Archive for the 'Friedman' Category

Real and Pseudo Gold Standards: Could Friedman Tell the Difference?

One of the first academic papers by Milton Friedman that I read was “Real and Pseudo Gold Standards.” It’s an interesting paper presented to the Mont Pelerin Society in September 1961 and published in the Journal of Law and Economics in October 1961. That it was published in the Journal of Law and Economics, then edited by Friedman’s colleague at Chicago (and fellow Mont Pelerin member) Ronald Coase, is itself interesting, that estimable journal hardly being an obvious place to publish research on monetary economics. But the point of the paper was not to advance new theoretical insights about monetary theory, though he did provide a short preview of his critique of Fed policy in the 1920-21 Depression and in the Great Depression that he and Anna Schwartz would make in their soon to be published Monetary History of the United States, but to defend Friedman’s pro-fiat money position as a respectable alternative among the libertarians and classical liberals with whom Friedman had allied himself in the Mont Pelerin Society.

Although many members of the Mont Pelerin Society, including Hayek himself, as well as Friedman, Fritz Machlup and Lionel Robbins no longer supported the gold standard, their reasons for doing so were largely pragmatic, believing that whatever its virtues, the gold standard was no longer a realistic or even a desirable option as a national or an international monetary system. But there was another, perhaps more numerous, faction within the Mont Pelerin Society and the wider libertarian/ classical-liberal community, that disdained any monetary system other than the gold standard. The intellectual leader of this group was of course the soul of intransigence, the unyieldingly stubborn Ludwig von Mises, notably supported by the almost equally intransigent French economist Jacques Rueff, whose attachment to gold was so intense that Charles de Gaulle, another in a long line of French politicians enchanted by the yellow metal, had chosen Rueff as his personal economic adviser.

What Friedman did in this essay was not to engage with von Mises on the question of the gold standard; Friedman was realistic enough to understand that one could not reason with von Mises, who anyway regarded Friedman, as he probably did most of the members of the Mont Pelerin Society, as hardly better than a socialist. Instead, his strategy was to say that there is only one kind of real gold standard – presumably the kind favored by von Mises, whose name went unmentioned by Friedman, anything else being a pseudo-gold standard — in reality, nothing but a form of price fixing in which the government sets the price of gold and manages the gold market to prevent the demand for gold from outstripping the supply. While Friedman acknowledged that a real gold standard could be defended on strictly libertarian grounds, he argued that a pseudo-gold standard could not, inasmuch as it requires all sorts of market interventions, especially restrictions on the private ownership of gold that were then in place. What Friedman was saying, in effect, to the middle group in the Mont Pelerin Society was the only alternatives for liberals and libertarians were a gold standard of the Mises type or his preference: a fiat standard with flexible exchange rates.

Here is how he put it:

It is vitally important for the preservation and promotion of a free society that we recognize the difference between a real and pseudo gold standard. War aside, nothing that has occurred in the past half-century has, in my view, done more weaken and undermine the public’s faith in liberal principles than the pseudo gold standard that has intermittently prevailed and the actions that have been taken in its name. I believe that those of us who support it in the belief that it either is or will tend to be a real gold standard are mistakenly fostering trends the outcome of which they will be among the first to deplore.

This is a sweeping charge, so let me document it by a few examples which will incidentally illustrate the difference between a real and a pseudo gold standard before turning to an explicit discussion of the difference.

So what were Friedman’s examples of a pseudo gold standard? He offered five. First, US monetary policy after World War I, in particular the rapid inflation of 1919 and the depression of 1920-21. Second, US monetary policy in the 1920s and the British return to gold. Third, US monetary policy in the 1931-33 period. Fourth the U.S. nationalization of gold in 1934. And fifth, the International Monetary Fund and post-World War II exchange-rate policy.

Just to digress for a moment, I will admit that when I first read this paper as an undergraduate I was deeply impressed by his introductory statement, but found much of the rest of the paper incomprehensible. Still awestruck by Friedman, who, I then believed, was the greatest economist alive, I attributed my inability to follow what he was saying to my own intellectual shortcomings. So I have to admit to taking a bit of satisfaction in now being able to demonstrate that Friedman literally did not know what he was talking about.

US Monetary Policy after World War I

Friedman’s discussion of monetary policy after WWI begins strangely as if he were cutting and pasting from another source without providing any background to the discussion. I suspected that he might have cut and pasted from the Monetary History, but that turned out not to be the case. However, I did find that this paragraph (and probably a lot more] was included in testimony he gave to the Joint Economic Committee.

Nearly half of the monetary expansion in the United States came after the end of the war, thanks to the acquiescence of the Federal Reserve System in the Treasury’s desire to avoid a fall in the price of government securities. This expansion, with its accompanying price inflation, led to an outflow of gold despite the great demand for United States goods from a war-ravaged world and despite the departure of most countries from any fixed parity between their currencies and either gold or the dollar.

Friedman, usually a very careful writer, refers to “half of the monetary expansion” without identifying in any way “the monetary expansion” that he is referring to, leaving it to the reader to conjecture whether he is talking about the monetary expansion that began with the start of World War I in 1914 or the monetary expansion that began with US entry into the war in 1917 or the monetary expansion associated with some other time period. Friedman then goes on to describe the transition from inflation to deflation.

Beginning in late 1919, then more sharply in January 1920 and May 1920, the Federal Reserve System took vigorous deflationary steps that produced first a slackening of the growth of money and then a sharp decline. These brought in their train a collapse in wholesale prices and a severe economic contraction. The near halving of wholesale prices in a twelve month period was by all odds the most rapid price decline ever experienced in the United States before or since. It was not of course confined to the United States but spread to all countries whose money was linked to the dollar either by having a fixed price in terms of gold or by central bank policies directed at maintaining rigid or nearly rigid exchange rates.

That is a fair description of what happened after the Fed took vigorous deflationary steps, notably raising its discount rate to 6%. What Friedman neglects to point out is that there was no international gold standard (real or pseudo) immediately after the war, because only the United States was buying and selling gold at a legally established gold parity. Friedman then goes on to compare the pseudo gold standard under which the US was then operating with what would have happened under a real gold standard.

Under a real gold standard, the large inflow of gold up to the entry of the United States into the war would have produced a price rise to the end of the war similar to that actually experienced.

Now, aside from asserting that under a real gold standard, gold is used as money, and that under a pseudo gold standard, government is engaged in fixing the price of gold, Friedman has not told us how to distinguish between a real and a pseudo gold standard. So it is certainly fair to ask whether in the passage just quoted Friedman meant that the gold standard under which the US was operating when there was a large inflow of gold before entering the war was real or pseudo. His use of the subjunctive verb “would have produced” suggests that he believed that the gold standard was pseudo, not real. But then he immediately says that, under the real gold standard, the “price rise to the end of the war” would have been “similar to that actually experienced.” So take your pick.

Evidently, the difference between a real and a pseudo gold standard became relevant only after the war was over.

But neither the postwar rise nor the subsequent collapse would have occurred. Instead, there would have been an earlier and milder price decline as the belligerent nations returned to a peacetime economy. The postwar increase in the stock of money occurred only because the Reserve System had been given discretionary power to “manage” the stock of money, and the subsequent collapse occurred only because this power to manage the money had been accompanied by gold reserve requirements as one among several masters the System was instructed to serve.

That’s nice, but Friedman has not even suggested, much less demonstrated in any way, how all of this is related to the difference between a real and a pseudo gold standard. Was there any postwar restriction on the buying or selling of gold by private individuals? Friedman doesn’t say. All he can come up with is the idea that the Fed had been given “discretionary power to ‘manage’ the stock of money.” Who gave the Fed this power? And how was this power exercised? He refers to gold reserve requirements, but gold reserve requirements – whether they were a good idea or not is not my concern here — existed before the Fed came into existence.

If the Fed had unusual powers after World War I, those powers were not magically conferred by some unidentified entity, but by the circumstance that the US had accumulated about 40% of the world’s monetary gold reserves during World War I, and was the only country, after the war, that was buying and selling gold freely at a fixed price ($20.67 an ounce). The US was therefore in a position to determine the value of gold either by accumulating more gold or by allowing an efflux of gold from its reserves. Whether the US was emitting or accumulating gold depended on the  interest-rate policy of the Federal Reserve. It is true that the enormous control the US then had over the value of gold was a unique circumstance in world history, but the artificial and tendentious distinction between a real and a pseudo gold standard has absolutely nothing to do with the inflation in 1919 or the deflation in 1920-21.

US Monetary Policy in the 1920s and Britain’s Return to Gold

In the next section Friedman continues his critical review of Fed policy in the 1920s, defending the Fed against the charge (a staple of Austrian Business Cycle Theory and other ill-informed and misguided critics) that it fueled a credit boom during the 1920s. On the contrary, Friedman shows that Fed policy was generally on the restrictive side.

I do not myself believe that the 1929-33 contraction was an inevitable result of the monetary policy of the 1920s or even owed much to it. What was wrong was the policy followed from 1929 to 1933. . . . But internationally, the policy was little short of catastrophic. Much has been made of Britain’s mistake in returning to gold in 1925 at a parity that overvalued the pound. I do not doubt that this was a mistake – but only because the United States was maintaining a pseudo gold standard. Had the United States been maintaining a real gold standard, the stock of money would have risen more in the United States than it did, prices would have been stable or rising instead of declining, the United States would have gained less gold or lost some, and the pressure on the pound would have been enormously eased. As it was by sterilizing gold, the United States forced the whole burden of adapting to gold movements on other countries. When, in addition, France adopted a pseudo gold standard at a parity that undervalued the franc and proceeded also to follow a gold sterilization policy, the combined effect was to make Britain’s position untenable.

This is actually a largely coherent paragraph, more or less correctly diagnosing the adverse consequences of an overly restrictive policy adopted by the Fed for most of the 1920s. What is not coherent is the attempt to attribute policy choices of which Friedman (and I) disapprove to the unrealness of the gold standard. There was nothing unreal about the gold standard as it was operated by the Fed in the 1920s. The Fed stood ready to buy and sell gold at the official price, and Friedman does not even suggest that there was any lapse in that commitment.

