Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Martin Wolf Reviews Adam Tooze on the 2008 Financial Crisis

The eminent Martin Wolf, a fine economist and the foremost financial journalist of his generation, has written an admiring review of a new book (Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World) about the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing decade of aftershocks and turmoil and upheaval by the distinguished historian Adam Tooze. This is not the first time I have written a post commenting on a review of a book by Tooze; in 2015, I wrote a post about David Frum’s review of Tooze’s book on World War I and its aftermath (Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the World Order 1916-1931). No need to dwell on the obvious similarities between these two impressive volumes.

Let me admit at the outset that I haven’t read either book. Unquestionably my loss, but I hope at some point to redeem myself by reading both of them. But in this post I don’t intend to comment at length about Tooze’s argument. Judging from Martin Wolf’s review, I fully expect that I will agree with most of what Tooze has to say about the crisis.

My criticism – and I hesitate even to use that word – will be directed toward what, judging from Wolf’s review, Tooze seems to have been left out of his book. I am referring to the role of tight monetary policy, motivated by an excessive concern with inflation, when what was causing inflation was a persistent rise in energy and commodity prices that had little to do with monetary policy. Certainly, the failure to fully understand the role of monetary policy during the 2006 to 2008 period in the run-up to the financial crisis doesn’t negate all the excellent qualities that the book undoubtedly has, nevertheless, leaving out that essential part of the story that is like watching Hamlet without the prince.

Let me just offer a few examples from Wolf’s review. Early in the review, Wolf provides a clear overview of the nature of the crisis, its scope and the response.

As Tooze explains, the book examines “the struggle to contain the crisis in three interlocking zones of deep private financial integration: the transatlantic dollar-based financial system, the eurozone and the post-Soviet sphere of eastern Europe”. This implosion “entangled both public and private finances in a doom loop”. The failures of banks forced “scandalous government intervention to rescue private oligopolists”. The Federal Reserve even acted to provide liquidity to banks in other countries.

Such a huge crisis, Tooze points out, has inevitably deeply affected international affairs: relations between Germany and Greece, the UK and the eurozone, the US and the EU and the west and Russia were all affected. In all, he adds, the challenges were “mind-bogglingly technical and complex. They were vast in scale. They were fast moving. Between 2007 and 2012, the pressure was relentless.”

Tooze concludes this description of events with the judgment that “In its own terms, . . . the response patched together by the US Treasury and the Fed was remarkably successful.” Yet the success of these technocrats, first with support from the Democratic Congress at the end of the administration of George W Bush, and then under a Democratic president, brought the Democrats no political benefits.

This is all very insightful and I have no quarrel with any of it. But it mentions not a word about the role of monetary policy. Last month I wrote a post about the implications of a flat or inverted yield curve. The yield curve usually has an upward slope because short-term rates interest rates tend to be lower than long-term rates. Over the past year the yield curve has been steadily flattening as short term rates have been increasing while long-term rates have risen only slightly if at all. Many analysts are voicing concern that the yield curve may go flat or become inverted once again. And one reason that they worry is that the last time the yield curve became flat was late in 2006. Here’s how I described what happened to the yield curve in 2006 after the Fed started mechanically raising its Fed-funds target interest rate by 25 basis points every 6 weeks starting in June 2004.

The Fed having put itself on autopilot, the yield curve became flat or even slightly inverted in early 2006, implying that a substantial liquidity premium had to be absorbed in order to keep cash on hand to meet debt obligations. By the second quarter of 2006, insufficient liquidity caused the growth in total spending to slow, just when housing prices were peaking, a development that intensified the stresses on the financial system, further increasing the demand for liquidity. Despite the high liquidity premium and flat yield curve, total spending continued to increase modestly through 2006 and most of 2007. But after stock prices dropped in August 2007 and home prices continued to slide, growth in total spending slowed further at the end of 2007, and the downturn began.

Despite the weakening economy, the Fed remained focused primarily on inflation. The Fed did begin cutting its Fed Funds target from 5.25% in late 2007 once the downturn began, but the Fed’s reluctance to move aggressively to counter a recession that worsened rapidly in spring and summer of 2008 because the Fed remain fixated on headline inflation which was consistently higher than the Fed’s 2% target. But inflation was staying above the 2% target simply because of an ongoing supply shock that began in early 2006 when the price of oil was just over $50 a barrel and rose steadily with a short dip late in 2006 and early 2007 and continuing to rise above $100 a barrel in the summer of 2007 and peaking at over $140 a barrel in July 2008.

The mistake of tightening monetary policy in response to a supply shock in the midst of a recession would have been egregious under any circumstances, but in the context of a seriously weakened and fragile financial system, the mistake was simply calamitous. And, indeed, the calamitous consequences of that decision are plain. But somehow the connection between the focus of the Fed on inflation while the economy was contracting and the financial system was in peril has never been fully recognized by most observers and certainly not by the Federal Reserve officials who made those decisions. A few paragraphs later, Wolf observes.

Furthermore, because the banking systems had become so huge and intertwined, this became, in the words of Ben Bernanke — Fed chairman throughout the worst days of the crisis and a noted academic expert — the “worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression”. The fact that the people who had been running the system had so little notion of these risks inevitably destroyed their claim to competence and, for some, even probity.

