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March 17, 2014 11:36 AM Fearing the Inflation Phantom

By Ed Kilgore

The Federal Reserve Board’s policy-setting Open Market Committee meets this week with Janet Yellen at the helm for the first time, and there’s considerable speculation about the extent to which the Fed might decelerate its bond-buying program even more than currently planned because its unemployment target of 6.5% is now in clear sight.

At TNR today, Danny Vinik offers a good summary of the two main theories about the relevance of the official unemployment rate. To boil them down to the essentials, the first theory is that by excluding “discouraged” workers, the official rate understates “slack” labor markets, which can only be tightened by further stimulus. The second is that the long-term unemployed have become “disconnected” from labor markets, which are in fact tightening as the official rate declines, meaning that wage inflation could well be on the way.

Vinik argues that stimulus is a good idea in either case, because “moderate” inflation is not only economically acceptable but is a way to raise stagnant wages. But I’d make an even more basic argument: the Fed should keep its foot on the pedal until inflation actually appears. Then we can argue how much of it is desirable. The phantom menace of inflation has taken enough toll on our economy via semi-austerian fiscal policies. The least we can ask now is that the Fed refuse to be spooked until the menace materializes.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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