Inflation describes widespread price increases over time on consumer goods and services. A recession is when the overall economy slows and typically includes simultaneous and lasting declines in income, employment rates and gross domestic product. Stagflation is the unfortunate combination of both inflationary price increases and a broad economic downturn.
But what in the world is “greedflation” and why has it become a thing?
Well, that’s a term of art for corporate price gouging that’s been in vogue of late and particularly among Democratic Party leaders who are pointing to it as a noteworthy driver of ongoing, record-high inflation across the U.S.
The claims appear to be an attempt at directing blame for current inflationary pressures away from the party, and particularly so ahead of a midterm election cycle in which economic issues are sure to be top of mind for voters as they consider their choices.
Problem is, there is little evidence to back the claims and even experts who count themselves among the stalwarts of Democratic politics are crying foul on the tactic.
A term in search of a problem? As prices have increased faster than at any other point in four decades, lawmakers have scrambled for explanations, according to The New York Times. In recent months, some Democrats have landed on a new culprit: price gouging.
The idea is that big companies have seized on inflation to jack up prices more than necessary, per the Times. The White House has backed the claim, and congressional Democrats have introduced bills that target price gouging. Proponents of the theory have a catchy term for it: “greedflation.”
For Democrats, it is a convenient explanation as inflation turns voters against President Joe Biden, according to the Times. It lets Democrats deflect blame from their pandemic relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, which experts say helped increase prices. And it lets them recast inflation as the fault of monopolistic corporations — which progressives have long railed against.
An Econ 101 response: Last month, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill aiming to stem skyrocketing U.S. gas prices which, on Tuesday, achieved another all-time high, now averaging $5.02 across the country according to AAA.
Per Bloomberg, the proposal included language hoping to create some liability for fuel industry price gouging practices, barring the sale of gas, diesel, etc. at “unconscionably high” prices.
Ahead of the vote on the bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed out the effort to belay perceived corporate malfeasance.
“Price gouging needs to be stopped,” Pelosi said on May 12. “This is a major exploitation of the consumer.”
But, Bloomberg notes most economists, including many aligned with Democrats, counter that there’s little evidence such practices are behind the inflation crisis.
“Corporate power is playing likely a very small role in the inflation that we’re seeing right now,” Jason Furman, a Harvard professor who led former President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Bloomberg. “The primary solution has to come from the primary cause of inflation, which is demand is way too high.”
A simpler answer? The initial waves of consumer price increases arrived as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted global supply chains and threw the supply-demand equilibrium into chaos. An unprecedented influx of stimulus cash allowed U.S. consumers to spend at record-high levels. And then, just as it appeared a path toward normalcy may be in sight, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put new, outside strains on a slew of markets. And inflation kept, and keeps, going up.
And, the Times reports more recent developments have also weakened the greedflation theory. Inflation has remained high: 8.6% over the past year, according to a federal report released last week. But the stock market has plummeted; the S&P 500 was more than 20% below its January peak after a sharp drop Monday. And earnings calls have disappointed investors so far this year. If the pursuit of profits were driving more inflation, you would not expect to see that.