I will not agree or disagree with Bernanke that the 2008 crisis was the worse than 1929-30 or 1931 or 1933 crises, but it appears that they still have not fully understood their own role in precipitating the crisis. That is a story that remains to be told. I hope we don’t have to wait too much longer.

Advertisements

Who’s Afraid of a Flattening Yield Curve?

Last week the Fed again raised its benchmark Federal Funds rate target, now at 2%, up from the 0.25% rate that had been maintained steadily from late 2008 until late 2015, when the Fed, after a few false starts, finally worked up the courage — or caved to the pressure of the banks and the financial community — to start raising rates. The Fed also signaled its intention last week to continue raising rates – presumably at 0.25% increments – at least twice more this calendar year.

Some commentators have worried that rising short-term interest rates are outpacing increases at the longer end, so that the normally positively-sloped yield curve is flattening. They point out that historically flat or inverted yield curves have often presaged an economic downturn or recession within a year.

What accounts for the normally positive slope of the yield curve? It’s usually attributed to the increased risk associated with a lengthening of the duration of a financial instrument, even if default risk is zero. The longer the duration of a financial instrument, the more sensitive the (resale) value of the instrument to changes in the rate of interest. Because risk falls as the duration of the of the instrument is shortened, risk-averse asset-holders are willing to accept a lower return on short-dated claims than on riskier long-dated claims.

If the Fed continues on its current course, it’s likely that the yield curve will flatten or become inverted – sloping downward instead of upward – a phenomenon that has frequently presaged recessions within about a year. So the question I want to think through in this post is whether there is anything inherently recessionary about a flat or inverted yield curve, or is the correlation between recessions and inverted yield curves merely coincidental?

The beginning of wisdom in this discussion is the advice of Scott Sumner: never reason from a price change. A change in the slope of the yield curve reflects a change in price relationships. Any given change in price relationships can reflect a variety of possible causes, and the ultimate effects, e.g., an inverted yield curve, of those various underlying causes, need not be the same. So, we can’t take it for granted that all yield-curve inversions are created equal; just because yield-curve inversions have sometimes, or usually, or always, preceded recessions doesn’t mean that recessions must necessarily follow once the yield curve becomes inverted.

Let’s try to sort out some of the possible causes of an inverted yield curve, and see whether those causes are likely to result in a recession if the yield curve remains flat or inverted for a substantial period of time. But it’s also important to realize that the shape of the yield curve reflects a myriad of possible causes in a complex economic system. The yield curve summarizes expectations about the future that are deeply intertwined in the intertemporal structure of an economic system. Interest rates aren’t simply prices determined in specific markets for debt instruments of various durations; interest rates reflect the opportunities to exchange current goods for future goods or to transform current output into future output. Interest rates are actually distillations of relationships between current prices and expected future prices that govern the prices and implied yields at which debt instruments are bought and sold. If the interest rates on debt instruments are out of line with the intricate web of intertemporal price relationships that exist in any complex economy, those discrepancies imply profitable opportunities for exchange and production that tend to eliminate those discrepancies. Interest rates are not set in a vacuum, they are a reflection of innumerable asset valuations and investment opportunities. So there are potentially innumerable possible causes that could lead to the flattening or inversion of the yield curve.

For purposes of this discussion, however, I will focus on just two factors that, in an ultra-simplified partial-equilibrium setting, seem most likely to cause a normally upward-sloping yield curve to become relatively flat or even inverted. These two factors affecting the slope of the yield curve are the demand for liquidity and the supply of liquidity.

An increase in the demand for liquidity manifests itself in reduced current spending to conserve liquidity and by an increase in the demands of the public on the banking system for credit. But even as reduced spending improves the liquidity position of those trying to conserve liquidity, it correspondingly worsens the liquidity position of those whose revenues are reduced, the reduced spending of some necessarily reducing the revenues of others. So, ultimately, an increase in the demand for liquidity can be met only by (a) the banking system, which is uniquely positioned to create liquidity by accepting the illiquid IOUs of the private sector in exchange for the highly liquid IOUs (cash or deposits) that the banking system can create, or (b) by the discretionary action of a monetary authority that can issue additional units of fiat currency.

Let’s consider first what would happen in case of an increased demand for liquidity by the public. Such an increased demand could have two possible causes. (There might be others, of course, but these two seem fairly commonplace.)

First, the price expectations on which one or more significant sectors of the economy have made investments have turned out to overly optimistic (or alternatively made investments on overly optimistic expectations of low input prices). Given the commitments made on the basis of optimistic expectations, it then turns out that realized sales or revenues fall short of what was required by those firms to service their debt obligations. Thus, to service their debt obligations, firms may seek short-term loans to cover the shortfall in earnings relative to expectations. Potential lenders, including the banking system, who may already be holding the debt of such firms, must then decide whether to continue extending credit to these firms in hopes that prices will rebound back to what they had been expected to be (or that borrowers will be able to cut costs sufficiently to survive if prices don’t recover), or to cut their losses by ceasing to lend further.

The short-run demand for credit will tend to raise short-term rates relative to long-term rates, causing the yield curve to flatten. And the more serious the short-term need for liquidity, the flatter or more inverted the yield curve becomes. In such a period of financial stress, the potential for significant failures of firms that can’t service their financial obligations is an indication that an economic downturn or a recession is likely, so that the extent to which the yield curve flattens or becomes inverted is a measure of the likelihood that a downturn is in the offing.

