How Large Is the Shadow Cast by Recessions?

Macroeconomics: How Large Is the Shadow Cast by Recessions?

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Keynes’s General Theory Contains Oddly Few Mentions of “Fiscal Policy”

File WhiteandKeynes jpg Wikipedia

Something that has puzzled me for quite a while: Keynes’s General Theory contains remarkably few references to fiscal policy in any form:

  • “Government spending”: no matches…

  • “Government purchases”: no matches…

  • “Fiscal policy”: 6 matches:

    • Four in one paragraph about how fiscal policy is the fifth in an enumerated list of factors affecting the marginal propensity to consume…
    • One about how an estate tax changes the marginal propensity to consume…
    • One about how fiscal policy in ordinary times is “not likely to be important”…
  • “Public works”: 10 matches:
    • Three in a paragraph about how the multiplier amplifies the employment effect from public works…
    • Two in a paragraph warning that multiplier calculations are overoptimistic because of import, interest rate, and confidence crowding-out…
    • Four on how public works have a much bigger effect when unemployment is high and “public works even of doubtful utility may pay for themselves…”
    • One a criticism of Pigou’s logic…

And yet it also contains this one paragraph:

In some other respects the foregoing theory is moderately conservative in its implications. For whilst it indicates the vital importance of establishing certain central controls in matters which are now left in the main to individual initiative, there are wide fields of activity which are unaffected. The State will have to exercise a guiding influence on the propensity to consume partly through its scheme of taxation, partly by fixing the rate of interest, and partly, perhaps, in other ways. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the influence of banking policy on the rate of interest will be sufficient by itself to determine an optimum rate of investment. I conceive, therefore, that a somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment will prove the only means of securing an approximation to full employment; though this need not exclude all manner of compromises and of devices by which public authority will co-operate with private initiative…

Chasing back this “banking policy” that is the alternative to the “somewhat comprehensive socialization of investment”, there are three cites to “banking policy”: this paragraph is one, and the others are:

  • “to every banking policy there corresponds a different long-period level of employment…”
  • and the “it is, I think, arguable that a more advantageous average state of expectation might result from a banking policy which always nipped in the bud an incipient boom by a rate of interest high enough to deter even the most misguided optimists. The disappointment of expectation, characteristic of the slump, may lead to so much loss and waste that the average level of useful investment might be higher if a deterrent is applied…. [But] the austere view, which would employ a high rate of interest to check at once any tendency in the level of employment to rise appreciably above the average of; say, the previous decade, is, however, more usually supported by arguments which have no foundation at all apart from confusion of mind…”

The question of why “it seems unlikely that the influence of banking policy on the rate of interest will be sufficient by itself… a somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment will prove the only means of securing an approximation to full employment…” is left hanging. And how “a somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment” is to be implemented are left hanging as well.

So will somebody please explain to me why “fiscal policy” plays such a small part in the General Theory and yet such a large part in mindshare perceptions of “Keynesianism”?

Paul Krugman Looks Back at the Last Twenty Years of the Macroeconomic Policy Debate

Preview of Paul Krugman Looks Back at the Last Twenty Years of the Macroeconomic Policy Debate

Everybody interested in macroeconomics or macroeconomic policy should know this topic backwards and forwards by heart. My problem is that I do not see how I can add value to it. The only thing I can think of to do is to propose two rules:

  1. Paul Krugman is right.
  2. If you think Paul Krugman is wrong, refer to rule #1.

I do wish that those who were not bad actors who made mistakes would ‘fess up to them. Those who don’t will get moved to the “bad actor” category: and, yes, I am looking at you, Marvin Goodfriend.

The only remaining question, I think, is whether these should all be read in chronological or reverse chronological order. I find myself torn, with arguments on both sides having force:

Ben Bernanke (1999): Japanese Monetary Policy: A Case of Self-Induced Paralysis?

Determining Bargaining Power in the Platform Economy: Reinvent Full Transcript

Reinvent: Determining Bargaining Power in the Platform Economy: Our political system has been hacked by time, circumstance, chaos, and disaster…

…The failings of the electoral college, the fact that small states hacked the constitution in 1787, so we now have a world in which the minority in the Senate represents 175 million people, while the majority represents 145 million people, and the gerrymandering after the 2010 census are primary examples of this dysfunction.

Fixes for the economy?:

  • A 4 percent inflation target from the Federal Reserve, * Incentivizing businesses to invest in workers,
  • Reinvigorating the idea that technology should be used to augment workers, not replace them.

The possibilities for positive human flourishing from the platform economy are immense, provided the platforms actually work. Uber’s investors are currently paying 40 percent of Uber’s costs. What happens when these investors start wanting their money back? The platform economy moves bargaining power away from the service providers and from the customers, and into the hands of the platforms. This is a problem for both consumers and independent workers. What bargaining power workers will have will be correlated to the time and resources devoted to training them: when you walk, you disrupt a general production value chain, and it is expensive to figure out how to replace you, even if there’s someone else who certainly could do the job just as well. But if it is not very expensive, you have little power.

Nevertheless, here in California it is hard not to be a techno-optimist—especially if you are an curious infovore…says…

Full Transcript:

Pete Leyden: Hello. I’m Pete Leyden. Today, we have Brad DeLong with us. He is an economics professor here at U.C. Berkeley. He’s also the recently installed chief economist of the Blum Center for Developing Economy.

Pete Leyden: It’s good to have you here.

Brad DeLong: Great to be here.

Pete Leyden: We’re here at this moment with all these folks from the OECD, the economists from the United States here, and the technologists. If you had to think about the kind of moment we’re in right now, how would you characterize where we are as far as the evolution of the global economy and our technologies are? Is there anything special about this moment? Anything critical about it? Any ways you think about this juncture?

Brad DeLong: Let me give you a three-part answer to that: a 50-year horizon answer, a 15-year horizon answer, and then a 0-5-year horizon answer.

Brad DeLong: The 0-5-year horizon answer is: America has been deeply scarred by the financial crisis that started in 2007, the deep recession that followed, and the extraordinarily anemic recovery since. That still leaves us with four million people fewer in the labor force and looking for jobs than we ought to have. We are not sure what all of them are doing. Many are living in their sisters’ basements playing video games. The economy and people’s expectations of how it works have been shocked. How well our society functions is still deeply scarred. We are recovering only slowly, if at all, back to what we used to think was normal. that is the 0-5-year horizon answer.

Brad DeLong: The 50-year horizon answer is: Expect the collapse of the need for people to do a great many tasks that people used to do and are still doing that provide value. In the next 50 years an awful lot of paper-shuffling tasks are going to be taken over by software bots. An awful lot of blue-caller, traditionally male, tasks are going to be taken over by robots. Few occupations will disappear. But many occupations will be transformed. And many will shrink. The income and wealth distribution will be upset—either in a positive or a negative direction. These 50-year horizon processes are what most of us upstairs at this conference are worrying about.

Brad DeLong: Then there’s a 10- to 15-year horizon. How much of this transformation is going to happen in the next 15 years, as opposed to the rest of the next 50? How fast is the 50-year horizon process going to come upon us? Where exactly will be the first sectors and first places in which the coming of—call it the “Rise of the Machines”—the replacement not just of blue-color manufacturing but also construction and transportation and distribution and warehouse workers will be hit by technology, and who? Where and when will a good deal of standard white-color paper-shuffling work start to disappear as expert systems and software bots take it over?

Pete Leyden: In your career, is this about as momentous a time as you’ve seen? Or is that overhyping it?

Brad DeLong: That we are recovering from the macroeconomic catastrophe that started in 2007 has definitely made it very, very fraught. The failure of our Electoral College to deliver us a competent president in 2016 has definitely made it very, very fraught. Our political system was hacked partially by malevolent people, but mostly by time, circumstance, chaos, and disaster. It has been hacked in three ways.

Brad DeLong: The first way it has been hacked is the Electoral College failure; that gave us a president who really is not up to the job in practically any dimension. The second way is that small states hacked the constitution in 1787, so today the 49-seat minority in the senate represents 175 million people, while the 51-seat majority represents 145 million people. The desperately minority congressional government understands it is a minority government. It is acting oddly as a result. Third, the state-level Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 censushas given us House of Representatives is extraordinarily unrepresentative of the median American voter. These have created a time of great political fraughtness. We clearly have a very badly broken political system. That greatly deepens and increased the dangers of managing what I call the 50-year transition. And on top of that is the economic fraughtness left from 2007.

