A Washington Post piece on the Fed and the presidential elections told readers:
“A strong economy tends to boost the party currently in power, which is why President Nixon installed confidante Arthur Burns as head of the Fed in 1970, urging him to keep interest rates low to stoke the job market. The result was a decade of runaway inflation that was tamed only by a painful recession.”
This is a very strong and implausible claim. The inflation in the 1970s was fueled in large part by two huge rises in the price of oil. The first was associated with an OPEC oil embargo directed against the United States, which led to a quadrupling in the price of oil between 1973 and 1974. The second was associated with the Iranian revolution, which essentially stopped Iran’s oil exports. At the time, Iran was the world’s second largest oil exporter. There was also a sharp surge in food prices associated with massive sales of wheat to the Soviet Union in 1973.
In addition, there was a sharp slowdown in productivity growth beginning in 1973, which persisted until 1995. This slowdown was completely unexpected and to this day there still is no agreed upon explanation among economists. With workers expecting wage growth in line with the prior rate of productivity growth (2.5–3.0 percent annually), it is not surprising that slower productivity growth would be lead to higher inflation.
Furthermore, there was an error in the official measure of inflation, the consumer price index (CPI), which added approximately 6 percentage points to its measure of inflation over the course of the decade compared to the way the CPI is calculated today. This overstatement of inflation in the CPI likely lead to higher actual inflation since many contracts, most importantly wage contracts, were explicitly tied to the CPI. This means that if mis-measurement caused the CPI to show a higher rate of inflation it would lead to higher wages and prices in many sectors of the economy.
Finally, inflation rose sharply in the 1970s not only in the United States, but almost everywhere in the world. Arthur Burns’ policies could not in any obvious way lead to greater inflation in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere.