How the Soviets “Fixed” Inflation, but Ruined the Economy
Price inflation and the resulting business cycles are monetary phenomena, and without increases in the money supply—i.e., monetary inflation—there is no price inflation. If the world were a very simple place, we would see this relationship clearly displayed: when the money supply increased, we would also see a geneal increase in prices soon thereafter. The world, however, is not a very simple place and an economy can include countless factors that can mask, delay, and otherwise obscure the connection between monetary inflation and price inflation.
For example, monetary policymakers in the US have long benefited from the disinflationary effects of global trade and increasing worker productivity. This means that, for decades, consumers should have seen prices of most goods and services falling. Instead, relentless monetary inflation over the past three decades has resulted in positive price growth that is seemingly mild, and policymakers can claim victory over inflation. Moreover, new money can enter the economy in a variety of ways, often manifesting as asset-price inflation rather than as noticeably high price increases in food or household goods.
Governments also have many tools at their disposal to delay or hide the effects of monetary inflation, sometimes for many years. Price controls and subsidies, for example, can obscure the true costs of goods and services for the end consumer. These tactics cause shortages, bubbles, and other problems, but these can often be blamed on “greed” or “capitalism.”
One particularly interesting case of how governments can hide price inflation for decades is the Soviet Union. Under the Soviet regime, the money supply—denominated in unbacked fiat money, of course—was continually expanded to increase wages and create the impression of prosperity. This would have led to price inflation quickly, but for the shortage economy and demand-killing government policies endured by the average Soviet citizen. As is so often the case, the regime was able to cover up the effects of inflation for a time, but the policies ultimately proved to be disastrous.
Preventing Inflation through State Control of the Economy
As a regime increases the money supply, demand will generally rise. But rising prices will become acute only if there are actually products and services on which consumers and enterprises can spend their new money. Thus, a regime wishing to avoid price inflation can keep increasing the money supply so long as it also reduces demand by limiting the availability of goods. This prevents improvements in the standard of living, but it can indeed keep down price inflation.
This cannot be easily done in a country where the population expects to live under a relatively free economy. In an unhampered or partially interventionist economy, a lack of widespread price controls often means a large number of goods and services will continue to be supplied, albeit at higher prices, in an inflationary environment. But, because the USSR oversees a heavily controlled, command economy, the regime could more easily dictate prices, limit imports, and force consumers to save rather than spend.
Ultimately, though, by the late 1980s, the regime was forced to “open up” its economy to market forces as a restive population increasingly demanded a standard of living more in line with what existed in the West. However, once the regime ceased controlling prices and savings, prices exploded, government revenues cratered, and the Soviet regime ended its days in an orgy of money printing and hyperinflation.
How the Soviet Regime Manipulated Price Inflation
The fact that the Soviet Regime preferred shortages to inflation has its roots in the hyperinflationary history of the Soviet economy. By the middle of the twentieth century, Soviet planners were already well aware of the dangers of hyperinflation. With the end of czarist regime, and the cessation of the First World War, the new socialist regime took over a country that was already broke and highly dysfunctional. Hyperinflation soon followed. The Bolsheviks attempted to do away with money altogether, but this naturally failed, and a number of monetary reforms followed. By the late 1920s, however, the Soviet regime was engaging in widespread price control efforts, including the highly unusual tactic of peacetime rationing. This limited price inflation for many goods and set the stage for the “repressed inflation” that would become a mainstay of the Soviet System for decades. Prices nevertheless began to rise rapidly in many areas, and the Second World War brought on a new wave of price inflation and prices spiraled upward. This was followed by another currency reform—i.e., devaluation—of the Soviet ruble in 1947. Efforts at price controls were redoubled and overall prices actually declined during the 1950s.
Throughout much of the 1950s and early sixties, the regime was perennially concerned about price inflation. In fact, Soviet ideology stipulated that inflation did not actually e
Article from Mises Wire