Archive for May, 2019

Michael Oakeshott Exposes Originalism’s Puerile Rationalistic Pretension to Jurisprudential Profundity

Last week in my post about Popperian Falsificationism, I quoted at length from Michael Oakeshott’s essay “Rationalism in Politics.” Rereading Oakeshott’s essay reminded me that Oakeshott’s work also casts an unflattering light on the faux-conservative jurisprudential Originalism, of which right-wing pretend-populists masquerading as conservatives have become so enamored under the expert tutelage of their idol Justice Scalia.

The faux-conservative nature of Originalism was nowhere made so obvious as in Scalia’s own Tanner Lectures at the University of Utah College of Law, “Common-Law Courts in a Civil-Law System” in which Scalia made plain his utter contempt for the common-law jurisprudence upon which the American legal system is founded. Here is that contempt on display in a mocking description of how law is taught in American law schools.

It is difficult to convey to someone who has not attended law school the enormous impact of the first year of study. Many students remark upon the phenomenon: It is like a mental rebirth, the acquisition of what seems like a whole new mode of perceiving and thinking. Thereafter, even if one does not yet know much law, he – as the expression goes – “thinks like a lawyer.”

The overwhelming majority of the courses taught in that first year of law school, and surely the ones that have the most impact, are courses that teach the substance, and the methodology, of the common law – torts, for example; contracts; property; criminal law. We lawyers cut our teeth upon the common law. To understand what an effect that must have, you must appreciate that the common law is not really common law, except insofar as judges can be regarded as common. That is to say, it is not “customary law,” or a reflection of the people’s practices, but is rather law developed by the judges. Perhaps in the very infancy of the common law it could have been thought that the courts were mere expositors of generally accepted social practices ; and certainly, even in the full maturity of the common law, a well established commercial or social practice could form the basis for a court’s decision. But from an early time – as early as the Year Books, which record English judicial decisions from the end of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth – any equivalence between custom and common law had ceased to exist, except in the sense that the doctrine of stare decisis rendered prior judicial decisions “custom.” The issues coming before the courts involved, more and more, refined questions that customary practice gave no answer to.

Oliver Wendell Holmes’s influential book The Common Law – which is still suggested reading for entering law students – talks a little bit about Germanic and early English custom. . . . Holmes’s book is a paean to reason, and to the men who brought that faculty to bear in order to create Anglo-American law. This is the image of the law – the common law – to which an aspiring lawyer is first exposed, even if he hasn’t read Holmes over the previous summer as he was supposed to. (pp. 79-80)

What intellectual fun all of this is! I describe it to you, not – please believe me – to induce those of you in the audience who are not yet lawyers to go to law school. But rather, to explain why first-year law school is so exhilarating: because it consists of playing common-law judge. Which in turn consists of playing king – devising, out of the brilliance of one’s own mind, those laws that ought to govern mankind. What a thrill! And no wonder so many lawyers, having tasted this heady brew, aspire to be judges!

Besides learning how to think about, and devise, the “best” legal rule, there is another skill imparted in the first year of law school that is essential to the making of a good common-law judge. It is the technique of what is called “distinguishing” cases. It is a necessary skill, because an absolute prerequisite to common-law lawmaking is the doctrine of stare decisis – that is, the principle that a decision made in one case will be followed in the next. Quite obviously, without such a principle common-law courts would not be making any “law”; they would just be resolving the particular dispute before them. It is the requirement that future courts adhere to the principle underlying a judicial decision which causes that decision to be a legal rule. (There is no such requirement in the civil-law system, where it is the text of the law rather than any prior judicial interpretation of that text which is authoritative. Prior judicial opinions are consulted for their persuasive effect, much as academic commentary would be; but they are not binding.)

Within such a precedent-bound common-law system, it is obviously critical for the lawyer, or the judge, to establish whether the case at hand falls within a principle that has already been decided. Hence the technique – or the art, or the game – of “distinguishing” earlier cases. A whole series of lectures could be devoted to this subject, and I do not want to get into it too deeply here. Suffice to say that there is a good deal of wiggle-room as to what an earlier case “holds.” In the strictest sense, the holding of a decision cannot go beyond the facts that were before the court. . . .

As I have described, this system of making law by judicial opinion, and making law by distinguishing earlier cases, is what every American law student, what every newborn American lawyer, first sees when he opens his eyes. And the impression remains with him for life. His image of the great judge — the Holmes, the Cardozo — is the man (or woman) who has the intelligence to know what is the best rule of law to govern the case at hand, and then the skill to perform the broken-field running through earlier cases that leaves him free to impose that rule — distinguishing one prior case on his left, straight-arming another one on his right, high-stepping away from another precedent about to tackle him from the rear, until (bravo!) he reaches his goal: good law. That image of the great judge remains with the former law student when he himself becomes a judge, and thus the common-law tradition is passed on and on. (pp. 83-85)

In place of common law judging, Scalia argues that the judicial function should be confined to the parsing of statutory or Constitutional texts to find their meaning, contrasting that limited undertaking to the anything-goes practice of common-law judging.

[T]he subject of statutory interpretation deserves study and attention in its own right, as the principal business of lawyers and judges. It will not do to treat the enterprise as simply an inconvenient modern add-on to the judges’ primary role of common-law lawmaking. Indeed, attacking the enterprise with the Mr. Fix-it mentality of the common-law judge is a sure recipe for incompetence and usurpation.

The state of the science of statutory interpretation in American law is accurately described by Professors Henry Hart and Albert Sacks (or by Professors William Eskridge and Philip Frickey, editors of the famous often-taught-but-never-published Hart-Sachs materials on the legal process) as follows:

Do not expect anybody’s theory of statutory interpretation, whether it is your own or somebody else’s, to be an accurate statement of what courts actually do with statutes. The hard truth of the matter is that American courts have no intelligible, generally accepted, and consistently applied theory of statutory interpretation.

Surely this is a sad commentary: We American judges have no intelligible theory of what we do most. (pp. 89-90)

But the Great Divide with regard to constitutional interpretation is not that between Framers’ intent and objective meaning; but rather that between original meaning (whether derived from Framers’ intent or not) and current meaning. The ascendant school of constitutional interpretation affirms the existence of what is called the “living Constitution,” a body of law that (unlike normal statutes) grows and changes from age to age, in order to meet the needs of a changing society. And it is the judges who determine those needs and “find” that changing law. Seems familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, it is the common law returned, but infinitely more powerful than what the old common law ever pretended to be, for now it trumps even the statutes of democratic legislatures.

