Written by Doug French
Inflation is always somebody else’s fault. Ludwig von Mises called out finger pointing central bankers and politicians decades ago in his book, Economic Policy. “The most important thing to remember is that inflation is not an act of God, that inflation is not a catastrophe of the elements or a disease that comes like the plague. Inflation is a policy.”
In the fall of 2007, Gideon Gono blamed his country’s inflation rate of 4,500 percent on “the differences that Zimbabwe has had with its former colonial master, the UK,” and added, “we are busy laying the foundations for a serious deceleration programme.” Deceleration? A year later inflation was 231 million percent.
Money printing didn’t have anything to do with it according to the central banker. Droughts began to be more frequent in the 2000’s and Gono believed ”there is a positive correlation between the drought and inflation.” Dry weather, he told New African magazine, has, “got a serious bearing on our inflation level.”
In Gono’s dilluded mind,inflation was about the weather, lack of support from other nations, and political sanctions. He had nothing to do with the hyperinflation in his country. “No other [central-bank] governor has had to deal with the kind of inflation levels that I deal with,” Gono told Newsweek. “[The people at] my bank [are] at the cutting edge of the country.”
These days in Argentina its not the weather and political sanctions causing prices to rise, its businesses engaging in commerce. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is urging her people to work “elbow-to-elbow” with her government to stop companies from looting the people with high prices. Two weeks ago the government devalued the peso by 20 percent but it is private businesses that are stealing from working people with price increases.
Posters of retail executives have been plastered around Buenos Aires. For instance, Wal-Mart Argentina’s president Horacio Barbeito has his mug on a poster with the caption, “Get to know them, these are the people who steal your salary.”
Kirchner’s cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich calls economists who point to government policies as inflation’s culprit “undercover agents.” He implies that these economists are the tools of business. “Argentines should know that independent, objective economists don’t exist,” Capitanich claims. “I want to say emphatically that when unscrupulous businessmen raise prices it has absolutely nothing to do with macroeconomic variables.”
In 2012 the president of Argentina’s central bank, Yale-educated Mercedes Marcó del Pont, said in an interview, “it is totally false to say that printing more money generates inflation, price increases are generated by other phenomena like supply and external sector’s behaviour.”
So while its central bank prints, the Kirchner government has enlisted the citizenry to work undercover in the fight against rising prices. A free smartphone application is encouraging Argentines to be citizen-cops while they shop.
The app is a bigger hit than “Candy Crush” and “Instagram.” President Kirchner wants “people to feel empowered when they shop.” And, they do. “You can go checking the prices,” marveled Analia Becherini, who learned of the app on Twitter. “You don’t even have to make any phone calls. If you want to file a complaint, you can do it online, in real time.”
“Argentina’s government blames escalating inflation on speculators and greedy businesses,” reports Paul Byrne for the Associated Press, “and has pressured leading supermarket chains to keep selling more than 80 key products at fixed prices.”
However, businesses aren’t eager to lose money selling goods. Fernando Aguirre told Chris Martenson that with price inflation running rampant, “Lots of stores don’t want to be selling stuff until they get updated prices. Suppliers holding on, waiting to see how things go, which is something that we are familiar with because that happened back in 2001 when everything went down as we know it did.”
In his Peak Prosperity podcast with Aguirre, Martenson makes the ironic point that when governments print excessive amounts of money, goods disappear from store shelves. In a hyper-inflation the demand for money drops to zero as people buy whatever they can get their hands on. Inflation destroys the calculus of profit and loss, destroying business, and undoing the division of labor.
Aguirre reinforced Martenson’s point. Describing shelves as “halfway empty,” in Argentina he said, “The government is always trying to muscle its way through these kind of problems, just trying to force companies to stock back products and such, but they just keep holding on. For example, gas has gone up 12% these last few days. And there is really nothing they can do about it. If they don’t increase prices, companies just are not willing to sell. It is a pretty tricky situation to be in.”
Tricky indeed. “It would be a serious blunder to neglect the fact that inflation also generates forces which tend toward capital consumption,” Mises wrote in Human Action. “One of its consequences is that it falsifies economic calculation and accounting. It produces the phenomenon of illusory or apparent profits.”
Inflation is also rampant at the other end of South America. Venezuela inflations is clocking in at 56 percent. Comparing the two countries, Leonardo Vera, a Caracas-based economist told the FT, “Argentina still has some ammunition to fight the current situation, while Venezuela is running out of bullets.”
Fast money growth has also led to shortages such as “newsprint to car parts and ceremonial wine to celebrate mass,” reports the FT.
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is using the government’s heavy hand to introduce a law capping company profits at 30 percent. Heavy prison sentences await anyone found hoarding, overcharging, or “destabilising the economy.” Hundreds of inspectors have been deployed to enforce the mandates.
The results will be predictable. “With every new control, the parallel, or black market, dollar will keep going up, and so will the price and scarcity of milk, oil, and toilet paper,” says Humberto García, an economist with the Central University of Venezuela.
Don’t expect the printing to stop any time soon. Central bankers believe they are doing God’s work. “To ensure that my people survive, I had to print money,” Gideon Gono told Newsweek. “I found myself doing extraordinary things that aren’t in the textbooks. Then the IMF asked the U.S. to please print money. The whole world is now practicing what they have been saying I should not. I decided that God had been on my side and had come to vindicate me.”
It seems disasters wrought by inflationary policies must be experienced again and again, as “Inflation is the true opium of the people,” Mises explained, “administered to them by anticapitalist governments.”
The practice of central banking is the same around the world. The only difference is in degree. Before he destroyed the Zimbabwean dollar Gono looked to America for inspiration. “Look at the bridges across the many rivers in New York and elsewhere,” Gono told New African, “and the other infrastructure in the country that were built with high budget deficits.”
The Zimbabwe, Argentina, and Venezuela inflations may seem to be something that happens to somebody else. But Mr. Aguirre makes a point when asked about 2001, when banks in Argentina, after a bank holiday, converted dollar accounts into the same number of pesos. A massive theft.
“Those banks that did that are the same banks that are found all over the world,” Aguirre says. “They are not like strange South American, Argentinean banks–they are the same banks. If they are willing to steal from people in one place, don’t be surprised if they are willing to do it in other places as well.”
Douglas E. French is a Director of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Additionally, he writes for Casey Research and is the author of three books; Early Speculative Bubbles and Increases in the Supply of Money, The Failure of Common Knowledge, and Walk Away: The Rise and Fall of the Home-Owenrship Myth. French is the former president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.