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Opinion The greediest Thanksgiving ever

A Dollar Tree in Fort Collins, Colo. (iStock)

The left’s rhetorical response to the rising political threat of inflation continues to evolve. First they said the problem didn’t exist, and anyone who claimed otherwise was acting in bad faith or spouting Republican propaganda. Then, they said inflation is real — but President Biden’s Build Back Better plan would fix it.

Now, they tell us, inflation might be happening — but it’s the fault of greedy corporations! And those companies must be punished.

Corporate greed is why your Thanksgiving turkey and energy prices are more expensive this year, alleges Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Corporate greed is also why Dollar Tree is finally raising its prices, after 35 years, from $1 to $1.25 for most items, says a senior staffer for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). And corporate greed (and possibly malfeasance!) is why prices at the pump remain high, suggested Biden, who has asked the Federal Trade Commission to probe “potentially illegal and anti-competitive behavior” in the oil and gas industry.

Left-wing media and advocacy groups are amplifying the message. They usually cite record-high corporate profits as their evidence that companies must be “profiteering” or “gouging” the public — rather than, say, responding to today’s unusual market conditions.

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It’s unclear whether this is a cynical comms strategy (as circulation of a recent messaging poll suggests), or if they actually believe this. Either way, it’s nonsense.

Catherine Rampell: On inflation, both Biden and Republicans are suffering from the same delusion

For “corporate greed” to be the culprit behind the recent spike in prices, well, you’d have to believe either that businesses suddenly got much greedier — that this is the greediest Thanksgiving ever! — or that businesses somehow suddenly got much more effective at acting upon that greed.

Here’s the thing. Corporations are always out to make a buck. That’s their job. That was true a century ago, a decade ago and last year, too. In spring 2020, readers may recall, inflation plummeted (with oil prices even briefly turning negative) and corporate profits crashed. That didn’t happen because every executive and shareholder out there suddenly became more altruistic. Companies were greedy then, too, and they were trying to make money.

What happened was the pandemic caused demand to plummet, forcing a drop in both the prices that companies charged and the profits that they earned.

What is happening now, inversely, is that demand is up again. Way up. Especially for physical goods, such as furniture and cars and sports equipment, since cooped-up consumers have cash they’re eager to spend and they’re still not totally comfortable purchasing higher-risk services such as travel or live entertainment.

As I said, companies are always out to make a buck; it turns out to be much easier to make a buck when demand is high.

The pandemic also fouled up — really, continues to foul up — the supply chain. Those bottlenecks make it more challenging for companies to produce and sell quite as much stuff as the public wants.

So they are selling out what they have, turning a tidy profit on those sales, and paying top dollar to acquire even more inventory, the last unit of which is often the most expensive to procure. Similar forces are affecting the energy market as factories ramp up production and gobble up more fuel in the process.

These forces are leading to both record profits and higher inflation. Progressives say you should be suspicious that both things could be happening at once, but the truth is that both are a symptom of constrained supply doing its best to meet gangbusters demand.

None of this is to say that there aren’t some industries that are extremely screwed up, or concentrated, or that could use some sort of regulatory or antitrust intervention to function more competitively. There definitely are. But it beggars belief that inflation is up because either greed or market power has somehow gotten so much worse in the past 20 or so months — as opposed to these more obvious dynamics (demand outstripping supply) driving up prices.

Democrats could acknowledge this reality. They could say: Hey, we feel your pain, but there’s not much the president can do to snuff out inflation. They could also argue that above-trend inflation may be unpleasant but worth dealing with for a little while, because running the economy a little hot enables faster job growth, pay hikes for the lowest-wage workers and so on.

They could say that this set of trade-offs is preferable to one where policymakers instead try harder to squelch inflation by suppressing that gangbusters demand (by pressuring the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, for example, or engaging in fiscal austerity); in that scenario, we might get lower prices, but also less hiring and less growth. Perhaps another recession.

Instead of making any of these arguments, we’re getting more lazy populist demagoguing.