Brad DeLong: The 50-year transition has been going on since Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak began building personal computers in the garage. It has been going on at a more less constant pace. We see a little bit more about where it’s heading with each passing year. It really has not sped up much. What has made this moment fraught is the political disaster of 2016 and the echoing effects of the economic disaster of 2007.

Pete Leyden: There are three challenges we’ve been wrestling with here. You mentioned one of them—the robots and AI. But there’s this idea that the economy is moving towards more and more independent workers. There’s also this rise of the “platform economy”. How do you think of those other two challenges? How important developments are they? How much do they concern you—or actually encourage you as good thing?

Brad DeLong: The platform economy has a number of dimensions. One is what Hal Varian was talking about at the conference yesterday—the “end of the need for scale”. With Amazon Web Services and with Google anyone with a good idea can launch their website at scale for pennies, providing through the web whatever service or commodity they want to provide. And if demand is there they can scale up as far as they need to using very cheap world class-efficiency systems to support their businesses. You no longer need a large initial lump of capital of any. You just soft launch and look for demand. You use the web and search to attract customers. You use AWS and Google to provide your back end. This should be the cause of an enormous upward surge in entrepreneurship and enterprise, and a great flourishing of creativity. Whether it’s individuals with an extra four hours a week making extra money by driving for Lyft, or whether it’s writers saying, “I don’t want to have to sell books at 20 bucks and get only a $1.50 in royalties. I want to establish my own Patreon and have my fans pay me directly”, or any of a whole bunch of other things.

Brad DeLong: The possibilities for positive human flourishing from the platform economy are immense—if the platforms actually work. Right now we find ourselves in a world in which riders are paying essentially 60% of Uber’s costs. Uber’s investors are paying 40% of Uber’s costs. What happens when the investors begin wanting their money back? Do we find that Uber has enough economies of scale, and scope, and enough of a brand and a first mover advantage, that it’s a profitable business? Or do we find that the business gets taken over by somebody else? What if Google puts a little taxi ride button on every Google Map screen, saying: “We’ll only charge you a $1.50 as a handling fee”? Uber will have charge you considerably more if it wants to repay its investors. Uber may turn out to have done the trail-breaking thing. Uber may suffer the fate of most pioneers—arrows in their back, and face down. Or perhaps the platform economy will not be a good thing. Perhaps it moves bargaining power away from the real producers, who are doing the work, and also away from the customers, and into the hands of that one large company in the middle that controls the information. That’s still up for grabs.

Brad DeLong: Most people who fear that we are, as the extremely sharp Zeyneb Tufekci of Duke University says, “building a dystopia one brick at a time in order to trigger people to click on ads”, greatly fear that individual humans, given our cognitive disabilities, will be no match for the informational middleman organization using deep learning and information to figure out how to trigger and control us. Others are much more optimistic—although not necessarily much more optimistic about the prospects of individual platform pioneers like Uber. They are, however, more optimistic about the prospects of the large companies that have entrenched dominant positions: companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook—not that they are optimistic about any one of them, but rather they are optimistic about the prospects for profits for all of them put together, because what opportunities one of them fumbles another one is likely to recover.

Pete Leyden: They will do well for everybody, or do good for themselves?

Brad DeLong: They will well, and they will do good.

Pete Leyden: Do good. And where do you find that, actually?

Brad DeLong: I’m basically a techno-optimist. It’s hard not to be a techno-optimist in California—especially if you’re an intellectual, a data loving infovore.

Pete Leyden: You think even though there are all these challenges, the platform economy is something we could get behind?

Brad DeLong: Yes.

Pete Leyden: What about speaking as an economist now? This other thread: independent workers playing an increasing role in the economy. There’s a positive way to see that. There are also challenges in that. I’m curious to how you see that challenge.

Brad DeLong: Independent workers have, by their nature, very little bargaining power over what economists call “rents embedded in the system”. Your bargaining power is limited by what you could charge if you walked away from the relationship and went out on your own, and by what your counterparty would have to pay in order to get someone else to step up in your place. You have bargaining power if, when you walk, you disrupt a complex and valuable general production value chain, and your counterparts finds it expensive to figure out how to replace you. You have bargaining power even if there is someone else who could fill your job just as well if and only if it is difficult to find that person. A lot of successful middle-class societies have been based on situations in which relatively low-skill workers have bargaining power and share big time in economic rents, either because there aren’t that many replacements in the area or because they threaten to walk as a group.

Brad DeLong: Yesterday at the conference, ex-governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan told a heartbreaking story about a town in central Michigan: 8,000 people, of whom 3,000 work edin the refrigerator plant. Those 3,000 workers made a very good living for Michigan at the start of the 2000s—some 35 buck an hour, I think, in wages and benefits. But the refrigerator plant goes. And after it leaves they are lucky to make $12 or $15 an hour. And then all those who worked to satisfy their demands find their markets have halved in value. The refrigerator plant workers’ skills, machines, lifetime of experience bashing metal and operating things that form refrigerator coils—there’s really not much demand for those skills in central Michigan, and they find that they can’t transfer their skills to do anything else of great value. The principal source of their income was sharing in the rents created by the refrigeration value chain: their dominant market positions and imbedded technology. That kind of danger faces a lot of people who become independent workers. And the middleman firm does not have to close. All the middleman firm has to do is say: “I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further”.

Brad DeLong: On the other hand, an independent worker economy is not bound to be destructive. As long as we have a middle-class society, these are immense amounts of work to be done for one another. And replacing any of us with somebody else will be expensive. Think of the typical job in the economy going from being a manufacturing worker to being a barista at a coffee shop or a teacher at a yoga studio. As long as you have a middle-class society, there’ll be a lot of people who will be willing to pay handsomely for yoga lessons or for a particular espresso beverage brewed exactly the way they like it with a smile, a handshake, and a friendly three-minute conversation about how they’re doing, while the thing brews.

Brad DeLong: On the other hand, if we have plutocracy, in which the only people who have a lot of money are the rich, then the potential customers for the yoga studio won’t be able to pay very much and your fancy expresso drink won’t command very much. The only people who’ll have middle-class lives will be those who control resources that are useful for making things for which rich people have a serious Jones. There’ll be relatively few of those as well. Thus most of it is the shape of what the income distribution will be. That is ultimately a political choice about the distribution of wealth. An unequal distribution of wealth will drive an unequal distribution of income. That will then reproduce itself. And an equal distribution of wealth will drive a more equal distribution of income, which will also reproduce itself.

Pete Leyden: You’ve kind of given—this is probably right that could go this way, could go that way, could be positive, could be negative—I get that and that’s good choices here but…

Brad DeLong: …This is why we economists want not to have just two hands, but a prehensile tail as well…

Pete Leyden: But in that respect, what do you see is the most promising ways forward to kind of deal with this juncture we’re in—tip the balance? What are the things that you’d like to see happen soon here that would evolve this economy in the direction to make it healthy?

Brad DeLong: Am I allowed to say a 4% inflation target from the Federal Reserve? A Federal Reserve that is less focused on keeping inflation very low, more focused on keeping employment high, and more focused on making sure that there’s enough inflation in the system that the Federal Reserve can maintain interest rates at a level at which it will have the power to stabilize the economy? Businesses are not going to want to train their workers unless workers are scarce. Workers tend to be scarce only in what we call a “high-pressure economy.” The first and most important thing would be to change the calculations of those businesses that might be willing to invest in training workers. They need to feel that workers are valuable commodities under their control that they need to boost the value of. It has been totally the case since 2008, and largely the case since 2001, that businesses think there are plenty of workers out there, and we really don’t care about them, because the bottlenecks keeping us from being more profitable are elsewhere. Making labor a serious bottleneck for business so that business focuses on helping workers become more productive and more useful is, I think, the first thing we could do.

Brad DeLong: The second thing would be to repeat what Silicone Valley did in the 1980s and 1990s, that is you’re old enough to remember the coming of the Macintosh computer in 1984…

Pete Leyden: …Indeed…

Brad DeLong: …Apple bought Super Bowl time for a dystopian 1984 TV commercial. It was all about how important the Macintosh computer would be as an engine of freedom. They really believed that the personal computer was an engine of freedom. It allowed you to control and access your own information, rather than having to rely on some human resource or IT department backed by some large mainframe that had lots of data that you weren’t allowed to access and controlled your life. The fear back then was that people would become information serfs: the valuable parts of the enterprise and the value chain would be kept under lock-and-key in the hands of the priests of IT and HR. It was a world in which people would take their draft cards and burn them, in which your information would come on five IBM cards which would all say, “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate”, and which you would feed into the machine face down, nine-edge first. The vibe was that those cards produced decisions over which you had no control or knowledge. Thus making information technology tools to augment people’s abilities to figure out and maneuver in the world that they were in, rather than information technology being a tool for supervision and control—“you’re 15% less productive at processing claims, so we don’t need you around anymore, and you have no skills or information that can be transferred elsewhere.”

Brad DeLong: The idea of Apple Macintosh 1984 was of information technology as a way of augmenting human intelligence and boosting productivity—rather than information technology as a way that we can substitute capital for labor, and getting these annoying workers out of the factory or office while still producing as much. That was a key and a revolutionary social goal of Silicon Valley as it existed in the 1980s and 1990s, from the coming of the personal computer to the flourishing of the internet. In some sense, Silicon Valley has to figure out how to do this again. Organizations like, say, Berkeley’s engineering school have to help. Large companies tend to be much more interested in figuring out how to use information technology to shed annoying and expensive workers, rather than how to give those annoying and expensive workers more control over their lives.

Pete Leyden: Well, that’s fascinating. It’s a big challenge to the tech world as well as a challenge to policy makers. I wish we had more time to kind of go deeper into many, many possible solutions there. But just to wind up here, big challenges, possible big solutions shift, how confident are you that we’re going to manage this transition here? Whether it’s the five-year, the 15-year transition, how confident are you going to do it and how worried are you?

Brad DeLong: I would say I’m not confident at all.I would say that our income and wealth distribution now has managed to tilt itself in a bad way. If you want the economy to pay attention to you, you better have money. And the money is too concentrated now. If you want the polity to pay attention to you, you better have a movement. Yet somehow it seems that the age of the internet and of the decline of manufacturing has made it harder rather than easier to create durable social movements. At the same time it has made it much easier to create the appearance of a social movement via software bots controlled by some server in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. And that crowds the information flow. What is the cartoon? “1980: my incandescent light bulb produces ten times as much heat as light. 2017: my LED light bulb has been taken over and is now running a button out of 50,000 Twitter followers controlled via a server on another continent.” That that seems to be the world we’re moving into. It’s not terribly a reassuring one.

Pete Leyden: Well, that’s a good place to end. At least that’s a sobering thought, and thanks so much for joining us here and giving us your thoughts.

Brad DeLong: You’re very welcome. It’s a great pleasure. Bring me back again.

Pete Leyden: I will.

Why Low Inflation Is No Surprise: Fresh at Project Syndicate

Project Syndicate: Why Low Inflation Is No Surprise by J. Bradford DeLong: BERKELEY – The fact that inflation has remained stubbornly low across the global North has come as a surprise to many economic observers. In September, the always sharp and thoughtful Nouriel Roubini of New York University attributed this trend to positive shocks to aggregate supply…. In my view, interpreting today’s low inflation as a symptom of temporary supply-side shocks will most likely prove to be a mistake. This diagnosis seems to misread the historical evidence from the period between the early 1970s and the late 1990s… Read MOAR at Project Syndicate

Brad DeLong and Charlie Deist on Austrian Economics

Bob Zadek

Charlie Deist: Brad DeLong on Austrian Economics:

Charlie Deist: Good morning everyone, and welcome to the Bob Zadek Show.

I’m Charlie Deist, Bob’s producer, once again filling in for Bob, who will be back next week to discuss the topic of morality and capitalism. Are the two compatible? Is a moral citizenry required for a capitalist system, or is it the inverse? Is capitalism the only system that does not require a moral citizenry?

I also want to wish our listeners a “seasonally-adjusted greetings.” The adjustment is both my filling in, and my special series here on the business cycle. When we talk about economics, we often refer to seasonally-adjusted statistics—business cycles fluctuate up and down, not only in these longer boom and bust cycles, but also throughout the year. Around Christmas time, consumers are running off to the store to buy the latest gadgets and gizmos, so we see a temporary spike in spending.

Last week I was joined by Robert Wenzel, who is a self-described Austrian economist. That does not mean that he is of Austrian nationality—it means he follows the ideas of libertarian economists such as Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises. These were 20th-century economists who built a foundation for economics on a philosophical concept that is both simple and profound—that is, that humans are purposeful actors; we act with an intention to achieve certain aims, and use economic means as well as other means to achieve our desired ends.

The Austrian school is important today because everyday we see stories on the front pages of the newspapers about booms and busts, bubbles bursting, Bitcoin, etc. Is Bitcoin a bubble? We might wonder whether humans are actually rational. Are they pursuing their ends in a way that will actually best achieve them, or are they, perhaps, less than perfectly rational?

These are the kinds of questions that economists debate, and today I’m privileged to have an economist with me. I’m joined this morning by UC Berkeley economics professor, Brad DeLong. Every so often, I need to ask a favor of Brad DeLong. He’s my old teacher and undergraduate advisor, from when I was something of an aspiring libertarian economist.

While preparing for last Sunday’s show, on the hardcore libertarian Austrian theory of the business cycle, it occurred to me that I don’t actually know what I’m talking about. I don’t have a PhD, or even a Master’s degree in economics, although thanks to Brad I was able to complete an undergraduate thesis on monetary policy. But it occurred to me, if I were in almost any other field, trying to diagnose a problem—something as complex and serious as the booms and busts in the economy, my musings here would be something akin to malpractice.

Brad DeLong is the chair of the political economy major at UC Berkeley. He was deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Treasury, and is a visiting scholar at the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank. He joins me by phone from Berkeley, where he also writes the popular blog, “Grasping Reality with Both Hands.” Now, that’s a metaphor, so if you’re driving keep both hands on the wheel.

I’m going to try to cram in close to a whole semester of economics with Professor DeLong, and hopefully he can help to explain in layman’s terms, his academic perspective on what’s really going on in the economy when we read about the Federal Reserve and interest rates, money supply, quantitative easing, and so on. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

Brad DeLong: It’s a great pleasure on my part to be virtually here. Thank you for asking me.

Charlie Deist: I want to start with a quote from a blog post that you wrote all the way back in 2004. This was when Alan Greenspan was still Federal Reserve Chairman, and it echos the message of my last guest, which was that the Federal Reserve negatively influence the economy—I don’t think there’s any question about that among economists. This was the end of a post from April 2004, where you were trying to figure out what was going on with monetary policy at the time.

You said:

Alan Greenspan frightened away the evil depression fairy in 2000 to 2002, by promising—not that he would let the evil fairy marry his daughter—but by promising high asset prices, unsustainably high asset prices for a while. Whether this was a good trade or not depends on the relative values of the risks avoided and the risks accepted. And to evaluate this requires a model of some sort…

So back in 2007, you were worried, just like our last guest, about the Federal Reserve inflating a bubble. What would you say is the Keynesian perspective, if you will, on the potential for the Federal Reserve to engage in this kind of pro-cyclical monetary policy—i.e., monetary policy that, rather than smoothing out the business cycles like it’s supposed to, actually can exacerbate them and make them worse?

Brad DeLong: Well, I would say that it’s not so much a Keynesian perspective as a Keynesian–Monetarist perspective. Or rather, since Keynesianism, Monetarism, and Austrianism are all very large and vague, unsettled creatures with very fuzzy borders, such that it’s not clear where the core is, let’s say John Maynard Keynes himself rather than the Keynesians, Milton Friedman himself rather than the monetarists, and Friedrich Von Hayek himself rather than the Austrians.

Here Keynes and Friedman would have been on the same side, approving of Greenspan’s policies. That is, Keynes thought the most important thing for monetary policy was to manipulate the economy so that the level of spending in the economy—the level at which the government plus private actors wanted to spend—was large enough to be able to put everyone to work, who wanted to work, at the prevailing wage level, without creating an excess of demand, over the amount that could be produced that would produce inflation. That, as he said, inflation is unjust in that it robs the saver of the returns that they’re expecting, and deflation is inexpedient. Perhaps deflation is worse in an impoverished world, but these are both evils to be shunned.

Milton Friedman was very much the same. That is, Milton Friedman thought that the right policy for the Federal Reserve to follow was for it to be constantly intervening in asset markets in order to keep the money supply from falling—even if private actors wanted to shrink their holdings of money—or keep the money supply from rising if private investors and private actors wanted to increase the supply of money. Also, Friedman thought that if there were to ever be sharp shifts in the velocity of money—sharp changes in how much people wanted to hold in terms of dollars in their bank account for every dollar they spent—the Federal Reserve should offset those too.

So in both Friedman and Keynes’ view, the right strategy for the Federal Reserve was the Greenspan strategy of “act to try to keep inflation and unemployment as stable as possible, by doing whatever is necessary in terms of buying and selling assets, and pushing asset prices up and down.” It’s just that Friedman called it a neutral monetary policy, and Keynes feared that the Federal Reserve would not be able to do enough, and that you’d have to bring in other tools as well.

I think Keynes has won this one after 2007 to 2009, when the Federal Reserve did everything and it didn’t work. But they’re on one side agreeing with Greenspan.

Hayek, and I suppose also Hyman Minsky—who are on the other side—were saying back in the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1960s, that no, this is a very dangerous policy to pursue.

Charlie Deist: So there’s a lot to unpack here. We have four names: Keynes, Friedman, Hayek and now Minsky, who we’ll try to get to later. And each of them is telling a different story, and proposing a different remedy for this problem of the business cycle.

You used the word “manipulation”, and that seems to be where the Austrians would have the biggest disagreement with even the monetarists like Milton Friedman, who was one of the most famous libertarians—maybe the most famous libertarian. Yet, in this one area, Friedman did favor a role for government manipulation: of the money supply. This gets to the core of the technical debate in monetary policy, which is, what is the Fed actually doing on a day to day basis? How do they adjust, both through direct action and through the influence of expectations of the actors in the economy? Let’s summarize for listeners in layman’s terms how they influence the economy. Economists talk about a transmission mechanism. This is just the direction of causality from one action to the results that we see. Could you break down how the Federal Reserve actually achieves the smoothing of the business cycle, in either the Keynesian model, the Monetarist model, or whichever hybrid of the two you think makes the most sense?

Brad DeLong: Well, as early liberal John Stuart Mill put it back in 1829—and I think he got it right and Keynes and Friedman would agree—that the economy is in balance, in a business cycle sense, if the supply and demand for money are equal. That is, if demand for money is greater than supply, then people are cutting back on their purchases because they want to hold more money than they can find. Then you have what they used to call in the colorful language of the early 19th century call a “general glut of commodities”: high unemployment, idle factories, cotton goods going begging as far as Kamchatka, in Thomas Malthus’ phrase. That’s a bad thing. And if the supply of money is greater than the demand, well that’s inflation, which is also a bad thing.

To keep the economy in balance, you need to match the supply and demand for money. But since the demand for money is somewhat erratic, the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England always have to be in there, buying and selling, pushing and shoving, increasing and decreasing the supply of money in order to keep there from being either unwanted inflation or unwanted deflation. That is just the way things are, if you are going to keep the economy stable.

Now this is a somewhat awkward position for Milton Friedman to be in because when you ask Uncle Milton about practically any other market, his response is, “The market will sort it out optimally. And even if the market wouldn’t sort it out optimally, building up any government bureaucracy to try to do better is doomed to failure.” Yet somehow, with respect to monetary policy, Uncle Milton goes very far towards saying that there are major institutional or cognitive human deficits in how the market for money works. So, we have to have this form of extremely soft, light-fingered central planning for the money supply—which he hoped could be done by a rule. That the Federal Reserve is going to say, “We’re going to let the money supply increase by one percent every quarter.” But it turned out that such rules don’t work very well. We need much more complicated rules—we need feedback rules, and even with the feedback rules, we have to deviate from them substantially on occasion.

So that is very much what Friedman and Keynes think is going on there. Minsky thinks that’s going on too, but Minsky also thinks that the same current of thought and institutions that lead to episodes of deflation and inflation in the private market—to financial over-speculation and so forth—that those are also going to affect the minds of policy makers. So, it’s just when asset prices are rising and people are enthusiastic and getting over-leveraged, then you’re going to find large political calls for deregulation of finance and for a reduction in regulatory requirements for collateral and down payments. And, conversely, just when the economy is in serious trouble and people are depressed, that’s when you’re going to have the Dodd-Frank bills imposed. That’s when you’re going to have governments demanding lot higher down payments. That’s when you’re going to have collateral requirements required by the Bank of International Settlements go through the roof.

Charlie Deist: So Minsky tells another story of the pro-cyclical policy where government, rather than smoothing out the business cycles, is tracking with either the people’s confidence of lack of confidence in the financial system. It’s a case where human irrationality and the lack of a sound technician at the board, so to speak, is leading to these wild fluctuations.

Brad DeLong: Well in Minsky’s view it’s a logical impossibility. Right? That, as William McChesney Martin—Fed Chair in the 1960s—said, “The purpose of the Federal Reserve is to take the punchbowl away just when the party gets going.” But just as the party gets going, that’s when absolutely nobody wants to take away the punch bowl.

Basically, Minsky had all kinds of hopes about how—because we would understand this cycle—we could transcend it, and moderate it, and deal with it. But those are basically unconvincing. If you take a Minsky point of view, we’re pretty much hosed, and all we can do is remember the historical parallels and analogies, and whimper and complain whenever this cycle gets going.

Charlie Deist: Tell us Hayek’s story—how Hayek relates to Minsky, and how it might echo it in some ways, or vice versa.

Brad DeLong: With Hayek, it’s in some sense very apocalyptic. It’s that everything would be fine if the market were just working well. It’s that you do not have a sudden large increase in the demand for money—the kind of thing that produces a depression—unless you had a large previous episode in which too much money has been created; in which the economy has somehow found itself with lots of liquid assets, which do not correspond to any fundamental values, either because the government has previously been printing a lot of money and generates an episode of inflation, or because the banking system has gone absolutely haywire, and private agents are facing bad incentives. Banks have extended many, many, too many loans thinking that they’ll reap fortunes if there are no bankruptcies for as long as they’re president of Bank of X. And if there should be bankruptcies, well, they’ll probably have moved on to another job by now.

So it’s a combination of fecklessness on the part of politicians who print extra money to spend or to lower taxes and so produce inflation, plus a principle–agent failure in the banking system, in which bankers make loans that are really lousy business in the long run because, hey—the long run might not come until they’ve moved on to another job.

That creates the inflation, and only after the inflationary boom comes is there ever a chance of being a large recessionary crash. So, for Hayek it becomes somewhat of a moral answer: that you have to keep the government a kind of moral, budget-balancing government, and you have to keep the bankers from grabbing us by the plums. And if we can have moral bankers and a moral government, somehow, then everything will be fine.

Charlie Deist: That’s an interesting interpretation—I want to pause on this question of market failure versus government failure. It’s a mixed story that you’re telling, where on the one hand there are the politicians and their short-sightedness—their money printing. On the other hand, there’s what economists call a “market failure,” which is where private actors supposedly acting in their own best interest, either short-term or long-term, make loans that will not bear the fruit necessary to pay back those loans.

So we end up with people, not only borrowing, but leveraging or borrowing with the money that they’re making initially off asset price increases.

They inflate this bubble, and get overly optimistic about the proceeds from this investment initially, so they’re doubling up, until we reach what’s called the “Minsky moment,” where everyone suddenly looks around and realizes that the punch bowl has been taken away, or that these investments are clearly not sound. And then we get a sudden crash.
Hayek said that this would not happen if government was not inflating a bubble, but Minsky considered himself a Keynesian, I believe, and argued that this would happen in the absence of that fecklessness on the part of the politicians. There is something inherent in human nature about being overly optimistic in these boom times.

And how do the Austrians solve that? They might say, “Well, we should go to a gold standard so that banks have to back up their deposits with some sort of hard money, precious metals and the like, and that will limit the loans.” Or they argue that in a free market banking system, agents would, on the whole, make more rational decisions. But this is an open question. Maybe it’s an empirical question. Maybe it’s a philosophical question. But you think that the preponderance of evidence is, empirically, on the side of people like Keynes and Minsky, who would still give some role for a wise and benevolent leader at the helm of the Federal Reserve, who could make corrections.

I think I remember a Keynes quote, and I don’t remember the exact quote—this might have been your email signature for a time—but it stuck in my mind, and it was something to the effect of, “We should hope that one day, economists will be as useful as dentists.” It’s “economists as technicians” rather than economists as “worldly philosophers.” People like John Stuart Mill seem to be more in the model of philosophers, but they also had economic theories, and these two things do seem to dovetail. What do you think is the proper role for economists, and are they more like dentists or they more like philosophers?

Brad DeLong: Well, we’re not terribly good as philosophers. As far as philosophers are concerned, we’re either third-rank libertarians or third-rank utilitarians. Or we used to have—I don’t know what you want to call it—third-rank Hegelians, talking about the necessity of freedom and the nurturing of humanity’s species-being, or identity as a species in one way or another. We’re not terribly good at any of those, and I think we’re better when we try to be technicians. Unfortunately, we’re lousy technicians.

