What is Inflation? (And why is it so dangerous?)

What is Inflation? (And why is it so dangerous?)

The following is from Lesson 9 in our Economics for Everybody curriculum. The photo above shows a clerk counting stacks of money; it was taken in 1923 in Germany during a period of hyperinflation.

Watch “Economics for Everybody Lesson 9: Two Mysteries of Money”

INTRODUCTION TO THE TWO MYSTERIES

First, what happened to the value of the dollar over the past 100 years? If you talk to your grandparents about money, they’ll likely remember that when they were growing up, prices were a lot lower than they are today.

Since things cost more now than they used to, money has lost a lot of its purchasing power. Money simply isn’t as valuable as it used to be. If it once cost only a nickel to get candy bar, but it costs a dollar today, that’s a significant loss in value. Where did the value of our money go?

As of 2021, the US dollar had lost about 97% of its value compared to 1914. Someone actually took that value—but who? And why? Is this not a form of stealing? A nation-wide breaking of the eighth commandment? This is the first mystery.

Second, what caused the Great Depression and why was it so great? Most people have a sense of how bad the Great Depression was, how long it lasted, and what a burden it was on the nation. There hasn’t been anything exactly like it since then, although there have been many severe recessions.

Conventional wisdom says the government saved us from the Great Depression. Is that true?

What if it was really government intervention that got us into the depression, and then government intervention that made it last so long? What if some groups want us to think that it’s the free market that causes recessions and depressions, when it’s really the result of other groups trying to control the economy? If that is true, this would be a violation of the ninth commandment on a national scale. This is the second mystery.

In this lesson, we will look at money, one of the most important parts of a nation’s economic system. We’ll also look at how government intervention has put our monetary system in a very dangerous and dishonest place.

What is the impact of money on the church? For the moment, let’s apply our North Star principle: how does the devaluation of money or a national recession affect man’s ability to be a God-obeying steward of creation?

If money is devalued over time, then Christians are less able to use that money to be effective stewards. Look at it this way: if someone is taking money out of your bank account every year, doesn’t that give you less to apply toward your vocation and kingdom-building endeavors?

Furthermore, during a recession or depression, Christians go bankrupt just like non-Christians; church revenues go down because of tithing; countless ministries struggle to raise money; some ministries and churches must shut their doors; ministers are laid off; missionaries struggle with support; and enormous numbers of Christians lose their wealth and struggle just to make ends meet.

What a government does with money, therefore, has an enormous impact on the ability of Christians to be good stewards and to pursue their vocations. In Lesson 4, we looked briefly at money, but we’re now going deeper.

A DEEPER STUDY OF MONEY

Money is three things for an economy:

  1. A means of exchange. Throughout history, we’ve seen tobacco, salt, shells, copper, silver, gold and paper be used as money in exchange and trade.
  2. A unit of account. Money needs to provide accurate and precise valuations from one person to another in a society. If three different things each cost one silver coin, then everyone knows the market value for those items.
  3. A store of value. Money must also maintain its value over time. A merchant who trades his goods for coins in January wants those coins to be worth the same amount in June. A commodity must hold its value over time for it to be good money.

There are also five aspects that make a commodity useful as money:

  1. Divisibility – you can divide it up easily
  2. Portability – you can carry it around with you
  3. Durability – it doesn’t go away over time
  4. Recognizability – everyone knows what it is by sight
  5. Scarcity – there’s not that much of it around

Historically, money was not originally determined by the government, but by the market. In most societies, however, once something is determined to be money by the market, the government then takes of control of it.

Gold, silver and copper have most widely been used for money. God created these metals with the characteristics that made them more likely to be used as money. Why is gold still valuable and the best money? If you compare it to all the qualifications listed above, it is the perfect fit.

Furthermore, many people would say that God made man to value gold from the beginning. Interestingly enough, it is the first precious metal to be mentioned in the Bible: “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there” (Genesis 2:10-12).

What gets used for money today? Primarily paper and digits. Do paper and digits have the five aspects of money? Not all. It’s easy to print more paper and make more zeros and ones; digits and paper are not naturally scarce.

How do you make paper and digits used as money scarce? One way is to link paper and digits to a real commodity, for instance, gold or silver. Another way is to limit the amount that is created (this has never actually worked historically: it’s too easy to print more paper and generate more digits).

Money is the lifeblood of a market economy: It may seem like a minor thing, but money ensures that all the endless back-and-forth transfers in an economy move smoothly. Without it, an economy will not work. If it is abused, it can actually stop working and destroy the economy of an entire nation. (Just think of Germany in 1923, or Zimbabwe more recently where hyperinflation hurt their economies.)

The Bible talks a lot about money, especially being honest with it:

You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin … (Leviticus 19:35-36).

Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the Lord (Proverbs 20:10).

In these cases, honesty in measuring out whatever is used as money is very important in God’s eyes. Why? Units of money are linked to its value; if one is dishonest about the units one is using (i.e., saying it’s more when it’s really less), one is effec- tively taking value from someone else: in other words, stealing.

Since God created man to use money, He understood its importance. But He also understood that if man loved money and cared more about it than God, it would become an idol.

Paul tells us it’s the love of money that’s the source of all kinds of evil, not money itself. This is a very important distinction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Money is not bad in itself—as we said before, some of God’s favorite people in the Bible were wealthy with gold and silver. God gives us many warnings about it, but primarily because it’s so powerful and influential because of what it is.

CLUES TO THE FIRST MYSTERY

Who Controls Money?

Banks are the backbone of every modern economic system. Banks control a society’s money by storing and lending it (among other things). When banks lend money, they charge an interest rate. An interest rate is simply the amount of additional money someone will pay to borrow a particular amount of money for a particular amount of time. For instance, if someone agrees to borrow $100 at a 6% interest rate over a one year period, he would owe the lender $106 at the end of the year.

In a free market, interest rates fluctuate on the basis of supply and demand. If more people want to borrow a fixed supply of present money for future money, then interest rates will go up. If fewer people want that same supply, then interest rates will go down.

Why are interest rates important? In a free market, interest rates coordinate production and business decisions over time. If interest rates are higher, people will make certain decisions about what to produce or not to produce; and if interest rates are lower, people will make different decisions.

For example, suppose you’re a home builder and you get out your pencil and crunch your numbers and you decide you can sell a house for 10% more than it costs you to build it. Let’s say the bank is willing to loan money to you at a 4% interest rate. You likely want to borrow a good amount of money and build a lot of houses because each house represents 6% profit for you. But if interest rates are higher and it costs you 12% to borrow the money to build the houses, you won’t build any houses. It’s a loss this way. (And, of course, if interest rates go even higher, you’ll likely want to become a fireman.)

This is not an isolated example. All sorts of decisions based squarely on current interest rates happen every day across our economy affecting every possible industry.

Governments have also been a major influence in modern economic systems. Both banks and governments have a very keen desire to control money. Historically, both have sought to manipulate financial markets for their own purposes. When banks and governments come together to control the money supply, they create a central bank.

When the United States was founded, one of the most divisive issues was the question as to whether we should or should not establish a central bank.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison fought strongly against such a bank, saying a central bank was unconstitutional. They believed the centralization of banking would be dangerous to a sound monetary system and to local banks.

Alexander Hamilton was the primary supporter, arguing a central bank was necessary for the financial growth of the nation in terms of credit and currency.

After a long fight, the First Bank (and, later, the Second Bank) of the United States were created. But they ended up being as controversial in practice as they were in formation, so, in 1836, Andrew Jackson let the charter to the Second Bank expire. It was not until 1913 that the United States government again established a central bank when it founded the Federal Reserve Banking System (or the Fed, for short).

The stated goal of the Federal Reserve Act was to control the nation’s monetary policy and influence employment, prices, and interest rates. But who was behind it? A handful of big Wall Street banks and the United States government. Together they set up a partly governmental/partly private agency that has ultimate control over the nation’s money supply.