If you go into a constitutional law class, or study a constitutional-law casebook, or read a brief filed in a constitutional-law case, you will rarely find the discussion addressed to the text of the constitutional provision that is at issue, or to the question of what was the originally understood or even the originally intended meaning of that text. Judges simply ask themselves (as a good common-law judge would) what ought the result to be, and then proceed to the task of distinguishing (or, if necessary, overruling) any prior Supreme Court cases that stand in the way. Should there be (to take one of the less controversial examples) a constitutional right to die? If so, there is. Should there be a constitutional right to reclaim a biological child put out for adoption by the other parent? Again, if so, there is. If it is good, it is so. Never mind the text that we are supposedly construing; we will smuggle these in, if all else fails, under the Due Process Clause (which, as I have described, is textually incapable of containing them). Moreover, what the Constitution meant yesterday it does not necessarily mean today. As our opinions say in the context of our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence (the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause), its meaning changes to reflect “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

This is preeminently a common-law way of making law, and not the way of construing a democratically adopted text. . . . The Constitution, however, even though a democratically adopted text, we formally treat like the common law. What, it is fair to ask, is our justification for doing so? (pp. 112-14)

Aside from engaging in the most ridiculous caricature of how common-law judging is conducted by actual courts, Scalia, in describing statutory interpretation as a science, either deliberately misrepresents or simply betrays his own misunderstanding of what science is all about. Scientists seek to discover anomalies, contradictions, and gaps within a received body of conjectural knowledge by finding solutions for those anomalies and contradictions and finding new hypotheses to explain gaps in knowledge. And they evaluate their work by criticizing the logic of their solutions and hypotheses and by testing those solutions and hypotheses against empirical evidence.

What Scalia calls a science of statutory interpretation seems to be nothing more than a set exegetical or hermeneutic rules passively and mechanically applied to arrive at a supposedly authoritative reading of the statute without regard to the substantive meaning or practical implications of applying the statute after those exegetical rules have been faithfully applied. In other words, the role of judge is to skillfully read and interpret legal texts, not to render a just verdict or decision, not unless, that is, justice is tautologically defined as the outcome of the Scalia-sanctioned exegetical/hermeneutic exercise. Scalia fraudulently attempts to endow this purely formal approach to textual exegesis with scientific authority, as if by so doing he could invoke the authority of science to override, or annihilate, the authority of judging.

Here is where I want to invite Michael Oakeshott into the conversation. I quote from his essay “Political Education” reprinted as chapter two of his Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays.

[A] tradition of behaviour is a tricky thing to get to know. Indeed, it may even appear to be essentially unintelligible. It is neither fixed nor finished; it has no changeless centre to which understanding anchor itself; there is no sovereign purpose to be perceived or inevitable direction to be detected; there is no model to be copied, idea to be realized, or rule to be followed. Some parts of it may change more slowly than others, but none is immune from change. Everything is temporary. Nevertheless, though a tradition of behaviour is flimsy and elusive, it is not without identity, and what makes it a possible object of knowledge is the fact that all its parts do not change at the same time and that the changes it undergoes are potential within it. Its principle is a principle of continuity: authority is diffused between past, present, and future; between the old, the new, and what is to come. It is steady because, though it moves, it is never wholly in motion; and though it is tranquil, it is never wholly at rest. Nothing that ever belonged to it: we are always swerving back to recover and make something topical out of even its remotest moments; and nothing for long remains unmodified. Everything is temporary, but nothing is arbitrary. Everything figures by comparison, not with what stands next to it, but with the whole. And since a tradition of behaviour is not susceptible of the distinction between essence and accident, knowledge of it is unavoidable knowledge of its detail: to know only the gist is to know nothing. What has to be learned is not an abstract idea, or a set of tricks, not even a ritual, but a concrete, coherent manner of living in all its intricateness. (pp. 61-62).

In a footnote to this passage, Oakeshott added the following comment.

The critic who found “some mystical qualities” in this passage leaves me puzzled: it seems to me an exceedingly matter-of-fact description of the characteristics of any tradition — the Common Law of England, for example, the so-called British Constitution, the Christian religion, modern physics, the game of cricket, shipbuilding.

I will close with another passage from Oakeshott, this time from his essay Rationalism in Politics, but with certain terms placed in parentheses to be replaced with corresponding, substitute terms placed in brackets.

The heart of the matter is the pre-occupation of the [Originalist] (Rationalist) with certainty. Technique and certainty are, for him, inseparably joined because certain knowledge is, for him, knowledge that is, which not only ends with certainty but begins with  certainty and is certain throughout. And this is precisely what [textual exegesis] (technical knowledge) appears to be. It seems to be a self-complete sort of knowledge because it seems to range between an identifiable initial point (where it breaks in upon sheer ignorance) and an identifiable terminal point, where it is complete, as in learning the rules of a new game. It has the aspect of knowledge that can be contained wholly between the covers of a [written statutory code], whose application is, as nearly as possible, purely mechanical, and which does not assume knowledge not itself provided in the [exegetical] technique. For example, the superiority of an ideology over a tradition of thought lies in the appearance of being self-contained. It can be taught best to those whose minds are empty: and if it is to be taught to one who already believes something, the first step of the teacher must be to administer a purge, to make certain that all prejudices and preconceptions are removed, to lay his foundation upon the unshakeable rock of absolute ignorance. In short, [textual exegesis] (technical knowledge) appears to e the only kind of knowledge which satisfies the standard of certainty which the [Originalist] (Rationalist) has chosen. (p. 16)

Dr. Popper: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Metaphysics

Introduction to Falsificationism

Although his reputation among philosophers was never quite as exalted as it was among non-philosophers, Karl Popper was a pre-eminent figure in 20th century philosophy. As a non-philosopher, I won’t attempt to adjudicate which take on Popper is the more astute, but I think I can at least sympathize, if not fully agree, with philosophers who believe that Popper is overrated by non-philosophers. In an excellent blog post, Phillipe Lemoine gives a good explanation of why philosophers look askance at falsificationism, Popper’s most important contribution to philosophy.

According to Popper, what distinguishes or demarcates a scientific statement from a non-scientific (metaphysical) statement is whether the statement can, or could be, disproved or refuted – falsified (in the sense of being shown to be false not in the sense of being forged, misrepresented or fraudulently changed) – by an actual or potential observation. Vulnerability to potentially contradictory empirical evidence, according to Popper, is what makes science special, allowing it to progress through a kind of dialectical process of conjecture (hypothesis) and refutation (empirical testing) leading to further conjecture and refutation and so on.

Theories purporting to explain anything and everything are thus non-scientific or metaphysical. Claiming to be able to explain too much is a vice, not a virtue, in science. Science advances by risk-taking, not by playing it safe. Trying to explain too much is actually playing it safe. If you’re not willing to take the chance of putting your theory at risk, by saying that this and not that will happen — rather than saying that this or that will happen — you’re playing it safe. This view of science, portrayed by Popper in modestly heroic terms, was not unappealing to scientists, and in part accounts for the positive reception of Popper’s work among scientists.

But this heroic view of science, as Lemoine nicely explains, was just a bit oversimplified. Theories never exist in a vacuum, there is always implicit or explicit background knowledge that informs and provides context for the application of any theory from which a prediction is deduced. To deduce a prediction from any theory, background knowledge, including complementary theories that are presumed to be valid for purposes of making a prediction, is necessary. Any prediction relies not just on a single theory but on a system of related theories and auxiliary assumptions.

So when a prediction is deduced from a theory, and the predicted event is not observed, it is never unambiguously clear which of the multiple assumptions underlying the prediction is responsible for the failure of the predicted event to be observed. The one-to-one logical dependence between a theory and a prediction upon which Popper’s heroic view of science depends doesn’t exist. Because the heroic view of science is too simplified, Lemoine considers it false, at least in the naïve and heroic form in which it is often portrayed by its proponents.