Now let’s take this kind of question for example: Keynes, Friedman, Hayek and Minsky are all extremely smart and are all trying extremely hard, and indeed their positions bleed into each other. When Hayek stops talking about government engaging in deficit spending as the [sole] source of the boom that produces the bubble, and then slides over into banks that are improperly regulated for individuals who really do not understand that, say, the fact that Bitcoin has gone from 1,000 to 16,000 this year, does not mean that Bitcoin is likely to rise in the future—then, all of a sudden, Hayek starts moving over into Minsky. And when Keynes talks about how a boom leads to an increase in capital investments, that then reduces the rate of profit that can be earned on new investments, he starts sliding in the direction of Hayek.

Friedman’s hopes that you could make good Federal Reserve policy not automatic, but close to automatic, has pretty much been dashed, and that’s a big victory for Keynes. Keynes’ belief that you could have wise technocrats running the government does not look so hot, and that’s a victory for Minsky. And Hayek’s belief that, in some sense, the bubble is the cause of the depression and that if you avoid the boom in the bubble, you manage to avoid the depression, that really doesn’t look so good these days. Largely, because the two biggest depressions we’ve had in the past century—the 1930s and then the past decade—are far, far greater in magnitude than the previous bubble to which Hayek wants to blame them on. But I was much more of a monetarist 15 years ago than I am now. I thought Friedman looked much better than Keynes, and Minsky worse. Reality has a way of teaching you lessons.

Charlie Deist: Yes, and this is a nuanced perspective. We’re not calling names, or it’s not those bad guy Austrians or those good guy Keynesians. It’s a much more complicated picture with a lot of different shades and overlap between the theories. That’s what I’ve always appreciated about your blog and your writing is that it does seem like an earnest attempt—and even if we might disagree on some philosophical issues, there does seem to be this good faith effort to actually get to the truth. We have a caller on the line, so I want to hear from them and see if we can maybe bring this conversation back to some fundamentals.
Michael, let’s hear your question.

Michael: Hi Charlie. Thanks for a fascinating show. I was going to bring up some fundamentals. When you talk about the Austrian school, a fundamental aspect of it is praxiology, and I was wondering how praxeology fits into the discussion?

Brad DeLong: Praxeology, at least as I understand it, at one level it is sheer and total genius. I was reading a piece last night by three left-wing economists at—Sam Bowles, Rajiv Sethi, and I’m blanking on the name of the third author. [It] said that Hayek’s decisive and positive contribution to economics was in fact his rejection of Walrasian static, and also general equilibrium theory, as developed by Arrow and Debreu, [along] with the idea that the justification for the market is that it produces the best equilibrium. Because there’s never an equilibrium. Because all human action is a discovery and interaction process, in which people have different plans that are extraordinarily often inconsistent. And it’s the right way to analyze economics, and indeed all social life, is to look at how agents behaving in a disequilibrium situation, learn and react and adapt to each other.

Michael: I think the first step in criticizing praxeology is defining it. So why not just tell the listeners what it consists of.

Charlie Deist: Sure. Thanks, Michael.

Brad DeLong: As I’m saying, that’s my view of what praxiology is.

Charlie Deist: Praxeology being, most simply, the study of human action. Mises, in his book “Human Action” defines—I don’t know if he originated the word—but basically it’s “how do humans act?” It’s not necessarily what should they desire, but given that humans have certain ends, and that they use certain means, what can we say?

Whereas the typical classical economic approach to studying markets doesn’t necessarily begin with these assumptions about human action—these axioms that can be laid out just by going inward and thinking about the structure of the mind. It starts more with what [DeLong] is talking about: this Walrasian idea of an equilibrium (Leon Walras, not to be confused with the marine mammal, was the guy who basically invented supply and demand curves).

You have supply, where people will be induced to produce more of a good if there’s a higher price, and then demand, people will demand more if it’s a lower price. That gives you an upward-sloping supply curve and a downward-sloping demand curve, and where those meet, you have an equilibrium price and quantity. That’s what the market will produce. But, in praxeology, can we use supply and demand curves or do we need a completely different model?

Brad DeLong: Well, we can use supply and demand gingerly, because they do have very stringent underlying assumptions that most of the discovery that is the core of the market process have already been accomplished. I think that view, that rejection of Walrasian general equilibrium as a road that may well mislead us—that’s going to miss most of what is going on—is the very good part of praxeology.

The bad part of praxeology is simply when one tries to reduce what is, after all, an empirical study of how markets behave, to a set of logical consequences of looking inward and trying to assess one’s own motives. Even what I see as the Hayekian side of praxeology moves us towards creating a reified theoretical superstructure that then has little to do with how markets actually operate in the world. So I think the internal, psychological side of praxeology kind of leads away from the world, into another, different, abstract theoretical structure.

That’s why I would prefer to say Hayek rather than the Austrians, because I think Hayek has by far the better of the arguments here. I find Hayek’s viewpoint, which is focused on the market as discovery process, much more congenial to how I think than saying that we will take another step back from empirical reality, and try to derive laws of thought and human action from introspection.

If the psychologists tell us anything, it’s that we’re pretty bad at introspection. We vastly overestimate how smart we are—even how much of the world we see around us—and that can lead us wrong.

Charlie Deist: We should be more humble with regard to what we can know, and I think that the Austrian school tends to emphasize this in one area—mainly with respect to what government can know about the economy and thus what it can manipulate, so it’s very skeptical of the sort of technocratic economist-as-dentist paradigm. But you’re offering, with the same logic, a counterpoint which is that when we try to build our foundations for economics on this logical deduction, based on the logical structure of the human mind, that can also take us in a direction where we might have the overconfident in our models.

Brad DeLong: Did you receive the gorilla basketball video?

Charlie Deist: I believe so, but describe it for our listeners.

Brad DeLong: It was a psychologist’s experiment. They take the students to the professor to be experimented on and they set them in front of a TV screen and they say, “A basketball team is going to come out, and they’re going to practice, and they’re gonna pass the ball to each other, and your job is to count how many times they pass the ball to each other. And we’re trying to assess how smart people are, and how well they can deal with rapid information, so you’re trying to count accurately. And of course, we’ll judge you as if you get it wrong, et cetera, et cetera.”
And so then the basketball team comes out and they begin passing. And after about a minute, a person in a gorilla suit walks into the field of view from the left, slowly, and in the middle of the field of view, he beats his chest, and then walks off to the right, and then the video ends and people report how many times the ball was passed.

And then the experimenter asks, “Was there anything else about the video that struck you as remarkable?” And recorders of the people, they know, and then they say, “Did you notice the gorilla? The person in the gorilla suit?” And two-thirds of the people say no. That always struck me as a statement, not just about how focused humans are on whatever they’re focused on, but also how much we overestimate how aware of what’s going on in the world around us we can possibly be.

You can get the same experience by going to magic shows, by the way, in terms of just how unaware the people they are conducting their tricks on are—how unable to follow everything that’s going on. Especially, if you’re Penn and Teller and you have three different levels of misdirection there.

Charlie Deist: It’s a fascinating example of how we can have these huge blind spots, and it’s another good lesson about the humility that we should bring to any academic or philosophical enterprise. So thank you, Michael ,for your question, and I believe we have another caller on the line. Let’s hear from John.

John: I have a question for the professor. I assume that housing values and stock values represent much of the wealth in America and those values have fluctuated widely in the last ten years from high to low, now to very high. Has our society gotten wealthier or is this purely a monetary phenomenon? I’ll take the answer off the air.

Brad DeLong: Has our society gotten wealthier? Well, I would say yes and no. I would say the best way to look at it right now is that high stock and housing prices more reflect a low expected private rate of return on investment so that companies that have earnings right now, plus some that don’t like Amazon, plus houses that are built and are providing satisfaction to human beings, have a relatively high price relative to currently produced goods and services because there’s little opportunity to build new buildings and take new machines and use them to create enterprises that will be equally profitable. So that in one sense, it reflects not that we’re rich now, so much as though we’re not expected to become that much richer, faster in the future.

And you can go down to Silicon Valley and find Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian, and he’ll say that what’s really going on is we’re becoming more prosperous at an amazing rate. Look at how much people like their cell phones, look at access to information and communication. It’s just that these particular sources of human well-being are not ones that are really being created and transferred by the market process. That is, that rather than selling what it produces, which is information, Google is running off of the fumes created by selling your eyeballs to advertisers, and the value it earns by selling your eyeballs to advertisers is much, much less than the value you receive from the access to information that Google gives you.