Aside from sectoral problems affecting particular industries or groups of industries, the demand for liquidity might increase owing to a generalized increase in uncertainty that causes entrepreneurs to hold back from making investments (dampens animal spirits). This is often a response during and immediately following a recession, when the current state of economic activity and uncertainty about its future state discourages entrepreneurs from making investments whose profitability depends on the magnitude and scope of the future recovery. In that case, an increasing demand for liquidity causes firms to hoard their profits as cash rather than undertake new investments, because expected demand is not sufficient to justify commitments that would be remunerative only if future demand exceeds some threshold. Such a flattening of the yield curve can be mitigated if the monetary authority makes liquidity cheaply available by cutting short-term rates to very low levels or even to zero, as the Fed did when it adopted its quantitative easing policies after the 2008-09 downturn, thereby supporting a recovery, a modest one to be sure, but still a stronger recovery than occurred in Europe after the European Central Bank prematurely raised interest short-term rates.

Such an episode occurred in 2002-03, after the 9-11 attack on the US. The American economy had entered a recession in early 2001, partly as a result of the bursting of the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s. The recession was short and mild, and the large tax cut enacted by Congress at the behest of the Bush administration in June 2001 was expected to provide significant economic stimulus to promote recovery. However, it soon became clear that, besides the limited US attack on Afghanistan to unseat the Taliban regime and to kill or capture the Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration was planning for a much more ambitious military operation to effect regime change in Iraq and perhaps even in other neighboring countries in hopes of radically transforming the political landscape of the Middle East. The grandiose ambitions of the Bush administration and the likelihood that a major war of unknown scope and duration with unpredictable consequences might well begin sometime in early 2003 created a general feeling of apprehension and uncertainty that discouraged businesses from making significant new commitments until the war plans of the Administration were clarified and executed and their consequences assessed.

Gauging the unusual increase in the demand for liquidity in 2002 and 2003, the Fed reduced short-term rates to accommodate increasing demands for liquidity, even as the economy entered into a weak expansion and recovery. Given the unusual increase in the demand for liquidity, the accommodative stance of the Fed and the reduction in the Fed Funds target to an unusually low level of 1% had no inflationary effect, but merely cushioned the economy against a relapse into recession. The weakness of the recovery is reflected in the modest rate of increase in nominal spending, averaging about 3.9%, and not exceeding 5.1% in any of the seven quarters from 2001-IV when the recession ended until 2003-II when the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled.

Quarter              % change in NGDP

2001-IV               2.34%

2002-I                 5.07%

2002-II                3.76%

2002-III               3.80%

2002-IV               2.44%

2003-I                 4.63%

2003-II                5.10%

2003-III               9.26%

2003-IV               6.76%

2004-I                 5.94%

2004-II                6.60%

2004-III               6.26%

2004-IV               6.44%

2005-I                 8.25%

2005-II                5.10%

2005-III               7.33%

2005-IV               5.44%

2006-I                 8.23%

2006-II                4.50%

2006-III               3.19%

2006-IV               4.62%

2007-I                 4.83%

2007-II                5.42%

2007-III               4.15%

2007-IV               3.21%

The apparent success of the American invasion in the second quarter of 2003 was matched by a quickening expansion from 2003-III through 2006-I, nominal GDP increasing at a 6.8% annual rate over those 11 quarters. As the economy recovered, and spending began increasing rapidly, the Fed gradually raised its Fed Funds target by 25 basis points about every six weeks starting at the end of June 2004, so that in early 2006, the Fed Funds target rate reached 4.25%, peaking at 5.25% in July 2006, where it remained till September 2007. By February 2006, the yield on 3-month Treasury bills reached the yield on 10-year Treasuries, so that the yield curve had become essentially flat, remaining so until October 2008, soon after the start of the financial crisis. Indeed, for most of 2006 and 2007, the Fed Funds target was above the yield on three-month Treasury bills, implying a slight inversion at the short-end of the yield curve, suggesting that the Fed was exacting a slight liquidity surcharge on overnight reserves and that there was a market expectation that the Fed Funds target would be reduced from its 5.25% peak.

The Fed was probably tardy in increasing its Fed Funds target till June 2004, nominal spending having increased in 2003-III at an annual rate above 9%, and increasing in the next three quarters at an average annual rate of about 6.5%. In 2005 while the Fed was in auto-pilot mode, automatically raising its Fed Funds target 25 basis points every six weeks, nominal spending continued to increase at a roughly 6% annual rate, increases becoming slightly more erratic, fluctuating between 5.1% and 8.3%. But by the second quarter of 2006 when the Fed Funds target rose to 5%, the rate of increase in spending slowed to an average of just over 4% and just under 5% in the first three quarters of 2007.

While the rate of increase in spending slowed to less than 5% in the second quarter of 2006, as the yield curve flattened, and the Fed Funds target peaked at 5.25%, housing prices also peaked, and the concerns about financial stability started to be voiced. The chart below shows the yields on 10-year constant maturity Treasuries and the yield on 3-month Treasury bills, the two key market rates at opposite ends of the yield curve.