But, as Lemoine himself acknowledges, Popper was not unaware of these issues and actually dealt with some if not all of them. Popper therefore dismissed those criticisms pointing to his various acknowledgments and even anticipations of and responses to the criticisms. Nevertheless, his rhetorical style was generally not to qualify his position but to present it in stark terms, thereby reinforcing the view of his critics that he actually did espouse the naïve version of falsificationism that, only under duress, would be toned down to meet the objections raised to the usual unqualified version of his argument. Popper after all believed in making bold conjectures and framing a theory in the strongest possible terms and characteristically adopted an argumentative and polemical stance in staking out his positions.

Toned-Down Falsificationism

In his tone-downed version of falsificationism, Popper acknowledged that one can never know if a prediction fails because the underlying theory is false or because one of the auxiliary assumptions required to make the prediction is false, or even because of an error in measurement. But that acknowledgment, Popper insisted, does not refute falsificationism, because falsificationism is not a scientific theory about how scientists do science; it is a normative theory about how scientists ought to do science. The normative implication of falsificationism is that scientists should not try to shield their theories by making just-so adjustments in their theories through ad hoc auxiliary assumptions, e.g., ceteris paribus assumptions, to shield their theories from empirical disproof. Rather they should accept the falsification of their theories when confronted by observations that conflict with the implications of their theories and then formulate new and better theories to replace the old ones.

But a strict methodological rule against adjusting auxiliary assumptions or making further assumptions of an ad hoc nature would have ruled out many fruitful theoretical developments resulting from attempts to account for failed predictions. For example, the planet Neptune was discovered in 1846 by scientists who posited (ad hoc) the existence of another planet to explain why the planet Uranus did not follow its predicted path. Rather than conclude that the Newtonian theory was falsified by the failure of Uranus to follow the orbital path predicted by Newtonian theory, the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier posited the existence of another planet that would account for the path actually followed by Uranus. Now in this case, it was possible to observe the predicted position of the new planet, and its discovery in the predicted location turned out to be a sensational confirmation of Newtonian theory.

Popper therefore admitted that making an ad hoc assumption in order to save a theory from refutation was permissible under his version of normative faslisificationism, but only if the ad hoc assumption was independently testable. But suppose that, under the circumstances, it would have been impossible to observe the existence of the predicted planet, at least with the observational tools then available, making the ad hoc assumption testable only in principle, but not in practice. Strictly adhering to Popper’s methodological requirement of being able to test independently any ad hoc assumption would have meant accepting the refutation of the Newtonian theory rather than positing the untestable — but true — ad hoc other-planet hypothesis to account for the failed prediction of the orbital path of Uranus.

My point is not that ad hoc assumptions to save a theory from falsification are ok, but to point out that a strict methodological rules requiring rejection of any theory once it appears to be contradicted by empirical evidence and prohibiting the use of any ad hoc assumption to save the theory unless the ad hoc assumption is independently testable might well lead to the wrong conclusion given the nuances and special circumstances associated with every case in which a theory seems to be contradicted by observed evidence. Such contradictions are rarely so blatant that theory cannot be reconciled with the evidence. Indeed, as Popper himself recognized, all observations are themselves understood and interpreted in the light of theoretical presumptions. It is only in extreme cases that evidence cannot be interpreted in a way that more or less conforms to the theory under consideration. At first blush, the Copernican heliocentric view of the world seemed obviously contradicted by direct sensory observation that earth seems flat and the sun rise and sets. Empirical refutation could be avoided only by providing an alternative interpretation of the sensory data that could be reconciled with the apparent — and obvious — flatness and stationarity of the earth and the movement of the sun and moon in the heavens.

So the problem with falsificationism as a normative theory is that it’s not obvious why a moderately good, but less than perfect, theory should be abandoned simply because it’s not perfect and suffers from occasional predictive failures. To be sure, if a better theory than the one under consideration is available, predicting correctly whenever the one under consideration predicts correctly and predicting more accurately than the one under consideration when the latter fails to predict correctly, the alternative theory is surely preferable, but that simply underscores the point that evaluating any theory in isolation is not very important. After all, every theory, being a simplification, is an imperfect representation of reality. It is only when two or more theories are available that scientists must try to determine which of them is preferable.

Oakeshott and the Poverty of Falsificationism

These problems with falsificationism were brought into clearer focus by Michael Oakeshott in his famous essay “Rationalism in Politics,” which though not directed at Popper himself (whose colleague at the London School of Economics he was) can be read as a critique of Popper’s attempt to prescribe methodological rules for scientists to follow in carrying out their research. Methodological rules of the kind propounded by Popper are precisely the sort of supposedly rational rules of practice intended to ensure the successful outcome of an undertaking that Oakeshott believed to be ill-advised and hopelessly naïve. The rationalist conceit in Oakesott’s view is that there are demonstrably correct answers to practical questions and that practical activity is rational only when it is based on demonstrably true moral or causal rules.

The entry on Michael Oakeshott in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes Oakeshott’s position as follows:

The error of Rationalism is to think that making decisions simply requires skill in the technique of applying rules or calculating consequences. In an early essay on this theme, Oakeshott distinguishes between “technical” and “traditional” knowledge. Technical knowledge is of facts or rules that can be easily learned and applied, even by those who are without experience or lack the relevant skills. Traditional knowledge, in contrast, means “knowing how” rather than “knowing that” (Ryle 1949). It is acquired by engaging in an activity and involves judgment in handling facts or rules (RP 12–17). The point is not that rules cannot be “applied” but rather that using them skillfully or prudently means going beyond the instructions they provide.

The idea that a scientist’s decision about when to abandon one theory and replace it with another can be reduced to the application of a Popperian falsificationist maxim ignores all the special circumstances and all the accumulated theoretical and practical knowledge that a truly expert scientist will bring to bear in studying and addressing such a problem. Here is how Oakeshott addresses the problem in his famous essay.

These two sorts of knowledge, then, distinguishable but inseparable, are the twin components of the knowledge involved in every human activity. In a practical art such as cookery, nobody supposes that the knowledge that belongs to the good cook is confined to what is or what may be written down in the cookery book: technique and what I have called practical knowledge combine to make skill in cookery wherever it exists. And the same is true of the fine arts, of painting, of music, of poetry: a high degree of technical knowledge, even where it is both subtle and ready, is one thing; the ability to create a work of art, the ability to compose something with real musical qualities, the ability to write a great sonnet, is another, and requires in addition to technique, this other sort of knowledge. Again these two sorts of knowledge are involved in any genuinely scientific activity. The natural scientist will certainly make use of observation and verification that belong to his technique, but these rules remain only one of the components of his knowledge; advances in scientific knowledge were never achieved merely by following the rules. . . .

Technical knowledge . . . is susceptible of formulation in rules, principles, directions, maxims – comprehensively, in propositions. It is possible to write down technical knowledge in a book. Consequently, it does not surprise us that when an artist writes about his art, he writes only about the technique of his art. This is so, not because he is ignorant of what may be called asesthetic element, or thinks it unimportant, but because what he has to say about that he has said already (if he is a painter) in his pictures, and he knows no other way of saying it. . . . And it may be observed that this character of being susceptible of precise formulation gives to technical knowledge at least the appearance of certainty: it appears to be possible to be certain about a technique. On the other hand, it is characteristic of practical knowledge that it is not susceptible of formulation of that kind. Its normal expression is in a customary or traditional way of doing things, or, simply, in practice. And this gives it the appearance of imprecision and consequently of uncertainty, of being a matter of opinion, of probability rather than truth. It is indeed knowledge that is expressed in taste or connoisseurship, lacking rigidity and ready for the impress of the mind of the learner. . . .