So, the fact that it isn’t expected that future investments will be very profitable doesn’t mean that they won’t be very productive or very welfare-enhancing, but Hal is a minority point. The majority point is that we seem to have entered a world in which people are less optimistic about the future of economic growth than they were. That’s the thing that’s pushing up housing prices, and currently installed housing prices and current stock prices, because those companies have made their investment.

And what it’s really saying is investments in the past were more valuable than the investments you make today, and that’s why they’re so high.

There’s a second sense in which high housing prices in greater San Francisco are a sign of our poverty. That is, in a better functioning world—in a world without my crazy NIMBY neighbors, there’d be no way that a house like mine—a mile south of the University, a mile north of the Rockridge BART—there’s no way that the neighborhood of Elmwood now would still be composed overwhelmingly of houses like mine rather than of triple-deckers like the small apartment buildings surrounding Harvard, or like the ten-story apartment buildings surrounding Columbia, or like the 25-story stuff surrounding NYU. But [given] the population of greater San Francisco, if San Francisco development in the land of Silicon Valley had followed the standard American pattern, we’d have seen its population grow from five million to ten million over the past 25 years.

Instead, it’s only grown from five to 6.5 million due to NIMBY development restraints.

And that means that the houses that exist are extremely valuable. But the reason they’re so valuable is because they’re so scarce. It’s a monopoly rent. And we’re poorer by the fact that we ought to have 3.5 million dwelling units in greater San Francisco that we do not have because we have seriously screwed up our land-use governance over the past 25 years. So.. all of this is a standard economist’s answer: on the one hand, on the other hand; yes and no.

Charlie Deist: Right. Another axiom that economists are fond of is that there are always trade-offs. One of the points that the Austrians maybe internalized, but maybe still have a ways to go in incorporating into their thinking is the idea that planning has to take place at some level. There’s no such thing as a purely neutral zoning policy, for example, and if we want to come up with the ideal regulations, well, maybe there is no such thing as an ideal regulation, because there will always be trade-offs. So economists have to be the wet blankets to inform people that they can’t have everything that they want.

Sadly we’re coming close to the end of the hour.I’m speaking with professor Brad DeLong. He is at UC Berkeley, where he is the chair of the political economy department. He’s also a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco and served as deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Treasury, so he’s an expert in the matters of monetary policy as well as economic history and a variety of other things.

I wish I could pick his brain all morning, but in these last ten minutes, I want to come back to what you were saying about Hal Varian and this world that we’re entering, where more of the value is coming from our smartphone technology, from information technology. On the one hand, this can give us an incredible amount of satisfaction. I’ve found blogs and Twitter and all these things to be a source of incredible education. But at the same time, they can also be… it’s a mixed bag. And in this new economic system, maybe there’s less emphasis on physical stuff and things.

But the Austrian business cycle theory places a big emphasis on these long-term capital malinvestments—these are the areas where we tend to see inflation having the greatest effect. We get inflation from the long-term areas because cheap credit encourages a sort of … Hayek talks about the structure about production, meaning certain investments take longer to materialize … and if we’re injecting money into credit markets first, then you will tend to incentivize people to develop longer-term things.

Is there any kind of application for that model in your mind to the current world that we live in?

Most of these Austrians were writing well before the 1960s. Hayek and Mises were early 20th-century economists. Is there anyone doing work in your mind that brings these ideas into the 21st century? Or, what areas do you think would be most fruitful for someone who is interested in an Austrian approach to focus on, without getting to thick into the weeds?

Brad DeLong: Well, with respect to that of over-investment in the structure production, I think the Minskyist current is winning and is the most productive one to pursue now. That is, if you’ve made investments and if you did make them assuming long-term interest rates will be lower than they in fact are now, and if they are now unprofitable, that doesn’t mean we should shut them down. To say we should shut them down is the sunk cost fallacy, to which I think Hayek and Von Mises fell subject to, to a large degree. What it does mean is that our future investments should be focused on things that have short-term payoff.

Then the question is, “Well, if we shouldn’t shut down long-term investments that are now unprofitable because we’ve already made them (and we might as well get something out of them), why is the reaction to a period of prolonged sub-normal interest rates a depression?”

And the Minskyite answer is that it’s the financial system that messes up. That there’s no good way to quickly allocate the losses. The core of it is the fact that losses have not been allocated, and people wanting to commit new money are scared their new money will go to pay for old losses.
And that, I think, is a very fruitful line of investigation—that it’s not so much a hangover of excess buildings and excess machines, because we can always find uses for buildings and machines. It’s a hangover of bad assets—of bad debt that somebody is going to have to pay, or swallow and eat—and social disagreement over who has to eat them.

So, I would say investigating the structure of bankruptcy and principal–agency finance, and how to quickly resolve situations in which debts go bad is the most fruitful thing to pursue.

If I can also give a commercial?

Charlie Deist: Absolutely.

Brad DeLong: I had dinner last week in San Francisco with a guy named Jerry Taylor, who used to be a vice president at the Cato Institute, and he now has split off and has his own libertarian think tank called the Niskanen Center in Washington D.C., which has a lot of smart people doing a lot of interesting thinking. If you’re looking for a set of people thinking and arguing about libertarian ideas in the 21st Century, and want to put them on your Christmas list, I think the Niskanen Center ought to be first among your choices.

Charlie Deist: Those who listen to this show know that we often host guests from the Cato Institute—sometimes we’ll have a month where half our guests or more will come from Cato. Jerry Taylor, as Brad DeLong is mentioning, is someone who fits that mold, but he has come up with a new intellectual venture. This is the Niskanen Center, and they are producing ideas—would you characterize them as a moderate, centrist, technocratic Libertarian perspective or … what is their byline or subtitle?

Brad DeLong: Their byline is to explode the center and to kind of ask, “What does libertarian mean, not in the 19th, not in the 20th, but in the 21st century?”

Charlie Deist: I had also hoped to ask you—this is one of those questions that I could talk about for hours, and we’ll just have to keep it to a few minutes—but to your mind, what is the different between a liberal and a classical liberal, and do you identify as one or the other, or both?

Brad DeLong: The shortest way I’d put it is:

Suppose you’re locked in a cage and suppose there’s a key that someone outside the cage is holding. The classical liberal would say, “You’re free as long as there’s a key and there’s somebody you could buy it from.” A New Deal liberal would say, “Wait a minute, you’re only free if you have the money to buy the key from the person holding it.”

I would say I’d identify myself as a modern liberal—a New Deal liberal—for that reason, but I’d also say that New Deal liberals, traditionally, have an appalling disregard for the magnitude of government failure and for the damage caused to the economy by rent seeking.

If I find myself in a group of too many social democrats, I’ll actually start calling myself a neoliberal. And if I find myself in a group of too many liberals, I’ll start calling myself a social democrat.

Charlie Deist: So kind of a natural contrarian—I like that.

We’re gonna have to cut off my conversation here. If you are interested in following Brad DeLong’s work, you can find him at He’s also on Twitter at @delong. And once again, I’m Charlie Deist, filling in for Bob, who will be back next week.

We’ve just spent the hour discussing the Austrian theory of the business cycle, in contrast with the Keynesian perspective, as well as the Friedmanite, the Minskyist, and there’s probably many other perspectives that we didn’t get to. This is an area that anyone who’s interested can get online and do their own homework, and form their own conclusions. We’ve been fortunate to have someone who has a nuanced perspective, and can treat this issue with the full intellectual weight it deserves. So stay tuned next week, Bob will be back. And you can always catch this episode and any others at Once again, thanks Brad for taking the time to talk with me.

Brad DeLong: You’re welcome. It’s been a great pleasure.

Charlie Deist: Alright, well have a great rest of your day and to all the listeners out there, enjoy the weekend. We’ll talk to you soon.

Monday DeLong Smackdown: Trying and Failing to Get in Touch with My Inner Austrian Back in 2004…

That I never figured out how to write this paper is deserving of a smackdown. Why did I never figure out how to write it? Because I never figured out what to say, or what the answer was:

Hoisted from 2004: Getting in Touch with My Inner Austrian: A Still-Unwritten Paper: Fragment of an Unfinished Ms.: Part II of an unfinished paper, “After the Bubble.” The paper currently lacks Parts I, III, IV, V, and VI:

II. Aggressively Expansionary Monetary Policy and Macroeconomic Vulnerabilities:

Let us begin with a passage from Mussa (2004), “Global Economic Prospects: Bright for 2004 but with Questions Thereafter” (Washington: Institute for International Economics: April 1), in which Michael Mussa writes about global financial imbalances:

Michael Mussa: Policy interest rates are exceptionally low in most industrial countries: zero in Japan and Switzerland, 1 percent in the United States, 2 percent in the euro area, and at or near historic lows in the United Kingdom and Canada…. The very low level of policy interest rates is an imbalance (relative to normal conditions) that reflects exceptionally easy monetary policies to combat economic weakness.

