Opinion | Finance

Stop handing out free money (and other ideas for getting the economy back on track)

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Supply chain shortages and inflation are hurting consumers and Democratic election prospects in 2022 and 2024. The Biden administration, no doubt aware of this possibility, is taking action to address the ill-effects of scarcity and higher prices. Recently, the administration mandated that the Port of Los Angeles remain open 24 hours a day so merchandise idling in shipping containers can be delivered faster to fill empty supermarket shelves and consumer shopping carts.

But this response may be coming too late, because shortages and inflation have created uncertainty in the minds of consumers that cannot be easily reduced.

While the administration has handled the COVID-19 pandemic well, it has been much less successful in dealing with the negative effects of the ensuing adjustments, including shortages, inflation, supply chain disruptions, high demand and uncertainty.  

The widespread shortages were caused by sudden and rapid increases in consumer demand and by manufacturers and suppliers that were too slow or unable to respond swiftly.

Once supply chain disruptions are straightened out as manufacturers increase their production and distributers move their products faster, shortages are bound to ease, though some could linger.  

The U.S. economy is also experiencing a modest annual inflation rate of 5.4 percent, caused by the trillions of dollars that the Treasury gave Americans in 2020 to spend to avert a pandemic-induced depression. Flush with this cash and what they had saved while sheltering in their homes during the pandemic, consumers quickly increased demand for most products and services. They became less price sensitive and pushed inflation higher. Still, though worrisome, an annual inflation rate of 5.4 percent is hardly runaway or stagflationary.  

But the excess cash is tapering off. Without it, consumers will be forced to reduce their demand and thereby push most prices downward. As a result, future inflation won't be as drastic or widespread, especially since the Federal Reserve Board is planning to reduce the money supply, which will dampen inflation.

But the uncertainty produced by the pandemic is likely to prevent people from getting back to normal and might foster some continued shortages and inflation.  

Americans have been feeling confused and unsure about their future. Before the pandemic, they took stable prices and product availability for granted, knew the content and location of their jobs, woke up in the mornings to feed their kids and send them to school and were fairly content with their lives. Not anymore. Their world had changed, and the new one seems unfamiliar and scary to many. As a result, 4.3 millions have left the labor force since the onset of the pandemic.

What can the White House and Congress do to alleviate shortages, inflation and uncertainty? Here are four ideas.  

1. Take measures to ease shortages. Mandating that the Port of Los Angeles work nonstop will increase some supplies, but it's not enough. It should be followed by similar action in other ports. Likewise, factories should be instructed to increase production. Such measures are easy to take in the case of consumer staples but more difficult in the case of computer chips, as chips are part of a global industry, and increasing their production requires building large factories and investing billions of dollars.

2. Stop handing out free money to consumers. With less money to spend, demand and inflation will ease. Though Americans are no longer receiving government manna, many still have cash to spend, which will continue to exert some upward inflationary pressures. 

3. Think again about the size, timing and spending schedule of infrastructure and Build Back Better initiatives. Pumping trillions of dollars into the economy could create a new round of inflation inflammation.

4. Reduce uncertainty. Unfortunately, policymakers lack the knowledge, skills and tools to address this effectively. What is desperately needed is trusted and steady leadership to assure Americans that their lives as consumers, employees, parents and human beings will be more certain again. Unless they can be made to feel more content with their lives, the economy may continue to sputter and keep a fuller economic recovery at bay. 

Can these challenges be successfully addressed in the coming year or two? Maybe. The U.S. discovered and produced a life-saving vaccine against COVID-19 in record time and enacted policies that averted depression. Likewise, I expect shortages and inflation to subside and a sense of normalcy to rise. This, plus efforts to make consumers feel more confident, would put the country on a more prosperous path. 

Avraham Shama is the former dean of the College of Business at the University of Texas - Pan American. He is a professor emeritus at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico. His book, "The Impact of Stagflation on Consumer Psychology," was published by Praeger publishing. 

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