Technical knowledge, in short, an be both taught and learned in the simplest meanings of these words. On the other hand, practical knowledge can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice, and the only way to acquire it is by apprenticeship to a master – not because the master can teach it (he cannot), but because it can be acquired only by continuous contact with one who is perpetually practicing it. In the arts and in natural science what normally happens is that the pupil, in being taught and in learning the technique from his master, discovers himself to have acquired also another sort of knowledge than merely technical knowledge, without it ever having been precisely imparted and often without being able to say precisely what it is. Thus a pianist acquires artistry as well as technique, a chess-player style and insight into the game as well as knowledge of the moves, and a scientist acquires (among other things) the sort of judgement which tells him when his technique is leading him astray and the connoisseurship which enables him to distinguish the profitable from the unprofitable directions to explore.

Now, as I understand it, Rationalism is the assertion that what I have called practical knowledge is not knowledge at all, the assertion that, properly speaking, there is no knowledge which is not technical knowledge. The Rationalist holds that the only element of knowledge involved in any human activity is technical knowledge and that what I have called practical knowledge is really only a sort of nescience which would be negligible if it were not positively mischievous. (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, pp. 12-16)

Almost three years ago, I attended the History of Economics Society meeting at Duke University at which Jeff Biddle of Michigan State University delivered his Presidential Address, “Statistical Inference in Economics 1920-1965: Changes in Meaning and Practice, published in the June 2017 issue of the Journal of the History of Economic Thought. The paper is a remarkable survey of the differing attitudes towards using formal probability theory as the basis for making empirical inferences from the data. The underlying assumptions of probability theory about the nature of the data were widely viewed as being too extreme to make probability theory an acceptable basis for empirical inferences from the data. However, the early negative attitudes toward accepting probability theory as the basis for making statistical inferences from data were gradually overcome (or disregarded). But as late as the 1960s, even though econometric techniques were becoming more widely accepted, a great deal of empirical work, including by some of the leading empirical economists of the time, avoided using the techniques of statistical inference to assess empirical data using regression analysis. Only in the 1970s was there a rapid sea-change in professional opinion that made statistical inference based on explicit probabilisitic assumptions about underlying data distributions the requisite technique for drawing empirical inferences from the analysis of economic data. In the final section of his paper, Biddle offers an explanation for this rapid change in professional attitude toward the use of probabilistic assumptions about data distributions as the required method of the empirical assessment of economic data.

By the 1970s, there was a broad consensus in the profession that inferential methods justified by probability theory—methods of producing estimates, of assessing the reliability of those estimates, and of testing hypotheses—were not only applicable to economic data, but were a necessary part of almost any attempt to generalize on the basis of economic data. . . .

This paper has been concerned with beliefs and practices of economists who wanted to use samples of statistical data as a basis for drawing conclusions about what was true, or probably true, in the world beyond the sample. In this setting, “mechanical objectivity” means employing a set of explicit and detailed rules and procedures to produce conclusions that are objective in the sense that if many different people took the same statistical information, and followed the same rules, they would come to exactly the same conclusions. The trustworthiness of the conclusion depends on the quality of the method. The classical theory of inference is a prime example of this sort of mechanical objectivity.

Porter [Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life] contrasts mechanical objectivity with an objectivity based on the “expert judgment” of those who analyze data. Expertise is acquired through a sanctioned training process, enhanced by experience, and displayed through a record of work meeting the approval of other experts. One’s faith in the analyst’s conclusions depends on one’s assessment of the quality of his disciplinary expertise and his commitment to the ideal of scientific objectivity. Elmer Working’s method of determining whether measured correlations represented true cause-and-effect relationships involved a good amount of expert judgment. So, too, did Gregg Lewis’s adjustments of the various estimates of the union/non-union wage gap, in light of problems with the data and peculiarities of the times and markets from which they came. Keynes and Persons pushed for a definition of statistical inference that incorporated space for the exercise of expert judgment; what Arthur Goldberger and Lawrence Klein referred to as ‘statistical inference’ had no explicit place for expert judgment.

Speaking in these terms, I would say that in the 1920s and 1930s, empirical economists explicitly acknowledged the need for expert judgment in making statistical inferences. At the same time, mechanical objectivity was valued—there are many examples of economists of that period employing rule-oriented, replicable procedures for drawing conclusions from economic data. The rejection of the classical theory of inference during this period was simply a rejection of one particular means for achieving mechanical objectivity. By the 1970s, however, this one type of mechanical objectivity had become an almost required part of the process of drawing conclusions from economic data, and was taught to every economics graduate student.

Porter emphasizes the tension between the desire for mechanically objective methods and the belief in the importance of expert judgment in interpreting statistical evidence. This tension can certainly be seen in economists’ writings on statistical inference throughout the twentieth century. However, it would be wrong to characterize what happened to statistical inference between the 1940s and the 1970s as a displace-ment of procedures requiring expert judgment by mechanically objective procedures. In the econometric textbooks published after 1960, explicit instruction on statistical inference was largely limited to instruction in the mechanically objective procedures of the classical theory of inference. It was understood, however, that expert judgment was still an important part of empirical economic analysis, particularly in the specification of the models to be estimated. But the disciplinary knowledge needed for this task was to be taught in other classes, using other textbooks.

And in practice, even after the statistical model had been chosen, the estimates and standard errors calculated, and the hypothesis tests conducted, there was still room to exercise a fair amount of judgment before drawing conclusions from the statistical results. Indeed, as Marcel Boumans (2015, pp. 84–85) emphasizes, no procedure for drawing conclusions from data, no matter how algorithmic or rule bound, can dispense entirely with the need for expert judgment. This fact, though largely unacknowledged in the post-1960s econometrics textbooks, would not be denied or decried by empirical economists of the 1970s or today.

This does not mean, however, that the widespread embrace of the classical theory of inference was simply a change in rhetoric. When application of classical inferential procedures became a necessary part of economists’ analyses of statistical data, the results of applying those procedures came to act as constraints on the set of claims that a researcher could credibly make to his peers on the basis of that data. For example, if a regression analysis of sample data yielded a large and positive partial correlation, but the correlation was not “statistically significant,” it would simply not be accepted as evidence that the “population” correlation was positive. If estimation of a statistical model produced a significant estimate of a relationship between two variables, but a statistical test led to rejection of an assumption required for the model to produce unbiased estimates, the evidence of a relationship would be heavily discounted.

So, as we consider the emergence of the post-1970s consensus on how to draw conclusions from samples of statistical data, there are arguably two things to be explained. First, how did it come about that using a mechanically objective procedure to generalize on the basis of statistical measures went from being a choice determined by the preferences of the analyst to a professional requirement, one that had real con-sequences for what economists would and would not assert on the basis of a body of statistical evidence? Second, why was it the classical theory of inference that became the required form of mechanical objectivity? . . .

Perhaps searching for an explanation that focuses on the classical theory of inference as a means of achieving mechanical objectivity emphasizes the wrong characteristic of that theory. In contrast to earlier forms of mechanical objectivity used by economists, such as standardized methods of time series decomposition employed since the 1920s, the classical theory of inference is derived from, and justified by, a body of formal mathematics with impeccable credentials: modern probability theory. During a period when the value placed on mathematical expression in economics was increasing, it may have been this feature of the classical theory of inference that increased its perceived value enough to overwhelm long-standing concerns that it was not applicable to economic data. In other words, maybe the chief causes of the profession’s embrace of the classical theory of inference are those that drove the broader mathematization of economics, and one should simply look to the literature that explores possible explanations for that phenomenon rather than seeking a special explanation of the embrace of the classical theory of inference.

I would suggest one more factor that might have made the classical theory of inference more attractive to economists in the 1950s and 1960s: the changing needs of pedagogy in graduate economics programs. As I have just argued, since the 1920s, economists have employed both judgment based on expertise and mechanically objective data-processing procedures when generalizing from economic data. One important difference between these two modes of analysis is how they are taught and learned. The classical theory of inference as used by economists can be taught to many students simultaneously as a set of rules and procedures, recorded in a textbook and applicable to “data” in general. This is in contrast to the judgment-based reasoning that combines knowledge of statistical methods with knowledge of the circumstances under which the particular data being analyzed were generated. This form of reasoning is harder to teach in a classroom or codify in a textbook, and is probably best taught using an apprenticeship model, such as that which ideally exists when an aspiring economist writes a thesis under the supervision of an experienced empirical researcher.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the ratio of PhD candidates to senior faculty in PhD-granting programs was increasing rapidly. One consequence of this, I suspect, was that experienced empirical economists had less time to devote to providing each interested student with individualized feedback on his attempts to analyze data, so that relatively more of a student’s training in empirical economics came in an econometrics classroom, using a book that taught statistical inference as the application of classical inference procedures. As training in empirical economics came more and more to be classroom training, competence in empirical economics came more and more to mean mastery of the mechanically objective techniques taught in the econometrics classroom, a competence displayed to others by application of those techniques. Less time in the training process being spent on judgment-based procedures for interpreting statistical results meant fewer researchers using such procedures, or looking for them when evaluating the work of others.

This process, if indeed it happened, would not explain why the classical theory of inference was the particular mechanically objective method that came to dominate classroom training in econometrics; for that, I would again point to the classical theory’s link to a general and mathematically formalistic theory. But it does help to explain why the application of mechanically objective procedures came to be regarded as a necessary means of determining the reliability of a set of statistical measures and the extent to which they provided evidence for assertions about reality. This conjecture fits in with a larger possibility that I believe is worth further exploration: that is, that the changing nature of graduate education in economics might sometimes be a cause as well as a consequence of changing research practices in economics. (pp. 167-70)

The correspondence between Biddle’s discussion of the change in the attitude of the economics profession about how inferences should be drawn from data about empirical relationships is strikingly similar to Oakeshott’s discussion and depressing in its implications for the decline of expert judgment by economics, expert judgment having been replaced by mechanical and technical knowledge that can be objectively summarized in the form of rules or tests for statistical significance, itself an entirely arbitrary convention lacking any logical, or self-evident, justification.

But my point is not to condemn using rules derived from classical probability theory to assess the significance of relationships statistically estimated from historical data, but to challenge the methodological prohibition against the kinds of expert judgments that many statistically knowledgeable economists like Nobel Prize winners such as Simon Kuznets, Milton Friedman, Theodore Schultz and Gary Becker routinely used to make in their empirical studies. As Biddle notes:

In 1957, Milton Friedman published his theory of the consumption function. Friedman certainly understood statistical theory and probability theory as well as anyone in the profession in the 1950s, and he used statistical theory to derive testable hypotheses from his economic model: hypotheses about the relationships between estimates of the marginal propensity to consume for different groups and from different types of data. But one will search his book almost in vain for applications of the classical methods of inference. Six years later, Friedman and Anna Schwartz published their Monetary History of the United States, a work packed with graphs and tables of statistical data, as well as numerous generalizations based on that data. But the book contains no classical hypothesis tests, no confidence intervals, no reports of statistical significance or insignificance, and only a handful of regressions. (p. 164)

Friedman’s work on the Monetary History is still regarded as authoritative. My own view is that much of the Monetary History was either wrong or misleading. But my quarrel with the Monetary History mainly pertains to the era in which the US was on the gold standard, inasmuch as Friedman simply did not understand how the gold standard worked, either in theory or in practice, as McCloskey and Zecher showed in two important papers (here and here). Also see my posts about the empirical mistakes in the Monetary History (here and here). But Friedman’s problem was bad monetary theory, not bad empirical technique.

Friedman’s theoretical misunderstandings have no relationship to the misguided prohibition against doing quantitative empirical research without obeying the arbitrary methodological requirement that statistical be derived in a way that measures the statistical significance of the estimated relationships. These methodological requirements have been adopted to support a self-defeating pretense to scientific rigor, necessitating the use of relatively advanced mathematical techniques to perform quantitative empirical research. The methodological requirements for measuring statistical relationships were never actually shown to be generate more accurate or reliable statistical results than those derived from the less technically advanced, but in some respects more economically sophisticated, techniques that have almost totally been displaced. One more example of the fallacy that there is but one technique of research that ensures the discovery of truth, a mistake even Popper was never guilty of.

Methodological Prescriptions Go from Bad to Worse

The methodological requirement for the use of formal tests of statistical significance before any quantitative statistical estimate could be credited was a prelude, though it would be a stretch to link them causally, to another and more insidious form of methodological tyrannizing: the insistence that any macroeconomic model be derived from explicit micro-foundations based on the solution of an intertemporal-optimization exercise. Of course, the idea that such a model was in any way micro-founded was a pretense, the solution being derived only through the fiction of a single representative agent, rendering the entire optimization exercise fundamentally illegitimate and the exact opposite of micro-founded model. Having already explained in previous posts why transforming microfoundations from a legitimate theoretical goal into methodological necessity has taken a generation of macroeconomists down a blind alley (here, here, here, and here) I will only make the further comment that this is yet another example of the danger of elevating technique over practice and substance.

Popper’s More Important Contribution

This post has largely concurred with the negative assessment of Popper’s work registered by Lemoine. But I wish to end on a positive note, because I have learned a great deal from Popper, and even if he is overrated as a philosopher of science, he undoubtedly deserves great credit for suggesting falsifiability as the criterion by which to distinguish between science and metaphysics. Even if that criterion does not hold up, or holds up only when qualified to a greater extent than Popper admitted, Popper made a hugely important contribution by demolishing the startling claim of the Logical Positivists who in the 1920s and 1930s argued that only statements that can be empirically verified through direct or indirect observation have meaning, all other statements being meaningless or nonsensical. That position itself now seems to verge on the nonsensical. But at the time many of the world’s leading philosophers, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, no less, seemed to accept that remarkable view.

Thus, Popper’s demarcation between science and metaphysics had a two-fold significance. First, that it is not verifiability, but falsifiability, that distinguishes science from metaphysics. That’s the contribution for which Popper is usually remembered now. But it was really the other aspect of his contribution that was more significant: that even metaphysical, non-scientific, statements can be meaningful. According to the Logical Positivists, unless you are talking about something that can be empirically verified, you are talking nonsense. In other words they were deliberately hoisting themselves on their petard, because their discussions about what is and what is not meaningful, being discussions about concepts, not empirically verifiable objects, were themselves – on the Positivists’ own criterion of meaning — meaningless and nonsensical.