This policy imbalance poses an important challenge for the future conduct of monetary policy. Situations of low policy interest rates and low inflation tend to be associated with unusual inertia in the processes of general price inflation, which makes traditional indicators of rising inflationary pressures less reliable as measures of the need to begin to tighten monetary conditions. Also, these situations tend to be associated with high valuations of equities, real estate, and long-term bonds, which can become fertile ground for large, unsustainable increases in asset prices. In this situation, if monetary policy is tightened too much too soon (perhaps because of worries about unsustainable increases in asset prices), the result can be an unnecessary asset market crunch and economic slowdown, and monetary policy may have relatively little room to ease in order to counteract this outcome.

On the other hand, if monetary policy remains too easy for too long (perhaps because subdued general price inflation gives no clear signal of the need for monetary tightening), then large asset price anomalies may develop before corrective action is taken. The monetary authority would then confront the grim choice of trying to keep an unsustainable asset price bubble alive or trying to combat the collapse of such a bubble without a great deal of room for monetary easing.

A further concern related to the general monetary policy imbalance in the industrial countries is its effect on emerging market economies. Interest rate spreads for emerging market borrowers have contracted substantially and flows of new credit have increased. The boom in emerging market credit has not yet reached the frenzy of the first half of 1997, but it is headed in that direction. Another major series of emerging market financial crises (such as 1997-99) does not seem likely in the near term in view of the very low level of industrial country interest rates and the favorable global economic environment for emerging market countries. By 2005 or 2006, however, either upward movements in industrial country interest rates or deterioration of market perceptions of the economic and financial stability of some emerging market countries could trigger another round of crises.

Mussa is warning that the high asset prices produced by very low interest rates pose dangers that may turn out to be substantial. One way to read Mussa’s warning is as a polite–a very polite–criticism of Alan Greenspan’s self-praise of his own low interest-rate policy contained in Greenspan (2004), “Risk and Uncertainty in Monetary Policy” (Washington: Federal Reserve Board: January 3):

Alan Greenspan: Perhaps the greatest irony of the past decade is that… success against inflation… contributed to the stock price bubble …. Fed policymakers were confronted with forces that none of us had previously encountered. Aside from the then-recent experience of Japan, only remote historical episodes gave us clues to the appropriate stance for policy under such conditions. The sharp rise in stock prices and their subsequent fall were, thus, an especial challenge to the Federal Reserve. It is far from obvious that bubbles, even if identified early, can be preempted at lower cost than a substantial economic contraction and possible financial destabilization–the very outcomes we would be seeking to avoid…. The notion that a well-timed incremental tightening could have been calibrated to prevent the late 1990s bubble while preserving economic stability is almost surely an illusion.

Instead of trying to contain a putative bubble by drastic actions with largely unpredictable consequences, we chose, as we noted in our mid-1999 congressional testimony, to focus on policies “to mitigate the fallout when it occurs and, hopefully, ease the transition to the next expansion.”

During 2001, in the aftermath of the bursting of the bubble and the acts of terrorism in September 2001, the federal funds rate was lowered 4-3/4 percentage points. Subsequently, another 75 basis points were pared, bringing the rate by June 2003 to its current 1 percent, the lowest level in 45 years. We were able to be unusually aggressive in the initial stages of the recession of 2001 because both inflation and inflation expectations were low and stable. We thought we needed to be, and could be, forceful in 2002 and 2003 as well because, with demand weak, inflation risks had become two-sided for the first time in forty years.

There appears to be enough evidence, at least tentatively, to conclude that our strategy of addressing the bubble’s consequences rather than the bubble itself has been successful. Despite the stock market plunge, terrorist attacks, corporate scandals, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we experienced an exceptionally mild recession–even milder than that of a decade earlier. As I discuss later, much of the ability of the U.S. economy to absorb these sequences of shocks resulted from notably improved structural flexibility. But highly aggressive monetary ease was doubtless also a significant contributor to stability…

Greenspan is confident that raising interest rates and thus raising the unemployment rate during the bubble of the late 1990s would have been the wrong policy, and that aggressively lowering interest rates after the bubble was the right policy. Lowering interest rates cushioned falls in bond prices. Lowering interest rates made use of bond financing for investment more attractive. Lowering interest rates boosted bond and real estate prices, induced households to refinance, and so provided a powerful spur to consumption spending that largely offset the post-bubble fall in investment spending. In Greenspan’s view, the aggressive lowering ofinterest rates was exactly the right thing to do in the aftermath of the bubble to shift spending from investment to consumption and so to keep the economy not far from full employment.

Mussa says: not so fast. Very low interest rates, coupled with assurances from high Federal Reserve officials that interest rates will stay very low for substantial periods of time, produce a situation in which the prices of long-duration assets—long-term bonds, growth stocks, and real estate—climb very high. What goes up may come down, and may come down rapidly. And should some class of asset prices come down rapidly and should it turn out that many debtors in the economy go bankrupt because their assets have lost value, serious financial crisis will result. The price of using exceptionally easy money to keep the collapse of the dot-com bubble from turning into a depression has been the creation of a three-fold vulnerability:

  1. If the assets the prices of which collapse when interest rates start to rise are emerging-market debt, then the memories of the 1990s and increasing risk will induce large-scale capital flight from the periphery to the core—an echo of the East Asian financial crises of 1997-1998.

  2. If the assets the prices of which threaten collapse when interest rates start to rise are domestic bond and real estate holdings that have been pushed to unsustainable levels by positive-feedback “bubble” buying, then the “monetary authority would… confront the grim choice of trying to keep an unsustainable asset price bubble alive or trying to combat the collapse of such a bubble without a great deal of room for monetary easing” to keep real estate and bond prices from falling far and fast.

  3. “If monetary policy is tightened too much too soon” (presumably because of fears of positive-feedback “bubble” buying), the result may be a credit crunch and a recession—with no guarantee that a reversal of the monetary policy tightening will undue the effects of the credit crunch. I do not believe that many economists would say that Mussa’s fears about the potential macroeconomic vulnerabilities created by the low interest-rate policy the Federal Reserve has pursued since the end of the dot-com bubble are unreasonable. (Few, however, carry their alarm to the degree that Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley does.)

And Mussa expresses them in a coherent language—one in which sustained rises in asset prices induce positive-feedback trading that “bubbles” prices above fundamentals, one in which what goes up comes down rapidly, one in which large sudden falls in asset prices produce chains of bankruptcy and raise risk and default premia enough to threaten to cause deep recessions. The language has echoes of the great Charles P. Kindleberger’s (1978) Manias, Panics, and Crashes (New York: Basic Books), and of earlier writings about the consequences of excessive money-printing: “inflation, revulsion, and discredit.”

But what Mussa’s assessment of risks lacks is a model. And without a model, we have a hard time assessing his argument. Alan Greenspan frightened away the Evil Depression Fairy in 2000-2002 by promising not that he would let the Evil Fairy marry his daughter but by promising high asset prices—unsustainably high asset prices—for a while. Whether this was a good trade or not depends on the relative values of the risks avoided and the risks accepted. And to evaluate this requires a model of some sort…


Alan Greenspan (2004), “Risk and Uncertainty in Monetary Policy” (Washington: Federal Reserve Board: January 3).