So what was the basis for Friedman’s charge that the 1920s gold standard was fake or fraudulent? Friedman says that if there had been a real, not a pseudo, gold standard, “the stock of money would have risen more in the United States than it did, prices would have been stable or rising instead of declining,” and the US “would have gained less gold or lost some.” That this did not happen, Friedman attributes to a “gold sterilization policy” followed by the US. Friedman is confused on two levels. First, he seems to believe that the quantity of money in the US was determined by the Fed. However, under a fixed-exchange-rate regime, the US money supply was determined endogenously via the balance of payments. What the Fed could determine by setting its interest rate was simply whether gold would flow into or out of US reserves. The level of US prices was determined by the internationally determined value of gold. Whether gold was flowing into or out of US reserves, in turn, determined the value of gold was rising or falling, and, correspondingly, whether prices in terms of gold were falling or rising. If the Fed had set interest rates somewhat lower than they did, gold would have flowed out of US reserves, the value of gold would have declined and prices in terms of gold would have risen, thereby easing deflationary pressure on Great Britain occasioned by an overvalued sterling-dollar exchange rate. I have no doubt that the Fed was keeping its interest rate too high for most of the 1920s, but why a mistaken interest-rate policy implies a fraudulent gold standard is not explained. Friedman, like his nemesis von Mises, simply asserted his conclusion or his definition, and expected his listeners and readers to nod in agreement.

US Monetary Policy in the 1931-33 Period

In this section Friedman undertakes his now familiar excoriation of Fed inaction to alleviate the banking crises that began in September 1931 and continued till March 1933. Much, if not all, of Friedman’s condemnation of the Fed is justified, though his failure to understand the international nature of the crisis caused him to assume that the Fed could have prevented a deflation caused by a rising value of gold simply by preventing bank failures. There are a number of logical gaps in that argument, and Friedman failed to address them, simply assuming that US prices were determined by the US money stock even though the US was still operating on the gold standard and the internationally determined value of gold was rising.

But in condemning the Fed’s policy in failing to accommodate an internal drain at the first outbreak of domestic banking crises in September 1931, Friedman observes:

Prior to September 1931, the System had been gaining gold, the monetary gold stock was at an all-time high, and the System’s gold reserve ratio was far above its legal minimum – a reflection of course of its not having operated in accordance with a real gold standard.

Again Friedman is saying that the criterion for identifying whether the gold standard is real or fraudulent is whether policy makers make the correct policy decision, if they make a mistake, it means that the gold standard in operation is no longer a real gold standard; it has become a pseudo gold standard.

The System had ample reserves to meet the gold outflow without difficulty and without resort to deflationary measures. And both its own earlier policy and the classical gold-standard rules as enshrined by Bagehot called for its doing so: the gold outflow was strictly speculative and motivated by fear that the United States would go off gold; the outflow had no basis in any trade imbalance; it would have exhausted itself promptly if all demands had been met.

Thus, Friedman, who just three pages earlier had asserted that the gold standard became a pseudo gold standard when the managers of the Federal Reserve System were given discretionary powers to manage the stock of money, now suggests that a gold standard can also be made a pseudo gold standard if the monetary authority fails to exercise its discretionary powers.

US Nationalization of Gold in 1934

The nationalization of gold by FDR effectively ended the gold standard in the US. Nevertheless, Friedman was so enamored of the distinction between real and pseudo gold standards that he tried to portray US monetary arrangements after the nationalization of gold as a pseudo gold standard even though the gold standard had been effectively nullified. But at least, the distinction between what is real and what is fraudulent about the gold standard is now based on an objective legal and institutional fact: the general right to buy gold from (or sell gold to) the government at a fixed price whenever government offices are open for business. Similarly after World War II, only the US government had any legal obligation to sell gold at the official price, but there was only a very select group of individuals and governments who were entitled to buy gold from the US government. Even to call such an arrangement a pseudo gold standard seems like a big stretch, but there is nothing seriously wrong with calling it a pseudo gold standard. But I have no real problem with Friedman’s denial that there was a true gold standard in operation after the nationalization of gold in 1934.

I would also agree that there really was not a gold standard in operation after the US entered World War I, because the US stopped selling gold after the War started. In fact, a pseudo gold standard is a good way to characterize the status of the gold standard during World War I, because the legal price of gold was not changed in any of the belligerent countries, but it was understood that for a private citizen to try to redeem currency for gold at the official price would be considered a reprehensible act, something almost no one was willing to do. But to assert, as Friedman did, that even when the basic right to buy gold at the official price was routinely exercised, a real gold standard was not necessarily in operation, is simply incoherent, or sophistical. Take your pick.

Milton Friedman’s Dumb Rule

Josh Hendrickson discusses Milton Friedman’s famous k-percent rule on his blog, using Friedman’s rule as a vehicle for an enlightening discussion of the time-inconsistency problem so brilliantly described by Fynn Kydland and Edward Prescott in a classic paper published 36 years ago. Josh recognizes that Friedman’s rule is imperfect. At any given time, the k-percent rule is likely to involve either an excess demand for cash or an excess supply of cash, so that the economy would constantly be adjusting to a policy induced macroeconomic disturbance. Obviously a less restrictive rule would allow the monetary authorities to achieve a better outcome. But Josh has an answer to that objection.

The k-percent rule has often been derided as a sub-optimal policy. Suppose, for example, that there was an increase in money demand. Without a corresponding increase in the money supply, there would be excess money demand that even Friedman believed would cause a reduction in both nominal income and real economic activity. So why would Friedman advocate such a policy?

The reason Friedman advocated the k-percent rule was not because he believed that it was the optimal policy in the modern sense of phrase, but rather that it limited the damage done by activist monetary policy. In Friedman’s view, shaped by his empirical work on monetary history, central banks tended to be a greater source of business cycle fluctuations than they were a source of stability. Thus, the k-percent rule would eliminate recessions caused by bad monetary policy.

That’s a fair statement of why Friedman advocated the k-percent rule. One of Friedman’s favorite epigrams was that one shouldn’t allow the best to be the enemy of the good, meaning that the pursuit of perfection is usually not worth it. Perfection is costly, and usually merely good is good enough. That’s generally good advice. Friedman thought that allowing the money supply to expand at a moderate rate (say 3%) would avoid severe deflationary pressure and avoid significant inflation, allowing the economy to muddle through without serious problems.

But behind that common-sense argument, there were deeper, more ideological, reasons for the k-percent rule. The k-percent rule was also part of Friedman’s attempt to provide a libertarian/conservative alternative to the gold standard, which Friedman believed was both politically impractical and economically undesirable. However, the gold standard for over a century had been viewed by supporters of free-market liberalism as a necessary check on government power and as a bulwark of liberty. Friedman, desiring to offer a modern version of the case for classical liberalism (which has somehow been renamed neo-liberalism), felt that the k-percent rule, importantly combined with a regime of flexible exchange rates, could serve as an ideological substitute for the gold standard.

To provide a rationale for why the k-percent rule was preferable to simply trying to stabilize the price level, Friedman had to draw on a distinction between the aims of monetary policy and the instruments of monetary policy. Friedman argued that a rule specifying that the monetary authority should stabilize the price level was too flexible, granting the monetary authority too much discretion in its decision making.

The price level is not a variable over which the monetary authority has any direct control. It is a target not an instrument. Specifying a price-level target allows the monetary authority discretion in its choice of instruments to achieve the target. Friedman actually made a similar argument about the gold standard in a paper called “Real and Pseudo Gold Standards.” The price of gold is a target, not an instrument. The monetary authority can achieve its target price of gold with more than one policy. Unless you define the rule in terms of the instruments of the central bank, you have not taken away the discretionary power of the monetary authority. In his anti-discretionary zeal, Friedman believed that he had discovered an argument that trumped advocates of the gold standard .

Of course there was a huge problem with this argument, though Friedman was rarely called on it. The money supply, under any definition that Friedman ever entertained, is no more an instrument of the monetary authority than the price level. Most of the money instruments included in any of the various definitions of money Friedman entertained for purposes of his k-percent rule are privately issued. So Friedman’s claim that his rule would eliminate the discretion of the monetary authority in its use of instrument was clearly false. Now, one might claim that when Friedman originally advanced the rule in his Program for Monetary Stability, the rule was formulated the context of a proposal for 100-percent reserves. However, the proposal for 100-percent reserves would inevitably have to identify those deposits subject to the 100-percent requirement and those exempt from the requirement. Once it is possible to convert the covered deposits into higher yielding uncovered deposits, monetary policy would not be effective if it controlled only the growth of deposits subject to a 100-percent reserve requirement.

In his chapter on monetary policy in The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek effectively punctured Friedman’s argument that a monetary authority could operate effectively without some discretion in its use of instruments to execute a policy aimed at some agreed upon policy goal. It is a category error to equate the discretion of the monetary authority in the choice of its policy instruments with the discretion of the government in applying coercive sanctions against the persons and property of private individuals. It is true that Hayek later modified his views about central banks, but that change in his views was at least in part attributable to a misunderstanding. Hayek erroneoulsy believed that his discovery that competition in the supply of money is possible without driving the value of money down to zero meant that competitive banks would compete to create an alternative monetary standard that would be superior to the existing standard legally established by the monetary authority. His conclusion did not follow from his premise.

In a previous post, I discussed how Hayek also memorably demolished Friedman’s argument that, although the k-percent rule might not be the theoretically best rule, it would at least be a good rule that would avoid the worst consequences of misguided monetary policies producing either deflation or inflation. John Taylor, accepting the Hayek Prize from the Manhattan Institute, totally embarrassed himself by flagarantly misunderstanding what Hayek was talking about. Here are the two relevant passages from Hayek. The first from his pamphlet, Full Employment at any Price?

