Yes, of Course the Democrats Should Be Trying to Get People to Believe the Good News About Inflation

One of the most infuriating habits among centrist and left-leaning politicians and pundits is their almost pathological urge to give ground to conservatives.  Any time I see or hear "to be fair" or something similar, I brace myself for what comes next.  Sometimes, it is a relief to see that it merely leads to a useful clarification, as in, "To be fair, these are alleged facts in a criminal complaint, not a legal finding."  Too often, however, the "fairness" involves unilateral disarmament.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is discussion of inflation in the US.  There are too many examples to count or cite of non-Republicans saying, "To be fair, inflation is a big problem," or "Well, people are worried about inflation."  Within a single one-hour period earlier this week, I heard two pundits on MSNBC (on different segments on different shows) assert casually that "Well, inflation is still too high," and "Sure, people have a right to be angry about inflation."  And to be clear, those two pundits were not among the legion of MSNBC on-air personalities who are on the "liberal" cable network only because they are apostate Republicans while still being very conservative in their policy views.  (Joe Scarborough is only the most obvious of many examples).

Several months ago, Professor Dorf wrote an excellent column in which he discussed how even people who ought to know better nonetheless confuse "falling inflation" with "falling prices."  The latter is called deflation and would be disastrous for the economy (examples include both the Great Depression and the 2008-09 Great Recession), whereas the former means that prices do rise but at a slower rate.  Here, my point is that people who ought to know better are making a similarly damaging political/rhetorical error -- conceding a problem that does not exist and then scolding anyone who tries to argue that Americans should be told the truth about inflation.

It is true that Democrats, and especially the Biden White House, have been making some efforts to spread the good news about inflation.  New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman has been making his own efforts to set the public record straight, most recently in a newsletter (paywalled, unfortunately) where he summarized the latest available data.  He pointed out that inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and excluding volatile energy and food prices was 3.8 percent over the 12-month period ending last month, and he added that quirks in the way that the CPI is measured (especially involving housing prices) can and do mask an even larger recent decline in inflation.

More importantly, Krugman pointed out that the Federal Reserve's preferred measure of inflation is not the CPI but another data series called "Core PCE" (the Personal Consumption Expenditure price index excluding food and energy).  Although the February estimate for Core PCE is not yet available, annual inflation through January was 2.5 percent based on that measure.

And because the Fed's target rate of inflation is 2.0 percent (which is an arbitrary target that is in fact too low, but I digress), inflation is now essentially already back to where the Fed wants it to be.  Seriously, a 0.5% difference is nothing in this context, and people who would make a big deal about it are either dishonest or irrationally ultra-averse to even the slightest risk of accelerating inflation.  I cannot help but point out that such people do not publicly warn that being below 2.0 percent could get out of hand and tip us below 0.0 percent -- that is, into deflation, which can spiral out of control all too easily.  Why the asymmetry?

As happens all too often, however, the people on TV and the non-Krugman people on the op-ed pages are not only generally ignorant of such facts (and of basic economic concepts) but are unmotivated to become aware of reality.  Worse, their fundamental motivation is to be seen as Very Serious People, which means that they are part of the groupthink that is modern punditry.  (See also anti-deficit scaremongering.). When they say that inflation is a big deal, they do so because everyone else is saying it, which means that it is safe to echo whatever others are saying without knowing even the most basic facts, including that inflation is already quite low.

Among centrists and left-leaning pundits, this groupthink then combines with the "to be fair" instinct and leads them to a defeatist attitude about even trying to engage with voters about the realities of inflation: "Well, the Republicans do have a winning political message on inflation that Democrats need to acknowledge."

Here, however, the self-defeating mindset is even worse, because when confronted with the Biden team's efforts to do what they in fact should be doing -- pushing back against the doom-and-gloom pronouncements about inflation -- the response is something like this: It's never a winning strategy in politics to tell people that they shouldn't feel the way they feel.  If the public is angry about "high prices," Democrats will only alienate them by telling them otherwise.

That formulation has generated endless navel-gazing pieces about "vibeflation" and such nonsense, with pundits wondering why such good economic news is not penetrating the public's consciousness but then warning that Democrats should not try to set them straight.  For some reason, inflation is one of the good news stories that Democrats are not supposed to tout (the other major one being crime, which is in fact another notable success story), lest they anger people who will say, "Hey, I feel the way I feel."  Even setting aside that the full version of that sentence is insane -- "Hey, I feel the way I feel, so I'm going to vote for an openly fascist candidate who has no plan to deal with inflation" -- how in the world did we reach the point where Democrats and their allies are convincing each other not to run on success?

To put the point differently: Politics is about nothing but telling people how they should feel.  Republicans spend almost all of their time telling people to be scared of things -- things that are not in fact scary.  For example, another supposed "to be fair" advantage that non-Republican analysts tell Democrats to concede is immigration policy, which is a classic example of Republicans' fearmongering based on blatant lies.  Republicans are not respecting people's supposed right to "feel the way I feel."  Republicans are telling them exactly how to feel.  Non-Republicans sometimes contest the lies that Republicans are spewing, but I have not heard anyone say anything like this: You know, this border mania is going to blow up in Republicans' faces, because voters hate to be told how to feel.

Republicans tell people how to feel about abortion, about crime, about LGBTQ+ people, about racism, about God.  Democrats tell people how they should feel about plenty of things as well.  That is what they should do, because they are trying to persuade people.  And last I checked, persuading someone involves telling them that the way they feel right now is the wrong way to feel.  Democrats have the advantage of being non-theocrats and non-sociopaths whose values and policy proposals are widely popular, so why surrender those advantages by staying mum?

To be fair, it is possible to try to persuade people but end up alienating them instead.  It is always true that advocates should try to draw people in rather than push them away.  That is not what is happening here, however, where the argument seems to be that Democrats should not try at all to tell people that inflation is almost exactly back to its target rate and that wages are now rising faster than prices.  (See how I used "to be fair" here in a way that was not self-negating?)

The political adage that "if you're explaining, you're losing" is a relative concept expressed as an absolute, but explaining is the essence of running for office and then leading once in office.  What are Democrats supposed to do instead?  Apparently, they should just shout, "Squirrel!" and change the subject.  Perhaps they should instead stop being afraid of their own shadows and dare to tell people that the world has gotten much better, very much including inflation.