FRIEDMAN FRIDAY “How to Cure Inflation” in Milton Friedman’s FREE TO CHOOSE Part 2 of 7 “Many a political leader has been tempted to turn to wage and price controls despite their repeated failure in practice. On this subject they never seem to learn. But some lessons may be learned”

In 1980 I read the book FREE TO CHOOSE by Milton Friedman and it really enlightened me a tremendous amount.  I suggest checking out these episodes and transcripts of Milton Friedman’s film series FREE TO CHOOSE: “The Failure of Socialism” and “What is wrong with our schools?”  and “Created Equal”  and  From Cradle to Grave, and – Power of the Market.“If we could just stop the printing presses, we would stop inflation,” Milton Friedman says in “How to Cure Inflation” from the Free To Choose series. Now as then, there is only one cause of inflation, and that is when governments print too much money. Milton explains why it is that politicians like inflation, and why wage and price controls are not solutions to the problem.

In this episode Friedman notes, “Many a political leader has been tempted to turn to wage and price controls despite their repeated failure in practice. On this subject they never seem to learn. But some lessons may be learned.”
Bob Crawford: The more I work, it seems like the more they take off me. I know if I work an extra day or two extra days, what they take in federal income tax alone is almost doubled because apparently it puts you in a higher income tax bracket and it takes more off you.
Friedman: Bob Crawford lives with his wife and three children in a suburb of Pittsburgh. They’re a fairly average American family.
Mrs. Crawford: Don’t slam the door Daphne. Okay. Alright. What are you doing? Making your favorite dish.
Friedman: We went to the Crawford’s home after he had spent a couple of days working out his federal and state income taxes for the year. For our benefit, he tried to estimate all the other taxes he had paid as well. In the end, though, he didn’t discover much that would surprise anybody.
Bob Crawford: Inflation is going up, everything is getting more expensive. No matter what you do, as soon as you walk out of the house, everything went up. Your gas bills keep going up, electric bills, your gasoline, you can name a thousand things that are going up. Everything is going sky high. Your food. My wife goes to the grocery store. We used to live on say, $60 or $50 every two weeks just for our basic food. Now it’s $80 or $90 every two weeks. Things are just going out of sight as far as expense to live on. Like I say it’s getting tough. It seems like every month it gets worse and worse. And I don’t know where it’s going to end. At the end of the day that I spend nearly $6,000 of my earnings on taxes. That leaves me with a total of $12,000 to live on. It might seem like a lot of money, but five, six years ago I was earning $12,000.
Friedman: How does taxation without representation really effect how much the Crawford family has left to spend after it’s paid its income taxes. Well in 1972 Bob Crawford earned $12,000. Some of that income was not subject to income tax. After paying income tax on the rest he had this much left to spend. Six years later he was earning $18,000 a year. By 1978 the amount free from tax was larger. But he was now in a higher tax bracket so his taxes went up by a larger percentage than his income. However, those dollars weren’t worth anything like as much. Even his wages, let alone his income after taxes, hadn’t kept up with inflation. His buying power was lower than before. That is taxation without representation in practice.
Unnamed Individual: We have with us today you brothers that are sitting here today that were with us on that committee and I’d like to tell you….
Friedman: There are many traditional scapegoats blamed for inflation. How often have you heard inflation blamed on labor unions for pushing up wages. Workers, of course, don’t agree.
Unnamed Individual: But fellows this is not true. This is subterfuge. This is a myth. Your wage rates are not creating inflation.
Friedman: And he’s right. Higher wages are mostly a result of inflation rather than a cause of it. Indeed, the impression that unions cause inflation arises partly because union wages are slow to react to inflation and then there is pressure to catch up.
Worker: On a day to day basis, try to represent our own numbers. But that in fact is not the case. Not only can we not play catch up, we can’t even maintain a wage rate commensurate with the cost of living that’s gone up in this country.
Friedman: Another scapegoat for inflation is the cost of goods coming from abroad. Inflation, we’re told, is imported. Higher prices abroad driving up prices at home. It’s another way government can blame someone else for inflation. But this argument, too, is wrong. The prices of imports and the countries from which they come are not in terms of dollars, they are in terms of lira or yen or other foreign currencies. What happens to their prices in dollars depends on exchange rates which in turn reflect inflation in the United States.
Since 1973 some governments have had a field day blaming the Arabs for inflation. But if high oil prices were the cause of inflation, how is it that inflation has been less here in Germany, a country that must import every drop of oil and gas that it uses on the roads and in industry, then for example it is in the U.S. which produces half of its own oil. Japan has no oil of its own at all. Yet at the very time the Arabs were quadrupling oil prices, the Japanese people were bringing inflation down from 30 to less than 5% a year. The fallacy is to confuse particular prices like the price of oil, with prices in general. Back at home, President Nixon understood this.
Nixon: “Now here’s what I will not do. I will not take this nation down the road of wage and price controls however politically expedient that may seem. The pros of rationing may seem like an easy way out, but they are really an easy way in for more trouble. To the explosion that follows when you try to clamp a lid on a rising head of steam without turning down the fire under the pot, wage and price controls only postpone the day of reckoning. And in so doing, they rob every American of a very important part of his freedom.
Friedman: Now listen to this:
Nixon: “The time has come for decisive action. Action that will break the vicious circle of spiraling prices and costs. I am today ordering a freeze on all prices and wages throughout the United States for a period of 90 days. In addition, I call upon corporations to extend the wage price freeze to all dividends.”
Friedman: Many a political leader has been tempted to turn to wage and price controls despite their repeated failure in practice. On this subject they never seem to learn. But some lessons may be learned. That happened to British Prime Minister James Callahan who finally discovered that a very different economic myth was wrong. He told the Labor Party Conference about it in 1976.
James Callahan: “We used to think that you could use, spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candor that option no longer exists. It only works on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step. That’s the history of the last 20 years.”
Friedman: Well, it’s one thing to say it. One reason why inflation does so much harm is because it effects different groups differently. Some benefit and of course they attribute that to their own cleverness. Some are hurt, but of course they attribute that to the evil actions of other people. And the whole problem is made far worse by the false cures which government adopts, particularly wage and price control.
The garbage collectors in London felt justifiably aggrieved because their wages had not been permitted to keep pace with the cost of living. They struck, hurting not the people who impose the controls, but their friends and neighbors who had to live with mounting piles of rat infested garbage. Hospital attendants felt justifiably aggrieved because their wages had not been permitted to keep up with the cost of living. They struck, hurting not the people who impose the controls, but cancer patients who were turned out of hospital beds. The attendants behaved as a group in a way they never would have behaved as individuals. One group is set against another group. The social fabric of society is torn apart inflicting scars that it will take decades to heal and all to no avail because wage and price controls, far from being a cure for inflation, only make inflation worse.
Within the memory of most of our political leaders, there’s one vivid example of how economic ruin can be magnified by controls. And the classic demonstration of what to do when it happens.

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