The history of the twentieth century - America's century! - has been pretty much a history of rising prices... inflation is itself a problem. But the legitimate and hysterical fears of inflation are - quite aside from the evil of inflation itself - likely, in their own right, to be problems. In short, I fear inflation. And I fear the fear of inflation. Avoiding inflation is not an absolute imperative, but rather is one of a number of conflicting goals that we must pursue and that we may often have to compromise. Even if the military outlook were serene - and it is not - modern democracies must expect in the future to be much of the time at, or near, the point where inflation is a concern. Our greatest economic problem will be to face that concern realistically, to weigh inflation's quantitative evil against the evils of actions taken against it, to develop methods of adjusting to the residue of inflation which attainment of the 'golden mean' might involve. The challenge is great but the prognosis is cheerful.
Responding to the question: What is the most important economic problem to be faced by the United States in the next twenty years?
...a force that operates year-in and year-out, whenever we are at high employment, to push up prices. It's a price creep, not a price gallop; but the bad thing about it is that, instead of setting in only after you have reached overfull employment, the suspicion is dawning that it may be a problem that plagues us even when we haven't arrived at a satisfactory level of employment.
describing cost-push inflation
Various experts, here and abroad, believe that the immediate postwar inflationary climate has now been converted into an epoch of price stability. One hopes this cheerful diagnosis is correct. However, a careful survey of the behavior of prices and costs shows that our recent stability in the wholesale price index has come in a period of admittedly high unemployment and slackness in our economy. For this reason it is premature to believe that the restoration of high employment will no longer involve problems concerning the stability of prices. Economists are not yet agreed how serious this new malady of inflation really is. Many feel that new institutional programs, other than conventional fiscal and monetary policies, must be devised to meet this new challenge. But whatever the merits of the varying views on this subject, it should be made manifest that the goal of high employment and effective real growth cannot be abandoned because of the problematical fear that re-attaining prosperity in America may bring with it some difficulties; if recovery means a reopening of the cost-push problem, then we have no choice but to move closer to the day when that problem has to be successfully grappled with.
-Paul A. Samuelson, from a report to President-elect Kennedy on the state of the American economy, 1961
I think, without question, that unemployment of more than 6 per cent is something to be concerned about. You don't push the panic button, but you don't relax and enjoy it either... I myself don't believe in a numbers game in which you give a maximum tolerable percentage, because I think, truly, it does vary with the times... I would hesitate to specify the figure today, but I will say this: it would be, in my mind, less than a 4 per cent figure - that is, for the period ahead. I would not, realistically, think we could hope for a 2 per cent figure in the near future, as certain European countries have been able to do. But I do think that if we are pretty zealous in this matter and insist upon getting low figures - say, 3.5 per cent - then our very success in accomplishing that may lead to a new epoch just beyond when we could hope to go below 3 per cent...
In this age of specialization, I sometimes think of myself as the last 'generalist' in economics, with interests that range from mathematical economics down to current financial journalism. My real interests are research and teaching...