I wish I could share the confidence of my friend Milton Friedman who thinks that one could deprive the monetary authorities, in order to prevent the abuse of their powers for political purposes, of all discretionary powers by prescribing the amount of money they may and should add to circulation in any one year. It seems to me that he regards this as practicable because he has become used for statistical purposes to draw a sharp distinction between what is to be regarded as money and what is not. This distinction does not exist in the real world. I believe that, to ensure the convertibility of all kinds of near-money into real money, which is necessary if we are to avoid severe liquidity crises or panics, the monetary authorities must be given some discretion. But I agree with Friedman that we will have to try and get back to a more or less automatic system for regulating the quantity of money in ordinary times. The necessity of “suspending” Sir Robert Peel’s Bank Act of 1844 three times within 25 years after it was passed ought to have taught us this once and for all.

Hayek in the Denationalization of Money, Hayek was more direct:

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 it ever became known that the amount of cash in circulation was approaching the upper limit and that therefore a need for increased liquidity could not be met.

And in a footnote, Hayek added.

To such a situation the classic account of Walter Bagehot . . . would apply: “In a sensitive state of the English money market the near approach to the legal limit of reserve would be a sure incentive to panic; if one-third were fixed by law, the moment the banks were close to one-third, alarm would begin and would run like magic.

So Friedman’s k-percent rule was dumb, really dumb. It was dumb, because it induced expectations that made it unsustainable. As Hayek observed, not only was the theory clear, but it was confirmed by the historical evidence from the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, it had to be reconfirmed one more time in 1982 before the Fed abandoned its own misguided attempt to implement a modified version of the Friedman rule.

Richard Lipsey and the Phillips Curve

Richard Lipsey has had an extraordinarily long and productive career as both an economic theorist and an empirical economist, making numerous important contributions in almost all branches of economics. (See, for example, the citation about Lipsey as a fellow of the Canadian Economics Association.) In addition, his many textbooks have been enormously influential in advocating that economists should strive to make their discipline empirically relevant by actually subjecting their theories to meaningful empirical tests in which refutation is a realistic possibility not just a sign that the researcher was insufficiently creative in theorizing or in performing the data analysis.

One of Lipsey’s most important early contributions was his 1960 paper on the Phillips Curve “The Relationship between Unemployment and the Rate of Change of Money Wages in the United Kingdom 1862-1957: A Further Analysis” in which he extended W A. Phillips’s original results, and he has continued to write about the Phillips Curve ever since. Lipsey, in line with his empiricist philosophical position, has consistently argued that a well-supported empirical relationship should not be dismissed simply because of a purely theoretical argument about how expectations are formed. In other words, the argument that adjustments in inflation expectations would cause the short-run Phillips curve relation captured by empirical estimates of the relationship between inflation and unemployment may well be valid (as was actually recognized early on by Samuelson and Solow in their famous paper suggesting that the Phillips Curve could be interpreted as a menu of alternative combinations of inflation and unemployment from which policy-makers could choose) in some general qualitative sense. But that does not mean that it had to be accepted as an undisputable axiom of economics that the long-run relationship between unemployment and inflation is necessarily vertical, as Friedman and Phelps and Lucas convinced most of the economics profession in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A few months ago, Lipsey was kind enough to send me a draft of the paper that he presented at the annual meeting of the History of Economics Society; the paper is called “The Phillips Curve and the Tyranny of an Assumed Unique Macro Equilibrium.” Here is the abstract of the paper.

To make the argument that the behaviour of modern industrial economies since the 1990s is inconsistent with theories in which there is a unique ergodic macro equilibrium, the paper starts by reviewing both the early Keynesian theory in which there was no unique level of income to which the economy was inevitably drawn and the debate about the amount of demand pressure at which it was best of maintain the economy: high aggregate demand and some inflationary pressure or lower aggregate demand and a stable price level. It then covers the rise of the simple Phillips curve and its expectations-augmented version, which introduced into current macro theory a natural rate of unemployment (and its associated equilibrium level of national income). This rate was also a NAIRU, the only rate consistent with stable inflation. It is then argued that the current behaviour of many modern economies in which there is a credible policy to maintain a low and steady inflation rate is inconsistent with the existence of either a unique natural rate or a NAIRU but is consistent with evolutionary theory in which there is perpetual change driven by endogenous technological advance. Instead of a NAIRU evolutionary economies have a non-inflationary band of unemployment (a NAIBU) indicating a range of unemployment and income over with the inflation rate is stable. The paper concludes with the observation that the great pre-Phillips curve debates of the 1950s that assumed that there was a range within which the economy could be run with varying pressures of demand, and varying amounts of unemployment and inflationary pressure, were not as silly as they were made to seem when both Keynesian and New Classical economists accepted the assumption of a perfectly inelastic, long-run Phillips curve located at the unique equilibrium level of unemployment.

Back in January, I wrote a post about the Lucas Critique in which I pointed out that his “proof” that the Phillips Curve is vertical in his celebrated paper on econometric policy evaluation was no proof at all, but simply a very special example in which the only disequilibrium permitted in the model – a misperception of the future price level – would lead an econometrician to estimate a negatively sloped relation between inflation and employment even though under correct expectations of inflation the relationship would be vertical. Allowing for a wider range of behavioral responses, I suggested, might well change the relation between inflation and output even under correctly expected inflation. In his new paper, Lipsey correctly points out that Friedman and Phelps and Lucas, and subsequent New Classical and New Keynesian theoreticians, who have embraced the vertical Phillips Curve doctrine as an article of faith, are also assuming, based on essentially no evidence, that there is a unique macro equilibrium. But, there is very strong evidence to suggest that, in fact, any deviation from an initial equilibrium (or equilibrium time path) is likely to cause changes that, in and of themselves, cause a change in conditions that will propel the system toward a new and different equilibrium time path, rather than return to the time path the system had been moving along before it was disturbed. See my post of almost a year ago about a paper, “Does history matter?: Empirical analysis of evolutionary versus stationary equilibrium views of the economy,” by Carlaw and Lipsey.)

Lipsey concludes his paper with a quotation from his article “The Phillips Curve” published in the volume Famous Figures and Diagrams in Economics edited by Mark Blaug and Peter Lloyd.

Perhaps [then] Keynesians were too hasty in following the New Classical economists in accepting the view that follows from static [and all EWD] models that stable rates of wage and price inflation are poised on the razor’s edge of a unique NAIRU and its accompanying Y*. The alternative does not require a long term Phillips curve trade off, nor does it deny the possibility of accelerating inflations of the kind that have bedevilled many third world countries. It is merely states that industrialised economies with low expected inflation rates may be less precisely responsive than current theory assumes because they are subject to many lags and inertias, and are operating in an ever-changing and uncertain world of endogenous technological change, which has no unique long term static equilibrium. If so, the economy may not be similar to the smoothly functioning mechanical world of Newtonian mechanics but rather to the imperfectly evolving world of evolutionary biology. The Phillips relation then changes from being a precise curve to being a band within which various combinations of inflation and unemployment are possible but outside of which inflation tends to accelerate or decelerate. Perhaps then the great [pre-Phillips curve] debates of the 1940s and early 1950s that assumed that there was a range within which the economy could be run with varying pressures of demand, and varying amounts of unemployment and inflation[ary pressure], were not as silly as they were made to seem when both Keynesian and New Classical economists accepted the assumption of a perfectly inelastic, one-dimensional, long run Phillips curve located at a unique equilibrium Y* and NAIRU.”

Friedman’s Dictum

In his gallant, but in my opinion futile, attempts to defend Milton Friedman against the scandalous charge that Friedman was, gasp, a Keynesian, if not in his policy prescriptions, at least in his theoretical orientation, Scott Sumner has several times referred to the contrast between the implication of the IS-LM model that expansionary monetary policy implies a reduced interest rate, and Friedman’s oft-repeated dictum that high interest rates are a sign of easy money, and low interest rates a sign of tight money. This was a very clever strategic and rhetorical move by Scott, because it did highlight a key difference between Keynesian and Monetarist ideas while distracting attention from the overlap between Friedman and Keynesians on the basic analytics of nominal-income determination.

Alghough I agree with Scott that Friedman’s dictum that high interest rates distinguishes him from Keynes and Keynesian economists, I think that Scott leaves out an important detail: Friedman’s dictum also distinguishes him from just about all pre-Keynesian monetary economists. Keynes did not invent the terms “dear money” and “cheap money.” Those terms were around for over a century before Keynes came on the scene, so Keynes and the Keynesians were merely reflecting the common understanding of all (or nearly all) economists that high interest rates were a sign of “dear” or “tight” money, and low interest rates a sign of “cheap” or “easy” money. For example, in his magisterial A Century of Bank Rate, Hawtrey actually provided numerical bounds on what constituted cheap or dear money in the period he examined, from 1844 to 1938. Cheap money corresponded to a bank rate less than 3.5% and dear money to a bank rate over 4.5%, 3.5 to 4.5% being the intermediate range.

Take the period just leading up to the Great Depression, when Britain returned to the gold standard in 1925. The Bank of England kept its bank rate over 5% almost continuously until well into 1930. Meanwhile the discount rate of the Federal Reserve System from 1925 to late 1928 was between 3.5 and 5%, the increase in the discount rate in 1928 to 5% representing a decisive shift toward tight money that helped drive the world economy into the Great Depression. We all know – and certainly no one better than Scott – that, in the late 1920s, the bank rate was an absolutely reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy. So what are we to make of Friedman’s dictum?

I think that the key point is that traditional notions of central banking – the idea of “cheap” or “dear” money – were arrived at during the nineteenth century when almost all central banks were operating either in terms of a convertible (gold or silver or bimetallic) standard or with reference to such a standard, so that the effect of monetary policy on prices could be monitored by observing the discount of the currency relative to gold or silver. In other words, there was an international price level in terms of gold (or silver), and the price level of every country could be observed by looking at the relationship of its currency to gold (or silver). As long as convertibility was maintained between a currency and gold (or silver), the price level in terms of that currency was fixed.

If a central bank changed its bank rate, as long as convertibility was maintained (and obviously most changes in bank rate occurred with no change in convertibility), the effect of the change in bank rate was not reflected in the country’s price level (which was determined by convertibility). So what was the point of a change in bank rate under those circumstances? Simply for the central bank to increase or decrease its holding of reserves (usually gold or silver). By increasing bank rate, the central bank would accumulate additional reserves, and, by decreasing bank rate, it would reduce its reserves. A “dear money” policy was the means by which a central bank could add to its reserve and an “easy money” policy was the means by which it could disgorge reserves.

