Inflation Reduction Act Doesn’t Reduce Inflation?!

A bill that was never about the thing it's called doesn't do that thing.

[I'm shocked, shocked I tell you!]

The AP reports that the “Inflation Reduction Act may have little impact on inflation.”

With inflation raging near its highest level in four decades, the House on Friday gave final approval to President Joe Biden’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act. Its title raises a tantalizing question: Will the measure actually tame the price spikes that have inflicted hardships on American households?

Economic analyses of the proposal suggest that the answer is likely no — not anytime soon, anyway.

The legislation, which the Senate passed earlier this week and now heads to the White House for Biden’s signature, won’t directly address some of the main drivers of surging prices — from gas and food to rents and restaurant meals.

Still, the law could save money for some Americans by lessening the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly, extending health insurance subsidies and reducing energy prices. It would also modestly cut the government’s budget deficit, which might slightly lower inflation by the end of this decade.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded last week that the changes would have a “negligible” impact on inflation this year and next. And the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model concluded that, over the next decade, “the impact on inflation is statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

Well, of course.

First off, if we could control inflation by the simple passage of acts of Congress, we’d never have inflation.

Second, and more importantly, this bill was never intended to reduce inflation. It’s a package of longstanding Democratic Party policy objectives that the leadership could get Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to buy off on. They were going to call it “Build Back Better” but went with another stupid propaganda name as part of the negotiations.

That’s okay!

I mean, I’d prefer that we not come up with cutesy, propagandist names for our laws. Or our wars, for that matter. But we’ve been doing it for quite a while now. It has the virtue of making a law slightly easier to sell and slightly harder to oppose. Who could be against reducing inflation? Or affordable care?

Such forecasts also undercut the arguments that some Republicans, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have made, that the bill would “cause inflation,” as McCarthy said in a speech on the House floor last month.

Biden himself, in speaking of the legislation’s effect on inflation, has cautiously referred to potentially lower prices in individual categories rather than to lower inflation as a whole. This week, the president said the bill would “bring down the cost of prescription drugs, health insurance premiums and energy costs.”

At the same time, the White House has trumpeted a letter signed by more than 120 economists, including several Novel Prize winners and former Treasury secretaries, that asserts that the law’s reduction in the government’s budget deficit — by an estimated $300 billion over the next decade, according to the CBO — would put “downward pressure on inflation.”

In theory, lower deficits can reduce inflation. That’s because lower government spending or higher taxes, which help shrink the deficit, reduce demand in the economy, thereby easing pressure on companies to raise prices.

Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who served as a top economic adviser in the Obama administration, wrote in an opinion column for The Wall Street Journal: “Deficit reduction is almost always inflation-reducing.”

Yet Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was a top economic adviser to President George W. Bush and later a director of the CBO, noted that the lower deficits won’t kick in until five years from now and won’t be very large over the next decade considering the size of the economy.

“$30 billion a year in a $21 trillion economy isn’t going to move the needle,” Holtz-Eakin said, referring to the estimated amount of deficit reduction spread over 10 years.

Well, sure. And, ironically, if inflation doesn’t abate, then $30 billion will be even less!

He also noted that Congress has recently passed other legislation to subsidize semiconductor production in the U.S. and expand veterans’ health care, and suggested that those laws will spend more than the Inflation Reduction Act will save.

In addition, Kent Smetters, director of the Penn Wharton Budget Model, said the law’s health care subsidies could send inflation up. The legislation would spend $70 billion over a decade to extend tax credits to help 13 million Americans pay for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Those subsidies would free up money for recipients to spend elsewhere, potentially increasing inflation, although Smetters said he thought the effect would likely be very small.

Again, this is all fairly obvious. Indeed, the only really inflation-reducing measure of significance is allowing Medicaid to “negotiate” prescription drug prices. But, again, the fact that the bill is called the Inflation Reduction Act doesn’t mean that reducing inflation was really the point.

While the act could have the benefit of increasing the savings of millions of households on pharmaceutical and energy costs, it’s unlikely to have much effect on overall inflation. Prescription drugs account for only 1% of the spending in the U.S. consumer price index; spending on electricity and natural gas makes up just 3.6%.

