“It gave me a feeling of déjà vu, because that’s what we were doing in the ’70s — we were trying to get supply-side effects,” said Barry P. Bosworth, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who led the Council on Wage and Price Stability under President Jimmy Carter. The efforts failed to control overall inflation, he said.
“It doesn’t work,” he said. “As a macro policy, you can’t go around trying to put your finger in the dike everywhere it pops up.”
One idea from the 1970s that isn’t even on the table right now: outright wage and price controls. In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon imposed a 90-day freeze on wages and prices, which eventually turned into a decade-long effort across three presidential administrations to limit price increases through direct government control. Those policies are widely seen by economists as a failure. When they were removed, prices took off.
Wages: The trouble with spirals.
The big price spikes in the 1960s and 1970s reversed once the underlying conditions that created them eased. But not all the way — in each case, the rate of inflation bottomed out a bit higher than the time before. Many economists believe that pattern had to do with human psychology: Workers and businesses had come to expect a higher rate of inflation, and had adapted their behavior accordingly, creating a self-sustaining cycle.
Economists particularly highlight the role of wages. Businesses can cut prices just as easily as they can raise them, but cutting wages is harder. No worker wants to be told that a job that was worth $10 an hour yesterday is worth just $9.50 an hour today. And if workers expect prices to rise at 5 percent per year, they will want raises to keep up with inflation.
Most economists believe that the forces driving the current surge in inflation will ease in the months ahead. The question is whether that will happen before expectations shift. Some surveys have found that consumers are already beginning to anticipate faster inflation to stick around, although that evidence is mixed. Wages, too, have continued rising as employers struggle to rehire workers, although it’s not yet clear that they are taking off.
One reason that temporary price increases turned into permanent wage increases in the middle of the 20th century is that many union contracts had escalator clauses that tied wage gains directly to inflation. Those provisions effectively helped lock in price increases, feeding into the price spiral, said David Card, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the role of union contracts in inflation. Far fewer workers are members of unions today, and few contracts have inflation clauses, in part because they haven’t been necessary in a period of low inflation.