Without looking it up do you know the cost of a first-class stamp to mail a letter? It is $.60, but it is hardly fair to criticize you for not knowing that. First, mailing anything is becoming rarer by the day. Second, the post office stopped printing the price on stamps years ago. They changed over to the “Forever stamp” meaning the stamp is good to mail a letter forever. The real reason is that it saves the Post Office money printing smaller denomination stamps to make up the difference every time they increase the price. The second and more important reason is it hides this massive cost increase from most people, which is why you didn’t know the price without looking it up.
So, you may be asking why the question about something as boring as stamps? Did you know that stamps used to cost $.01? Have you ever asked yourself the question of why it now cost 60x that original price? If you answer it’s because the cost of stuff is going up you would be correct, but go a step further and ask yourself WHY the cost of everything has gone up. People are intellectually lazy and will give a flip answer such as the cost of everything has gone up, but will never truly sit down the think through the WHY behind it. It is this why that is important because once you know the why [inflation] you can start putting strategies in place to counter it.
Inflation is a hidden tax that devours wealth, and it is wholly preventable. Sadly, most people don’t know what inflation is and believe politicians when they say it is “greedy corporations” exploiting people. Ask yourself a simple question, where were all these greedy corporations 4 years ago? Politicians and central banks create inflation, and businesses become the scapegoats after rampant inflation.
If you find an old dictionary prior to 2003 you will see inflation is defined as what it is, a monetary problem. Here is how my dictionary from college has it defined, circa 1988…
Inflation: undue expansion or increase of the currency of a country, esp. by the issuing of paper money not redeemable in specie.
specie is the term used for gold and silver, so in the context of this definition, it means paper money not backed by gold and silver. Got that? Now here is the new definition as defined by Websters online…
Inflation: a continuing rise in the general price level usually attributed to an increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods and services.
Notice the subtle change there? Instead of explicitly saying an increase in the money supply, it says an increase in the general price level. It still mentions that the volume of money has increased, but it says “usually” attributed to an increase in the volume of money. It makes it seem like the primary issue is general prices going up and it completely drops the reference to specie. The new definition just makes the entire concept a little vaguer and tries to suggest there are other issues besides the expansion of the money supply.
You may be wondering why I am mincing and dissecting words here. The reason is the subtle manipulations of the definition of words allow politicians to throw the blame towards businesses and not towards their growth of the money supply from spending more than they take in with taxes. Here is what the economist, John Maynard Keynes had to say about inflation almost 100 years ago…
“Lenin was certainly right, there is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the basis of existing society than to debauch the currency. This process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”
– John Maynard Keynes
Notice the two important elements in that quote, first, “no surer way to debauch a currency” and second, “not one man in a million is able to diagnose.” That is important because with the subtle change in the definition above it allows politicians and central bankers to further obscure the real cause of inflation for the average person. It makes it that much harder for the average person to understand what is happening and who is truly at fault as you will see below. It makes it easy for politicians to come out and blame “big business” for “raising prices” and oil and gas companies to make “excessive profits,” neither of which is true.
As you will see below the prices increase because the currency is depreciating (becoming less valuable) which occurs because politicians have printed up excess money and increased the money supply without it being backed by specie, see the first definition above. Again, I know it seems like I am making subtle distinctions here, but these subtleties are important because it allows the people that cause the problem to blame the people who are just as much a victim as you and me. I don’t think that should be allowed to stand, so I am doing my part to educate people in my small part of the world. By the way, John Maynard Keynes is practically worshiped by every politician today for his economic theories. I wonder why?
As I write this article, inflation has roared back into American life. The official numbers say it averages over 9.1%, a 41-year high, but it is much higher unofficially. How inflation is measured is a joke designed to make it look less than it is for political reasons. As with the subtle change in the definitions used to define inflation the very same politicians have manipulated how inflation is calculated so it doesn’t seem as bad as it really is.
The Island Economy
I used this analogy and story I am about to relay on my daughter when she was 7 years old to explain inflation. As soon as I did, she not only understood but guessed what would happen before I even finished the analogy.