So the idea that a central bank operating under a convertible standard could control its price level was based on a misapprehension — a widely held misapprehension to be sure — but still a mistaken application of the naive quantity theory of money to a convertible monetary standard. Nevertheless, although the irrelevance of bank rate to the domestic price level was not always properly understood in the nineteenth century – economists associated with the Currency School were especially confused on this point — the practical association between interest rates and the stance of monetary policy was well understood, which is why all monetary theorists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries agreed that high interest rates were a sign of dear money and low interest rates a sign of cheap money. Keynes and the Keynesians were simply reflecting the conventional wisdom.

Now after World War II, when convertibility was no longer a real constraint on the price level (despite the sham convertibility of the Bretton Woods system), it was a true innovation of Friedman to point out that the old association between dear (cheap) money and high (low) interest rates was no longer a reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy. However, as a knee-jerk follower of the Currency School – the 3% rule being Friedman’s attempt to adapt the Bank Charter Act of 1844 to a fiat currency, and with equally (and predictably) lousy results – Friedman never understood that under the gold standard, it is the price level which is fixed and the money supply that is endogenously determined, which is why much of the Monetary History, especially the part about the Great Depression (not, as Friedman called it, “Contraction,” erroneously implying that the change in the quantity of money was the cause, rather than the effect, of the deflation that characterized the Great Depression) is fundamentally misguided owing to its comprehensive misunderstanding of the monetary adjustment mechanism under a convertible standard.

PS This is written in haste, so there may be some errors insofar as I relying on my memory without checking my sources. I am sure that readers will correct my lapses of memory

PPS I also apologize for not responding to recent comments, I will try to rectify that transgression over the next few days.

Krugman Predicts the Future History of Economic Thought

It’s always nice to have a Nobel Laureate rely on something you’ve written in making an argument of his own, so I would prefer not to turn around and criticize Paul Krugman for the very blog-post in which he cited my recent posts about Milton Friedman. Now there are obviously certain basic points about Friedman that Krugman and I agree on, e.g., that Friedman relied more heavily on the Keynesian theory of the demand for money than he admitted, and second that Friedman’s description of his theory of the demand for money as the expression of an oral tradition transmitted from an earlier generation of Chicago quantity theorists lacked any foundation. Although some people, including my friend Scott Sumner, seem resistant to acknowledging these points, I don’t think that they are really very controversial statements.

However, Krugman goes beyond this to make a stronger point, which is that Friedman, unlike Keynes, is no longer a factor in policy debates, because the policy position that Friedman advocated is no longer tenable. Here’s how Krugman explains the posthumous untenability of Friedman’s position.

[A]t this point both of Friedman’s key contributions to macroeconomics look hard to defend.

First, on monetary policy . . . Friedman was still very much associated with the notion that the Fed can control the money supply, and controlling the money supply is all you need to stabilize the economy. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, this looks wrong from soup to nuts: the Fed can’t even control broad money, because it can add to bank reserves and they just sit there; and money in turn bears little relationship to GDP. And in retrospect the same was true in the 1930s, so that Friedman’s claim that the Fed could easily have prevented the Great Depression now looks highly dubious.

Krugman is making a tricky point. I agree that Friedman was wrong to focus entirely on the quantity of money in the Great Depression, but that’s because, under the gold standard then in place, the quantity of money was endogenous and prices exogenously determined by the gold standard. The Great Depression occurred because the international restoration of the gold standard in the late 1920s was driving up the value of gold and forcing deflation on all gold standard countries, not just the US, which is why leaving the gold standard or devaluation was a sure-fire way of starting a recovery even without expansionary fiscal policy, as evidenced by the spectacular recovery that started in April 1933 when FDR started devaluing the dollar. So Friedman was wrong about the nature of the monetary mechanisms then operating, but he wasn’t wrong about the ultimately monetary nature of the problem.

Second, on inflation and unemployment: Friedman’s success, with Phelps, in predicting stagflation was what really pushed his influence over the top; his notion of a natural rate of unemployment, of a vertical Phillips curve in the long run, became part of every textbook exposition. But it’s now very clear that at low rates of inflation the Phillips curve isn’t vertical at all, that there’s an underlying downward nominal rigidity to wages and perhaps many prices too that makes the natural rate hypothesis a very bad guide under depression conditions.

I don’t subscribe to the natural-rate hypothesis as a law of nature, but it did make an important contribution to the understanding of the limitations of macroeconomic policy. But even the strictest version of Friedman’s natural-rate hypothesis does not imply that, if the rate of unemployment is above the natural rate, an increase in the rate of inflation through expansionary monetary or fiscal policy would not hasten the transition back to the natural rate of unemployment. For an argument against expansionary monetary or fiscal policy in such circumstances, one has to resort to arguments other than those made by Friedman.

So Friedman’s economic analysis has taken a serious hit. But that’s not the whole story behind his disappearance; after all, all those economists who have been predicting runaway inflation still have a constituency after being wrong year after year.

Friedman’s larger problem, I’d argue, is that he was, when all is said and done, a man trying to straddle two competing world views — and our political environment no longer has room for that kind of straddle.

Think of it this way: Friedman was an avid free-market advocate, who insisted that the market, left to itself, could solve almost any problem. Yet he was also a macroeconomic realist, who recognized that the market definitely did not solve the problem of recessions and depressions. So he tried to wall off macroeconomics from everything else, and make it as inoffensive to laissez-faire sensibilities as possible. Yes, he in effect admitted, we do need stabilization policy — but we can minimize the government’s role by relying only on monetary policy, none of that nasty fiscal stuff, and then not even allowing the monetary authority any discretion.

At a fundamental level, however, this was an inconsistent position: if markets can go so wrong that they cause Great Depressions, how can you be a free-market true believer on everything except macro? And as American conservatism moved ever further right, it had no room for any kind of interventionism, not even the sterilized, clean-room interventionism of Friedman’s monetarism.

Well, inconsistency is in the eye of the beholder, and, anyway, it is surely appropriate to beware of that foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of little minds. The Great Depression was the result of a complex pattern of events, and acknowledging the inability of free markets to cope with those events is not the same thing as agreeing that free markets caused the Great Depression.

So Friedman has vanished from the policy scene — so much so that I suspect that a few decades from now, historians of economic thought will regard him as little more than an extended footnote.

I suspect that Krugman is correct that the small-minded political right-wing of our time is no longer as willing to accept Milton Friedman as their pre-eminent economic authority figure as were earlier generations of political right-wingers in the last three or four decades of the twentieth century. But to extrapolate from that sociological factoid how future historians of economic thought will evaluate the contributions of Milton Friedman seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.

Hicks on Keynes and the Theory of the Demand for Money

One of my favorite papers is one published by J. R. Hicks in 1935 “A Suggestion for Simplifying the Demand for Theory of Money.” The aim of that paper was to explain how to reconcile the concept of a demand for money into the theory of rational choice. Although Marshall had attempted to do so in his writings, his formulations of the idea were not fully satisfactory, and other Cambridge economists, notably Pigou, Lavington, Robertson, and Keynes, struggled to express the idea in a more satisfactory way than Marshall had done.

In Hicks’s introductory essay to volume II of his Collected Essays on Economic Theory in which his 1935 essay appears, Hicks recounts that Keynes told him after reading his essay that the essay was similar to the theory of liquidity preference, on which Keynes was then working.

To anyone who comes over from the theory of value to the theory of money, there are a number of things which are rather startling. Chief of these is the preoccupation of monetary theorists with a certain equation, which states that the price of goods multiplied by the quantity of goods equals the amount of money which is spent on them. The equation crops up again and again, and it has all sorts of ingenious little arithmetical tricks performed on it. Sometimes it comes out as MV = PT . . .

Now we, of the theory of value, are not unfamiliar with this equation, and there was a time when we used to attach as much importance to it as monetary theorists seem to do still. This was in the middle of the last century, when we used to talk about value being “a ratio between demand and supply.” Even now, we accept the equation, and work it, more or less implicitly, into our systems. But we are rather inclined to take it for granted, since it is rather tautologous, and since we have found that another equation, not alternative to the quantity equation, but complementary with it, is much more significant. This is the equation which states that the relative value of two commodities depends upon their relative marginal utility.

Now to an ingénue, who comes over to monetary theory, it is extremely trying to be deprived of this sheet-anchor. It was marginal utility that really made sense of the theory of value; and to come to a branch of economics which does without marginal utility altogether! No wonder there are such difficulties and such differences! What is wanted is a “marginal revolution!”

That is my suggestion. But I know that it will meet with apparently crushing objections. I shall be told that the suggestion has been tried out before. It was tried by Wicksell, and though it led to interesting results, it did not lead to a marginal utility theory of money. It was tried by Mises, and led to the conclusion that money is a ghost of gold – because, so it appeared, money as such has no marginal utility. The suggestion has a history, and its history is not encouraging.

This would be enough to frighten one off, were it not for two things. Both in the theory of value and in the theory of money there have been developments in the twenty of thirty years since Wicksell and Mises wrote. And these developments have considerably reduced the barriers that blocked their way.

In the theory of value, the work of Pareto, Wicksteed, and their successors, has broadened and deepened our whole conception of marginal utility. We now realize that the marginal utility analysis is nothing else than a general theory of choice, which is applicable whenever the choice is between alternatives that are capable of quantitative expression. Now money is obviously capable of quantitative expression, and therefore the objection that money has no marginal utility must be wrong. People do choose to have money rather than other things, and therefore, in the relevant sense, money must have a marginal utility.

But merely to call their marginal utility X, and then proceed to draw curves, would not be very helpful. Fortunately the developments in monetary theory to which I alluded come to our rescue.

Mr. Keynes’s Treatise, so far as I have been able to discover, contains at least three theories of money. One of them is the Savings and Investment theory, which . . . seems to me only a quantity theory much glorified. One of them is a Wicksellian natural rate theory. But the third is altogether more interesting. It emerges when Mr. Keynes begins to talk about the price-level of investment goods; when he shows that this price-level depends upon the relative preference of the investor – to hold bank-deposits or to hold securities. Here at last we have something which to a value theorist looks sensible and interesting! Here at last we have a choice at the margin! And Mr. Keynes goes on to put substance into our X, by his doctrine that the relative preference depends upon the “bearishness” or “bullishness” of the public, upon their relative desire for liquidity or profit.