Inflation after World War I

Right after the Federal Reserve was created, World War I broke out in Europe. Even though the US was not militarily involved at first, it was financially involved. World War I, like every other war, was very expensive. The government began to pour more and more money into helping finance the allies’ military endeavors.

Where did the money come from? To finance a war, a government can borrow money, it can tax its populace, or, if

it has a central bank, it can create new money. In other words, it can inflate the money supply. This last option is known asinflation.

Inflation is popularly considered an increase in prices, but that’s not the complete story. Inflation is really an increase in the money supply which eventually leads to an increase in prices. In the United States, it is the Federal Reserve working in conjunction with other banks that inflate the US money supply.

During World War I, the United States was on a gold standard. This meant that $1 dollar was valued at 1/20 an ounce of gold (or $20 = 1 ounce). In 1916, if you had $20, you could go to a bank and redeem it for a one ounce gold coin.

Between 1916 and 1920, the supply of money in the United States went from $20 billion dollars to $35 billion dollars. That’s a 70% increase in just five years. Did that mean 750 million ounces of gold were introduced into the economy? No. It meant the government started printing more paper and banks started adjusting the digits on journals. So what happened?

The laws of supply and demand tell us that the prices of goods and services will rise when the money supply rises. This is because there are lots more dollars chasing the same amount of goods and services in the economy. Prices will rise to meet the money supply.

That’s exactly what happened during and after World War I. Starting in 1916 and going all the way to 1920, the US saw year-after-year of double-digit inflation. If it is all added up, there was 85% inflation during that short time period. For example, if you bought a gallon of milk in 1916, you might have expected to pay $0.31. Fast forward just a few years to 1920. If you want to buy that same gallon of milk, it would cost $0.57.

But wait: money is supposed to be a store of value. In just four years, the dollar lost a lot of its purchasing power and value. To give it a contemporary perspective, a gallon of milk in 2008 would cost $4.00 but that same gallon of milk in 2012 would cost $7.40.”

But this value had to go somewhere—it didn’t just disappear. Where did it go? The US government and banks took $0.26 out of everyone’s dollars in order to finance the war. Inflation is a hidden tax.

But how is the value taken? When the new money is printed, those who have access to it and spend it first get to use it at the current market prices. But as the new money is spent in the market, prices start to rise. Those who held onto their money and didn’t spend it at the lower prices are the ones who ultimately have to pay the higher prices—all of which are a result of the increase in money supply in the first place! Inflation rewards those who use the new money first and penalizes those who save their money.

Unfortunately, inflation didn’t stop in 1920. Since 1914, every dollar in the United States has lost 97% of its value. In other words, what cost $30 in 1914 now costs $1,000. But that $970 of value didn’t just disappear—the government and the banking system essentially took it from everyone who owned dollars during that period.

Since, by law, the Federal Reserve is responsible for the nation’s money supply, it is ultimately responsible for the dollar’s loss in value.

Where does it all stop? What is the end result? When the government and banks continue to devalue our currency, eventually people lose trust in their own money. When that happens, a whole system collapses.

It has happened before in history: in Germany, as a result of World War I and the reparations leveled against them, they began to inflate their money supply. This inflation turned suddenly into hyperinflation (an unstoppable rise in prices) in 1922 and 1923. As a result, Germany’s entire economy ground to a halt and they had to create a new currency. Eventually, this economic disorder led them to appoint a new leader who promised stability and economic growth through national socialism: Adolf Hitler.

Is there any plumb line that shows us how much our money has been devalued? Not surprisingly, gold serves that purpose. In 1914, gold was selling at approximately $20 an ounce. This amount was the gold standard that had been used in the United States since its founding. As of 2021, the price of gold hit $1,800 per ounce, after a high of $1,900 in late 2020.

What this proves about intervention in the case of the dollar is that:

  • It confuses and destroys economic calculation since interest rates and money supply are not market driven.
  • It destroys long term individual savings.
  • And it disrupts the long term business decisions since dollars are not as effective a store of value.

What are the ultimate effects of inflation? First, when the government inflates the money supply, they’re silently taking the wealth from savings that is the stored value in the money of the people. Inflation takes that value and gives it to the government, to the banking industry, and to other close connections.

