Inflation and interest groups in the Carter Years

Robert Waldmann

Matthew Yglesias is very smart, but he is not omniscient. In particular he doesn’t remember things that happened before he was born and it appears that he has fallen for some Republican propaganda.

He writes

In the late 1970s, it just so happened to be the case that the structure of Great Society programs and of then-widespread union contracts meant that the objective interests of union members with automatic Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) provisions, African-Americans, and public assistance recipients were quite a bit different from the objective interests of other Americans. By contrast, it was relatively easy for Ronald Reagan to assemble a coalition built around lower taxes and inflation that started with the well-off but expanded deep into the middle class. It was actually Carter who began the effort to fight inflation and deregulate certain key sectors of the economy, but that wasn’t a politically sustainable agenda for a Democrat (as witnessed by Ted Kennedy’s very strong primary challenge).

He’s wrong. as I explain after the jump.

The point of his post is that it is hard for Republicans to win elections given widening income inequality that disconnects the experience of their base (the rich) and the majority. True. I’d add that it is hard given high inequality and especially high inequality in (easily taxable hard to hide) W-2 income, since there is so much to be gained for most people from a policy of soaking the rich and spreading it out thin.

But the facts about the 70s are the facts. I was there.

Yglesias seems to be under the impression that AFDC benefits were indexed to inflation. They weren’t. The real value of AFDC benefits declined sharply under Carter. The idea that “public assistance recipients” had less of an interest in fighting inflation than your average non-union worker is simply false. AFDC benefit levels were set by state legislatures and not indexed to inflation. National average real AFDC benefit levels declined sharply during the Carter and early Reagan years, then the decline ended (for a while) around 1984. AFDC plus food stamps declined less sharply (but declined a lot) plus there was a sharp drop 81 to 82 (food stamps are federal). Overall, the recipients of AFDC+food stamps appear to have suffered much more during the Carter years than your average non-union worker.
See here (PDF), page 12.

From 1977 to 1981 the union non union wage differential in the USA decreased from 19% to 16% (17% in 1980) (all very roughly) It is true that inflation crept up during the Carter years. It is not true that this helped Unionized workers relative to non-unionized workers. See here (PDF), page 40.

The Kennedy challenge to Carter had a lot to do with the fact that Carter was generally immensely unpopular (Iran and a recession). Carter’s deregulatory efforts were generally not controversial, mildly popular and barely noticed (I remember I was there). I don’t recall any criticism from Kennedy.