My suggestion may, therefore, be reformulated. It seems to me that this third theory of Mr. Keynes really contains the most important of his theoretical contribution; that here, at last, we have something which, on the analogy (the approximate analogy) of value theory, does begin to offer a chance of making the whole thing easily intelligible; that it si form this point, not from velocity of circulation, or Saving and Investment, that we ought to start in constructing the theory of money. But in saying this I am being more Keynesian than Keynes [note to Blue Aurora this was written in 1934 and published in 1935].

The point of this extended quotation, in case it is not obvious to the reader, is that Hicks is here crediting Keynes in his Treatise on Money with a crucial conceptual advance in formulating a theory of the demand for money consistent with the marginalist theory of value. Hicks himself recognized that Keynes in the General Theory worked out a more comprehensive version of the theory than that which he presented in his essay, even though they were not entirely the same. So there was no excuse for Friedman to present a theory of the demand for money which he described “as part of capital or wealth theory, concerned with the composition of the balance sheet or portfolio of assets,” without crediting Keynes for that theory, just because he rejected the idea of absolute liquidity preference.

Here is how Hicks summed up the relationship in his introductory essay referred to above.

Keynes’s Liquidity theory was so near to mine, and was put over in so much more effective a way than I could hope to achieve, that it seemed pointless, at first, to emphasize differences. Sometimes, indeed, he put his in such a way that there was hardly any difference. But, as time went on, what came to be regarded in many quarters, as Keynesian theory was something much more mechanical than he had probably intended. It was certainly more mechanical than I had intended. So in the end I had ot go back to “Simplifying,” and to insist that its message was a Declaration of Independence, not only from the “free market” school from which I was expressly liberating myself, but also from what came to pass as Keynesian economics.

Second Thoughts on Friedman

After blowing off some steam about Milton Friedman in my previous post, thereby antagonizing a sizable segment of my readership, and after realizing that I had been guilty of a couple of memory lapses in citing sources that I was relying on, I thought that I should go back and consult some of the relevant primary sources. So I looked up Friedman’s 1966 article “Interest Rates and the Demand for Money” published in the Journal of Law and Economics in which he denied that he had ever asserted that the demand for money did not depend on the rate of interest and that the empirical magnitude of the elasticity of money demand with respect to the interest rate was not important unless it approached the very high elasticity associated with the Keynesian liquidity trap. I also took a look at Friedman’s reply to Don Patinkin essay “Friedman on the Quantity Theory and Keynesian Economics” in Milton Friedman’s Monetary Framework: A Debate with his Critics.

Perhaps on another occasion, I will offer some comments on Friedman and the interest elasticity of the demand for money, but, for now, I will focus on Friedman’s reply to Patinkin, which is most relevant to my previous post. Patinkin’s essay, entitled, “Friedman on the Quantity Theory and Keynesian Economics,” charged that Friedman had repackaged the Keynesian theory as a quantity theory and tried to sell it with a Chicago oral tradition label stuck on the package. That’s an overstatement of a far more sophisticated argument than my one sentence summary can do justice to, but it captures the polemical gist of Patinkin’s argument, an argument that he had made previously in a paper, “The Chicago Tradition, the Quantity Theory, and Friedman” published in the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking which Harry Johnson relied on in his 1970 Richard T. Ely lecture, “The Keynesian Revolution and the Monetarist Counterrevolution.” Friedman took personal offense at what he regarded as attacks on his scholarly integrity in those papers, and his irritation (to put it mildly) with Patinkin is plainly in evidence in his reply to Patinkin. Much, but not all, of my criticism of Friedman stems from my memory of the two papers by Patinkin and Johnson.

Now to give Friedman his due – and to reiterate what I have already said a number of times, Friedman was a great economist and you can learn a lot by reading his arguments carefully because he was a very skillful applied theorist — he makes a number of effective responses to Patinkin’s accusation that he was merely peddling a disguised version of Keynesianism under the banners of the quantity theory and the Chicago oral tradition. These are basically the same arguments that Scott Sumner used in the post that he wrote defending Friedman against my recycling of the Patinkin/Johnson criticism.

First, like earlier quantity theorists, and unlike Keynes in the General Theory, Friedman assumed that the price level is determined (not, as in the GT, somehow fixed exogenously) by the demand for money and the supply (effectively under the complete discretionary control of the monetary authority) of money.

Second, because differences between the demand for money and the supply of money (in nominal terms) are equilibrated primarily by changes in the price level (not, as in the GT, by changes in the rate of interest), the link between monetary policy and the economy that Friedman focused on was the price level not the rate of interest.

Third, Friedman did not deny that the demand for money was affected by the rate of interest, but he maintained that monetary policy would become ineffective only under conditions of a liquidity trap, which was therefore, in Friedman’s view, the chief theoretical innovation of the General Theory, but one which, on empirical grounds, Friedman flatly rejected.

So if I were to restate Patinkin’s objection in somewhat different terms, I would say that Friedman, in 1956 and in later expositions, described the quantity theory as a theory of the demand for money, which as a historical matter is a travesty, because the quantity theory was around for centuries before the concept of a demand for money was even articulated, but the theory of the demand for money that Friedman described was, in fact, very much influenced by the Keynesian theory of liquidity preference, an influence not mentioned by Friedman in 1956 but acknowledged in later expositions. Friedman explained away this failure by saying that Keynes was merely adding to a theory of the demand for money that had been evolving at Cambridge since Marshall’s day, and that the novel element in the General Theory, absolute liquidity preference, was empirically unsupported. That characterization of Keynes’s theory of liquidity preference strikes me as being ungenerous, but both Friedman and Patinkin neglected to point out that Keynes erroneously thought that his theory of liquidity preference was actually a complete theory of the rate of interest that displaced the real theory of interest.

So, my take on the dispute between Friedman and Patinkin is that Patinkin was right that Friedman did not sufficiently acknowledge the extent to which he was indebted to Keynes for the theory of the demand for money that he erroneously identified with the quantity theory of money. On the other hand, because Friedman explicitly allowed for the price level to be determined within his model, he avoided the Keynesian liquidity-preference relationship between the quantity of money and the rate of interest, allowing the real rate of interest to be determined by real factors not liquidity preference. In some sense, Friedman may have exaggerated the conceptual differences between himself and the Keynesians, but, by making a strategic assumption that the price level responds to changes in the quantity of money, Friedman minimized the effect of changes in the quantity of money on interest rates, except via changes in price level expectations.

But, having granted Friedman partial exoneration of the charge that he was a crypto-Keynesian, I want to explore a bit more carefully Friedman’s remarkable defense against the accusation by Patinkin and Johnson that he invented a non-existent Chicago oral tradition under whose name he could present his quasi-Keynesian theory of the demand for money. Friedman began his response to Patinkin with the following expression of outrage.

Patinkin . . . and Johnson criticize me for linking my work to a “Chicago tradition” rather than recognizing that, as they see it, my work is Keynesian. In the course of their criticism, they give a highly misleading impression of the Chicago tradition. . . .

Whether I conveyed the flavor of that tradition or not, there was such a tradition; it was significantly different from the quantity theory tradition that prevailed at other institutions of learning, notably the London School of Economics; that Chicago tradition had a great deal to do with the differential impact of Keynes’s General Theory on economists at Chicago and elsewhere; and it was responsible for the maintenance of interest in the quantity theory at Chicago. (Friedman’s Monetary Framework p. 158 )

Note the reference to the London School of Economics, as if LSE in the 1930s was in any way notable for its quantity theory tradition. There were to be sure monetary theorists of some distinction working at the LSE in the 1930s, but their relationship to the quantity theory was, at best, remote.

Friedman elaborates on this tidbit a few pages later, recalling that in the late 1940s or early 1950s he once debated Abba Lerner at a seminar at the University of Chicago. Despite agreeing with each other about many issues, Friedman recalled that they were in sharp disagreement about the Keynesian Revolution, Lerner being an avid Keynesian, and Friedman being opposed. The reason for their very different reaction to the Keynesian Revolution, Friedman conjectured, was that Lerner had been trained at the London School of Economics “where the dominant view was that the depression was an inevitable result of the prior boom, that it was deepened by the attempts ot prevent prices and wages from falling and firms from going bankrupt, that the monetary authorities had brought on the depression by inflationary policies before the crash and had prolonged it by ‘easy money’ policies thereafter; that the only sound policy was to let the depression run its course, bring down money costs, and eliminate the weak and unsound firms.” For someone trained in such a view, Friedman suggested, the Keynesian program would seem very attractive. Friedman continued:

It was the London School (really Austrian) view that I referred to in my “Restatement” when I spoke of “the atrophied and rigid caricature [of the quantity theory] that is so frequently described by the proponents of the new income-expenditure approach – and with some justice, to judge by much of the literature on policy that was spawned by the quantity theorists.”

The intellectual climate at Chicago had been wholly different. My teachers regarded the depression as largely the product of misguided government policy – or at least greatly intensified by such policies. They blamed the monetary and fiscal authorities for permitting banks to fail and the quantity of deposits to decline. Far from preaching the need to let deflation and bankruptcy run their course, they issued repeated pronouncements calling for governmental action to stem the deflation. . . .

It was this view the the quantity theory that I referred to in my “Restatement” as “a more subtle and relevant version, one in which the quantity theory was connected and integrated with general price theory and became a flexible and sensitive tool for interpreting movements in aggregate economic activity and for developing relevant policy prescriptions.” (pp. 162-63)

After quoting at length from a talk Jacob Viner gave in 1933 calling for monetary expansion, Friedman winds up with this gem.