Second, while government may try to slow the inflation, their needs and desires are growing rapidly. And so the process actually begins to feed upon itself, where the government inflates more and more to meet its obligations while it devalues the money more and more at the same time.

Finally, inflation inevitably pushes us closer and closer to socialism. As prices rise, people turn to the government to stop them. When the government intervenes in the market to a greater degree, it only causes more problems which the people then demand the government to fix.

Here’s how John Maynard Keynes says it works. Although ultimately a poor friend of free markets, Keynes was one of the economists who predicted the problems that would happen in Germany after World War I. He explained:

“Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate secretly and unobserved an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method, they not only confiscate but they confiscate arbitrarily, and while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. As inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors (which forms the ultimate foundation of capitalism) becomes so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless. And the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery. Lenin was certainly right. There’s no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of the society than to debauch their currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”

John Maynard Keyes, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace

CLUES TO THE SECOND MYSTERY

What caused the Depression?

Unfortunately, devaluing the currency and transferring wealth from one group to another is not the only problem with an inflationary monetary policy. An inflationary monetary policy ends up creating a boom and bust cycle in an economy.

Booms leading to busts leading to recessions (and even depres- sions in some cases) are the inevitable result of consistent inflation in an economic system.

Understanding this relationship helps explain the cause of the Great Depression as well as all the recessions up to the present day.

If we return to the time right after World War I, the inflation of the money supply continues at double digits, year after year, when suddenly in late 1920 the economy goes into a tailspin and inflation suddenly stops.

Although something specific happened to trigger it, it was like someone bumping into a house of cards: the economy was vulnerable in any number of places because it wasn’t built on real wealth. As a result, the inflation of the war years and immediately after led to the lesser-known Depression of 1920-21. In other words, significant intervention by a central bank pursuing an inflationary monetary policy is the root cause of depressions and recessions.

This is not what is normally taught. Instead, we regularly hear the criticism that recessions and depressions are just an aspect of the free market that inevitably brings booms and busts, and that therefore the free market needs outside regulation.

Remember, though: whenever you hear that phrase “the free market needs regulation” you should start asking the question: who wants to control the free market? In this case, the answer is our partners in monetary policy: the government and the banks working together through the Federal Reserve.

When the Fed creates money (or buys assets, as it is techni- cally called), it first goes to a handful of big banks that have a unique relationship with it.

These banks have the ability to inflate what they get from the Fed through something called a money multiplier. That is, they are allowed to create more new money themselves in the form of bank checks (among other options) and loan that out. They can do this up to 8 to 10x what they have on reserve at the Fed.

This means banks regularly lend out much more money than they have on deposit in their bank. Is this an example of legal counterfeiting? Yes. Is it dishonest? Ultimately, yes—even if their customers know they are doing it. What most people don’t really understand is that this is part of the inflation of the money supply that is silently taking value from them over the long run.

For perspective, let’s turn the tables: if you try to use more money than you have in your bank account, it’s called overdrawing your account; and we all know that banks are not very lenient to those who overdraw their accounts.

But what if banks didn’t care? What if you could spend 10x more money than you actually had in your account? What if, in fact, everyone could do this? Wouldn’t that inflate the money supply by an extraordinary amount? It would, but it wouldn’t be based on anything real, like a paycheck for work done or profits from a business. It would just be a fabrication.

But that’s what all these banks are doing: overdrawing their account by multiplying the new money they get from the Federal Reserve, as well as their own current holdings, and loaning it out. They, of course, can then charge interest on all those loans making many times more than they could if they only loaned out what they had on hand. This creates a signif- icant increase in the money supply and a drop in interest rates. The result?

Low interest rates send a very strong message to producers and businesses: Produce! Create! Borrow! Invest!

But these interest rates influenced by the Fed are usually much lower than rates set freely by the market. As a result, the low interest rate fools all these entrepreneurs and business owners into making bad investment decisions simultaneously.