Popper made the world safe for metaphysics, and the world is a better place as a result. Science is a wonderful enterprise, rewarding for its own sake and because it contributes to the well-being of many millions of human beings, though like many other human endeavors, it can also have unintended and unfortunate consequences. But metaphysics, because it was used as a term of abuse by the Positivists, is still, too often, used as an epithet. It shouldn’t be.

Certainly economists should aspire to tease out whatever empirical implications they can from their theories. But that doesn’t mean that an economic theory with no falsifiable implications is useless, a judgment whereby Mark Blaug declared general equilibrium theory to be unscientific and useless, a judgment that I don’t think has stood the test of time. And even if general equilibrium theory is simply metaphysical, my response would be: so what? It could still serve as a source of inspiration and insight to us in framing other theories that may have falsifiable implications. And even if, in its current form, a theory has no empirical content, there is always the possibility that, through further discussion, critical analysis and creative thought, empirically falsifiable implications may yet become apparent.

Falsifiability is certainly a good quality for a theory to have, but even an unfalsifiable theory may be worth paying attention to and worth thinking about.

Cleaning Up After Burns’s Mess

In my two recent posts (here and here) about Arthur Burns’s lamentable tenure as Chairman of the Federal Reserve System from 1970 to 1978, my main criticism of Burns has been that, apart from his willingness to subordinate monetary policy to the political interests of he who appointed him, Burns failed to understand that an incomes policy to restrain wages, thereby minimizing the tendency of disinflation to reduce employment, could not, in principle, reduce inflation if monetary restraint did not correspondingly reduce the growth of total spending and income. Inflationary (or employment-reducing) wage increases can’t be prevented by an incomes policy if the rate of increase in total spending, and hence total income,  isn’t controlled. King Canute couldn’t prevent the tide from coming in, and neither Arthur Burns nor the Wage and Price Council could slow the increase in wages when total spending was increasing at rate faster than was consistent with the 3% inflation rate that Burns was aiming for.

In this post, I’m going to discuss how the mess Burns left behind him upon leaving the Fed in 1978 had to be cleaned up. The mess got even worse under Burns’s successor, G. William Miller. The clean up did not begin until Carter appointed Paul Volcker in 1979 when it became obvious that the monetary policy of the Fed had failed to cope with problems left behind by Burns. After unleashing powerful inflationary forces under the cover of the wage-and-price controls he had persuaded Nixon to impose in 1971 as a precondition for delivering the monetary stimulus so desperately desired by Nixon to ensure his reelection, Burns continued providing that stimulus even after Nixon’s reelection, when it might still have been possible to taper off the stimulus before inflation flared up, and without aborting the expansion then under way. In his arrogance or ignorance, Burns chose not to adjust the policy that had so splendidly accomplished its intended result.

Not until the end of 1973, after crude oil prices quadrupled owing to a cutback in OPEC oil output, driving inflation above 10% in 1974, did Burns withdraw the monetary stimulus that had been administered in increasing doses since early 1971. Shocked out of his complacency by the outcry against 10% inflation, Burns shifted monetary policy toward restraint, bringing down the growth in nominal spending and income from over 11% in Q4 1973 to only 8% in Q1 1974.

After prolonging monetary stimulus unnecessarily for a year, Burn erred grievously by applying monetary restraint in response to the rise in oil prices. The largely exogenous rise in oil prices would most likely have caused a recession even with no change in monetary policy. By subjecting the economy to the added shock of reducing aggregate demand, Burns turned a mild recession into the worst recession since 1937-38 recession at the end of the Great Depression, with unemployment peaking at 8.8% in Q2 1975.. Nor did the reduction in aggregate demand have much anti-inflationary effect, because the incremental reduction in total spending occasioned by the monetary tightening was reflected mainly in reduced output and employment rather than in reduced inflation.

But even with unemployment reaching the highest level in almost 40 years, inflation did not fall below 5% – and then only briefly – until a year after the bottom of the recession. When President Carter took office in 1977, Burns, hoping to be reappointed to another term, provided Carter with a monetary expansion to hasten the reduction in unemployment that Carter has promised in his Presidential campaign. However, Burns’s accommodative policy did not sufficiently endear him to Carter to secure the coveted reappointment.

The short and unhappy tenure of Carter’s first appointee, G. William Miller, during which inflation rose from 6.5% to 10%, ended abruptly when Carter, with his Administration in crisis, sacked his Treasury Secretary, replacing him with Miller. Under pressure from the financial community to address the seemingly intractable inflation that seemed to be accelerating in the wake of a second oil shock following the Iranian Revolution and hostage taking, Carter felt constrained to appoint Volcker, formerly a high official in the Treasury in both the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, then serving as President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, who was known to be the favored choice of the financial community.

A year after leaving the Fed, Burns gave the annual Per Jacobson Lecture to the International Monetary Fund. Calling his lecture “The Anguish of Central Banking,” Burns offered a defense of his tenure, by arguing, in effect, that he should not be blamed for his poor performance, because the job of central banking is so very hard. Central bankers could control inflation, but only by inflicting unacceptably high unemployment. The political authorities and the public to whom central bankers are ultimately accountable would simply not tolerate the high unemployment that would be necessary for inflation to be controlled.

Viewed in the abstract, the Federal Reserve System had the power to abort the inflation at its incipient stage fifteen years ago or at any later point, and it has the power to end it today. At any time within that period, it could have restricted money supply and created sufficient strains in the financial and industrial markets to terminate inflation with little delay. It did not do so because the Federal Reserve was itself caught up in the philosophic and political currents that were transforming American life and culture.

Burns’s framing of the choices facing a central bank was tendentious; no policy maker had suggested that, after years of inflation had convinced the public to expect inflation to continue indefinitely, the Fed should “terminate inflation with little delay.” And Burns was hardly a disinterested actor as Fed chairman, having orchestrated a monetary expansion to promote the re-election chances of his benefactor Richard Nixon after securing, in return for that service, Nixon’s agreement to implement an incomes policy to limit the growth of wages, a policy that Burns believed would contain the inflationary consequences of the monetary expansion.

However, as I explained in my post on Hawtrey and Burns, the conceptual rationale for an incomes policy was not to allow monetary expansion to increase total spending, output and employment without causing increased inflation, but to allow the monetary restraint to be administered without increasing unemployment. But under the circumstances in the summer of 1971, when a recovery from the 1970 recession was just starting, and unemployment was still high, monetary expansion might have hastened a recovery in output and employment the resulting increase in total spending and income might still increase output and employment rather than being absorbed in higher wages and prices.

But using controls over wages and prices to speed the return to full employment could succeed only while substantial unemployment and unused capacity allowed output and employment to increase; the faster the recovery, the sooner increased spending would show up in rising prices and wages, or in supply shortages, rather than in increased output. So an incomes policy to enable monetary expansion to speed the recovery from recession and restore full employment might theoretically be successful, but, only if the monetary stimulus were promptly tapered off before driving up inflation.

