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Make inflation a priority

Despite rising gas and heating costs, conventional wisdom seems to be that inflation is nothing to worry about.

Analysts and opinion columnists have been beating the same drum lately: Inflation is only a matter of perception, and Americans have enough savings to tolerate price increases.

This is an elitist attitude that does not take into account the true financial picture of most Americans, who are suffering sticker shock at the gas pump and grocery checkout lane.

The annual inflation rate, 6.2 percent last month, follows a period of relatively low inflation. Yet during that time, middle- and lower-class Americans have weathered rising housing, medical and tuition costs while wages remained stagnant. They are carrying heavy debt and see no relief in sight, particularly as housing prices spiked during the pandemic.

A recent Georgetown University report found that the price of a college education has ballooned by 169 percent since 1980.

The median price of a house, meanwhile, has jumped 30 percent in just the last 10 years. One study found it rose 103 percent from 1970 to 2017.

Incomes are not keeping pace with these costs. From 1970 to 2018, middle-class income rose 49 percent.

Those income gains also aren't evenly distributed: Upper-class income increased 64 percent.

In short, the white-picket-fence American dream that became obtainable for so many Americans post-World War II is moving further and further out of reach. With the average new car price spiking at $45,000, many families can't fill a two-car garage even if they could afford one.

Yet listen to the experts poo-poo inflation fears. Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute calls the latest numbers "idiosyncratic sectoral shocks."

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says "don't panic about inflation" because it is probably temporary, more akin to the post-World War II bump than the dragged-out period of the 1970s called "stagflation."

In a recent Times story, Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics assures us "there's going to be plenty of money lying around" for Christmas spending.

Such analysis may bear out in the long run, but it's of little comfort to families struggling to make ends meet. Some of it sounds downright cavalier.

Robert Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale, showed the most insight when polled by the New York Times. The problem, he said, is that inflation has inequitable effects, striking minimum-wage workers and retired people especially hard because their incomes are fixed.

In short, in a nation of growing income inequality, workers who already are struggling will bear the brunt of inflation.

They are the ones who find it harder to afford gas for the daily commute or buy food to feed their families. They will not have more money "lying around" when it comes time for holiday shopping.

Economists can opine all they want about how inflation fears are overblown. From their ivory-tower position, it may seem so.

But rising prices have real, not theoretical, effects on many Americans. They may resort to racking up credit card debt to buy gas, heating oil and food.

President Biden's Build Back Better program, recently passed by the House, could provide some relief for parents struggling to afford day care. But most of its provisions would take a while to shore up the economy.

As presidents learn the hard way, many aspects of monetary policy are out of their control. Jimmy Carter's presidency was doomed as much by the oil crisis of 1979 and inflation as it was by the Iranian hostage crisis.

The roots of rising inflation are not Biden's fault. The pandemic put millions out of work, created volatility in energy prices and disrupted supply chains.

But Biden would do well to make inflation a priority. Americans need more than lip service from politicians, and they certainly don't need patronizing comments from elite economists and journalists.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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