What Kind of New Economic Thinking Is Needed Now?: A Twitter Dialogue, with References

A Twitter Dialogue: IS-LM and the Neoclassical Synthesis in the Short-Run and the Medium-Run: Andy Harless asks a question, and I try to explain what I think Paul Krugman is thinking…

And let me put the relevant Paul Krugman pieces down here below the fold… or, rather, below the second fold:

Paul Krugman (October 30, 2015): An Unteachable Moment: “It is, as Antonio Fatas notes, almost seven years since the Fed cut rates to zero…

…The era of lowflation-plus-liquidity-trap now rivals in length the 70s era of stagflation, and has been associated with much worse real economic performance. So where, asks Fatas, is the rethinking of economic theory and policy? I asked the same question a couple of years ago…. Some of us anticipated much though not all of what has gone wrong. [But as] Fatas says…

even those who agreed with this reading of the Japanese economy would have never thought that we would see the same thing happening in other advanced economies. Most thought that this was just a unique example of incompetence among Japanese policy makers….

I did write a 1999 book titled The Return of Depression Economics, basically warning that Japan might be a harbinger…. [But even] I never expected policy to be so bad that Japan ends up looking like a role model…. We should have expected… as major a rethink as… in the 70s… [but] we’ve seen almost no rethinking. Economists who wrote that ‘inflation is looming’ in 2009 continued to warn about looming inflation five years later. And that’s the professional economists. As Josh Barro notes, conservatives who imagine themselves intellectuals have increasingly turned to Austrian economics, which explicitly denies that empirical data need to be taken into account….

Back to Fatas: how long will it take before the long stagnation has the kind of intellectual impact that stagflation did… before people stop holding up the 1970s as the ultimate cautionary tale, even… in the midst of a continuing disaster that makes the 70s look mild? I don’t know…. It’s clear that we have to understand this phenomenon in terms of politics and sociology, not logic.

Paul Krugman (October 20, 2015): Rethinking Japan: “The IMF held a small roundtable discussion on Japan yesterday…

…and in preparation for the event I thought it was a good idea to update my discussion of Japan…. I find it useful to approach this subject by asking how I would change what I said in my 1998 paper on the liquidity trap… one of my best papers; and it has held up pretty well…. But… there are two crucial differences between then and now. First, the immediate economic problem is no longer one of boosting a depressed economy, but instead one of weaning the economy off fiscal support. Second, the problem confronting monetary policy is harder than it seemed, because demand weakness looks like an essentially permanent condition.

Back in 1998 Japan was in the midst of its lost decade… good reason to believe that it was operating far below potential output. This is… no longer the case…. Output per working-age adult has grown faster than in the United States since around 2000, and at this point the 25-year growth rates look similar (and Japan has done better than Europe)…. Japan [may be] closer to potential output than we are.

So if Japan isn’t deeply depressed at this point, why is low inflation/deflation a problem?The answer… is largely fiscal. Japan’s relatively healthy output and employment levels depend on continuing fiscal support… large budget deficits, which in a slow-growth economy means an ever-rising debt/GDP ratio. So far this hasn’t caused any problems…. But even those of us who believe that the risks of deficits have been wildly exaggerated would like to see the debt ratio stabilized and brought down at some point. And here’s the thing: under current conditions, with policy rates stuck at zero, Japan has no ability to offset the effects of fiscal retrenchment with monetary expansion.

The big reason to raise inflation, then, is to make it possible to cut real interest rates… allowing monetary policy to take over from fiscal policy…. The fact that real interest rates are in effect being kept too high by insufficient inflation at the zero lower bound also means that debt dynamics for any given budget deficit are worse than they should be…. Raising inflation would both make it possible to do fiscal adjustment and reduce the size of the adjustment needed.

But what would it take to raise inflation? Back in 1998… I envisaged an economy in which the current level of the Wicksellian natural rate of interest was negative, but that rate would return to a normal, positive level…. It was easy to show that this proposition applied only if the money increase was perceived as permanent, so that the liquidity trap became an expectations problem. The approach also suggested that monetary policy would be effective if… the central bank could ‘credibly promise to be irresponsible’…. But what is this future period of Wicksellian normality of which we speak?…

Japan looks like a country in which a negative Wicksellian rate is a more or less permanent condition. If that’s the reality, even a credible promise to be irresponsible might do nothing: if nobody believes that inflation will rise, it won’t. The only way to be at all sure of raising inflation is to accompany a changed monetary regime with a burst of fiscal stimulus…. While the goal of raising inflation is, in large part, to make space for fiscal consolidation, the first part of that strategy needs to involve fiscal expansion. This… is unconventional enough that one despairs of turning the argument into policy (a despair reinforced by yesterday’s meeting…)