To explain inflation, you need to understand how an economy works and how money fits into that economy. Let’s imagine a desert island with 10 people living on it. Those 10 people provide a service or produce a good for themselves and the other 9 people on the island. One person builds houses, a few people gather, grow, or hunt for food, someone else will make clothes, one person will serve as a doctor, etc. Everyone has a profession or task to do in our simple island economy.
Principles of Money
This group of castaways finds a cache of unique shells on the island and, after searching, discover it is a completely limited supply of shells. They count them out and find there are 500 shells. These shells become their money. For something to be money, it needs a few basic properties:
- Divisible: Easily divisible to allow for both large and small transactions. In this case, our shells divide easily enough.
- Scare: Unique and not easily counterfeited. Our shells fit that criterion as well. There were only 500 of them found on the island and copying them is not practical.
- Portable: Money should be easily portable and easy to move around. Our shells are easy to store and move around.
- Durable: Money should be something that isn’t perishable; otherwise, your money supply is continuously shrinking from spoilage. In our case, the shells are non-perishable.
- Generally Accepted: People must agree to use it as money. In our example, to make it simple, we have decided all 10 people have decided to accept the shells as money.
Inflation is taxation without representation.
In our island economy, the shells fit all the above requirements and therefore work as money. So, our economy functions quite well; people agree a house is worth a set number of shells, and so are clothes, food, etc. If people produce the proper amount of stuff, i.e., the right number of houses, clothes, and food, and we keep 500 shells in circulation, the prices stay stable and predictable. People produce their goods or services and sell them for shells and use them to buy the stuff they need.
I am deliberately simplifying our island economy to get to how inflation works. The reality is a large and dynamic economy has a lot of variables that aren’t quite as simple as I am presenting it here, but for our purposes, it works.
Life is good in our island economy. Everyone has most of what they need. There isn’t too much of anything, and prices remain stable and predictable. One day our castaways wake up and find a recent storm washed in 500 more shells that they use as money. Now our monetary supply just doubled from 500 to 1,000. What do you think happens almost immediately? If you answered that the price of everything from a house to food just doubled, you would be correct.
When the supply of money increases, so do the prices on every service and good you can buy. It is that simple. In our economy, if the person who grows herbs was willing to sell a bundle of herbs for one shell when there were 500 shells in circulation, will now ask for two shells when 1,000 shells are circulating. The value of each shell just diminished when we doubled the amount of them in circulation without a corresponding increase in the goods and services produced.
Principle of Scarce Resources
If we increase our money supply from 500 to 1,000, the price of all goods and services will double in our island economy. This is because the resources our economy produces are fixed. The 10 people that make up our economy can only produce so many goods and services. The builder can only construct so many houses. There is a limit on his time and the amount of materials available on the island to build houses.
The doctor on our island only has so many hours per day she can supply medical care, and when she runs out of hours, there is no way to provide more medical care. The people that gather or produce food have only so many hours per day to collect or produce food, and there are only so many resources on the island, land, water, trees, animals, etc., for our food producers to use to make food.
We can only boost output by adding more people (labor) or adding more capital and resources (tools, raw materials, machines, etc.). If we can’t get more people and adding more resources is also not possible or not possible quickly, our economy can only produce what it can produce and nothing more.
General Economic Price Level
The prices people charge for their various products and services are based on how much they can produce at the available amount of capital, labor, and resources. So, if you increase the money without increasing the output of goods and services, you get inflation. A basic economic formula spells this out:
General Price Level = Available Money Supply/Goods & Services Available
Let’s look at a straightforward mathematical interpretation of this. Suppose our 10 people, for the reasons cited above, can produce one unit of goods and services. Each unit of goods or services represents their total output. That will equal 10 (10 people on the island, each producing one unit), and if we have 500 shells for money when we start, the economic price level looks like this:
10 Units of Goods and Services/500 Available Money Supply = 50
In other words, each unit of a good or service is worth 50 shells. Now we double the money supply but don’t increase the units created; here is what happens:
10 Units of Goods and Services/1,000 Available Money Supply = 100
Admittedly this is a very simplistic example where I am using assumptions like fixed labor and resources. In a large and dynamic economy, there are ways of increasing workers (immigration) and increasing resources (importing or manufacturing), but those changes take time and energy. They don’t happen instantly. So, if you double the money supply overnight and it takes several years to increase production, you will end up with inflation.