But boy are those initial times great! This is why it’s called a boom. Everything seems to be growing in every direction, people are making lots of money, unemployment is at record lows, and the economy is going gangbusters.

This happened in the middle of the 1920s when the Federal Reserve again started lowering interest rates and increasing the money supply. We know this period as the Roaring Twenties. And during that time, much of the newly created inflationary money went into the stock market driving up the prices of stock and creating what is known as a bubble.

Yet since this new money wasn’t based on anything real (like savings), there wasn’t a long-term consumer ability to purchase or use all these new things that were being created: buildings, houses, cars, ships, etc.

Eventually, people started to realize that certain areas in the economy were overvalued. When people started realizing they had made mistakes, at first a few started to sell, then more, then suddenly en masse many in the market changed their behavior. Instead of buying, they sold. And when that happened, prices start to fall leading more people to sell.

This is what happened in October of 1929. There was a mass decision that stock prices had gone too high and everything came tumbling down.

So, to be truly accurate, it wasn’t the stock market crash that caused the depression of the 1930’s: it was the inflationary monetary policy of the mid to late 1920’s that found its way into the stock market, blew it up like a bubble, then popped in October 1929. This is the bust in the boom and bust cycle.

Yet the entire economy was set for failure because so many entrepreneurs and investors had made bad decisions across all sorts of industries.

What misled all these hundreds of thousands of people simul- taneously to all make the same bad decisions across all the industries? An inflationary money supply and unreasonably low interest rates.

STEWARDSHIP & INFLATION

Let’s bring back our North Star principle. The dishonest practices of inflating the money supply and artificially controlling interest rates is morally wrong. It’s a form of taking from one and giving to another in a deceptive way; it is a violation of the eighth and ninth commandments: do not steal and do not lie.

The resulting recession and depression is in one respect the moral consequence of bad economic decisions. As we were all told as children: a lie will eventually catch up to you—and when it does, it won’t be pretty.

In a depression, basic stewardship becomes much more difficult: as we said before, the division of labor suffers, productivity suffers, marriages and families suffer, churches suffer, and so on.

In bust situations, you have two options:

  1. The honest thing to do is to let the bad businesses fail, let others pick up the pieces, and let everyone freely start re-building on a better foundation.
  2. The dishonest thing? To deny that inflationary monetary policies and low interest rates caused the problem, and instead continue to inflate the money supply.

What made the 1930’s Depression Great? A simple comparison of the 1920-21 Depression with the Great Depression of the 1930’s is instructive.

In 1920, as soon as the Fed realized the country was in a depression, it pushed up interest rates to a record high and stopped inflating the money supply. Government itself did very little: no bailouts, no work programs, nothing. Although there was a depression, it wasn’t great. Within a year, the economy purged off the bad business decisions and started growing again.

Yet, no one learned the lesson. By the early 1920’s a new infla- tionary monetary policy and new lower interest rates started the cycle again. And so the bubble started to grow and grow. In 1929, it burst.

In 1930, however, government officials thought they could start intervening to fix things faster. The Hoover administration and the Fed continued to inflate the money supply, prop up wages, passed new tariffs, raised taxes, and started spending on government programs. When FDR game into office in 1933, he simply did more of the same. What was the result? The Great Depression that lasted from 1929 all the way to 1941.

In fact, if you take out the government sponsored spending of World War II, the Great Depression really didn’t end until after the war was over. Why did it end then? For four years people had been saving since there wasn’t much to buy: so the savings rate of real wealth was enormous. It was these savings that were the foundation of the post-war economic growth.

The solution to our second mystery? Why did the Great Depression last for at least 12 years, if not longer, when the depression just a decade before lasted around 18 months? The Great Depression was caused by government intervention like the United States had never seen before.

Ironically, it was the Great Depression that pushed the US into even greater government intervention in spite of the fact that it was government intervention that got it there in the first place!

Contrary to popular opinion, both Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt did very similar things to combat the depression. In fact, Roosevelt simply pushed things further down the path Hoover had started out on.