Thus, if Burns wanted an incomes policy to be able to hasten the recovery through monetary expansion and maximize the political benefit to Nixon in time for the 1972 election, he ought to have recognized the need to withdraw the stimulus after the election. But for a year after Nixon’s reelection, Burns continued the monetary expansion without let up. Burns’s expression of anguish at the dilemma foisted upon him by circumstances beyond his control hardly evokes sympathy, sounding more like an attempt to deflect responsibility for his own mistakes or malfeasance in serving as an instrument of the criminal Campaign to Re-elect the President without bothering to alter that politically motivated policy after accomplishing his dishonorable mission.

But it was not until Burns’s successor, G. William Miller, was succeeded by Paul Volcker in August 1979 that the Fed was willing to adopt — and maintain — an anti-inflationary policy. In his recently published memoir Volcker recounts how, responding to President Carter’s request in July 1979 that he accept appointment as Fed chairman, he told Mr. Carter that, to bring down inflation, he would adopt a tighter monetary policy than had been followed by his predecessor. He also writes that, although he did not regard himself as a Friedmanite Monetarist, he had become convinced that to control inflation it was necessary to control the quantity of money, though he did not agree with Friedman that a rigid rule was required to keep the quantity of money growing at a constant rate. To what extent the Fed would set its policy in terms of a fixed target rate of growth in the quantity of money became the dominant issue in Fed policy during Volcker’s first term as Fed chairman.

In a review of Volcker’s memoir widely cited in the econ blogosphere, Tim Barker decried Volcker’s tenure, especially his determination to control inflation even at the cost of spilling blood — other people’s blood – if that was necessary to eradicate the inflationary psychology of the 1970s, which become a seemingly permanent feature of the economic environment at the time of Volcker’s appointment.

If someone were to make a movie about neoliberalism, there would need to be a starring role for the character of Paul Volcker. As chair of the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987, Volcker was the most powerful central banker in the world. These were the years when the industrial workers movement was defeated in the United States and United Kingdom, and third world debt crises exploded. Both of these owe something to Volcker. On October 6, 1979, after an unscheduled meeting of the Fed’s Open Market Committee, Volcker announced that he would start limiting the growth of the nation’s money supply. This would be accomplished by limiting the growth of bank reserves, which the Fed influenced by buying and selling government securities to member banks. As money became more scarce, banks would raise interest rates, limiting the amount of liquidity available in the overall economy. Though the interest rates were a result of Fed policy, the money supply target let Volcker avoid the politically explosive appearance of directly raising rates himself. The experiment—known as the Volcker Shock—lasted until 1982, inducing what remains the worst unemployment since the Great Depression and finally ending the inflation that had troubled the world economy since the late 1960s. To catalog all the results of the Volcker Shock—shuttered factories, broken unions, dizzying financialization—is to describe the whirlwind we are still reaping in 2019. . . .

Barker is correct that Volcker had been persuaded that to tighten monetary policy the quantity of reserves that the Fed was providing to the banking system had to be controlled. But making the quantity of bank reserves the policy instrument was a technical change. Monetary policy had been — and could still have been — conducted using an interest-rate instrument, and it would have been entirely possible for Volcker to tighten monetary policy using the traditional interest-rate instrument. It is possible that, as Barker asserts, it was politically easier to tighten policy using a quantity instrument than an interest-rate instrument.

But even if so, the real difficulty was not the instrument used, but the economic and political consequences of a tight monetary policy. The choice of the instrument to carry out the policy could hardly have made more than a marginal difference on the balance of political forces favoring or opposing that policy. The real issue was whether a tight monetary policy aimed at reducing inflation was more effectively conducted using the traditional interest-rate instrument or the quantity-instrument that Volcker adopted. More on this point below.

Those who praise Volcker like to say he “broke the back” of inflation. Nancy Teeters, the lone dissenter on the Fed Board of Governors, had a different metaphor: “I told them, ‘You are pulling the financial fabric of this country so tight that it’s going to rip. You should understand that once you tear a piece of fabric, it’s very difficult, almost impossible, to put it back together again.” (Teeters, also the first woman on the Fed board, told journalist William Greider that “None of these guys has ever sewn anything in his life.”) Fabric or backbone: both images convey violence. In any case, a price index doesn’t have a spine or a seam; the broken bodies and rent garments of the early 1980s belonged to people. Reagan economic adviser Michael Mussa was nearer the truth when he said that “to establish its credibility, the Federal Reserve had to demonstrate its willingness to spill blood, lots of blood, other people’s blood.”

Did Volcker consciously see unemployment as the instrument of price stability? A Rhode Island representative asked him “Is it a necessary result to have a large increase in unemployment?” Volcker responded, “I don’t know what policies you would have to follow to avoid that result in the short run . . . We can’t undertake a policy now that will cure that problem [unemployment] in 1981.” Call this the necessary byproduct view: defeating inflation is the number one priority, and any action to put people back to work would raise inflationary expectations. Growth and full employment could be pursued once inflation was licked. But there was more to it than that. Even after prices stabilized, full employment would not mean what it once had. As late as 1986, unemployment was still 6.6 percent, the Reagan boom notwithstanding. This was the practical embodiment of Milton Friedman’s idea that there was a natural rate of unemployment, and attempts to go below it would always cause inflation (for this reason, the concept is known as NAIRU or non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment). The logic here is plain: there need to be millions of unemployed workers for the economy to work as it should.

I want to make two points about Volcker’s policy. The first, which I made in my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform over 30 years ago, and which I have reiterated in several posts on this blog and which I discussed in my recent paper “Rules versus Discretion in Monetary Policy Historically Contemplated” (for an ungated version click here) is that using a quantity instrument to tighten monetary policy, as advocated by Milton Friedman, and acquiesced in by Volcker, induces expectations about the future actions of the monetary authority that undermine the policy and render it untenable. Volcker eventually realized the perverse expectational consequences of trying to implement a monetary policy using a fixed rule for the quantity instrument, but his learning experience in following Friedman’s advice needlessly exacerbated and prolonged the agony of the 1982 downturn for months after inflationary expectations had been broken.

The problem was well-known in the nineteenth century thanks to British experience under the Bank Charter Act that imposed a fixed quantity limit on the total quantity of banknotes issued by the Bank of England. When the total of banknotes approached the legal maximum, a precautionary demand for banknotes was immediately induced by those who feared that they might not later be able to obtain credit if it were needed because the Bank of England would be barred from making additional credit available.

Here is how I described Volcker’s Monetarist experiment in my book.

The danger lurking in any Monetarist rule has been perhaps best summarized by F. A. Hayek, who wrote:

As regards Professor Friedman’s proposal of a legal limit on the rate at which a monopolistic issuer of money was to be allowed to increase the quantity in circulation, I can only say that I would not like to see what would happen if under such a provision it ever became known that the amount of cash in circulation was approaching the upper limit and therefore a need for increased liquidity could not be met.

Hayek’s warnings were subsequently borne out after the Federal Reserve Board shifted its policy from targeting interest rates to targeting the monetary aggregates. The apparent shift toward a less inflationary monetary policy, reinforced by the election of a conservative, antiinflationary president in 1980, induced an international shift from other currencies into the dollar. That shift caused the dollar to appreciate by almost 30 percent against other major currencies.