Starting in 2025, the act will cap the amount Medicare recipients would pay for their prescription drugs at $2,000 a year. It will authorize Medicare to negotiate the cost of some high-priced pharmaceuticals — a long-sought goal that President Donald Trump had also floated. It would also limit Medicare recipients’ out-of-pocket costs for insulin at $35 a month. Insulin prescriptions averaged $54 in 2020, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“This is a historic change,” said Leigh Purvis, director of health care costs at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “This is allowing Medicare to protect beneficiaries from high drug prices in a way that was not there before.”

A study by Kaiser found that in 2019, 1.2 million Medicare recipients spent an average of $3,216 on drug prescriptions. Purvis said recipients who use the most expensive drugs can spend as much as $10,000 or $15,000 a year.

The legislation authorizes Medicare to negotiate prices of 10 expensive pharmaceuticals, starting next year, though the results won’t take effect until 2026. Up to 60 drugs could be subject to negotiation by 2029.

Scrapping our idiotic hodgepodge of insurance-based programs would be a fair more efficient and effective means of bringing down costs. Still, while transferring the burden from individuals to society may well feel like it has lowered prices, it doesn’t inherently do so. Indeed, it typically has the opposite effect, since individuals have less incentive to actually care what the total cost is.

The Inflation Reduction Act’s energy provisions could also create savings, though the amounts are likely to be much smaller.

The bill will provide a $7,500 tax credit for new purchases of electric vehicles, though most EVs won’t qualify because the legislation requires them to include batteries with U.S. materials.

And the legislation also significantly expands a tax credit for homeowners who invest in energy-efficient equipment, from a one-time $500 credit to $1,200 that a homeowner could claim each year. Vincent Barnes, senior vice president for policy at the Alliance to Save Energy, said this would allow homeowners to make new energy-efficient investments over several years.

But for all Americans, including those who aren’t homeowners, the impact will likely be limited. The Rhodium Group estimates that by 2030 the bill’s provisions will save households an average of up to $112 a year as gas and electricity becomes cheaper as more Americans drive EVs and houses become more energy- efficient.

This is spending, not inflation reduction. Whether it’s a good investment is hard to say at this point but I tend to think it is. Rather than subsidizing the purchase of electric cars—which is arguably inflationary, since it gives manufacturers and dealers an additional $7500 they can raise prices without consumers feeling it—I’d prefer that we instead invest in charging stations and other infrastructure.

Regardless, I don’t think voters much care whether the act reduces inflation. They care, of course, about inflation itself—particularly food and gas prices, as they’re so visible. But, if they like the actual features of the bill, they’re not going to be particularly upset that it doesn’t live up to its name.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Moosebreath says:

    In the words of Humphrey Appleby from the Yes, Minister series, “You dispose of the difficult bit in the title. It does less harm there than on the statute books”.

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  2. BugManDan says:

    Rather than subsidizing the purchase of electric cars—which is arguably inflationary, since it gives manufacturers and dealers an additional $7500 they can raise prices without consumers feeling it—I’d prefer that we instead invest in charging stations and other infrastructure.

    While this can still happen, there is a cap on how much the car can cost and still get the credit. So cars already near the limit (and it varies depending on the type of vehicle) can’t increase to much.

  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    Well, by cutting some spending and adding taxes, they avoided borrowing a bunch of money, which would be inflationary to some degree. Maybe “Inflation Prevention Act”? But the name gives a lot of focus on a posture of “I’m applying stern fiscal discipline”.

    It’s all kind of dumb, but it’s less dumb that blaming Biden for inflation. Fiscal policy does have an impact.

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  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    “I’m applying stern fiscal discipline”.

    But only to the population that is amenable to buying that particular vision. After Fox and OAN spend a week harping 24/7 on the negative points that Dr. Joyner points out in his piece, the posture you mention won’t be viable.

    One year on, this will be a smaller scale version of the Obamacare discussion with Democrats saying “well, it’s better than nothing” and Republiqans saying “we had a much better plan, but the Democrats wouldn’t listen.” (And it won’t be any more true this time, either.)

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  5. DK says:

    They were going to call it “Build Back Better” but went with another stupid propaganda name as part of the negotiations.

    That’s okay!

    If the reporting is true, the “Inflation Refuction Act” moniker was a Manchin demand. FWIW.

  6. Jessica says:

    Where have they cut spending? They ARE adding new taxes. Who do you think will really pay for the increased corporate tax? The consumer will pay for it or companies will move overseas where corporate taxes are lower. Make no mistake, people making $75,000-$200,000 a year will be paying increased taxes for all of this nonsense.