How high should Japan set its inflation target?… High enough so that when it does engage in fiscal consolidation it can cut real interest rates far enough to maintain full utilization…. It’s really, really hard to believe that 2 percent inflation would be high enough…. Japan may face a version of the timidity trap. Suppose it convinces the public that it will really achieve 2 percent inflation… engages in fiscal consolidation, the economy slumps, and inflation falls well below 2 percent… the whole project unravels–and the damage to credibility makes it much harder to try again. What Japan needs (and the rest of us may well be following the same path) is really aggressive policy, using fiscal and monetary policy to boost inflation, and setting the target high enough that it’s sustainable. It needs to hit escape velocity. And while Abenomics has been a favorable surprise, it’s far from clear that it’s aggressive enough to get there.

Paul Krugman (March 21, 2014): Timid Analysis: IAn issue I’ve worried about for a long time…

…which I think I’ve been able to formulate a bit better. Here goes: If you look at the extensive theoretical literature on the zero lower bound since my 1998 paper, you find that just about all of it treats liquidity-trap conditions as the result of a temporary shock… [that] leads to a period of very low demand, so low that even zero interest rates aren’t enough to restore full employment. Eventually, however, the shock will end. So the way out is to convince the public that there has been a regime change, that the central bank will maintain expansionary monetary policy even after the economy recovers, so as to generate high demand and some inflation.

But if we’re talking about Japan, when exactly do we imagine that this period of high demand… is going to happen?… What does it take to credibly promise inflation? Well, it has to involve a strong element of self-fulfilling prophecy: people have to believe in higher inflation, which produces an economic boom, which yields the promised inflation. But a necessary (not sufficient) condition for this to work is that the promised inflation be high enough that it will indeed produce an economic boom if people believe the promise will be kept. If it isn’t, then the actual rate of inflation will fall short of the promise even if people believe in the promise–which means that they will stop believing after a while, and the whole effort will fail….

Suppose that the economy really needs a 4 percent inflation target, but the central bank says, ‘That seems kind of radical, so let’s be more cautious and only do 2 percent.’ This sounds prudent–but may actually guarantee failure.

Paul Krugman (March 20, 2014): The Timidity Trap: “In Europe… they’re crowing about Spain’s recovery…

…growth of 1 percent, versus 0.5 percent, in a deeply depressed economy with 55 percent youth unemployment. The fact that this can be considered good news just goes to show how accustomed we’ve grown to terrible economic conditions…. People seem increasingly to be accepting this miserable situation as the new normal…. How did this happen?… I’d argue that an important source of failure was what I’ve taken to calling the timidity trap–the consistent tendency of policy makers who have the right ideas in principle to go for half-measures in practice, and the way this timidity ends up backfiring, politically and even economically….

There are some important differences between the U.S. and European pain caucuses, but both now have truly impressive track records of being always wrong, never in doubt…. In America… a faction both on Wall Street and in Congress… has spent five years and more issuing lurid warnings about runaway inflation and soaring interest rates. You might think that the failure of any of these dire predictions to come true would inspire some second thoughts, but, after all these years, the same people are still being invited to testify, and are still saying the same things…. In Europe, four years have passed since the Continent turned to harsh austerity programs. The architects of these programs told us not to worry about adverse impacts on jobs and growth–the economic effects would be positive, because austerity would inspire confidence. Needless to say, the confidence fairy never appeared….

So what has been the response of the good guys?… The Obama administration’s heart–or, at any rate, its economic model–is in the right place. The Federal Reserve has pushed back against the springtime-for-Weimar, inflation-is-coming crowd. The International Monetary Fund has put out research debunking claims that austerity is painless. But these good guys never seem willing to go all-in…. The classic example is the Obama stimulus… obviously underpowered given the economy’s dire straits. That’s not 20/20 hindsight….

The Fed has, in its own way, done the same thing. From the start, monetary officials ruled out the kinds of monetary policies most likely to work–in particular, anything that might signal a willingness to tolerate somewhat higher inflation, at least temporarily. As a result, the policies they have followed have fallen short of hopes, and ended up leaving the impression that nothing much can be done.

And the same may be true even in Japan… finally adopting the kind of aggressive monetary stimulus Western economists have been urging for 15 years and more. Yet there’s still a diffidence… a tendency to set things like inflation targets lower than the situation really demands… [that] increases the risk that Japan will fail to achieve ‘liftoff’–that the boost it gets from the new policies won’t be enough to really break free from deflation.

You might ask why the good guys have been so timid, the bad guys so self-confident. I suspect that the answer has a lot to do with class interests. But that will have to be a subject for another column.

October 31, 2015


Brad DeLong
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