In the 1970's soaring prices of oil and other commodities led to stagflation - a combination of high inflation and high unemployment, which left no good policy options. If the Fed cut interest rates to create jobs, it risked causing an inflationary spiral; if it raised interest rates to bring inflation down, it would further increase unemployment.
Can it happen again?
Last week fears of a return to stagflation sent stock prices to a five-month low. What few seem to have noticed, however, is that a mild form of stagflation - rising inflation in an economy still well short of full employment - has already arrived.
True, measured unemployment isn't bad by historical standards, and inflation is in the low single digits. But inflation is creeping up, and it's doing so despite a labor market that is in worse shape than the official unemployment rate suggests.
Let's start with the jobs picture. The official unemployment rate is 5.2 percent - roughly equal to the average for the Clinton years.
But unemployment statistics only count those who are actively looking for jobs. Every other indicator shows a situation much less favorable to workers than that of the 1990's. A lower fraction of the adult population is employed; the average duration of unemployment - a rough indicator of how long it takes laid-off workers to find new jobs - is much higher than it was in the 1990's.
Above all, the weak job market leaves workers with no bargaining power, so they aren't getting ahead: wage increases have been minimal, and haven't kept up with inflation.
Underlying these disappointing numbers is sluggish job creation. Private-sector employment is still lower than it was before the 2001 recession.
Things could be, and have been, worse. But those whose standard of living depends on wages, not capital gains - in other words, the vast majority of Americans - aren't feeling particularly prosperous. By two to one, people tell pollsters that the economy is "only fair" or "poor," not "good" or "excellent."
Why, then, has the Fed been raising interest rates? Because it is worried about inflation, which has risen to the top end of the 2 to 3 percent range the Fed prefers.
What's driving inflation? Not wages: labor costs have been falling, because wages are growing less than productivity. Oil prices are a big part of the story, but not all of it. Other commodity prices are also rising; health care costs are once again on the march. And a combination of capacity shortages, rising Asian demand and a weakening dollar has given industries like cement and steel new "pricing power."
It all adds up to a mild case of stagflation: inflation is leading the Fed to tap on the brakes, even though this doesn't look or feel like a full-employment economy.
We shouldn't overstate the case: we're not back to the economic misery of the 1970's. But the fact that we're already experiencing mild stagflation means that there will be no good options if something else goes wrong.
Suppose, for example, that the consumer pullback visible in recent data turns out to be bigger than we now think, and growth stalls. (Not that long ago many economists thought that an oil price in the 50's would cause a recession.) Can the Fed stop raising interest rates and go back to rate cuts without causing the dollar to plunge and inflation to soar?
Or suppose that there's some kind of oil supply disruption - or that warnings about declining production from Saudi oil fields turn out to be right. Suppose that Asian central banks decide that they already have too many dollars. Suppose that the housing bubble bursts. Any of these events could easily turn our mild case of stagflation into something much more serious.
How do we get out of this bind? As the old joke goes, I wouldn't start from here. We should have spent the years of cheap oil encouraging conservation; we should have spent the years of modest growth in medical costs reforming our health care system. Oh, and we'd have a wider range of policy options if the budget weren't so deeply in deficit.
So if any of these things does come to pass, we'll just have to see how well an administration in which political operatives make all economic policy decisions, and the Treasury secretary is only a salesman, handles crises.
Originally published in The New York Times, 4.18.05