Nick Rowe, usually a very cool guy, recently wrote a gushing post about the awesomeness of Milton Friedman. How uncool of him. As followers of this blog may know, even though I like free markets, am skeptical of big government programs, believe that the business cycle is largely a monetary phenomenon, I am not a fan of Milton Friedman. So I am going to offer some comments about Nick’s panegyric to Friedman.
I can’t think of any economist living today who has had as much influence on economics and economic policy as Milton Friedman had, and still has. Neither on the right, nor on the left.
Bob Lucas and Ned Prescott have not had as much influence on modern macroeconomics as Milton Friedman? I am less of a fan of Lucas and Prescott than I am of Friedman, but surely Nick can’t be serious.
If you had a time machine, went back to (say) 1985, picked up Milton Friedman, brought him forward to 2015, and showed him the current debate over macroeconomic policy, he could immediately join right in. Is there anything important that would be really new to him?
We are all Friedman’s children and grandchildren. The way that New Keynesians approach macroeconomics owes more to Friedman than to Keynes: the permanent income hypothesis; the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve; the idea that the central bank is responsible for inflation and should follow a transparent rule. The first two Friedman invented; the third pre-dates Friedman, but he persuaded us it was right. Using the nominal interest rate as the monetary policy instrument is non-Friedmanite, but the new-fangled “Quantitative Easing” is just a silly new name for Friedmanite base-control.
Certainly Friedman looms large, and New Keynesianism is indeed a way of rationalizing the price and wage stickiness that Friedman, like so many others, relied on to account for the correlation between downward cyclical movements in nominal GDP, or in its rate of growth, and real GDP. To be sure the permanent-income hypothesis was a great achievement, for it wasn’t just Friedman’s, but the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve was anticipated by far too many people (including David Hume) for Friedman to be given very much credit. He certainly gave an influential statement of the reasoning behind the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve, but that hardly counts as a breakthrough. So of the three key elements of New Keynesianism for which Nick credits Friedman only one was (co-)invented by Friedman; the other two were promoted by Friedman, and he certainly influenced the profession, but they were ideas already out there, when he picked them up. And just what does Nick mean by “Friedmanite base-control?” That Friedman invented open-market operations? Good grief!
Then Nick waxes nostalgic:
We easily forget how daft the 1970’s really were, and some ideas were much worse than pet rocks. (Marxism was by far the worst, of course, and had a lot of support amongst university intellectuals, though not much in economics departments.) When inflation was too high, and we wanted to bring inflation down, many (most?) macroeconomists advocated direct controls on prices and wages.
And governments in Canada, the US, the UK (there must have been more) actually implemented direct controls on prices and wages to bring inflation down. Milton Friedman actually had to argue against price and wage controls and against the prevailing wisdom that inflation was caused by monopoly power, monopoly unions, a grab-bag of sociological factors, and had nothing to do with monetary policy.
Many economists unfortunately either supported, or did not forthrightly oppose, wage and price controls when they were imposed successively in the US, UK and Canada in the early 1970s. And Friedman was certainly right to oppose them, and deserves credit for speaking out eloquently against them. But their failure became palpable to most economists, and it is not as if Friedman required any special insight to see the underlying fallacy that Nick nicely articulates. He was just straightforwardly applying Econ 101.
Imagine if I argued today: “Inflation is dangerously low. In order to increase inflation, governments should pass a law saying that all firms must raise all prices and wages by a minimum of 2% a year, unless they apply for and get special permission from the Prices and Incomes Board to raise them by less.” What are the chances my policy proposal would be accepted?
I hope zero, but are we indebted to Friedman for any argument against wage and price controls that was not understood by economists long before Friedman appeared on the scene?
Friedman had a mountain to move, and he moved it. And because he already moved it, we simply cannot have a Friedman today.
Great men like Friedman require a great job to do, or else they can’t become great men. They also require an aristocracy, oligarchy, or monarchy, where only a few voices can get heard, or else they can’t become one of the few voices. The internet actually makes it harder to create great public intellectuals, which is probably a good thing, simply because it’s harder to stand out as great, when there’s lots of competition.
The right won the economics debate; left and right are just haggling over details. The big debate is no longer about economics (sadly for me); and it won’t be held on the pages of the New York Times or in the economics journals.
Actually I agree with Nick that Friedman was a great man and a great economist. He did make a difference, but the difference was not mainly the result of any important theoretical discoveries or contributions, his theory of the consumption function being his main theoretical contribution. Otherwise, he was a great applied and empirical economist, specializing in US monetary history, but his knowledge of the history of monetary theory was sketchy, causing him to make huge blunders in describing the quantity theory of money as a theory of the demand for money, and in suggesting that his 1956 restatement of the quantity theory was inspired by an imagined Chicago oral tradition, when, in fact, his restatement was a reworking of the Cambridge theory of the demand for money that Keynes had turned into his theory of liquidity preference. He hardly cited the work of earlier monetary theorists, aside from Keynes and Irving Fisher, completely ignoring the monetary theory of Hawtrey and Hawtrey’s monetary explanation of the Great Depression, which preceded Friedman’s by some 30 years. Friedman also wrote a famous paper repackaging a slightly dumbed down version of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science as the methodology of positive economics, without acknowledging Popper, an omission that he seems never to have been called on. But his industriousness and diligence were epic, he had a fine intellect and a true mastery of microeconomic theory, coupled with great empirical and statistical insight when applying theory. His ability to express himself cogently and forcefully in writing and in speech was remarkable, and he had a gift for strategic simplification, which unfortunately often led him to convenient oversimplification. Nor do I doubt that he was sincerely motivated by an idealistic dedication to his conception of free-market principles, which he expounded and defended tirelessly.
