We’re no longer “team transitory”.
Not because we think we’re about to see the sort of wage-price spiral we saw in the 1970s and 1980s. We still don’t.
And not because we’ve changed our minds and think the chinks in global supply chains that have pushed up the prices of consumer durables are here to stay. We think they will, at some point, abate.
We’re no longer “team transitory” because, regardless of your views on the labour market and semiconductor chips, we’ve come to realise how callous the phrase sounds.
A few weeks ago, Jack Monroe, a food blogger based in the UK who has spent years chronicling how difficult it is to eat well when you are living in poverty, wrote the following thread in response to news that the official measure for consumer price inflation had hit 5.4 per cent:
Reading it, we felt full of sorrow. And quite ashamed, to be honest.
We’re ashamed that it took the thread for us to realise how insulting framing inflation as only “transitory” must’ve felt for people who are struggling to make ends meet. Transitory sounds blasé, like it’s only a blip. It implies it’s something that officials and journalists ought to “look through”, focusing more on the “medium term” and less on how higher prices in the here-and-now are impacting society’s most vulnerable.
Language helps shape public policy. Yet there’s an awful lot of weasel wordery in economics that ends up leading to the interests of certain groups of society being neglected. That’s not because those participating in the debates are evil. Many policymakers we’ve met are far from uncaring. Most see themselves as public servants, acting for the good of society. However, these debates take place almost exclusively among people who are comfortable. Many of us are guilty in communicating in ways that dismiss the hardships of those worst off because we have little idea of how economic policy truly impacts people living in poverty.
This is why Monroe’s thread matters. It matters too that Joe Biden has nominated two people to the Federal Reserve board who have spent their working life researching poverty and inequality. The Fed has now stopped using the word transitory. Primarily because inflation lingered longer than policymakers expected. We’d like to think that, if Biden’s nominees — Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson — had been there a year earlier, the bank might have stopped using the term sooner, realising that it can leave a sour taste in the mouths of those struggling to eat.