Here are a few key interventionist actions that demonstrate again our points about the basic problems of interventionism:

Artificially Prop up Wages

After the crash in 1929, then-President Herbert Hoover worked with business leaders to keep wages artificially high. Instead of lowering wages when revenues fell, businesses were forced to keep wages high and just lay off workers they couldn’t afford. The result: unemployment shot up to 28% by 1933.

What happened in the 1920 depression? Government did nothing, wages fell 20% but unemployment only rose to 11% in 1921 and was back down to 2.4% by 1923. The free market fixed the problems caused by government intervention.

Increase Taxes

Both Hoover and Roosevelt increased taxes, increased government spending on programs designed to stop the depression, and ran budget deficits in order to pay for every- thing. Let’s take one tax level as an example. If you made $20,000 a year, here’s how your income tax would have increased from 1931 to 1934:

  • 1931 – 10% of $20,000, or $2,000
  • 1932 – 16% of $20,000, or $3,200
  • 1934 – 19% of $20,000, or $3,800

Increase Spending on Government Programs

Federal government spending increased 2.5x from $3.8 billion in 1929 to $9.17 billion in 1936. This spending was intended to “get the economy back on its feet” but really just perpet- uated the problems that come from increased government intervention: unemployment and weak economic growth.

Unemployment in the US never statistically recovered to 1920 levels until the US entered World War II.

Billions went to fund various government-run programs that were supposed to fix the problem. These are collectively known as The New Deal, something that many historians claim pulled us out of the Depression. These programs did not do this, but instead are watershed instances of government intervention pushing the US closer toward socialism.

The New Deal ensured that the US moved further away from a free market economy and stepped closer toward the command and control end of the spectrum. Here are just a few examples:

The National Recovery Administration required all businesses within an industry to establish uniform prices, thereby removing the possibility of competition. The result: tens of thousands of small businesses had to shut down since they could no longer compete with big businesses in their industry.

Although people were going hungry during the Depression, in order to try to raise agriculture prices, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration actually paid farmers to destroy their own crops and animals. Cotton farmers were paid to plow under 10 million acres of cotton; hog farmers were paid to kill 6 million pigs (most of which became fertilizer instead of food); and thousands of acres of tobacco, oranges, and oats were burned, as well as many other crops. Talk about the bizarre things that happen when the government tries to control the economy!

Since there were so many unemployed in the nation, why not have the government hire a lot of them? So the Works Progress Administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars hiring over 8 million people to build roads, dams, bridges, public buildings, etc.

Of course, the basic economic problem here is that billions of dollars are redirected out of the private sector (where they could have been used to create profitable businesses) and instead used once, then lost in specific construction projects.

Sure, one has a bridge, a building, a road, or a dam—but the country doesn’t have additional businesses which can continue to live on and pay people after the government job is finished. If needed, those same bridges, roads, dams could have been built out of surpluses when the local community wanted them to be built.

Such government redirection of funds may look good in the short term, but does nothing to solve the basic economic problem: how to produce goods or services that people will want or need over the long-haul. In other words, a business that can grow.

To sum it all up, looking back over almost a decade of government intervention, the Secretary of the Treasury said in 1939:

“We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work … We have never made good on our promises … I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started … And an enormous debt to boot!”

Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury

So why did we spend an entire lesson on early twentieth century US history? It’s because the distance of time gives us the ability to see the consequences of certain economic decisions.

It also enables us to see where one of the greatest free market economies of the world took a serious wrong turn down the path of government intervention. In the next lesson, we will see just what some of the consequences of those choices were.

But in terms of our ability to be good stewards with what God has given us, we need to remember two points.

First, intentional inflation is a dishonest monetary policy that results in the wholesale destruction of wealth across an entire nation. It must be fought tooth and nail by Christians who understand that maintaining the long-term value of their money is necessary for being a good steward and building up the kingdom of God.

Second, inflation leads inevitably toward national recessions and depressions that bankrupt businesses, wipe out savings and investments, and consistently lead to even more government intervention. This has the effect over time of driving a nation closer and closer toward socialism and the inevitable poverty that must always accompany a command and control economic system.

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