Our government and various commentators will try and baffle you with all kinds of stats, mathematical formulas, and multiple theories of economics to cloud the issue. Still, in the end, this is how an economy works, and it is the same today as it was at the dawn of mankind. We might be more efficient, have more technology, resources, etc., but all those things took centuries to accumulate and build our modern economies.
Putting money in a savings account is not going to make anybody rich. It is making the depositors poor every day if you count the inflation.
Unless you are well past the oldest Millennial you have never experienced real inflation in your lifetime. It has suddenly coming roaring back with a vengeance. Why? During the Covid pandemic the government increased the money supply by 41% with direct payments to both businesses and families. As you saw in my example above about the island economy when a large cache of shells was added to our base currency, prices increased. So, when the government increased the money supply by 41% we got inflation. Simple.
Another important point about the rate of inflation being listed around 9.1%. As you saw in my island example above, mathematically, when the amount of shells doubled the price of goods and services also doubled. So, how do we only have 9.1% inflation if the money supply increased by 41%? I think I am right when I say inflation, if measured properly, is a bit higher than 9.1%. Of course, you already know that because you can see it when you are filling up your gas tank, buying a house, paying rent, or buying food. You know those prices didn’t just increase by 9.1%, did they?
The Modern-Day Villains
If you understand and accept my argument above, you may be wondering how this works in real life and not on my fictional island economy. To understand, you need to know the players and which of those players are the villains creating the problem.
The government is our first villain. The government doesn’t produce anything, and they take what other people and organizations have created and move it from one group to another. They do this with laws, regulations, and force; for a farmer to get a check from the government as a subsidy, money must first be taken from someone else in taxes by force. Doing this for all farmers becomes a government program, and that program will become inefficient and bloated over time. For example, not all farmers need a subsidy, but they will probably get it. Government bureaucrats that administer programs want to be paid for their “work,” and some of what is taken gets siphoned off to “administer” the program.
In another example, if the government decides to create subsidized housing, i.e., paying the rent on houses for poor people, it must take that money from another group through taxes and give it to the housing providers in the form of rent subsidies for the benefit of the poor.
In the final example, if the government decides to grow the military, it must also take money from one group with taxes to purchase military equipment and pay soldiers to serve in the military.
In all cases above, the government didn’t produce income to pay for these programs; it simply took it from another group in the form of taxes and re-distributed it to the favored group. As a society, some people think some of these programs are worth it, and others are not. I am not making a judgment call if they are good or bad. I am simply showing you how they work. You can decide if they are good or bad.
If the government spends exactly what they bring in with taxes in the above example, there will be no inflation. They are on what economists call a balanced budget, which means they spend exactly what they bring in with taxes and nothing more.
However, what happens if they spend more than they bring in with taxes? The answer is they run a deficit. In other words, they need to borrow money to spend at the desired level. This is no different than what you do if you don’t have enough cash to buy something, you will borrow the money and pay it back with interest, i.e., a mortgage, car loan, credit card, etc.
The government does the same thing, except instead of a mortgage or credit card, they issue Treasury bonds and notes that people buy. In a semi-ideal world, the government would eventually pay off this debt with interest just like you or I do with our personal or business debt.
In the model above, even if the government spends more than it collects in taxes and runs a deficit, if there are investors who supply the money to purchase their notes and bonds, we won’t get inflation. Now I should point out that growth in government by spending more and borrowing all the available capital from investors creates a host of other problems by crowding out private investment, but that is an explanation for another day.
eThe Federal Reserve – Villain Two
The second villain in our system is the Federal Reserve Bank. The Fed, for short, isn’t a bank in the way you understand it. They don’t collect deposits, and they don’t make loans other than to the government.
If the government can’t raise what it spends in taxes or by borrowing from investors with extra money that choose to purchase their notes and bonds, who buys them? The Fed does. The Fed will print up money and “deposit” that money in the government’s checking account to continue spending on all the programs noted above. In short, this increases the money supply, but nowhere in this example did farmers produce more wheat and manufacturers produce more widgets. The available goods we have to buy, and sell are the same, but the money supply increased.
From the example I showed above, you know that when you have more money circulating than goods and services produced, you will get inflation. Economists, politicians, and pundits try to complicate the issue by throwing out complex jargon and obscure theories. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the Fed creates money out of thin air. Remember, they don’t have deposits to purchase those notes and bonds—the money supply increases and with it inflation.
Entrepreneurs and businesses will eventually start producing more goods and services by investing in plants and equipment, entrepreneurs start new companies, businesses hire more labor, buy raw materials, etc. IF all the government borrowing doesn’t suck up all the private investment capital, these businesses use it to finance that expansion. In any case, the process takes a long time and is very complex. Meanwhile, the money supply just increased instantaneously, so the general price level (inflation) increased. Further, when businesses actually do start trying to increase production the signals they get from the market place due to inflation distorts everything and causes them to make poor investments, which generally result in making too little or too much of something.
The victims are the people that must pay more for everything from a box of cereal to a visit with their doctor. Everything we purchase will increase because of the extra money sloshing around the economy.
Politicians will often blame “greedy businesses” for increasing their prices on the poor hapless citizens. If that were true, where are all these “greedy businesses” when the money supply isn’t growing by leaps and bounds, and inflation is low? Politicians cause the problem and then try and blame someone else for it!
The answer is that when inflation hits the economy, the businesses must pay more for raw materials and pay people more money per hour for work. Suppose they buy tools, plants, and equipment; they will pay more for all of that. In other words, their cost to do business also increases. Inflation hits them just like it hits you. They must raise their prices to stay in business. If they don’t increase their prices, but their costs continue to rise, they will eventually go out of business. That will make the goods they used to produce even more scarce, and the price will go up even further.
Businesses that must raise costs are the victims, and the public that must pay these increased costs are also the victims. It will affect the poor and those on fixed income worse than others. If I used to spend $100 per month on groceries and now to get the same amount of food, I must pay $150 per month, but my income didn’t increase; I need to cut something else out to come up with that extra $50. If I try and do what the government does and cover that shortfall of $50 with a credit card or loan eventually, I will go bankrupt, or creditors will stop giving me loans. I have a fixed amount I can borrow based on what I can feasibly pay back with interest.
Lopsided Government Borrowing
As you can see, the public and businesses have a ceiling on what they can borrow to sustain themselves. Creditors, banks, investors, etc., will only lend a certain amount of money, and then that group is cut off from borrowing more.
The government doesn’t have this problem. If we call the taxes, they collect their “income,” then theoretically, like you or me, they should be able to borrow a fixed amount of debt based on that “income” they collect. However, as I showed above, that isn’t true. The Fed will continue to “buy” bonds and notes in unlimited quantities by simply printing up more money and “buying” that government debt with the printed money. The Fed never makes the government pay this back or justify giving them more credit as a bank would do with you or me. They can keep borrowing forever, but the cost is the money supply keeps growing faster than the economy, and we keep getting higher and higher inflation.
How to End Inflation
The only way to end inflation is to stop increasing the money supply faster than the economy can grow. The only way for that to happen is for the government to stop spending more than it collects in taxes. Run a balanced budget OR allow them to run a small deficit and debt but require them to eventually pay that off (with interest), just as you and I do with our finances.
Of course, I think you have probably figured out that this will NEVER happen. The government will ALWAYS spend more than it takes in with taxes, and The Fed will always accommodate this borrowing by “lending” the government unlimited funds.
Politicians love spending much more than they like being fiscally responsible. It earns them votes and money for their pocket when they can deliver largess from the government coffers for new programs, subsidies for businesses, larger military, tax cuts (without decreasing spending), etc. If politicians continue to do that (and they will), inflation will stay.
Suppose the economy can grow fast enough by producing more goods and services. In that case, we can lower this inflation to a level that people don’t notice because the price increases are smaller and don’t take as big of a bite out of our budgets as quickly as it does now. However, even tiny inflation levels (1-2%) will eventually double prices over time.
Here is a real-world example to prove my point. In 1920 we still used gold coins and printed money simultaneously to purchase goods and services. If you went into a men’s suit store in 1920 with a $20 gold piece (1 ounce of gold) or a $20 bill, you could purchase a complete suit plus a shirt, tie, shoes, hat, etc. The gold piece and the $20 would buy roughly the same amount of stuff because the dollar was backed by gold, so the 20-dollar gold piece and $20 bill were interchangeable and worth the same.
Fast forward 100 years with 100 years’ worth of inflation chewing the purchasing power away, and today a $20 gold piece (1 ounce of gold) if cashed in, since most stores wouldn’t accept or know what to do with a gold piece, would be close to $2,000 and will still buy a complete suit, shoes, tie, shirt, etc. On the other hand, the $20 bill wouldn’t even buy the shirt, much less the rest of the suit.
The gold protected the owner from the ravages of 100 years of inflation, while the $20 bill became worth less and less. This was true even in the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. An ounce of gold would purchase a fine set of clothes, and 2,000 years later, an ounce of gold will generally still buy a fine set of clothes.
Inflation destroys savings, impedes planning, and discourages investment. That means less productivity and a lower standard of living.
Simplistic Economy & Examples
In the above essay, I deliberately kept the argument focused on the task at hand, explaining the cause of inflation the most straightforward way I could. The reality is real-world economies, government, businesses, consumers, etc., are complex and have a lot of variables and moving parts that would have taken up thousands more pages to add in and explain. Economics is a relatively new field of study, approximately the last 200 years, but the principles they represent are as old as time and human civilization.
Some of you that might have degrees in economics or read a lot in this field and might try and blow my arguments out of the water by introducing complexity to justify why the government needs to spend more than it takes in. Others will justify what The Fed does by saying a dynamic economy must have expanded credit and that economies grow faster with technology created with expanded credit. I have heard all the arguments before.
My economics professor from college would vehemently disagree with some of my conclusions. He would pull out various studies, books, mathematical formulas and use them to create arguments why I was wrong.
If you print off this essay and take it to your average economics professor at a university, they will react much like my economics professor. They would likely say I am an imbecile and don’t understand how “real” economics works and that the examples I used to make my case are simplistic and stupid.
I am not a professional economist. I don’t have a PhD. in economics. I don’t have the depth and breadth in mathematics to explain everything I have written here as others would do to “prove” me wrong. However, none of that means I am wrong. I deliberately kept the examples simple and easy to follow for a reason. Most people don’t understand what causes inflation because economists, politicians, pundits, etc., deliberately make it complex. Too complex for most people to understand, which is exactly what John Maynard Keynes said 100 years ago. So, in the end, most people don’t even try and throw up their hands and accept inflation as they would the existence of gravity. They assume bankers at The Fed and these economists with letters behind their names and politicians are smart enough to figure everything out, and it will be OK. I don’t accept that premise. I want to understand this myself because I don’t want to be a victim of inflation to the degree, I can prevent it. I am trying to give you a basic understanding to show you how to fight against it in other articles, but that won’t work if you don’t have a basic understanding of what causes it.
Austrian School of Economics
What I explained here is not my theory that I created in a bubble. It is from a brilliant group of economists from a school of economics called the Austrian School of Economics. Most economic theories will often fall into “a school” of thought based on the people that developed the ideas their “school” attempts to explain. The Austrian School of Economics is no different. A group of economists in that school developed these theories, and I have studied them extensively. I am sharing with you in this article one aspect of what I learned by doing so.
In a nutshell, the Austrian School of Economics believes in creating a sound money system (gold and silver) and not allowing the creation of a Central Bank such as the Federal Reserve. This would keep money from being printed in unlimited quantities because gold and silver are only available in a fixed amount; remember our shells from above? They believe in a much smaller government instead of today’s bloated monstrosity. I have read books by these economists, studied their theories, and read countless essays based on their views. If you want to understand economics, you should at least do some of this yourself. Don’t take my word for it. Read, study, and learn for yourself. I have a list of resources at the end of the article.
When the money supply grows faster than the economy, we get inflation. The money supply grows faster than the economy because the government spends more than it collects in taxes and runs both a deficit and never-ending growth in debt. This is possible by an unholy alliance between the government and The Federal Reserve “bank,” which is not a bank at all.
As long as this model exists, there will be inflation. That inflation may be larger or smaller at any given time based on how fast the money supply grows relative to the underlying economy. Economies do grow and are not stagnant and fixed. However, this growth takes time. That time is required to develop new technology, build a workforce, and manufacture tools, plants, and equipment. Over time as our economy grows, it produces more goods and services. If the growth of the money supply stays in relative proximity to the economy’s growth, we will have lower inflation.