Michael Mussa (2004), “Global Economic Prospects: Bright for 2004 but with Questions Thereafter” (Washington: Institute for International Economics: April 1)…”

Shiller CAPE Is Currently Pricing in One Great Recession Every Decade

Note to Self: Spent the Berkeley Econ faculty lunch talking to Yuriy Gorodnichenko, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, St. Matthew the Greater, Dmitriy Sergeyev, and a couple of others about a very wide range of topics, ending with r-star (which Yuriy has to discuss Saturday at the Clausen Center Conference). I left the conversation desperate to figure out how Shiller’s stock-market CAPE index which currently suggests substantial stock market valuation even with a low fundamental safe real interest rate r-star is affected by the low earnings of the crisis years 2008-2011…

Yes, it makes a significant difference:

2017 11 15 Shiller Alternative CAPE

Replacing actual earnings from 2007 on with just flat real earnings until actual earnings catch up knocks the Alternative CAPE index down by 5, from higher than any time save during the High Dot-Com Bubble to lower than during the 1995-2007 part of the Great Moderation era. Taking Shiller CAPE at face value means that your idea of stock market fundamentals is currently pricing in one Great Recession every decade. If you do not believe that, you should not take Shiller CAPE at face value…

2017 11 15 Long Run Shiller Alternative CAPE


# set up function to import data as a pandas time series dataframe object 

import pandas as pd
import os
from urllib.request import urlretrieve

URL = ""
FILENAME = "2017-11-15_shiller_cape_alternative.csv"

def get_stocks_data(filename, url, force_download = False):
    if force_download or not os.path.exists(filename):
        urlretrieve(url, filename)
    data = pd.read_csv(filename, index_col = 0)
    return data

# import shiller data as a pandas time series dataframe object
# read it in from web if necessary

stocks_data = get_stocks_data(URL, FILENAME)
stocks_data.rename(columns = {'CAPE’':'Alternative CAPE'}, inplace = True)

stocks_data['Alternative CAPE'].plot()

plt.title("Stock Market Value as a Multiple of a 10-Year 

Lagged Moving Average of Earnings”,
plt.ylabel(“Multiple of 10-Yr Average of Lagged Earnings”)
plt.xlim(1970, )

stocks_data['Alternative CAPE'].plot()
plt.title("Stock Market Value as a Multiple of a 10-Year 

Lagged Moving Average of Earnings”,
plt.ylabel(“Multiple of 10-Yr Average of Lagged Earnings”)

Monetary Policy Outlook: The United States (Fall 2017)

What Will (Probably) Happen?

  • What the Federal Reserve thinks:
    • that the U.S. economy is near full employment…
    • that U.S. potential-output growth rate is 2%/year…
    • that it should be “normalizing” interest rates…
  • A positive shock to growth (or inflation) will see the Fed raise faster and further:
    • Do not expect real growth much above 2%/year under this Fed…
    • Do expect the Federal Funds rate to rise at about (3/4%/year)/year—or faster—as long as the economy can stand it without recession…
    • A negative shock to inflation will see slowed but not stopped “normalization”…
  • A negative shock to growth will see:
    • The Federal Reserve quickly return the Federal Funds rate to zero…
    • And then dither, with many tools but none of them powerful to affect the economy…

Employment-to-Population, 25-54

  • I think the Fed could be more aggressive at promoting growth…
  • Prime-age employment-to-population numbers in the U.S. still show considerable labor market slack…
  • But the unemployment rate shows over-full employment…
  • Wage growth shows no labor supply-side pricing power for workers…
  • Yet the Federal Reserve trusts the unemployment rate much more than other indicators…
    • This creates a puzzle because…

Inflation Remains Subdued

  • Back in the 1950s Alan Greenspan declared that 2%/year measured inflation was “effective price stability”…
  • The Bernanke-Yellen Federal Reserve decided to use the core PCE chain index…
  • Persistent undershoot:
    • Since January 2009, cumulating to 4%-points in the price level…
    • Recent price news not suggesting any inflationary spiral developing soon…
  • Suggesting that the tightening cycle announced in mid-2013 and begun in 2016 was premature…
    • The market agrees with me…

The Long Nominal Rate, Inflation Breakeven, and Long Real Rate

  • When Larry Summers was Deputy Treasury Secretary, he convinced Bob Rubin to issue TIPS…
    • We now have 15 years of watching the long nominal rate, long real rate, and the difference between them:
      • The expectations based inflation breakeven…
    • These give us a better window…

Secular Stagnation

  • Fall in (notional) TIPS from 4% at end of 1990s to 2% in mid-2000s…
  • Fall in TIPS from 2.0–2.5% pre-crisis to 0.0-0.5% today…
  • Without any signs of a runaway boom of any sort…
    • But increased appetite for debt…
    • Any risks being generated?

Implications for the Fed-Controlled Short Rate and the Long Rate

  • The Federal Reserve controls the interest rate on Treasury bills…
    • Subject to the condition that it cannot drive it below zero (without making substantial institutional changes in the banking system)…
  • The long rate goes where it wants…
    • And it has not wanted to go up for a long time indeed…
    • Expect a lot of time at the zero lower bound over the next decade…

Might We Get a Different Fed?

  • I said “under this Fed”…
  • But might we get a different Fed?
    • Very unlikely…
    • Trump not interested…
    • The non-unitary executive:
      • Will appoint Republican monetary-policy worthies
      • Most of whom think like the Fed already…
      • And the Fed is very good at assimilating new governors and bank presidents…

Summing Up

  • I said that under this Fed:
    • If no recession:
      • A ceiling of 2%/year on growth…
      • A ceiling of 2.5%/year on inflation…
      • Short-term interest rate increases of (3/4%/year)/year or more…
        • Already priced into long rates…
    • If recession:
      • Cut Fed Funds rate back to zero…
      • Dither…

Implications for Trading Partners

  • U.S. not a locomotive for demand…
  • U.S. not a (major) source of likely upward demand or upward interest rate shocks…
  • Trading partners have to decide how to react to the tightening cycle:
    • But it will be slow (probably)…
    • Hence (probably) innocuous…
  • Trading partners do have to worry about a recession in the United States:
    • Given the absence of powerful monetary policy tools to the Fed’s hand…
    • Given the lack of political will for non-monetary stimulus…

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I Am Heartened by the Improvement in the Prime-Age Employment Rate. Now Let Us Let It Continue Rather than Stopping It…

Here in the United States, there were always three arrows to “hysteresis”—to the argument that the failure to adopt policies that properly fought the downturn of 2008-2009 in an aggressive manner to restore full employment rapidly did not just temporary but permanent damage to the economy’s productive potential. A long period of very slack demand:

  1. slowed experimentation with business models, organizations, and technologies and so reduced total factor productivity growth by a poorly known but perhaps very substantial amount.

  2. diminished investment and reduced our productive capital stock relative to a rapid-recovery counterfactual baseline by a well understood and large amount.

  3. caused workers to exit from the labor force with little hope of getting them back—too much time out of the workforce had destroyed their social networks they needed in order to effectively search for jobs.

(1) and (2) dealt mighty and powerful permanent blows to American economic growth. Barring some currently-unanticipated large positive shock, we are never getting back to our pre-2007 growth trend:

Real Gross Domestic Product FRED St Louis Fed

But there has, over the past couple of years, been good news about (3).

The prime-age employment-to-population ratio is no longer lower than it has been since the 1980s, before the full coming of the feminist economic revolution to the workplace.

Fears that we would never get any significant fraction of the 5%-points of the prime-age population that lost their jobs in 2008-2009 back into work—fears that were very live and very scary over 2010-2013—appear to have been wrong. The prime-age employment-to-population ratio has been climbing at a rate of 0.6%-points per year since the end of 2013. Labor-side hysteresis has thus turned out to be a much smaller deal than worst-case analyses feared back even as little as three and a half years ago.

Do note, moreover, that this increase in the prime-age employment-to-population ratio has been accomplished with no signs of any inflationary pressure whatsoever. The fact that it has been accomplished leads to harsh judgments on the Federal Reserve and the administration of 2010-2014, which were unwilling to pursue the much more stimulative policies within their control—more and faster quantitative easing,

Simon Wren-Lewis: Could austerity’s impact be persistent?

: “How Conservative macroeconomic policy may be making us persistently poorer…

…I was happy to sign a letter from mainly academic economists published in the Observer yesterday, supporting the overall direction of Labour’s macroeconomic policy. I would also have been happy to sign something from the Liberal Democrats, who… have the added advantage of being against Brexit, but no such letter exists…. We desperately need more public investment and more current spending to boost demand, which in turn will allow interest rates to come away from their lower bound…. Nominal interest at their lower bound represent a policy failure…. In the textbook macroeconomic models, this policy mistake can have a large but temporary cost in terms of lost output and lower living standards…. In these basic models a short term lack of demand does not have an impact on supply…. Gustav Horn and colleagues… find that the impact of recent fiscal shocks have been persistent rather than temporary, at least so far…. I do not have to argue that such permanent effects are certain to have occurred. The numbers are so large that all I need is to attach a non-negligible probability to this possibility. Once you do that it means we should avoid austerity at all costs. In 2010 austerity was justified by imagined bond market panics, but no one is suggesting that today. The only way to describe current Conservative policy is pre-Keynesian nonsense, and incredibly harmful nonsense at that. That was why I signed the letter…