"I’m advocating 6 percent inflation for at least a couple of years," says Rogoff, 56, who’s now a professor at Harvard University. "It would ameliorate the debt bomb and help us work through the deleveraging process."
Given the Fed’s inability to cut rates further, Mankiw says the central bank should pledge to produce "significant" inflation. That would put the real, inflation-adjusted interest rate -- the cost of borrowing minus the rate of inflation -- deep into negative territory, even though the nominal rate would still be zero.
If Americans were convinced of the Fed’s commitment, they’d buy and borrow more now, he says.
Mankiw, currently a Harvard professor, declines to put a number on what inflation rate the Fed should shoot for, saying that the central bank has computer models that would be useful for determining that.
In advocating that the Fed commit itself to generating some inflation, Mankiw, 51, likens such a step to the U.S. decision to abandon the gold standard in 1933, which freed policy makers to fight the Depression.
Faster inflation might be preferable to increased unemployment, or to further budget stimulus packages that push up the national debt, says Mankiw, who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President George W. Bush.
The White House has forecast that the budget deficit will hit $1.84 trillion this fiscal year, or 12.9 percent of gross domestic product. Rogoff doubts that politicians will be willing to reduce that shortfall by raising taxes as much as needed. Instead, he sees them pressing the Fed to accept faster inflation as a way of easing the burden of reducing the deficit.
Easier Debt Repayment
Inflationary increases in wages -- and the higher income taxes they generate -- would make it easier to pay off debt at all levels.
"There’s trillions of dollars of debt, in mortgage debt, consumer debt, government debt," says Rogoff, who was chief economist at the Washington-based IMF from 2001 to 2003. "It’s a question of how do you achieve the deleveraging. Do you go through a long period of slow growth, high savings and many legal problems or do you accept higher inflation?"