The Great Inflation-Unemployment Trade-Off Stupidity

The 15th March Financial Times article that I rubbished in a blog post last week contained the comment: “the 1970s ‘Phillips Curve’ trade-off between unemployment and inflation is alive and well“. Unbeknownst to me at the time, since I never tune in to Federal Reserve press events, Fed chief Janet Yellen said almost exactly the same thing at the 17th March post-FOMC press conference. Specifically, she said: “The Phillips Curve is alive“, by which she meant the purported trade-off between general price inflation and unemployment (the idea that lower unemployment generally comes at the cost of higher inflation and lower inflation generally comes at the cost of higher unemployment) was becoming an important consideration. This statement reveals cluelessness in three different ways.

First, the Phillips Curve and the theory behind it does NOT suggest that there is a trade-off between unemployment and general price inflation. In fact, it says nothing whatsoever about the relationship between general price inflation and unemployment. The Phillips Curve is about the relationship between changes in REAL wages and changes in employment. It is basic supply-demand stuff. As explained by John Hussman back in 2011:

Phillips demonstrated a principle that is well-known to every economist: very simply, when a useful resource becomes scarce, its price tends to increase relative to the prices of other goods and services. That finding doesn’t need all sorts of intellectual contortions or modeling tricks to make it “work,” because it is one of the most basic laws of economics.

The true Phillips Curve, then, is a relationship between unemployment and real wages. When workers are scarce, wages tend to rise faster than the general price level. When workers are plentiful, wages tend to rise slower than the general price level.

Second, the empirical data clearly show that there is no consistent relationship between general price inflation and unemployment. The above-linked Hussman article includes the relevant evidence in chart form. That is, even if the misrepresentation and misuse of the Phillips Curve is put aside, no economist who has bothered to check the historical data could believe in the inflation-unemployment trade-off.

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Author: Travis Esquivel

Travis Esquivel is an engineer, passionate soccer player and full-time dad. He enjoys writing about innovation and technology from time to time.

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