Case Study Why Were Inflation And Unemployment So Low At The End Of The 1990s

As the twentieth century drew to a close, the U.S. economy was experiencing some of the lowest rates of inflation and unemployment in many years. In 1999, for instance, unemployment had fallen to 4.2 percent, while inflation was running a mere 1.3 percent per year. As measured by these two important macroeconomic variables, the United States was enjoying a period of unusual prosperity.

Some observers argued that this experience cast doubt on the theory of the Phillips curve. Indeed, the combination of low inflation and low unemployment might seem to suggest that there was no longer a tradeoff between these two variables. Yet most economists took a less radical view of events. As we have discussed throughout this chapter, the short-run tradeoff between inflation and unemployment shifts over time. In the 1990s, this tradeoff shifted leftward, allowing the economy to enjoy low unemployment and low inflation simultaneously.

What caused this favorable shift in the short-run Phillips curve? Part of the answer lies in a fall in expected inflation. Under Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan, the Fed pursued a policy aimed at reducing inflation and keeping it low. Over time, as this policy succeeded, the Fed gained credibility with the public that it would continue to fight inflation as necessary. The increased credibility lowered inflation expectations, which shifted the short-run Phillips curve to the left.

In addition to this shift from reduced expected inflation, many economists believe that the U.S. economy experienced some favorable supply shocks during this period. (Recall that a favorable supply shock shifts the short-run aggregate-supply curve to the right, raising output and reducing prices. It therefore reduces both unemployment and inflation and shifts the short-run Phillips curve to the left.) Here are three events that may get credit for the favorable shift to aggregate supply:

♦ Declining Commodity Prices. In the late 1990s, the prices of many basic commodities fell on world markets. This fall in commodity prices, in turn, was partly due to a deep recession in Japan and other Asian economies, which reduced the demand for these products. Because commodities are an important input into production, the fall in their prices reduced producers' costs and acted as a favorable supply shock for the U.S. economy.

♦ Labor-Market Changes. Some economists believe that the aging of the large baby-boom generation born after World War II has caused fundamental changes in the labor market. Because older workers are typically in more stable jobs than younger workers, an increase in the average age of the labor force may reduce the economy's natural rate of unemployment.

♦ Technological Advance. Some economists think the U.S. economy has entered a period of more rapid technological progress. Advances in information technology, such as the Internet, have been profound and have influenced many parts of the economy. Such technological advance increases productivity and, therefore, is a type of favorable supply shock.

Economists debate which of these explanations of the shifting Phillips curve is most plausible. In the end, the complete story may contain elements of each.

Keep in mind that none of these hypotheses denies the fundamental lesson of the Phillips curve—that policymakers who control aggregate demand always face a short-run tradeoff between inflation and unemployment. Yet the 1990s remind us that this short-run tradeoff changes over time, sometimes in ways that are hard to predict.

QUICK QUIZ: What is the sacrifice ratio? How might the credibility of the Fed's commitment to reduce inflation affect the sacrifice ratio?

This chapter has examined how economists' thinking about inflation and unemployment has evolved over time. We have discussed the ideas of many of the best economists of the twentieth century: from the Phillips curve of Phillips, Samuel-son, and Solow, to the natural-rate hypothesis of Friedman and Phelps, to the rational-expectations theory of Lucas, Sargent, and Barro. Four of this group have already won Nobel prizes for their work in economics, and more are likely to be so honored in the years to come.

Although the tradeoff between inflation and unemployment has generated much intellectual turmoil over the past 40 years, certain principles have developed that today command consensus. Here is how Milton Friedman expressed the relationship between inflation and unemployment in 1968:

There is always a temporary tradeoff between inflation and unemployment; there is no permanent tradeoff. The temporary tradeoff comes not from inflation per se, but from unanticipated inflation, which generally means, from a rising

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