What, in the field of interpretation and policy, did Keynes have to offer those of us who learned their economics at a Chicago filled with these views? Can anyone who knows my work read Viner’s comments and not see the direct links between them and Anna Schwartz’s and my Monetary History or between them and the empirical Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money? Indeed, as I have read Viner’s talk for purposes of this paper, I have myself been amazed to discover how precisely it foreshadows the main thesis of our Monetary History for the depression period, and have been embarrassed that we made no reference to it in our account. Can you find any similar link between [Lionel] Robbins’s [of LSE] comments [in his book The Great Depression] and our work? (p. 167)

So what is the evidence that Friedman provides to counter the scandalous accusation by Patinkin and Johnson that Friedman invented a Chicago oral tradition of the quantity theory? (And don’t forget: the quantity theory is a theory of the demand for money) Well, it’s that, at the London School of Economics, there were a bunch of guys who had crazy views about just allowing the Great Depression to run its course, and those guys were quantity theorists, which is why Keynes had to start a revolution to get rid of them all, but at Chicago, they didn’t allow any of those guys to spout their crazy ideas in the first place, so we didn’t need any damn Keynesian revolution.

Good grief! Is there a single word that makes sense? To begin with those detestable guys at LSE were Austrians, as Friedman acknowledges. What he didn’t say, or didn’t know, is that Austrians, either by self-description or by any reasonable definition of the term, are not quantity theorists. So the idea that there was anything special about the Chicago quantity theory as opposed to any other species of the quantity theory is total humbug.

But hold on, it only gets worse. Friedman holds up Jacob Viner as an exemplar of the Chicago quantity theory oral tradition. Jacob Viner was a superb economist, a magnificent scholar, and a legendary teacher for whom I have the utmost admiration, and I am sure that Friedman learned a lot from him at Chicago, But isn’t it strange that Friedman writes: “as I have read Viner’s talk for purposes of this paper, I have myself been amazed to discover how precisely it foreshadows the main thesis of our Monetary History for the depression period, and have been embarrassed that we made no reference to it in our account.” OMG! This is the oral tradition that exerted such a powerful influence on Friedman and his fellow students? Viner explains how to get out of the depression in 1933, and in 1971 Friedman is “amazed to discover” how precisely Viner’s talk foreshadowed the main thesis of his explanation of the Great Depression? That sounds more like a subliminal tradition than an oral tradition.

Responding to Patinkin’s charge that his theory of the demand for money – remember the quantity theory, according to Friedman is a theory of the demand for money — is largely derived from Keynes, Friedman plays a word game.

Is everything in the General Theory Keynesian? Obviously yes, in the trivial sense that the words were set down on paper by John Maynard Keynes. Obviously no, in the more important sense that the term Keynesian has come to refer to a theory of short-term economic change – or a way of analyzing such change – presented in the General Theory and distinctively different from the theory that preceded it. To take a noncontroversial example: in his chapter 20 on “The Employment Function” and elsewhere, Keynes uses the law of diminishing returns to conclude that an increase of employment requires a decline in real-wage rates. Clearly that does not make the “law of diminishing returns” Keynesian or justify describing the “analytical framework” of someone who embodies the law of diminishing returns in his theoretical structure as Keynesian.

In just the same sense, I maintain that Keynes’s discussion of the demand curve for money in the General Theory is for the most part a continuation of earlier quantity theory approaches, improved and refined but not basically modified. As evidence, I shall cite Keynes’s own writings in the Tract on Monetary Reform – long before he became a Keynesian in the present sense. (p. 168)

There are two problems with this line of defense. First, the analogy to the law of diminishing returns would have been appropriate only if Keynes had played a major role in the discovery of the law of diminishing returns just as, on Friedman’s own admission, he played a major role in discovering the theory of liquidity preference. Second, it is, to say the least, debatable to what extent “Keynes’s discussion of the demand curve for money was merely a continuation of earlier quantity theory approaches, improved and refined but not basically modified.” But there is no basis at all for the suggestion that a Chicago oral tradition was the least bit implicated in those earlier quantity theory approaches. So Friedman’s invocation of a Chicago oral tradition was completely fanciful.

This post has gone on too long already. I have more to say about Friedman’s discussion of the relationship between money, price levels, and interest rates. But that will have to wait till next time.

My Milton Friedman Problem

In my previous post , I discussed Keynes’s perplexing and problematic criticism of the Fisher equation in chapter 11 of the General Theory, perplexing because it is difficult to understand what Keynes is trying to say in the passage, and problematic because it is not only inconsistent with Keynes’s reasoning in earlier writings in which he essentially reproduced Fisher’s argument, it is also inconsistent with Keynes’s reasoning in chapter 17 of the General Theory in his exposition of own rates of interest and their equilibrium relationship. Scott Sumner honored me with a whole post on his blog which he entitled “Glasner on Keynes and the Fisher Effect,” quite a nice little ego boost.

After paraphrasing some of what I had written in his own terminology, Scott quoted me in responding to a dismissive comment that Krugman recently made about Milton Friedman, of whom Scott tends to be highly protective. Here’s the passage I am referring to.

PPS.  Paul Krugman recently wrote the following:

Just stabilize the money supply, declared Milton Friedman, and we don’t need any of this Keynesian stuff (even though Friedman, when pressured into providing an underlying framework, basically acknowledged that he believed in IS-LM).

Actually Friedman hated IS-LM.  I don’t doubt that one could write down a set of equilibria in the money market and goods market, as a function of interest rates and real output, for almost any model.  But does this sound like a guy who “believed in” the IS-LM model as a useful way of thinking about macro policy?

Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight, as in Japan; high interest rates, that money has been easy.

It turns out that IS-LM curves will look very different if one moves away from the interest rate transmission mechanism of the Keynesians.  Again, here’s David:

Before closing, I will just make two side comments. First, my interpretation of Keynes’s take on the Fisher equation is similar to that of Allin Cottrell in his 1994 paper “Keynes and the Keynesians on the Fisher Effect.” Second, I would point out that the Keynesian analysis violates the standard neoclassical assumption that, in a two-factor production function, the factors are complementary, which implies that an increase in employment raises the MEC schedule. The IS curve is not downward-sloping, but upward sloping. This is point, as I have explained previously (here and here), was made a long time ago by Earl Thompson, and it has been made recently by Nick Rowe and Miles Kimball.I hope in a future post to work out in more detail the relationship between the Keynesian and the Fisherian analyses of real and nominal interest rates.

Please do.  Krugman reads Glasner’s blog, and if David keeps posting on this stuff then Krugman will eventually realize that hearing a few wisecracks from older Keynesians about various non-Keynesian traditions doesn’t make one an expert on the history of monetary thought.

I wrote a comment on Scott’s blog responding to this post in which, after thanking him for mentioning me in the same breath as Keynes and Fisher, I observed that I didn’t find Krugman’s characterization of Friedman as someone who basically believed in IS-LM as being in any way implausible.

Then, about Friedman, I don’t think he believed in IS-LM, but it’s not as if he had an alternative macromodel. He didn’t have a macromodel, so he was stuck with something like an IS-LM model by default, as was made painfully clear by his attempt to spell out his framework for monetary analysis in the early 1970s. Basically he just tinkered with the IS-LM to allow the price level to be determined, rather than leaving it undetermined as in the original Hicksian formulation. Of course in his policy analysis and historical work he was not constained by any formal macromodel, so he followed his instincts which were often reliable, but sometimes not so.

So I am afraid that my take may on Friedman may be a little closer to Krugman’s than to yours. But the real point is that IS-LM is just a framework that can be adjusted to suit the purposes of the modeler. For Friedman the important thing was to deny that that there is a liquidity trap, and introduce an explicit money-supply-money-demand relation to determine the absolute price level. It’s not just Krugman who says that, it’s also Don Patinkin and Harry Johnson. Whether Krugman knows the history of thought, I don’t know, but surely Patinkin and Johnson did.

Scott responded:

I’m afraid I strongly disagree regarding Friedman. The IS-LM “model” is much more than just the IS-LM graph, or even an assumption about the interest elasticity of money demand. For instance, suppose a shift in LM also causes IS to shift. Is that still the IS-LM model? If so, then I’d say it should be called the “IS-LM tautology” as literally anything would be possible.

When I read Friedman’s work it comes across as a sort of sustained assault on IS-LM type thinking.

To which I replied:

I think that if you look at Friedman’s responses to his critics the volume Milton Friedman’s Monetary Framework: A Debate with his Critics, he said explicitly that he didn’t think that the main differences among Keynesians and Monetarists were about theory, but about empirical estimates of the relevant elasticities. So I think that in this argument Friedman’s on my side.

And finally Scott:

This would probably be easier if you provided some examples of monetary ideas that are in conflict with IS-LM. Or indeed any ideas that are in conflict with IS-LM. I worry that people are interpreting IS-LM too broadly.

For instance, do Keynesians “believe” in MV=PY? Obviously yes. Do they think it’s useful? No.

Everyone agrees there are a set of points where the money market is in equilibrium. People don’t agree on whether easy money raises interest rates or lowers interest rates. In my view the term “believing in IS-LM” implies a belief that easy money lowers rates, which boosts investment, which boosts RGDP. (At least when not at the zero bound.) Friedman may agree that easy money boosts RGDP, but may not agree on the transmission mechanism.

People used IS-LM to argue against the Friedman and Schwartz view that tight money caused the Depression. They’d say; “How could tight money have caused the Depression? Interest rates fell sharply in 1930?”

I think that Friedman meant that economists agreed on some of the theoretical building blocks of IS-LM, but not on how the entire picture fit together.

Oddly, your critique of Keynes reminds me a lot of Friedman’s critiques of Keynes.

Actually, this was not the first time that I provoked a negative response by writing critically about Friedman. Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote a post (“Was Milton Friedman a Closet Keynesian?”) which drew some critical comments from such reliably supportive commenters as Marcus Nunes, W. Peden, and Luis Arroyo. I guess Scott must have been otherwise occupied, because I didn’t hear a word from him. Here’s what I said:

Commenting on a supremely silly and embarrassingly uninformed (no, Ms. Shlaes, A Monetary History of the United States was not Friedman’s first great work, Essays in Positive Economics, Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money, A Theory of the Consumption Function, A Program for Monetary Stability, and Capitalism and Freedom were all published before A Monetary History of the US was published) column by Amity Shlaes, accusing Ben Bernanke of betraying the teachings of Milton Friedman, teachings that Bernanke had once promised would guide the Fed for ever more, Paul Krugman turned the tables and accused Friedman of having been a crypto-Keynesian.

