The Inflation Obsession: Flying in the Face of the Facts

Should a central bank address a broad agenda of economic growth, price stability, and full employment? Or should it focus single-mindedly on controlling inflation? Last autumn this debate mounted in Europe, where calls from social democratic governments for lower interest rates grew louder as the continent prepared for the European Central Bank. In the United States, where federal law stipulates full employment as a policy goal, Republican proposals to require that the Federal Reserve focus only on inflation surface regularly in Congress.

Ben S. Bernanke and his colleagues, each a veteran of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York research staff, make the case for inflation targeting in a book that has the intellectual rigidity of a manifesto. But their tone, worried rather than strident, will seem familiar to followers of the recurrent debates over competitiveness, which cater to national vanity in similar terms. In the authors' eyes, the United States is "lagging behind other industrial countries in considering monetary policy frameworks and institutions that might help ensure good economic performance in the long term."

Since the early 1980s, a handful of countries have formally declared that low and stable inflation should be the overriding objective of monetary policy. These countries, which include New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, and Sweden, are the main focus of the book. After reviewing these cases, Inflation Targeting uses them as examples to argue that inflation targeting would also enhance American "economic performance in the long term." But the authors have a curious interpretation of this phrase. They do not use it to refer to rising living standards, full employment, declining inequality in pay, or similar recent improvements in American material well-being. Rather, they explicitly deny that monetary policy should be praised for these blessings, since the gains of an expansionary monetary policy are inherently temporary and unsustainable. Economists should therefore not count such gifts among the benefits of a sensible long-term monetary policy.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis