Back to the Seventies?

CAMBRIDGE – With the United States’ disastrous exit from Afghanistan, the parallels between the 2020s and the 1970s just keep growing. Has a sustained period of high inflation just become much more likely? Until recently, I would have said the odds were clearly against it. Now, I am not so sure, especially looking ahead a few years.

Many economists seem to view inflation as a purely technocratic problem, and most central bankers would like to believe that. In fact, the roots of sustained inflation mainly stem from political economy problems, and here the long list of similarities between the 1970s and today is unsettling.

At home, following a period in which the US president challenges institutional norms (Richard Nixon was the 1970s version), a thoroughly decent person takes office (back then, Jimmy Carter). Abroad, the US suffers a humiliating defeat at the hands of a much weaker, but much more determined adversary (North Vietnam in the 1970s, the Taliban today).

On the economic front, the global economy suffers a lingering productivity slowdown. According to the Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon’s magisterial account of innovation and growth, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the 1970s marks a turning point in US economic history, thanks to a sharp slowdown in meaningful economic innovation. Today, even if productivity pessimists grossly underestimate the phenomenal gains the next generation of biotech and artificial intelligence will bring, a large body of work finds that productivity growth has been slowing in the twenty-first century, and now the pandemic looks to be inflicting another heavy blow.

The global economy suffered a massive supply shock in the 1970s, as Middle East countries massively hiked the price of oil they charged the rest of the world. Today, protectionism and a retreat from global supply chains constitutes an equally consequential negative supply shock.