The yields on the two instruments became nearly equal in early 2006, and, with slight variations, remained so till the onset of the financial crisis in September 2008. In retrospect, at least, the continued increases in the Fed Funds rate target seem too have been extremely ill-advised, perhaps triggering the downturn that started at the end of 2007, and leading nine months later to the financial crisis of 2008.

The Fed having put itself on autopilot, the yield curve became flat or even slightly inverted in early 2006, implying that a substantial liquidity premium had to be absorbed in order to keep cash on hand to meet debt obligations. By the second quarter of 2006, insufficient liquidity caused the growth in total spending to slow, just when housing prices were peaking, a development that intensified the stresses on the financial system, further increasing the demand for liquidity. Despite the high liquidity premium and flat yield curve, total spending continued to increase modestly through 2006 and most of 2007. But after stock prices dropped in August 2007 and home prices continued to slide, growth in total spending slowed further at the end of 2007, and the downturn began.

Responding to signs of economic weakness and falling long-term rates, the Fed did lower its Fed Funds target late in 2007, cutting the Fed Funds target several more times in early 2008. In May 2008, the Fed reduced the target to 2%, but the yield curve remained flat, because the Fed, consistently underestimating the severity of the downturn, kept signaling its concern with inflation, thereby suggesting that an increase in the target might be in the offing. So, even as it reduced its Fed Funds target, the Fed kept the yield curve nearly flat until, and even after, the start of the financial crisis in September 2008, thereby maintaining an excessive liquidity premium while the demand for liquidity was intensifying as total spending contracted rapidly in the third quarter of 2008.

To summarize this discussion of the liquidity premium and the yield curve during the 2001-08 period, the Fed appropriately steepened the yield curve right after the 2001 recession and the 9/11 attacks, but was slow to normalize the slope of the yield curve after the US invasion of Iraq in the second quarter of 2003. When it did begin to normalize the yield curve in a series of automatic 25 basis point increases in its Fed Fund target rate, the Fed was again slow to reassess the effects of the policy as yield curve flattened in 2006. Thus by 2006, the Fed had effectively implemented a tight monetary policy in the face of rising demands for liquidity just as the bursting of the housing bubble in mid-2006 began to subject the financial system to steadily increasing stress. The implications of a flat or slightly inverted yield curve were ignored or dismissed by the Fed for at least two years until after the financial panic and crisis in September 2008.

At the beginning of the 2001-08 period, the Fed seemed to be aware that an unusual demand for liquidity justified a policy response to increase the supply of liquidity by reducing the Fed Funds target and steepening the yield curve. But, at the end of the period, the Fed was unwilling to respond to increasing demands for liquidity and instead allowed a flat yield curve to remain in place even when the increasing demand for liquidity was causing a slowdown in aggregate spending growth. One possible reason for the asymmetric response of the Fed to increasing liquidity demands in 2002 and 2006 is that the Fed was sensitive to criticism that, by holding short-term rates too low for too long, it had promoted and prolonged the housing bubble. Even if the criticism contained some element of truth, the Fed’s refusal to respond to increasing demands for liquidity in 2006 was tragically misguided.

The current Fed’s tentative plan to keep increasing the Fed Funds target seems less unreflective as the nearly mindless schedule followed by the Fed from mid-2004 to mid-2006. However, the Fed is playing a weaker hand now than it did in 2004. Nominal GDP has been increasing at a very lackluster annual rate of about 4-4.5% for the past two years. Certainly, further increases in the Fed Funds target would not be warranted if the rate of growth in nominal GDP is any less than 4% or if the yield curve should flatten for some other reason like a decline in interest rates at the longer end of the yield curve. Caution, possible inversion ahead.

Milton Friedman and the Phillips Curve

In December 1967, Milton Friedman delivered his Presidential Address to the American Economic Association in Washington DC. In those days the AEA met in the week between Christmas and New Years, in contrast to the more recent practice of holding the convention in the week after New Years. That’s why the anniversary of Friedman’s 1967 address was celebrated at the 2018 AEA convention. A special session was dedicated to commemoration of that famous address, published in the March 1968 American Economic Review, and fittingly one of the papers at the session as presented by the outgoing AEA president Olivier Blanchard, who also wrote one of the papers discussed at the session. Other papers were written by Thomas Sargent and Robert Hall, and by Greg Mankiw and Ricardo Reis. The papers were discussed by Lawrence Summers, Eric Nakamura, and Stanley Fischer. An all-star cast.

Maybe in a future post, I will comment on the papers presented in the Friedman session, but in this post I want to discuss a point that has been generally overlooked, not only in the three “golden” anniversary papers on Friedman and the Phillips Curve, but, as best as I can recall, in all the commentaries I’ve seen about Friedman and the Phillips Curve. The key point to understand about Friedman’s address is that his argument was basically an extension of the idea of monetary neutrality, which says that the real equilibrium of an economy corresponds to a set of relative prices that allows all agents simultaneously to execute their optimal desired purchases and sales conditioned on those relative prices. So it is only relative prices, not absolute prices, that matter. Taking an economy in equilibrium, if you were suddenly to double all prices, relative prices remaining unchanged, the equilibrium would be preserved and the economy would proceed exactly – and optimally – as before as if nothing had changed. (There are some complications about what is happening to the quantity of money in this thought experiment that I am skipping over.) On the other hand, if you change just a single price, not only would the market in which that price is determined be disequilibrated, at least one, and potentially more than one, other market would be disequilibrated. The point here is that the real economy rules, and equilibrium in the real economy depends on relative, not absolute, prices.