At the same time the domestic demand for deposits was increasing as deregulation of the banking system reduced the cost of holding deposits. But instead of accommodating the increase in the foreign and domestic demands for dollars, the Fed tightened monetary policy. . . . The deflationary impact of that tightening overwhelmed the fiscal stimulus of tax cuts and defense buildup, which, many had predicted, would cause inflation to speed up. Instead the economy fell into the deepest recession since the 1930s, while inflation, by 1982, was brought down to the lowest levels since the early 1960s. The contraction, which began in July 1981, accelerated in the fourth quarter of 1981 and the first quarter of 1982.

The rapid disinflation was bringing interest rates down from the record high levels of mid-1981 and the economy seemed to bottom out in the second quarter, showing a slight rise in real GNP over the first quarter. Sticking to its Monetarist strategy, the Fed reduced its targets for monetary growth in 1982 to between 2.5 and 5.5 percent. But in January and February, the money supply increased at a rapid rate, perhaps in anticipation of an incipient expansion. Whatever its cause, the early burst of the money supply pushed M-1 way over its target range.

For the next several months, as M-1 remained above its target, financial and commodity markets were preoccupied with what the Fed was going to do next. The fear that the Fed would tighten further to bring M-1 back within its target range reversed the slide in interest rates that began in the fall of 1981. A striking feature of the behavior of interest rates at that time was that credit markets seemed to be heavily influenced by the announcements every week of the change in M-1 during the previous week. Unexpectedly large increases in the money supply put upward pressure on interest rates.

The Monetarist explanation was that the announcements caused people to raise their expectations of inflation. But if the increase in interest rates had been associated with a rising inflation premium, the announcements should have been associated with weakness in the dollar on foreign exchange markets and rising commodities prices. In fact, the dollar was rising and commodities prices were falling consistently throughout this period – even immediately after an unexpectedly large jump in M-1 was announced. . . . (pp. 218-19)

I pause in my own earlier narrative to add the further comment that the increase in interest rates in early 1982 clearly reflected an increasing liquidity premium, caused by the reduced availability of bank reserves, making cash desirable to hold than real assets thereby inducing further declines in asset values.

However, increases in M-1 during July turned out to be far smaller than anticipated, relieving some of the pressure on credit and commodities markets and allowing interest rates to begin to fall again. The decline in interest rates may have been eased slightly by . . . Volcker’s statement to Congress on July 20 that monetary growth at the upper range of the Fed’s targets would be acceptable. More important, he added that he Fed was willing to let M-1 remain above its target range for a while if the reason seemed to be a precautionary demand for liquidity. By August, M-1 had actually fallen back within its target range. As fears of further tightening by the Fed subsided, the stage was set for the decline in interest rates to accelerate, [and] the great stock market rally began on August 17, when the Dow . . . rose over 38 points [almost 5%].

But anticipation of an incipient recovery again fed monetary growth. From the middle of August through the end of September, M-1 grew at an annual rate of over 15 percent. Fears that rapid monetary growth would induce the Fed to tighten monetary policy slowed down the decline in interest rates and led to renewed declines in commodities price and the stock market, while pushing up the dollar to new highs. On October 5 . . . the Wall Street Journal reported that bond prices had fallen amid fears that the Fed might tighten credit conditions to slow the recent strong growth in the money supply. But on the very next day it was reported that the Fed expected inflation to stay low and would therefore allow M-1 to exceed its targets. The report sparked a major decline in interest rates and the Dow . . . soared another 37 points. (pp. 219-20)

The subsequent recovery, which began at the end of 1982, quickly became very powerful, but persistent fears that the Fed would backslide, at the urging of Milton Friedman and his Monetarist followers, into its bad old Monetarist habits periodically caused interest-rate spikes reflecting rising liquidity premiums as the public built up precautionary cash balances. Luckily, Volcker was astute enough to shrug off the overwrought warnings of Friedman and other Monetarists that rapid increases in the monetary aggregates foreshadowed the imminent return of double-digit inflation.

Thus, the Monetarist obsession with controlling the monetary aggregates senselessly prolonged an already deep recession that, by Q1 1982, had already slain the inflationary dragon, inflation having fallen to less than half its 1981 peak while GDP actually contracted in nominal terms. But because the money supply was expanding at a faster rate than was acceptable to Monetarist ideology, the Fed continued in its futile but destructive campaign to keep the monetary aggregates from overshooting their arbitrary Monetarist target range. It was not until Volcker in summer of 1982 finally and belatedly decided that enough was enough and announced that the Fed would declare victory over inflation and call off its Monetarist campaign even if doing so meant incurring Friedman’s wrath and condemnation for abandoning the true Monetarist doctrine.

Which brings me to my second point about Volcker’s policy. While it’s clear that Volcker’s decision to adopt control over the monetary aggregates as the focus of monetary policy was disastrously misguided, monetary policy can’t be conducted without some target. Although the Fed’s interest rate can serve as a policy instrument, it is not a plausible policy target. The preferred policy target is generally thought to be the rate of inflation. The Fed after all is mandated to achieve price stability, which is usually understood to mean targeting a rate of inflation of about 2%. A more sophisticated alternative would be to aim at a suitable price level, thereby allowing some upward movement, say, at a 2% annual rate, the difference between an inflation target and a moving price level target being that an inflation target is unaffected by past deviations of actual from targeted inflation while a moving price level target would require some catch up inflation to make up for past below-target inflation and reduced inflation to compensate for past above-target inflation.

However, the 1981-82 recession shows exactly why an inflation target and even a moving price level target is a bad idea. By almost any comprehensive measure, inflation was still positive throughout the 1981-82 recession, though the producer price index was nearly flat. Thus, inflation targeting during the 1981-82 recession would have been almost as bad a target for monetary policy as the monetary aggregates, with most measures of inflation showing that inflation was then between 3 and 5 percent even at the depth of the recession. Inflation targeting is thus, on its face, an unreliable basis for conducting monetary policy.

But the deeper problem with targeting inflation is that seeking to achieve an inflation target during a recession, when the very existence of a recession is presumptive evidence of the need for monetary stimulus, is actually a recipe for disaster, or, at the very least, for needlessly prolonging a recession. In a recession, the goal of monetary policy should be to stabilize the rate of increase in nominal spending along a time path consistent with the desired rate of inflation. Thus, as long as output is contracting or increasing very slowly, the desired rate of inflation should be higher than the desired rate over the long-term. The appropriate strategy for achieving an inflation target ought to be to let inflation be reduced by the accelerating expansion of output and employment characteristic of most recoveries relative to a stable expansion of nominal spending.

The true goal of monetary policy should always be to maintain a time path of total spending consistent with a desired price-level path over time. But it should not be the objective of the monetary policy to always be as close as possible to the desired path, because trying to stay on that path would likely destabilize the real economy. Market monetarists argue that the goal of monetary policy ought to be to keep nominal GDP expanding at that whatever rate is consistent with maintaining the desired long-run price-level path. That is certainly a reasonable practical rule for monetary policy, but the policy criterion I have discussed here would, at least in principle, be consistent with a more activist approach in which the monetary authority would seek to hasten the restoration of full employment during recessions by temporarily increasing the rate of monetary expansion and in nominal GDP as long as real output and employment remained below the maximum levels consistent with desired price level path over time. But such a strategy would require the monetary authority to be able to fine tune its monetary expansion so that it was tapered off just as the economy was reaching its maximum sustainable output and employment path. Whether such fine-tuning would be possible in practice is a question to which I don’t think we now know the answer.

 


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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