Hardly anyone seems to believe that recent events in the global economy and financial markets will lead to long-term price stability.*  So assuming a recession is upon us, what’s next: inflation or deflation?

State and local governments (but not their taxpayers) have a rooting interest in a moderate to high level of inflation (as opposed to the outright chaos associated with hyperinflation).  Over a few years, a faster-rising Consumer Price Index would tend to shrink the public sector’s real liabilities while pumping up revenues from sales and income taxes.  That’s what happened in the late 1970s, when inflation played an unsung role in New York’s recovery from the fiscal crisis.

Deflation would be another story. America’s last period of serious deflation was the Great Depression.  But the public sector was much smaller during the 1930s—and, in those days, wages and benefits for most government employees were not fixed for years at a time under long-term collective bargaining agreements. Modern state and local governments have previously experienced a combination of increasing unemployment, weak corporate profits and rising prices (the “stagflation” of the 1970s).  But they have never been tested by increasing unemployment, weak corporate profits and falling prices.

True deflation—as Japan experienced during its post-bubble “lost decade”—would mean very slow revenue growth for state and local governments, coupled with big increases in the real cost of fixed long-term liabilities, including pensions as well as debt.  States like New York, with a heavily unionized public sector and extensive public welfare commitments, would quickly find themselves even more deeply in the hole if they failed to take much bigger steps to curb expenditures.

So what’s the outlook?   Some believe the Fed’s aggressive injections of liquidity into the financial system have greatly increased the risk of inflation.

Others predict that falling demand and rising inventories will produce the opposite effect; for example, oil prices already have considerably deflated over the past few months.

And uber pessimist Nouriel Roubini, the NYU professor who predicted the scope of the current financial crisis, thinks we’re heading for “stag-deflation.” In that case, Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg will need to set much higher budget-reduction targets.

* NOTE: Bad choice of modifier in the original.   Long-term price stability is a realistic expectation; the inflation v. deflation question is really focused on the mid-term.  Say, 3-5 years.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

You may also like

At mid-year, NY still far below most states in pandemic jobs recovery

New York has added private-sector jobs in all but three of the 38 months since the COVID-19 outbreak of March 2020—but the Empire State remains below its pre-pandemic employment level and continues to trail the national recovery. On a seasonally adju Read More

At end of ’22, NY still near bottom in pandemic recovery

The more time passes since the spring 2020 Covid-19 outbreak, the more New York stands out among all states for the weakness of its post-pandemic employment recovery. As of December, seasonally adjusted private employment in New York was still nearly 2 Read More

As leaves turn, NY’s post-pandemic recovery still has very far to go

New York was the national epicenter of the pandemic, and Governor Cuomo's "New York State on PAUSE" business shutdowns and other restrictions led, in short order, to the loss of nearly 2 million jobs in the first full month after the infection began spreading in the New York City area. Read More

More NY job gains in August—but employment needs to rise a lot further

New York's jobs report for August looked relatively strong—but only by comparison, that is, with what was generally regarded as a disappointing national number. On a seasonally adjusted basis, New York gained 28,000 private-sector jobs last month—a growth rate of 0.4 percent, according to preliminary monthly estimates from the state Labor Department. Read More

Empire State’s new budget is a bridge to nowhere

Looking ahead to an uncertain post-pandemic recovery, New York’s newly enacted state budget for fiscal year 2022 raises spending by staggering amounts that—barring an unlikely rapid return to peak 2019 economic activity in New York City—can't possibly be sustained for more than a few years. The budget is a mid-2020s fiscal disaster in the making: an incomplete bridge over a deepening river of red ink. Read More

NY Post-Pandemic Employment Tide Stopped Rising At Year’s End

New York's post-pandemic employment recovery came to a halt and moved into reverse in December, according to the state's for the final month of COVID-wracked 2020. Private payroll employment in December was 966,000 jobs below the level of the previous Read More

Fewer Workers, Not More Jobs, Explains NY’s September Unemployment Rate Drop

New York State's unemployment rate has fallen sharply since the economically devastating pandemic lockdown last spring. But as state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli points out in  his latest economic report, the jobless rate doesn't tell the whole story. Read More

It’s Official: New York State’s Second Quarter Economic Crash Was the Worst on Record

Further evidence of the massive damage done to New York’s economy by the coronavirus pandemic shutdown has emerged in the latest gross domestic product (GDP) data from the federal Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Affairs. Read More