What Friedman did was to argue that if money is neutral with respect to changes in the price level, it should also be neutral with respect to changes in the rate of inflation. The idea that you can wring some extra output and employment out of the economy just by choosing to increase the rate of inflation goes against the grain of two basic principles: (1) monetary neutrality (i.e., the real equilibrium of the economy is determined solely by real factors) and (2) Friedman’s famous non-existence (of a free lunch) theorem. In other words, you can’t make the economy as a whole better off just by printing money.

Or can you?

Actually you can, and Friedman himself understood that you can, but he argued that the possibility of making the economy as a whole better of (in the sense of increasing total output and employment) depends crucially on whether inflation is expected or unexpected. Only if inflation is not expected does it serve to increase output and employment. If inflation is correctly expected, the neutrality principle reasserts itself so that output and employment are no different from what they would have been had prices not changed.

What that means is that policy makers (monetary authorities) can cause output and employment to increase by inflating the currency, as implied by the downward-sloping Phillips Curve, but that simply reflects that actual inflation exceeds expected inflation. And, sure, the monetary authorities can always surprise the public by raising the rate of inflation above the rate expected by the public , but that doesn’t mean that the public can be perpetually fooled by a monetary authority determined to keep inflation higher than expected. If that is the strategy of the monetary authorities, it will lead, sooner or later, to a very unpleasant outcome.

So, in any time period – the length of the time period corresponding to the time during which expectations are given – the short-run Phillips Curve for that time period is downward-sloping. But given the futility of perpetually delivering higher than expected inflation, the long-run Phillips Curve from the point of view of the monetary authorities trying to devise a sustainable policy must be essentially vertical.

Two quick parenthetical remarks. Friedman’s argument was far from original. Many critics of Keynesian policies had made similar arguments; the names Hayek, Haberler, Mises and Viner come immediately to mind, but the list could easily be lengthened. But the earliest version of the argument of which I am aware is Hayek’s 1934 reply in Econometrica to a discussion of Prices and Production by Alvin Hansen and Herbert Tout in their 1933 article reviewing recent business-cycle literature in Econometrica in which they criticized Hayek’s assertion that a monetary expansion that financed investment spending in excess of voluntary savings would be unsustainable. They pointed out that there was nothing to prevent the monetary authority from continuing to create money, thereby continually financing investment in excess of voluntary savings. Hayek’s reply was that a permanent constant rate of monetary expansion would not suffice to permanently finance investment in excess of savings, because once that monetary expansion was expected, prices would adjust so that in real terms the constant flow of monetary expansion would correspond to the same amount of investment that had been undertaken prior to the first and unexpected round of monetary expansion. To maintain a rate of investment permanently in excess of voluntary savings would require progressively increasing rates of monetary expansion over and above the expected rate of monetary expansion, which would sooner or later prove unsustainable. The gist of the argument, more than three decades before Friedman’s 1967 Presidential address, was exactly the same as Friedman’s.

A further aside. But what Hayek failed to see in making this argument was that, in so doing, he was refuting his own argument in Prices and Production that only a constant rate of total expenditure and total income is consistent with maintenance of a real equilibrium in which voluntary saving and planned investment are equal. Obviously, any rate of monetary expansion, if correctly foreseen, would be consistent with a real equilibrium with saving equal to investment.

My second remark is to note the ambiguous meaning of the short-run Phillips Curve relationship. The underlying causal relationship reflected in the negative correlation between inflation and unemployment can be understood either as increases in inflation causing unemployment to go down, or as increases in unemployment causing inflation to go down. Undoubtedly the causality runs in both directions, but subtle differences in the understanding of the causal mechanism can lead to very different policy implications. Usually the Keynesian understanding of the causality is that it runs from unemployment to inflation, while a more monetarist understanding treats inflation as a policy instrument that determines (with expected inflation treated as a parameter) at least directionally the short-run change in the rate of unemployment.

Now here is the main point that I want to make in this post. The standard interpretation of the Friedman argument is that since attempts to increase output and employment by monetary expansion are futile, the best policy for a monetary authority to pursue is a stable and predictable one that keeps the economy at or near the optimal long-run growth path that is determined by real – not monetary – factors. Thus, the best policy is to find a clear and predictable rule for how the monetary authority will behave, so that monetary mismanagement doesn’t inadvertently become a destabilizing force causing the economy to deviate from its optimal growth path. In the 50 years since Friedman’s address, this message has been taken to heart by monetary economists and monetary authorities, leading to a broad consensus in favor of inflation targeting with the target now almost always set at 2% annual inflation. (I leave aside for now the tricky question of what a clear and predictable monetary rule would look like.)

