Calling falling prices per se “deflation” is one of the most serious errors one can make in economics. It’s tantamount to confusing becoming richer with becoming poorer. It leads people to believe that increases in production, which are the foundation of enrichment, but which also operate to make prices fall, are at the same time the source of depression and impoverishment.
To get matters straight, we need to clarify some things.
Prices can fall either because of more supply (i.e., more goods and services being produced and sold) or because of less demand (i.e., less money in existence and/or less overall spending of money in the purchase of goods and services).
A depression is characterized not only by falling prices, but also by a plunge in business profits (which may even become negative in the aggregate) and by a sharply increased difficulty of repaying debt. It is also characterized by mass unemployment.
While a gold standard very definitely can and probably will be accompanied by falling prices, it is not accompanied by plunging profits, a greater difficulty of repaying debt, or mass unemployment. The conjunction of these latter with falling prices is the result of a decrease in the quantity of money and volume of spending. A decrease in the quantity of money and volume of spending is the result not of a gold standard but of the incompleteness of a gold standard. It is the result of a fractional-reserve gold standard, in which gold represents only a portion of the money supply while the rest is based on debt. In such circumstances, the failure of debtors is capable of causing bank failures, which serves to reduce the quantity of money and volume of spending.
Under a full, i.e., 100-percent reserve gold standard, new and additional gold continues to be mined, and at a rate faster than gold is physically lost, e.g., in such things as shipwrecks and the burial of people with gold dental fillings in their mouths. Thus the quantity of money and volume of spending under a full gold standard increases. However, it does so at a modest rate. Prices fall under a full gold standard to the extent that the increase in the production and supply of goods and services other than gold outstrips the increase in the quantity of gold and the spending of gold.
Despite the fall in prices, the increase in the quantity of gold money and spending under a full gold standard serves to increase the economy-wide average rate of profit and interest. It does so for the simple reason that in the nature of the case there tends to be more money and spending in the economy at the time when products are sold than there was at the earlier points in time when money was expended for the means of producing those products. Thus the margin by which sales revenues outstrip costs is correspondingly increased.
Furthermore, despite the accompanying fall in prices caused by the more rapid increase in the production and supply of goods and services other than gold, the increase in the quantity of gold and the volume of spending in terms of gold serves to make the repayment of debt somewhat easier. For example, suppose that sales revenues in the economic system are rising at a two percent rate because of increases in the supply and spending of gold, but that prices are falling at a three percent rate because the supply of goods and services other than gold is increasing five percent per year. The average seller in this case will have five percent more goods to sell at prices that are only three percent less. His sales revenues will rise by two percent. He will be able to earn progressively increasing sales revenues and income despite the fall in his selling prices, because the increase in the supply of goods and services he has available to sell outstrips the fall in his selling prices to the extent of the increase in the quantity of gold money and spending.
The modest elevation of the rate of profit resulting from the increase in the quantity of gold is the opposite of what happens in a depression. So too is the greater ease rather than greater difficulty of repaying debt.
Thus, the truth is that a full gold standard, with its falling prices, is as much the enemy of deflation as it is of inflation.
As for mass unemployment: If there is a deflation, in the correct sense of a decrease in the quantity of money and/or volume of spending, then falling prices, so far from being the cause of deflation/depression are the way out of it. In such circumstances, a fall in wage rates and prices is precisely what’s needed to allow a reduced quantity of money and volume of spending to buy all that a previously larger quantity of money and volume of spending bought. If, for example, as in 1929, there was originally roughly $50 billion in payrolls employing 50 million workers at an average annual wage of $1,000 per year and now, because of deflation, there are only $40 billion of payrolls employing 40 million workers, full employment could be restored if the average wage rate fell from $1,000 to $800 per year. In that case, $40 billion could employ as many workers as $50 billion had done.
Viewing the fall in wage rates and prices that is needed to recover from deflation as itself being deflation and thus preventing the fall in wage rates and prices, as occurred under Hoover and the New Deal, serves only to perpetuate the unemployment and depression.
Confused concepts result in catastrophic consequences.
P.S. For elaboration of the points made in this discussion, see my article "The Goal of Monetary Reform," The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Fall 2000, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 3–18, and my book Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, pp. 544–46, 557–59, 573–80, 809–20. See also my Mises.org Daily Article "The Anatomy of Deflation," August 22, 2003