From a discussion about how much credit Milton Friedman deserves for changing the way that economists thought about inflation, I want to nudge the conversation in a slightly different direction, to restate a point that I made some time ago in one of my favorite posts (The Lucas Critique Revisited). But if Friedman taught us anything it is that incessant repetition of the same already obvious point can do wonders for your reputation. That’s one lesson from Milton that I am willing to take to heart, though my tolerance for hearing myself say the same darn thing over and over again is probably not as great as Friedman’s was, which to be sure is not the only way in which I fall short of him by comparison. (I am almost a foot taller than he was by the way). Speaking of being a foot taller than Friedman, I don’t usually post pictures on this blog, but here is one that I have always found rather touching. And if you don’t know who the other guy is in the picture, you have no right to call yourself an economist.
At any rate, the expectations augmented, long-run Phillips Curve, as we all know, was shown by Friedman to be vertical. But what exactly does it mean for the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve to be vertical? Discussions about whether the evidence supports the proposition that the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is vertical (including some of the comments on my recent posts) suggest that people are not clear on what “long-run” means in the context of the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve and have not really thought carefully about what empirical content is contained by the proposition that the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is vertical.
Just to frame the discussion of the Phillips Curve, let’s talk about what the term “long-run” means in economics. What it certainly does not mean is an amount of calendar time, though I won’t deny that there are frequent attempts to correlate long-run with varying durations of calendar time. But all such attempts either completely misunderstand what the long-run actually represents, or they merely aim to provide the untutored with some illusion of concreteness in what is otherwise a completely abstract discussion. In fact, what “long run” connotes is simply a full transition from one equilibrium state to another in the context of a comparative-statics exercise.
If a change in some exogenous parameter is imposed on a pre-existing equilibrium, then the long-run represents the full transition to a new equilibrium in which all endogenous variables have fully adjusted to the parameter change. The short-run, then, refers to some intermediate adjustment to the parameter change in which some endogenous variables have been arbitrarily held fixed (presumably because of some possibly reasonable assumption that some variables are able to adjust more speedily than other variables to the posited parameter change).
Now the Phillips Curve that was discovered by A. W. Phillips in his original paper was a strictly empirical relation between observed (wage) inflation and observed unemployment. But the expectations-augmented long-run Phillips Curve is a theoretical construct. And what it represents is certainly not an observable relationship between inflation and unemployment; it rather is a locus of points of equilibrium, each point representing full adjustment of the labor market to a particular rate of inflation, where full adjustment means that the rate of inflation is fully anticipated by all economic agents in the model. So what the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is telling us is that if we perform a series of comparative-statics exercises in which, starting from full equilibrium with the given rate of inflation fully expected, we impose on the system a parameter change in which the exogenously imposed rate of inflation is changed and deduce a new equilibrium in which the fully and universally expected rate of inflation equals the alternative exogenously imposed inflation parameter, the equilibrium rate of unemployment corresponding to the new inflation parameter will not differ from the equilibrium rate of unemployment corresponding to the original inflation parameter.
Notice, as well, that the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is not saying that imposing a new rate of inflation on an actual economic system would lead to a new equilibrium in which there was no change in unemployment; it is merely comparing alternative equilibria of the same system with different exogenously imposed rates of inflation. To make a statement about the effect of a change in the rate of inflation on unemployment, one has to be able to specify an adjustment path in moving from one equilibrium to another. The comparative-statics method says nothing about the adjustment path; it simply compares two alternative equilibrium states and specifies the change in endogenous variable induced by the change in an exogenous parameter.
So the vertical shape of the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve tells us very little about how, in any given situation, a change in the rate of inflation would actually affect the rate of unemployment. Not only does the expectations-augmented long-run Phillips Curve fail to tell us how a real system starting from equilibrium would be affected by a change in the rate of inflation, the underlying comparative-statics exercise being unable to specify the adjustment path taken by a system once it departs from its original equilibrium state, the expectations augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is even less equipped to tell us about the adjustment to a change in the rate of inflation when a system is not even in equilibrium to begin with.
The entire discourse of the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is completely divorced from the kinds of questions that policy makers in the real world usually have to struggle with – questions like will increasing the rate of inflation of an economy in which there is abnormally high unemployment facilitate or obstruct the adjustment process that takes the economy back to a more normal unemployment rate. The expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve may not be completely irrelevant to the making of economic policy – it is good to know, for example, that if we are trying to figure out which time path of NGDP to aim for, there is no particular reason to think that a time path with a 10% rate of growth of NGDP would probably not generate a significantly lower rate of unemployment than a time path with a 5% rate of growth – but its relationship to reality is sufficiently tenuous that it is irrelevant to any discussion of policy alternatives for economies unless those economies are already close to being in equilibrium.