But this interpretation, clearly the one that Friedman himself drew from his argument, doesn’t actually follow from the argument that monetary expansion can’t affect the long-run equilibrium growth path of an economy. The monetary neutrality argument, being a pure comparative-statics exercise, assumes that an economy, starting from a position of equilibrium, is subjected to a parametric change (either in the quantity of money or in the price level) and then asks what will the new equilibrium of the economy look like? The answer is: it will look exactly like the prior equilibrium, except that the price level will be twice as high with twice as much money as previously, but with relative prices unchanged. The same sort of reasoning, with appropriate adjustments, can show that changing the expected rate of inflation will have no effect on the real equilibrium of the economy, with only the rate of inflation and the rate of monetary expansion affected.

This comparative-statics exercise teaches us something, but not as much as Friedman and his followers thought. True, you can’t get more out of the economy – at least not for very long – than its real equilibrium will generate. But what if the economy is not operating at its real equilibrium? Even Friedman didn’t believe that the economy always operates at its real equilibrium. Just read his Monetary History of the United States. Real-business cycle theorists do believe that the economy always operates at its real equilibrium, but they, unlike Friedman, think monetary policy is useless, so we can forget about them — at least for purposes of this discussion. So if we have reason to think that the economy is falling short of its real equilibrium, as almost all of us believe that it sometimes does, why should we assume that monetary policy might not nudge the economy in the direction of its real equilibrium?

The answer to that question is not so obvious, but one answer might be that if you use monetary policy to move the economy toward its real equilibrium, you might make mistakes sometimes and overshoot the real equilibrium and then bad stuff would happen and inflation would run out of control, and confidence in the currency would be shattered, and you would find yourself in a re-run of the horrible 1970s. I get that argument, and it is not totally without merit, but I wouldn’t characterize it as overly compelling. On a list of compelling arguments, I would put it just above, or possibly just below, the domino theory on the basis of which the US fought the Vietnam War.

But even if the argument is not overly compelling, it should not be dismissed entirely, so here is a way of taking it into account. Just for fun, I will call it a Taylor Rule for the Inflation Target (IT). Let us assume that the long-run inflation target is 2% and let us say that (YY*) is the output gap between current real GDP and potential GDP (i.e., the GDP corresponding to the real equilibrium of the economy). We could then define the following Taylor Rule for the inflation target:

IT = α(2%) + β((YY*)/ Y*).

This equation says that the inflation target in any period would be a linear combination of the default Inflation Target of 2% times an adjustment coefficient α designed to keep successively chosen Inflation targets from deviating from the long-term price-level-path corresponding to 2% annual inflation and some fraction β of the output gap expressed as a percentage of potential GDP. Thus, for example, if the output gap was -0.5% and β was 0.5, the short-term Inflation Target would be raised to 4.5% if α were 1.

However, if on average output gaps are expected to be negative, then α would have to be chosen to be less than 1 in order for the actual time path of the price level to revert back to a target price-level corresponding to a 2% annual rate.

Such a procedure would fit well with the current dual inflation and employment mandate of the Federal Reserve. The long-term price level path would correspond to the price-stability mandate, while the adjustable short-term choice of the IT would correspond to and promote the goal of maximum employment by raising the inflation target when unemployment was high as a countercyclical policy for promoting recovery. But short-term changes in the IT would not be allowed to cause a long-term deviation of the price level from its target path. The dual mandate would ensure that relatively higher inflation in periods of high unemployment would be compensated for by periods of relatively low inflation in periods of low unemployment.

Alternatively, you could just target nominal GDP at a rate consistent with a long-run average 2% inflation target for the price level, with the target for nominal GDP adjusted over time as needed to ensure that the 2% average inflation target for the price level was also maintained.

Does Economic Theory Entail or Support Free-Market Ideology?

A few weeks ago, via Twitter, Beatrice Cherrier solicited responses to this query from Dina Pomeranz

It is a serious — and a disturbing – question, because it suggests that the free-market ideology which is a powerful – though not necessarily the most powerful — force in American right-wing politics, and probably more powerful in American politics than in the politics of any other country, is the result of how economics was taught in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1960s at UCLA, where I was an undergrad (AB 1970) and a graduate student (PhD 1977), and at Chicago.

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, free-market economics had been largely marginalized; Keynes and his successors were ascendant. But thanks to Milton Friedman and his compatriots at a few other institutions of higher learning, especially UCLA, the power of microeconomics (aka price theory) to explain a very broad range of economic and even non-economic phenomena was becoming increasingly appreciated by economists. A very broad range of advances in economic theory on a number of fronts — economics of information, industrial organization and antitrust, law and economics, public choice, monetary economics and economic history — supported by the award of the Nobel Prize to Hayek in 1974 and Friedman in 1976, greatly elevated the status of free-market economics just as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were coming into office in 1979 and 1981.

The growing prestige of free-market economics was used by Thatcher and Reagan to bolster the credibility of their policies, especially when the recessions caused by their determination to bring double-digit inflation down to about 4% annually – a reduction below 4% a year then being considered too extreme even for Thatcher and Reagan – were causing both Thatcher and Reagan to lose popular support. But the growing prestige of free-market economics and economists provided some degree of intellectual credibility and weight to counter the barrage of criticism from their opponents, enabling both Thatcher and Reagan to use Friedman and Hayek, Nobel Prize winners with a popular fan base, as props and ornamentation under whose reflected intellectual glory they could take cover.

