I just saw Scott Sumner’s latest post. It’s about the zero fiscal multiplier. Scott makes a good and important point, which is that, under almost any conditions, fiscal policy cannot be effective if monetary policy is aiming at a policy objective that is inconsistent with that fiscal policy. Here’s how Scott puts it in his typical understated fashion.
From today’s news:
The marked improvement in the labor market since the U.S. central bank began its third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, has added an edge to calls by some policy hawks to dial down the stimulus. The roughly 50 percent jump in monthly job creation since the program began has even won renewed support from centrists, raising at least some chance the Fed could ratchet back its buying as early as next month.
I hope I don’t have to do any more of these. The fiscal multiplier theory is as dead as John Cleese’s parrot. The growth in jobs didn’t slow with fiscal austerity, it sped up! And the Fed is saying that any job improvement due to fiscal stimulus will be offset with tighter money. They talk like the multiplier is zero, and their actions produce a zero multiplier.
This is classic Sumner, and he deserves credit for rediscovering an argument that Ralph Hawtrey made in 1925, but was ignored and then forgotten until Sumner figured it out for himself. When I went through Hawtrey’s analysis in my recent series of posts on Hawtrey and Keynes, Scott immediately identified the identity between what Hawtrey was saying and what he was saying. So up to this point, I am with Scott all the way. But then he loses me, by asking the following question
Has there ever been a more decisive refutation of a major economic theory?
What’s wrong with that question? Well, it seems to me to fly in the face of another critique by another famous economist whom, I think, Scott actually knows: Robert Lucas. Almost 40 years ago, Lucas published a paper about the Phillips Curve in which he argued that the existence of an empirical relationship between inflation and unemployment, even if empirically well-founded, was not a relationship that policy makers could use as a basis for their policy decisions, because the expectations (of low inflation or stable prices) under which the negative relationship between inflation and unemployment was observed would break down once policy makers used that relationship to try to reduce unemployment by increasing inflation. That simple point, dressed up with just enough mathematical notation to obscure its obviousness, helped Lucas win the Noble Prize, and before long became widely known as the Lucas Critique.
The crux of the Lucas Critique is that economic theory posits deep structural relationships governing economic activity. These structural relationships are necessarily sensitive to the expectations of decision makers, so that no observed empirical relationship between economic variables is invariant to the expectational effects of the policy rules governing policy decisions. Observed relationships between economic variables are useless for policy makers unless they understand those deep structural relationships and how they are affected by expectations.
But now Scott seems to be turning the Lucas Critique on its head by saying that the expectations that result from a particular policy regime — a policy regime that has been subjected to withering criticism by none other than Scott himself – refutes a structural theory (that government spending can increase aggregate spending and income) of how the economy works. I don’t think so. The fact that the Fed has adopted and tenaciously sticks to a perverse reaction function cannot refute a theory in which the Fed’s reaction function is a matter of choice not necessity.
I agree with Scott that monetary policy is usually the best tool for macroeconomic stabilization. But that doesn’t mean that fiscal policy can never ever promote recovery. Even Ralph Hawtrey, originator of the “Treasury view” that fiscal policy is powerless to affect aggregate spending, acknowledged that, in a credit deadlock, when expectations are so pessimistic that the monetary authority is powerless to increase private spending, deficit spending by the government financed by money creation might be the only way to increase aggregate spending. That, to be sure, is a pathological situation. But, with at least some real interest rates, currently below zero, it is not impossible to suppose that we are, or have been, in something like a Hawtreyan credit deadlock. I don’t say that we are in one, just that it’s possible that we are close enough to being there that we can’t confidently exclude the possibility, if only the Fed would listen to Scott and stop targeting 2% inflation, of a positive fiscal multiplier.
With US NGDP not even increasing at a 4% annual rate, and the US economy far below its pre-2008 trendline of 5% annual NGDP growth, I don’t understand why one wouldn’t welcome the aid of fiscal policy in getting NDGP to increase at a faster rate than it has for the last 5 years. Sure the economy has been expanding despite a sharp turn toward contractionary fiscal policy two years ago. If fiscal stimulus had not been withdrawn so rapidly, can we be sure that the economy would not have grown faster? Under conditions such as these, as Hawtrey himself well understood, the prudent course of action is to err on the side of recklessness.