Whether it is a short-lived phenomenon or not, inflation is upon us. Even bastions of leftwing happy talk—from the San Francisco Bay Area to Joe Biden’s White House—have stopped pretending as though it is not. Prices for consumer goods, basic staples, and inelastic necessities are on the rise. And with Democrats in Congress irrationally committed to injecting trillions of new dollars into the economy, which will be dedicated to chasing fewer and fewer goods, the trend may only accelerate.
Few experts believe that we are going to see anything like the kind of inflation that Americans experienced in the late 1960s and 1970s. Even fewer believe that the remedies of our policymakers will be as drastic as those pursued by Paul Volcker, among others. At least, not yet. Nevertheless, the worst effects of inflation are still to come and could be with us for years. Those effects are as much economic as they are psychological. And much has changed in the American psychosocial landscape over the last half-century—a lot of it for the worse.
When the money in your wallet is worth less today than it was yesterday, it can have terribly destructive psychological consequences. And just as it is with the economic consequences associated with inflation, the poor will bear the brunt of that cognitive burden. The “poor are extremely limited in their options to protect themselves against inflation,” read the findings of a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Business and Social Science. That study also found that almost everyone who is exposed to inflation’s pernicious effects also struggles with an associated emotional toll.
“It makes the people psychologically depressed, creates the waves of tension and anxiety, push them into the cave of unrest,” and forces”them in stress and strain,” the study continued. It augments preexisting inclinations toward “violence and aggression.” It exacerbates “suicidal tendencies” and “causes hopelessness.” It contributes to “social isolation.” And, most troubling, it creates powerful subconscious incentives to engage in conspiratorial thinking and succumb to paranoia. Anyone who has read Hayek’s account of how inflationary pressures contributed to political instability in Interwar Austria knows what the most terrible manifestation of this phenomenon could look like.
We would do well to be prudently fearful of inflation’s macroeconomic and mental impacts in the best of times. But today, when the nation’s political culture is already awash in paranoia, anything less than categorical alarm feels insufficient.
You’ve probably already encountered the rapidly proliferating conspiracy theories seizing right-wing imaginations across the country. Those beliefs are fueled by irresponsible actors who see madness as a pathway to power. Significant figures in politics and broadcast media disseminate absurd ideas such as the notion that Donald Trump’s victory in 2020 was stolen by a conspiracy involving Venezuela, Cuba, China, George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, Antifa, and the “massive influence of Communist money.” Others are just asking questions about the prospect that COVID vaccines aren’t really effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus at all, so they are being pushed on the population for some other ill-defined but clearly nefarious purpose. We don’t know how many rank-and-file voters on the right believe this stuff, but survey data indicates that the population of credulous Republicans is statistically significant.
The left isn’t any more grounded in reality. Democratic lawmakers on the federal level allow themselves to publicly ruminate on the malignant cabal of moneyed interests secretly pulling society’s most potent levers—armed with stereotypically maniacal whiteboards illustrating the world’s unseen connections. Well after a variety of transparent investigations had disproven the charge, a majority of Democrats continued to believe that Donald Trump “worked with Russia to influence the 2016 election.” As late as 2018, nearly two-thirds of Democrats told YouGov pollsters they believed that “Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected president”—a charge that no serious political actor has ever even alleged.
Whether these beliefs are substantiated or not (they’re not) is immaterial. Those who propagate them and claim to believe in them find them satisfying explanations for events they dislike—more satisfying, at least, than the truth. And in a period typified by the uncertainty associated with inflation, there are going to be a lot of events the voting public is going to dislike. They will seek out tidy but immiserating theories of everything that satisfy their desire to believe someone has done this to them. As Richard Hofstadter’s oft-cited book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, notes, allegations of “planned inflation” reappear periodically in the thought posited by conspiratorial thinkers.
That would be concerning enough if this miserable condition wasn’t accompanied by a variety of more injurious psychological maladies, many of which are already pronounced as a result of the country’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.
In the infernal year 2020, drug-overdose deaths in the United States spiked by a staggering 30 percent, reaching a record 93,000. According to the CDC, suspected suicide attempts spiked dramatically—particularly among adolescents. Loneliness and social isolation contributed to a national mental-health crisis that has yet to abate even as pandemic-related restrictions recede. All these conditions would only be exacerbated by a lack of public confidence in the currency we carry around in our wallets.
In an America beset by paranoia, a crisis of confidence in the tender backed only by the full faith and credit of the United States is a scary prospect. Hopefully, our elected officials understand that the risk associated with rising consumer prices doesn’t begin and end with the 2022 midterms.