It is important to recognize whether a recession is a typical one and when it is stagflation. The remedies for each are completely different and utilizing the wrong remedy will have disastrous consequences. In addition, the public have a need to know which is happening because stagflation is a much longer lasting downturn and the remedies result in a huge bottoming out of the economy for several years before conditions can be improved. People have a right to know this is coming and if they are thus educated, they can attempt to do whatever they can to prepare.
What are the remedies for each of the two main kinds of Recessions?In a typical recession, the best remedy is demand stimulation combined with a lowering of interest rates. Demand stimulation can constitute many things. The Federal government can decide to hire unemployed workers like was done in the FDR administration with the various alphabet programs. Their earned wages are used to purchase goods, pumping the economy up with added cash and demand. This has the added benefit of going to the people that need it the most at a time when they are hurting the most. Republicans prefer things like tax cuts, but the problem with tax cuts is that they not only go to people who aren't hurting, as people who are paying taxes are employed, but the cuts tend to go to the highest earners. This is called supply side economics. The theory is that the highest earners will invest some of that money, companies will use that investment to create more jobs and this will result in higher employment and additional wages being spent in the economy fueling growth. The problem with this aspect of supply side economics is that in the modern economy, it isn't uncommon for people to invest their money overseas. It isn't going to help the US economy if the high wage earners invest their new cash in EU or Asian securities. The other problem is that the market is typically trending downward in a recession so even if the tax cut money is invested in the US market, the decreasing stock prices will lower the impact of that money dramatically. This is what happened with the Bush tax cuts of 2001. Much of that money went overseas and was also lost in the sinking US securities markets and as a result, recovery from this recession took a lot longer than was necessary and the economy that came out of that recession was vulnerable to additional problems, which we are now seeing. The only tried and true methods that will always work to combat a typical recession are demand side stimulation combined with a lowering of interest rates.
Stagflation is a much more complicated and serious situation because you have to worry that whatever you do to attempt to get the economy going again is going to fuel additional inflation. Consider an example where the inflation component of stagflation resulted from too high of a money supply. If you give tax cuts, you are again increasing the amount of money being circulated and that will immediately result in additional inflation, which will zero out any effects from the tax cut. If the Federal Reserve cuts interest rates, that encourages people and businesses to borrow money. Imagine the effects of this in a shaky economy with high inflation. Again, you are increasing the money supply, you are increasing the amount of risk held by financial institutions and these loans would go to either buying real property in a terrible environment for real property, or would go to fund commercial ventures in an economy where buying is down and prices are up. That is a bad time to start a new business and results in a high amount of commercial failures and defaulted loans.
Consider the other possibility that the inflation component in stagflation resulted from supply shocks. This means that prices are high because goods are scarce. Well, if you stimulate additional demand by employing more people or giving the wealthy tax cuts, you aren't increasing the supply of goods. People are going to compete for the still scarce goods with more money, driving prices/inflation even higher and putting you back in the same or position you were in before the stimulus or worse.
What we are seeing now is about what I expected 13 months ago when I penned this article, "Election 2006 Continued Wrap up – The Coming Economic Swoon and Did Republicans Throw the Election?" (I still smile when I look at the conspiracy theory I mused about at the time. I don't think the GOP threw the election, but I believe I was right when I said the idea should be considered because I saw what was coming in the economy and wondered if they did too) http://www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_steven_l_061208_election_2006_contin.htm As I mentioned previously, the stagflation we have now is the result of both a devaluation of our currency and supply shocks. The Bush administration and the Federal Reserve are treating this stagflation like a typical recession and are applying the wrong remedies. I expect the result of the Bush stimulus package to be a 2-5 month temporary and modest improvement in GDP growth combined with additional sharp increases in inflation. The economy will then swoon into more severe negative GDP growth within 3-7 months combined with even more inflation. By that time, everyone will recognize and be talking about stagflation. Fortunately for Bush and unfortunately for his successor, the worst of what we are going to see from this downturn isn't going to hit until close to the election. As I said at the end of my December 8 2006 article, "My readers, the economy is about to take a nosedive. Make whatever preparations you can."