The truth, although nobody on the right will ever admit it, is that Friedman was basically a Keynesian — or, if you like, a Hicksian. His framework was just IS-LM coupled with an assertion that the LM curve was close enough to vertical — and money demand sufficiently stable — that steady growth in the money supply would do the job of economic stabilization. These were empirical propositions, not basic differences in analysis; and if they turn out to be wrong (as they have), monetarism dissolves back into Keynesianism.

Krugman is being unkind, but he is at least partly right.  In his famous introduction to Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money, which he called “The Quantity Theory of Money:  A Restatement,” Friedman gave the game away when he called the quantity theory of money a theory of the demand for money, an almost shockingly absurd characterization of what anyone had ever thought the quantity theory of money was.  At best one might have said that the quantity theory of money was a non-theory of the demand for money, but Friedman somehow got it into his head that he could get away with repackaging the Cambridge theory of the demand for money — the basis on which Keynes built his theory of liquidity preference — and calling that theory the quantity theory of money, while ascribing it not to Cambridge, but to a largely imaginary oral tradition at the University of Chicago.  Friedman was eventually called on this bit of scholarly legerdemain by his old friend from graduate school at Chicago Don Patinkin, and, subsequently, in an increasingly vitriolic series of essays and lectures by his then Chicago colleague Harry Johnson.  Friedman never repeated his references to the Chicago oral tradition in his later writings about the quantity theory. . . . But the simple fact is that Friedman was never able to set down a monetary or a macroeconomic model that wasn’t grounded in the conventional macroeconomics of his time.

As further evidence of Friedman’s very conventional theoretical conception of monetary theory, I could also cite Friedman’s famous (or, if you prefer, infamous) comment (often mistakenly attributed to Richard Nixon) “we are all Keynesians now” and the not so famous second half of the comment “and none of us are Keynesians anymore.” That was simply Friedman’s way of signaling his basic assent to the neoclassical synthesis which was built on the foundation of Hicksian IS-LM model augmented with a real balance effect and the assumption that prices and wages are sticky in the short run and flexible in the long run. So Friedman meant that we are all Keynesians now in the sense that the IS-LM model derived by Hicks from the General Theory was more or less universally accepted, but that none of us are Keynesians anymore in the sense that this framework was reconciled with the supposed neoclassical principle of the monetary neutrality of a unique full-employment equilibrium that can, in principle, be achieved by market forces, a principle that Keynes claimed to have disproved.

But to be fair, I should also observe that missing from Krugman’s take down of Friedman was any mention that in the original HIcksian IS-LM model, the price level was left undetermined, so that as late as 1970, most Keynesians were still in denial that inflation was a monetary phenomenon, arguing instead that inflation was essentially a cost-push phenomenon determined by the rate of increase in wages. Control of inflation was thus not primarily under the control of the central bank, but required some sort of “incomes policy” (wage-price guidelines, guideposts, controls or what have you) which opened the door for Nixon to cynically outflank his Democratic (Keynesian) opponents by coopting their proposals for price controls when he imposed a wage-price freeze (almost 42 years ago on August 15, 1971) to his everlasting shame and discredit.

Scott asked me to list some monetary ideas that I believe are in conflict with IS-LM. I have done so in my earlier posts (here, here, here and here) on Earl Thompson’s paper “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” (not that I am totally satisfied with Thompson’s model either, but that’s a topic for another post). Three of the main messages from Thompson’s work are that IS-LM mischaracterizes the monetary sector, because in a modern monetary economy the money supply is endogenous, not exogenous as Keynes and Friedman assumed. Second, the IS curve (or something corresponding to it) is not negatively sloped as Keynesians generally assume, but upward-sloping. I don’t think Friedman ever said a word about an upward-sloping IS curve. Third, the IS-LM model is essentially a one-period model which makes it difficult to carry out a dynamic analysis that incorporates expectations into that framework. Analysis of inflation, expectations, and the distinction between nominal and real interest rates requires a richer model than the HIcksian IS-LM apparatus. But Friedman didn’t scrap IS-LM, he expanded it to accommodate expectations, inflation, and the distinction between real and nominal interest rates.

Scott’s complaint about IS-LM seems to be that it implies that easy money reduces interest rates and that tight money raises rates, but, in reality, it’s the opposite. But I don’t think that you need a macro-model to understand that low inflation implies low interest rates and that high inflation implies high interest rates. There is nothing in IS-LM that contradicts that insight; it just requires augmenting the model with a term for expectations. But there’s nothing in the model that prevents you from seeing the distinction between real and nominal interest rates. Similarly, there is nothing in MV = PY that prevented Friedman from seeing that increasing the quantity of money by 3% a year was not likely to stabilize the economy. If you are committed to a particular result, you can always torture a model in such a way that the desired result can be deduced from it. Friedman did it to MV = PY to get his 3% rule; Keynesians (or some of them) did it to IS-LM to argue that low interest rates always indicate easy money (and it’s not only Keynesians who do that, as Scott knows only too well). So what? Those are examples of the universal tendency to forget that there is an identification problem. I blame the modeler, not the model.

OK, so why am I not a fan of Friedman’s? Here are some reasons. But before I list them, I will state for the record that he was a great economist, and deserved the professional accolades that he received in his long and amazingly productive career. I just don’t think that he was that great a monetary theorist, but his accomplishments far exceeded his contributions to monetary theory. The accomplishments mainly stemmed from his great understanding of price theory, and his skill in applying it to economic problems, and his great skill as a mathematical statistician.

1 His knowledge of the history of monetary theory was very inadequate. He had an inordinately high opinion of Lloyd Mints’s History of Banking Theory which was obsessed with proving that the real bills doctrine was a fallacy, uncritically adopting its pro-currency-school and anti-banking-school bias.

2 He covered up his lack of knowledge of the history of monetary theory by inventing a non-existent Chicago oral tradition and using it as a disguise for his repackaging the Cambridge theory of the demand for money and aspects of the Keynesian theory of liquidity preference as the quantity theory of money, while deliberately obfuscating the role of the interest rate as the opportunity cost of holding money.

3 His theory of international monetary adjustment was a naïve version of the Humean Price-Specie-Flow mechanism, ignoring the tendency of commodity arbitrage to equalize price levels under the gold standard even without gold shipments, thereby misinterpreting the significance of gold shipments under the gold standard.

4 In trying to find a respectable alternative to Keynesian theory, he completely ignored all pre-Keynesian monetary theories other than what he regarded as the discredited Austrian theory, overlooking or suppressing the fact that Hawtrey and Cassel had 40 years before he published the Monetary History of the United States provided (before the fact) a monetary explanation for the Great Depression, which he claimed to have discovered. And in every important respect, Friedman’s explanation was inferior to and retrogression from Hawtrey and Cassel explanation.

5 For example, his theory provided no explanation for the beginning of the downturn in 1929, treating it as if it were simply routine business-cycle downturn, while ignoring the international dimensions, and especially the critical role played by the insane Bank of France.

6 His 3% rule was predicated on the implicit assumption that the demand for money (or velocity of circulation) is highly stable, a proposition for which there was, at best, weak empirical support. Moreover, it was completely at variance with experience during the nineteenth century when the model for his 3% rule — Peel’s Bank Charter Act of 1844 — had to be suspended three times in the next 22 years as a result of financial crises largely induced, as Walter Bagehot explained, by the restriction on creation of banknotes imposed by the Bank Charter Act. However, despite its obvious shortcomings, the 3% rule did serve as an ideological shield with which Friedman could defend his libertarian credentials against criticism for his opposition to the gold standard (so beloved of libertarians) and to free banking (the theory of which Friedman did not comprehend until late in his career).

7 Despite his professed libertarianism, he was an intellectual bully who abused underlings (students and junior professors) who dared to disagree with him, as documented in Perry Mehrling’s biography of Fischer Black, and confirmed to me by others who attended his lectures. Black was made so uncomfortable by Friedman that Black fled Chicago to seek refuge among the Keynesians at MIT.

A Newly Revised Version of My Paper (with Ron Batchelder) on Hawtrey and Cassel Is Now Available on SSRN

This may not be the most important news of the day, but for those wishing to immerse themselves in the economics of Hawtrey and Cassel, a newly revised version of my paper with Ron Batchelder “Pre-Keynesian Monetary Explanations of the Great Depression: Whatever Happened to Hawtrey and Cassel?” is now available on SSRN.

The paper has also recently been submitted to a journal for review, so we are hoping that it will finally be published before too long. Wish us luck. Here’s the slightly revised abstract.

A strictly monetary theory of the Great Depression is generally thought to have originated with Milton Friedman. Designed to counter the Keynesian notion that the Depression resulted from instabilities inherent in modern capitalist economies, Friedman’s explanation identified the culprit as an ill-conceived monetary policy pursued by an inept Federal Reserve Board. More recent work on the Depression suggests that the causes of the Depression, rooted in the attempt to restore an international gold standard that had been suspended after World War I started, were more international in scope than Friedman believed. We document that current views about the causes of the Depression were anticipated in the 1920s by Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel who independently warned that restoring the gold standard risked causing a disastrous deflation unless the resulting increase in the international monetary demand for gold could be limited. Although their early warnings of potential disaster were validated, and their policy advice after the Depression started was consistently correct, their contributions were later ignored or forgotten. This paper explores the possible reasons for the remarkable disregard by later economists of the Hawtrey-Cassel monetary explanation of the Great Depression.

The State We’re In

Last week, Paul Krugman, set off by this blog post, complained about the current state macroeconomics. Apparently, Krugman feels that if saltwater economists like himself were willing to accommodate the intertemporal-maximization paradigm developed by the freshwater economists, the freshwater economists ought to have reciprocated by acknowledging some role for countercyclical policy. Seeing little evidence of accommodation on the part of the freshwater economists, Krugman, evidently feeling betrayed, came to this rather harsh conclusion:

The state of macro is, in fact, rotten, and will remain so until the cult that has taken over half the field is somehow dislodged.

Besides engaging in a pretty personal attack on his fellow economists, Krugman did not present a very flattering picture of economics as a scientific discipline. What Krugman describes seems less like a search for truth than a cynical bargaining game, in which Krugman feels that his (saltwater) side, after making good faith offers of cooperation and accommodation that were seemingly accepted by the other (freshwater) side, was somehow misled into making concessions that undermined his side’s strategic position. What I found interesting was that Krugman seemed unaware that his account of the interaction between saltwater and freshwater economists was not much more flattering to the former than the latter.

Krugman’s diatribe gave Stephen Williamson an opportunity to scorn and scold Krugman for a crass misunderstanding of the progress of science. According to Williamson, modern macroeconomics has passed by out-of-touch old-timers like Krugman. Among modern macroeconomists, Williamson observes, the freshwater-saltwater distinction is no longer meaningful or relevant. Everyone is now, more or less, on the same page; differences are worked out collegially in seminars, workshops, conferences and in the top academic journals without the rancor and disrespect in which Krugman indulges himself. If you are lucky (and hard-working) enough to be part of it, macroeconomics is a great place to be. One can almost visualize the condescension and the pity oozing from Williamson’s pores for those not part of the charmed circle.

Commenting on this exchange, Noah Smith generally agreed with Williamson that modern macroeconomics is not a discipline divided against itself; the intetermporal maximizers are clearly dominant. But Noah allows himself to wonder whether this is really any cause for celebration – celebration, at any rate, by those not in the charmed circle.

So macro has not yet discovered what causes recessions, nor come anywhere close to reaching a consensus on how (or even if) we should fight them. . . .

Given this state of affairs, can we conclude that the state of macro is good? Is a field successful as long as its members aren’t divided into warring camps? Or should we require a science to give us actual answers? And if we conclude that a science isn’t giving us actual answers, what do we, the people outside the field, do? Do we demand that the people currently working in the field start producing results pronto, threatening to replace them with people who are currently relegated to the fringe? Do we keep supporting the field with money and acclaim, in the hope that we’re currently only in an interim stage, and that real answers will emerge soon enough? Do we simply conclude that the field isn’t as fruitful an area of inquiry as we thought, and quietly defund it?

All of this seems to me to be a side issue. Who cares if macroeconomists like each other or hate each other? Whether they get along or not, whether they treat each other nicely or not, is really of no great import. For example, it was largely at Milton Friedman’s urging that Harry Johnson was hired to be the resident Keynesian at Chicago. But almost as soon as Johnson arrived, he and Friedman were getting into rather unpleasant personal exchanges and arguments. And even though Johnson underwent a metamorphosis from mildly left-wing Keynesianism to moderately conservative monetarism during his nearly two decades at Chicago, his personal and professional relationship with Friedman got progressively worse. And all of that nastiness was happening while both Friedman and Johnson were becoming dominant figures in the economics profession. So what does the level of collegiality and absence of personal discord have to do with the state of a scientific or academic discipline? Not all that much, I would venture to say.

So when Scott Sumner says:

while Krugman might seem pessimistic about the state of macro, he’s a Pollyanna compared to me. I see the field of macro as being completely adrift

I agree totally. But I diagnose the problem with macro a bit differently from how Scott does. He is chiefly concerned with getting policy right, which is certainly important, inasmuch as policy, since early 2008, has, for the most part, been disastrously wrong. One did not need a theoretically sophisticated model to see that the FOMC, out of misplaced concern that inflation expectations were becoming unanchored, kept money way too tight in 2008 in the face of rising food and energy prices, even as the economy was rapidly contracting in the second and third quarters. And in the wake of the contraction in the second and third quarters and a frightening collapse and panic in the fourth quarter, it did not take a sophisticated model to understand that rapid monetary expansion was called for. That’s why Scott writes the following:

All we really know is what Milton Friedman knew, with his partial equilibrium approach. Monetary policy drives nominal variables.  And cyclical fluctuations caused by nominal shocks seem sub-optimal.  Beyond that it’s all conjecture.

Ahem, and Marshall and Wicksell and Cassel and Fisher and Keynes and Hawtrey and Robertson and Hayek and at least 25 others that I could easily name. But it’s interesting to note that, despite his Marshallian (anti-Walrasian) proclivities, it was Friedman himself who started modern macroeconomics down the fruitless path it has been following for the last 40 years when he introduced the concept of the natural rate of unemployment in his famous 1968 AEA Presidential lecture on the role of monetary policy. Friedman defined the natural rate of unemployment as:

the level [of unemployment] that would be ground out by the Walrasian system of general equilibrium equations, provided there is embedded in them the actual structural characteristics of the labor and commodity markets, including market imperfections, stochastic variability in demands and supplies, the costs of gathering information about job vacancies, and labor availabilities, the costs of mobility, and so on.

Aside from the peculiar verb choice in describing the solution of an unknown variable contained in a system of equations, what is noteworthy about his definition is that Friedman was explicitly adopting a conception of an intertemporal general equilibrium as the unique and stable solution of that system of equations, and, whether he intended to or not, appeared to be suggesting that such a concept was operationally useful as a policy benchmark. Thus, despite Friedman’s own deep skepticism about the usefulness and relevance of general-equilibrium analysis, Friedman, for whatever reasons, chose to present his natural-rate argument in the language (however stilted on his part) of the Walrasian general-equilibrium theory for which he had little use and even less sympathy.

Inspired by the powerful policy conclusions that followed from the natural-rate hypothesis, Friedman’s direct and indirect followers, most notably Robert Lucas, used that analysis to transform macroeconomics, reducing macroeconomics to the manipulation of a simplified intertemporal general-equilibrium system. Under the assumption that all economic agents could correctly forecast all future prices (aka rational expectations), all agents could be viewed as intertemporal optimizers, any observed unemployment reflecting the optimizing choices of individuals to consume leisure or to engage in non-market production. I find it inconceivable that Friedman could have been pleased with the direction taken by the economics profession at large, and especially by his own department when he departed Chicago in 1977. This is pure conjecture on my part, but Friedman’s departure upon reaching retirement age might have had something to do with his own lack of sympathy with the direction that his own department had, under Lucas’s leadership, already taken. The problem was not so much with policy, but with the whole conception of what constitutes macroeconomic analysis.

The paper by Carlaw and Lipsey, which I referenced in my previous post, provides just one of many possible lines of attack against what modern macroeconomics has become. Without in any way suggesting that their criticisms are not weighty and serious, I would just point out that there really is no basis at all for assuming that the economy can be appropriately modeled as being in a continuous, or nearly continuous, state of general equilibrium. In the absence of a complete set of markets, the Arrow-Debreu conditions for the existence of a full intertemporal equilibrium are not satisfied, and there is no market mechanism that leads, even in principle, to a general equilibrium. The rational-expectations assumption is simply a deus-ex-machina method by which to solve a simplified model, a method with no real-world counterpart. And the suggestion that rational expectations is no more than the extension, let alone a logical consequence, of the standard rationality assumptions of basic economic theory is transparently bogus. Nor is there any basis for assuming that, if a general equilibrium does exist, it is unique, and that if it is unique, it is necessarily stable. In particular, in an economy with an incomplete (in the Arrow-Debreu sense) set of markets, an equilibrium may very much depend on the expectations of agents, expectations potentially even being self-fulfilling. We actually know that in many markets, especially those characterized by network effects, equilibria are expectation-dependent. Self-fulfilling expectations may thus be a characteristic property of modern economies, but they do not necessarily produce equilibrium.

An especially pretentious conceit of the modern macroeconomics of the last 40 years is that the extreme assumptions on which it rests are the essential microfoundations without which macroeconomics lacks any scientific standing. That’s preposterous. Perfect foresight and rational expectations are assumptions required for finding the solution to a system of equations describing a general equilibrium. They are not essential properties of a system consistent with the basic rationality propositions of microeconomics. To insist that a macroeconomic theory must correspond to the extreme assumptions necessary to prove the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium is to guarantee in advance the sterility and uselessness of that theory, because the entire field of study called macroeconomics is the result of long historical experience strongly suggesting that persistent, even cumulative, deviations from general equilibrium have been routine features of economic life since at least the early 19th century. That modern macroeconomics can tell a story in which apparently large deviations from general equilibrium are not really what they seem is not evidence that such deviations don’t exist; it merely shows that modern macroeconomics has constructed a language that allows the observed data to be classified in terms consistent with a theoretical paradigm that does not allow for lapses from equilibrium. That modern macroeconomics has constructed such a language is no reason why anyone not already committed to its underlying assumptions should feel compelled to accept its validity.

In fact, the standard comparative-statics propositions of microeconomics are also based on the assumption of the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium. Those comparative-statics propositions about the signs of the derivatives of various endogenous variables (price, quantity demanded, quantity supplied, etc.) with respect to various parameters of a microeconomic model involve comparisons between equilibrium values of the relevant variables before and after the posited parametric changes. All such comparative-statics results involve a ceteris-paribus assumption, conditional on the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium which serves as the starting and ending point (after adjustment to the parameter change) of the exercise, thereby isolating the purely hypothetical effect of a parameter change. Thus, as much as macroeconomics may require microfoundations, microeconomics is no less in need of macrofoundations, i.e., the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium, absent which a comparative-statics exercise would be meaningless, because the ceteris-paribus assumption could not otherwise be maintained. To assert that macroeconomics is impossible without microfoundations is therefore to reason in a circle, the empirically relevant propositions of microeconomics being predicated on the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium. But it is precisely the putative failure of a unique stable intertemporal general equilibrium to be attained, or to serve as a powerful attractor to economic variables, that provides the rationale for the existence of a field called macroeconomics.

So I certainly agree with Krugman that the present state of macroeconomics is pretty dismal. However, his own admitted willingness (and that of his New Keynesian colleagues) to adopt a theoretical paradigm that assumes the perpetual, or near-perpetual, existence of a unique stable intertemporal equilibrium, or at most admits the possibility of a very small set of deviations from such an equilibrium, means that, by his own admission, Krugman and his saltwater colleagues also bear a share of the responsibility for the very state of macroeconomics that Krugman now deplores.

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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