Nick seems to believe that because hardly any younger economists recognize then name J. K. Galbraith, and because no one any longer advocates imposing wage and price controls to control or speed up inflation, it is obvious that the right won the economics debate. I don’t entirely disagree with that, but I do think it is more complicated than that, the terms right and left being far too limited to portray a complex reality. Galbraith believed that the book he published in 1967 The New Industrial State was going to demonstrate the market economics was a snare and a delusion, because both the Soviet Union and the US were moving toward an economic system dominated by huge enterprises that engaged in long-term planning and were able to impose their plans on unwilling consumers and workers. The most devastating review of Galbraith’s book was published in the June 1968 edition of The Economic Journal by James Meade, an eminent British economist who had been a close disciple of Keynes at Cambridge, and was a kind of market socialist, or a self-described LibLaberal. The entire essay is worth reading, but I just want to highlight a few excerpts from it.
This argument for a national indicative plan is strangely overlooked by Professor Galbraith. Indeed, there is a great hiatus in his analysis of the economic system as a whole or, perhaps more accurately, in his implied analysis of what the economic system as a whole would be like when virtually the whole of it was controlled by large modern corporations. Professor Galbraith asserts that each modern corporation plans ahead the quantities of the various products which it will produce and the prices at which it will sell them; he assumes we will discuss this assumption later that as a general rule each corporation through its advertising and other sales activi-ties can so mould consumers’ demands that these planned quantities are actually sold at these planned prices. But he never explains why and by what mechanism these individual plans can be expected to build up into a coherent whole. . . .
In short, if all individual plans are to be simultaneously fulfilled they must in the first instance be consistent. But Professor Galbraith never considers this problem. It is a strange oversight in a modern professional economist-to overlook the problem of general, as contrasted with particular, equilibrium. (pp. 377-78)
Professor Galbraith writes always as if planning meant deciding in advance what should be produced and sold, in what quantities, at what cost and at what prices, and then taking effective steps to ensure that quantities and prices of inputs and outputs developed in precisely this way, and as if the market mechanism meant taking no thought for the morrow, taking no initiative in planning ahead the introduction of new products and processes, but just waiting for consumers to come to the firm and order a new car of such-and-such a bespoke design. It is by silly contrasts of this kind that Professor Galbraith pokes fun at his professional colleagues. (p. 382)
In the modern complex economy there are two major forces at work. One of these is that which Professor Galbraith rightly emphasises, namely the increased need for careful forward planning in a system which involves the commitment of large resources to inflexible uses over long periods of time.
But there is a second and equally important trend, which he entirely neglects: namely, the increased need in the modern industrial economy for a price mechanism, that is to say for reliance on a system of prices as a signaling device to indicate to producers and consumers what is and what is not scarce. This increased need for a price mechanism arises because in the modern industrial system input-output relationships have become so complex and the differentiation between products (many of which are the technically sophisticated inputs of other productive processes) has become so manifold that simple quantitative planning without a price or market mechanism becomes increasingly clumsy and inefficient. Moreover, this increased need for a signaling system through prices is occurring at a time when advances in mathematical economics and in the electronic and other technologies for measuring and metering have made a great extension of the price mechanism possible. Public authorities begin to make serious quantitative cost-benefit studies where previously pure hunches would have had to serve; and we nowadays seriously consider as, for example, in electronic metering devices for charging for the use of road space by motor vehicles-extensions of the use of pricing which would previously have been considered technologically impossible.
The particular brand of conventional wisdom which Professor Galbraith promotes in his recent book overlooks all these increased needs and opportunities for the use of the price mechanism. But many of the planned socialist societies are not falling into this error. Experiments which they are making in such devices as setting the maximisation of profit as the success criterion for the managers of socialised plants, in the direct use of the free market as in Yugoslavia, and generally in an increased reliance on price-mechanism indicators for many decentralised decisions constitute an undoubtedly significant development. The use of the price mechanism is, of course, not the same thing as the use of a market mechanism. A completely planned socialist economy could theoretically be run without any markets at all but with a complete system of “shadow prices” to measure relative scarcities and to be used as the decisive indicators for the adjustments to be made in the economy’s quantitative planned inputs and outputs. But in many, though not of course in all, cases an actual market mechanism will be found to be institutionally the best way of operating a price mechanism. There are many degrees and forms of such extensions of the market; for example, in some cases the prices at which transactions take place might be centrally controlled and adjusted, while in others they might be freely determined by supply and demand in the market. But in one form or an-other increased reliance on a price mechanism does imply increased reliance at least on something closely analogous to a market mechanism.
Professor Galbraith expressly denies that recent developments in the socialist countries have any significant connections with the use of the market as a controlling device. This denial would, by the uncouth, be called drivel-if I may be permitted to use Professor Galbraith’s own expression. But he has to hold this view simply because the socialist countries continue to plan while he, drawing no distinction between the price mechanism and a market mechanism, believes that one can have either planning or a market-price mechanism but not both. In fact, “planning and the price mechanism” not “planning or the price mechanism” should be a central theme of every modern economist’s work. (pp. 391-92)
In his 1977 Nobel Lecture, as Marcus Nunes informed us a few days ago, Meade explicitly advocated targeting nominal GDP writing as follows:
I have told this particular story simply to make the point that the choice between fiscal action and monetary action must often depend upon basic policy issues which should certainly be the responsibility of the government rather than of any independent monetary authority. Perhaps the best compromise is an independent monetary authority charged so to manage the money supply and the market rate of interest as to maintain the growth of total money income on its 5-per-cent-per-annum target path, after taking into account whatever fiscal policies the government may adopt.
So let me ask Nick the following: Was Meade right or left? And was he on the winning side or the losing side?