inflation had “to be sought in the driving power of trade unions, and the environment, intellectual and institutional, within which they operate to-day”; yet he (Robertson) believed that much more knowledge both of the actual pattern of wage changes and of the role of the trade unions in the processes of change had to be acquired before the decisive nature of this sort of explanation could be verified.
If the movements of wages and trends towards labour-cost-push inflation in South Africa were more thoroughly analysed on an institutional basis, the analysis would have to go much more deeply than any mere mention of the general role of trade unions in a world in which prices and wages could virtually never again move downwards. Such analysis should involve a deeper investigation not only into trade union structure but also into other elements in our political structure as well: elements which underlay much of the influence exerted by trade unionism itself upon the progress of inflation in this country, but elements which had perhaps contributed more strongly in other ways.
In regard to the emergence of Economic Development Programming as a consequence of inflation he felt that Prof. Lachmann had not derived economic development programming (and the forms which its “indicative planning” tended to take) from inflation itself. He really derived it as a further consequence of the same series of causes to which he ascribed the origins of the inflation of our times.
Professor D. Hobart Houghton, the second discussant, felt that he could not go the whole way with Prof. Lachmann in accepting the modern price structure as almost completely devoid of any competition. While it was true that prices, as a whole, tended to move upwards he was not sure whether it was true of all relative prices and questioned whether it took into account sufficiently the new techniques which replaced processes which had priced themselves out of existence in the modern world.
He endorsed Prof. Robertson's comments about the trade unions. Professor Lachmann had over-emphasized the upward pressure of trade union collective bargaining. Not merely the trade unions, but the whole population of democratic countries were essentially responsible for cost-push inflation. The main strength of the inflation of our time was that we expected it to continue but we as citizens of a democratic society were in one way or another making its continuance inevitable. One wondered whether democratic representative government, let alone the trade union movement, was compatible with the maintenance of the value of a currency unit, unless a powerful watchdog were set to uphold the currency status.
Dr. Holloway expressed the view that the discussants had not got down to the basic facts of inflation, for the reason that no attempt had been made to count the cost in terms of
Inflation had, he said, turned the scale in favour of debtors and had brought about a quiet, relentless civil war between producers and authoritarian monetary managers. To avoid the collapse of the machinery of production they had no option but to load their prices. Inflation was disintegrating the economy. Monetary inflation had been the cause of all this. Cost inflation and demand inflation were merely symptoms, merely consequences. There could be no civilization without discipline. To expect this discipline to come from an army of bureaucrats was a vain hope. Whence this pathetic faith in bureaucrats? he asked. Bureaucrats were but a cross-section of the community; they were no supermen.
There was only one way of getting discipline into our economic relations and that was by having more money which had value on account of its intrinsic properties.
Mr. K. A. H. Adams, commenting on Lachmann's paper, said that another possible cause of inflation could be based on observations that Pareto's Law of Income Distribution had occurred in South Africa each year for the past 50 years. The Pareto index had increased from about 2 to 2.5 in this period and implied a certain concentration of incomes and people. In employee groups the income distribution was far more concentrated, principally because the top salaries in the Public Service had been limited to unnaturally low values.
The concentrated public service salary pattern set a model for the whole country and caused personnel migration, dissatisfaction and eventually an elevation of incomes in sub-groups, he said. With a more expanded income pattern in the public service the difficulties could be minimised, reaching negligible proportions probably when the pattern was twice as concentrated as the income distribution in the population. In this way inflation could be restrained.
J. Katzenellenbogen doubted whether there were many producers who had the resources to be their own price setters and who were able to ignore the market and able to let their prices withstand the elasticity of demand and supply. He felt that the South African system was still to a large extent based on a very competitive market and producers in the main used the price mechanism even in the short run. There were many small and medium-sized individual producers who had to face a competitive society and who could make inroads into it only by an attack from a price point of view.
R. L. Kraft stated that it was commonly held that wages went up and never came down. In a recent preliminary survey of wage costs in the various sectors of South African manufacturing industry he had discovered that the influence of collective bargaining on average wage cost per employee was not decisive. He also felt that wage costs per employee could and did fall in certain sectors. Wage behaviour reflected, among other things, the skills requirements of industries as well as the higher degree of automation and the mechanical complexity of these industries.
M. B. Dagut asked whether Prof. Lachmann, who believed that institutions were responsible for the continuing of inflation, did not also believe that there was some merit in the new type of institution tried abroad such as a prices and incomes board.
Dr. Timmerman said that as far as South Africa was concerned it might be the case that the unions were not so well organised as those overseas. Nevertheless they did exercise upward tendencies on prices. He also felt that technical workers, most of whom were not union members, had greatly influenced costs. He suggested increased productivity and longer hours of duty as the only remedy.
Prof. Lachmann replied in conclusion that while the only thing that he believed possible and socially acceptable was a combined price and wages policy, such a policy would require the introduction of a system of universal price control which we knew from experience was not a job to be well done.
In our world, he said, prices and wages were not flexible in the downward direction. He submitted that there had been some forces which had produced the downward inflexibility of wage rates and prices, which were also to be held responsible for the long-run upward trend of prices. There really could be no doubt about it. He would go further than Dr. Holloway and say that a society which was unable to control the creation of claims on its social product was a sick society. One of the evils of inflation was of course the capital losses of the savers which at the other end must correspond with certain capital gains. It seemed that some economists had acquired a view that those economic phenomena of which we had no record, and because capital gains and losses did not figure in our national income accounts, did not exist. Capital gains and losses did matter because a capitalistic economy was steered by them. There was also the view that the capital losses of the savers in an inflationary economy was a correctable thing and although this was not social justice it did not matter for the economy as a whole because what some lost others might gain. There was also the effect which such capital losses might have on price formation. He had no doubt that some of the wage increases which had been granted in the Western world for the last twenty years had partly been financed from such capital gains which, however, could not generally be maintained.
[]John Hicks, Capital and Growth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), Ch. VII.
[]Ibid., p. 78.
[]Milton Friedman and A. J. Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States 1867–1960 (New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1963), p. 15.
[]Ibid., p. 37, Table 2.
[]Ibid., p. 35.
[]It is not impossible that in the future the modern chain store will come to assume the wholesale merchant's former role of a price setter. The extent to which this will happen must evidently depend on the degree of “countervailing power” these retail organizations contrive to acquire.
[]For a concise explanation of the implications of the “Labor Standard” see J. R. Hicks, “Economic Foundations of Wage Policy,” Economic Journal 65 (September 1955):389–404.
[]The first to have pointed this out was, to my knowledge, the German economist Alfred Tismer in his book Grenzen der Diskontpolitik (Munich: Duncke & Humblot, 1932). See also J. K. Galbraith, “Market Structure and Stabilisation Policy,” Review of Economics and Statistics 39 (May 1957):124–33.
[]Economists have thus far paid little attention to these possibilities, although we teach our first-year students that medium of exchange and unit of account need not coincide. For a notable exception see Joan Knox, “Index-Regulated Loan Contracts,” South African Journal of Economics 32 (December 1964):237–52.
[]“Cultivated Growth and the Market Economy,” South African Journal of Economics 31 (September 1963):165–74.