When government chooses to spend a lot more than it takes in with taxes or can borrow from real investors, i.e., not The Fed, but real investors with real money that exceeds their current needs and is willing to purchase this debt, then The Fed must print the extra money required for this spending. If they do that too quickly before economic growth can catch up (and they always do), it will cause higher inflation.
I recognize that most people don’t have a degree in economics and have no intention of getting one to figure out how to navigate our complex world. I also realize that despite my recommendation of lifelong learning that most people will not sit down and read hundreds of textbooks and articles on economics no matter what school it comes from. I don’t do this myself but, I have read books and essays over time as I could fit it in. This education has taken almost three decades and will continue for the rest of my life.
So, what is a busy person with a family, business, or (gag) job to do? Start small. Read a couple of books. Read a few essays as you have time or have an interest. You won’t learn it all, and you won’t be able to go to a TED Talk and give a dissertation on economics, but you will understand more than the vast majority of people walking around today. That little bit of knowledge will allow you to make a good fight out of it and protect your assets and wealth. It will help you be less of a victim to these forces that most will never understand.
I recommend the following course of study, which is doable by everyone and will put you way ahead of the average person who has no understanding of even basic economics but is ruled by economic forces just the same. Don’t be that person.
Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt: If I could recommend just one book on economics, every person should read, this would be it. Mr. Hazlitt has written a short and easily accessible book for everyone, and it clocks in at around 220 pages. You can buy it off Amazon here. If you don’t have time to read the physical book, then listen to it on Audible here.
Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell: This is branded as the citizen’s guide to economics. It avoids jargon, complex theories, mathematical equations, and the like but will give you a great understanding of basic economics. Again, you can read or listen to the book based on your preference.
I have touched on it in the above essay, but sound money principles are a foundation of good economics, the elimination of inflation, and a prosperous economy. Every investor and entrepreneur needs to have a basic understanding of a sound monetary system, and you can learn more about it from these simple and easily accessible books.
Gold, Peace, and Prosperity by Ron Paul: This is a concise but excellent book on using gold as a backing for dollars and how such a system creates a sound monetary system and prosperity for all. It is less than 100 pages. Read it here.
The Case for Gold by Ron Paul & Lewis Lehrman: This expands on the topics in the book above and gives a better understanding of the concepts. You can read or listen to this book at your leisure, and it is also very accessible, coming in at less than 250 pages. You can read or listen to it.
The Federal Reserve
Above I outlined one of the main villains causing inflation: The Federal Reserve. It would behoove any investor and entrepreneur to understand what The Fed is and why it is so destructive to our economic liberty and prosperity. Unfortunately, understanding The Fed is a more significant commitment and controversial on the best of days, but you should take the time at some point to understand just what you are up against. I recommend two books here, starting with the more accessible one.
End The Fed by Ron Paul: This is another easily understandable and easy-to-digest book on The Fed and why we need to abolish them. This book comes in under 250 pages and can be tackled by anyone. Read or listen to it.
The Creature from Jekyll Island by G. Edward Griffin: This one is a door stopper. It is easy to understand, but it isn’t short. I call this the “granddaddy” of books on The Fed. This will go back through history and across multiple countries to fully explain The Fed, how we got here, and why. I found the book fascinating and well worth the read, but this one will take a commitment. You can choose to read or listen. If you want a quick start to this book, start with chapter 10, the Mandrake Mechanism, to understand the problem.
The first resource is the online home of the Austrian School of Economics.
The second resource is George Gammon’s Rebel Capitalist YouTube Channel, which is phenomenal. His videos do an EXCELLENT job at breaking down complex macroeconomic topics into easy-to-understand videos.
If you want some other resources to start tackling the field of economics, I have some additional ones over on my resources page. Some I have already mentioned here, and some are different. Start slow and build your knowledge over time. I have been at this for almost 30 years, and I am still a long way from a complete understanding of economics. I will never get there, and neither will you, but that is NOT an excuse to not learn as much as you can.
The information contained within this website is provided for informational and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for obtaining legal, accounting, tax, or financial advice from a professional tax planner or financial planner. Full disclosure
Subscribe to Blog