And so after George Stigler won the Nobel Prize in 1982, he was invited to the White House in hopes that, just in time, he would provide some additional intellectual star power for a beleaguered administration about to face the 1982 midterm elections with an unemployment rate over 10%. Famously sharp-tongued, and far less a team player than his colleague and friend Milton Friedman, Stigler refused to play his role as a prop and a spokesman for the administration when asked to meet reporters following his celebratory visit with the President, calling the 1981-82 downturn a “depression,” not a mere “recession,” and dismissing supply-side economics as “a slogan for packaging certain economic ideas rather than an orthodox economic category.” That Stiglerian outburst of candor brought the press conference to an unexpectedly rapid close as the Nobel Prize winner was quickly ushered out of the shouting range of White House reporters. On the whole, however, Republican politicians have not been lacking of economists willing to lend authority and intellectual credibility to Republican policies and to proclaim allegiance to the proposition that the market is endowed with magical properties for creating wealth for the masses.

Free-market economics in the 1960s and 1970s made a difference by bringing to light the many ways in which letting markets operate freely, allowing output and consumption decisions to be guided by market prices, could improve outcomes for all people. A notable success of Reagan’s free-market agenda was lifting, within days of his inauguration, all controls on the prices of domestically produced crude oil and refined products, carryovers of the disastrous wage-and-price controls imposed by Nixon in 1971, but which, following OPEC’s quadrupling of oil prices in 1973, neither Nixon, Ford, nor Carter had dared to scrap. Despite a political consensus against lifting controls, a consensus endorsed, or at least not strongly opposed, by a surprisingly large number of economists, Reagan, following the advice of Friedman and other hard-core free-market advisers, lifted the controls anyway. The Iran-Iraq war having started just a few months earlier, the Saudi oil minister was predicting that the price of oil would soon rise from $40 to at least $50 a barrel, and there were few who questioned his prediction. One opponent of decontrol described decontrol as writing a blank check to the oil companies and asking OPEC to fill in the amount. So the decision to decontrol oil prices was truly an act of some political courage, though it was then characterized as an act of blind ideological faith, or a craven sellout to Big Oil. But predictions of another round of skyrocketing oil prices, similar to the 1973-74 and 1978-79 episodes, were refuted almost immediately, international crude-oil prices falling steadily from $40/barrel in January to about $33/barrel in June.

Having only a marginal effect on domestic gasoline prices, via an implicit subsidy to imported crude oil, controls on domestic crude-oil prices were primarily a mechanism by which domestic refiners could extract a share of the rents that otherwise would have accrued to domestic crude-oil producers. Because additional crude-oil imports increased a domestic refiner’s allocation of “entitlements” to cheap domestic crude oil, thereby reducing the net cost of foreign crude oil below the price paid by the refiner, one overall effect of the controls was to subsidize the importation of crude oil, notwithstanding the goal loudly proclaimed by all the Presidents overseeing the controls: to achieve US “energy independence.” In addition to increasing the demand for imported crude oil, the controls reduced the elasticity of refiners’ demand for imported crude, controls and “entitlements” transforming a given change in the international price of crude into a reduced change in the net cost to domestic refiners of imported crude, thereby raising OPEC’s profit-maximizing price for crude oil. Once domestic crude oil prices were decontrolled, market forces led almost immediately to reductions in the international price of crude oil, so the coincidence of a fall in oil prices with Reagan’s decision to lift all price controls on crude oil was hardly accidental.

The decontrol of domestic petroleum prices was surely as pure a victory for, and vindication of, free-market economics as one could have ever hoped for [personal disclosure: I wrote a book for The Independent Institute, a free-market think tank, Politics, Prices and Petroleum, explaining in rather tedious detail many of the harmful effects of price controls on crude oil and refined products]. Unfortunately, the coincidence of free-market ideology with good policy is not necessarily as comprehensive as Friedman and his many acolytes, myself included, had assumed.

To be sure, price-fixing is almost always a bad idea, and attempts at price-fixing almost always turn out badly, providing lots of ammunition for critics of government intervention of all kinds. But the implicit assumption underlying the idea that freely determined market prices optimally guide the decentralized decisions of economic agents is that the private costs and benefits taken into account by economic agents in making and executing their plans about how much to buy and sell and produce closely correspond to the social costs and benefits that an omniscient central planner — if such a being actually did exist — would take into account in making his plans. But in the real world, the private costs and benefits considered by individual agents when making their plans and decisions often don’t reflect all relevant costs and benefits, so the presumption that market prices determined by the elemental forces of supply and demand always lead to the best possible outcomes is hardly ironclad, as we – i.e., those of us who are not philosophical anarchists – all acknowledge in practice, and in theory, when we affirm that competing private armies and competing private police forces and competing judicial systems would not provide for common defense and for domestic tranquility more effectively than our national, state, and local governments, however imperfectly, provide those essential services. The only question is where and how to draw the ever-shifting lines between those decisions that are left mostly or entirely to the voluntary decisions and plans of private economic agents and those decisions that are subject to, and heavily — even mainly — influenced by, government rule-making, oversight, or intervention.

I didn’t fully appreciate how widespread and substantial these deviations of private costs and benefits from social costs and benefits can be even in well-ordered economies until early in my blogging career, when it occurred to me that the presumption underlying that central pillar of modern right-wing, free-market ideology – that reducing marginal income tax rates increases economic efficiency and promotes economic growth with little or no loss in tax revenue — implicitly assumes that all taxable private income corresponds to the output of goods and services whose private values and costs equal their social values and costs.

But one of my eminent UCLA professors, Jack Hirshleifer, showed that this presumption is subject to a huge caveat, because insofar as some people can earn income by exploiting their knowledge advantages over the counterparties with whom they trade, incentives are created to seek the kinds of knowledge that can be exploited in trades with less-well informed counterparties. The incentive to search for, and exploit, knowledge advantages implies excessive investment in the acquisition of exploitable knowledge, the private gain from acquiring such knowledge greatly exceeding the net gain to society from the acquisition of such knowledge, inasmuch as gains accruing to the exploiter are largely achieved at the expense of the knowledge-disadvantaged counterparties with whom they trade.

For example, substantial resources are now almost certainly wasted by various forms of financial research aiming to gain information that would have been revealed in due course anyway slightly sooner than the knowledge is gained by others, so that the better-informed traders can profit by trading with less knowledgeable counterparties. Similarly, the incentive to exploit knowledge advantages encourages the creation of financial products and structuring other kinds of transactions designed mainly to capitalize on and exploit individual weaknesses in underestimating the probability of adverse events (e.g., late repayment penalties, gambling losses when the house knows the odds better than most gamblers do). Even technical and inventive research encouraged by the potential to patent those discoveries may induce too much research activity by enabling patent-protected monopolies to exploit discoveries that would have been made eventually even without the monopoly rents accruing to the patent holders.

The list of examples of transactions that are profitable for one side only because the other side is less well-informed than, or even misled by, his counterparty could be easily multiplied. Because much, if not most, of the highest incomes earned, are associated with activities whose private benefits are at least partially derived from losses to less well-informed counterparties, it is not a stretch to suspect that reducing marginal income tax rates may have led resources to be shifted from activities in which private benefits and costs approximately equal social benefits and costs to more lucrative activities in which the private benefits and costs are very different from social benefits and costs, the benefits being derived largely at the expense of losses to others.

Reducing marginal tax rates may therefore have simultaneously reduced economic efficiency, slowed economic growth and increased the inequality of income. I don’t deny that this hypothesis is largely speculative, but the speculative part is strictly about the magnitude, not the existence, of the effect. The underlying theory is completely straightforward.

So there is no logical necessity requiring that right-wing free-market ideological policy implications be inferred from orthodox economic theory. Economic theory is a flexible set of conceptual tools and models, and the policy implications following from those models are sensitive to the basic assumptions and initial conditions specified in those models, as well as the value judgments informing an evaluation of policy alternatives. Free-market policy implications require factual assumptions about low transactions costs and about the existence of a low-cost process of creating and assigning property rights — including what we now call intellectual property rights — that imply that private agents perceive costs and benefits that closely correspond to social costs and benefits. Altering those assumptions can radically change the policy implications of the theory.

The best example I can find to illustrate that point is another one of my UCLA professors, the late Earl Thompson, who was certainly the most relentless economic reductionist whom I ever met, perhaps the most relentless whom I can even think of. Despite having a Harvard Ph.D. when he arrived back at UCLA as an assistant professor in the early 1960s, where he had been an undergraduate student of Armen Alchian, he too started out as a pro-free-market Friedman acolyte. But gradually adopting the Buchanan public-choice paradigm – Nancy Maclean, please take note — of viewing democratic politics as a vehicle for advancing the self-interest of agents participating in the political process (marketplace), he arrived at increasingly unorthodox policy conclusions to the consternation and dismay of many of his free-market friends and colleagues. Unlike most public-choice theorists, Earl viewed the political marketplace as a largely efficient mechanism for achieving collective policy goals. The main force tending to make the political process inefficient, Earl believed, was ideologically driven politicians pursuing ideological aims rather than the interests of their constituents, a view that seems increasingly on target as our political process becomes simultaneously increasingly ideological and increasingly dysfunctional.

Until Earl’s untimely passing in 2010, I regarded his support of a slew of interventions in the free-market economy – mostly based on national-defense grounds — as curiously eccentric, and I am still inclined to disagree with many of them. But my point here is not to argue whether Earl was right or wrong on specific policies. What matters in the context of the question posed by Dina Pomeranz is the economic logic that gets you from a set of facts and a set of behavioral and causality assumptions to a set of policy conclusion. What is important to us as economists has to be the process not the conclusion. There is simply no presumption that the economic logic that takes you from a set of reasonably accurate factual assumptions and a set of plausible behavioral and causality assumptions has to take you to the policy conclusions advocated by right-wing, free-market ideologues, or, need I add, to the policy conclusions advocated by anti-free-market ideologues of either left or right.

Certainly we are all within our rights to advocate for policy conclusions that are congenial to our own political preferences, but our obligation as economists is to acknowledge the extent to which a policy conclusion follows from a policy preference rather than from strict economic logic.

Has the S&P 500 Risen by 25% since November 8, 2016 Thanks to Economic Nationalist America First Policies?

Many people – I don’t think that I need to mention names — are saying that the roughly 25% rise US stock prices in the 13 months since the last Presidential election shows that the economic nationalist America First policies adopted since then have been a roaring success.

Responding to those claims some people have pointed out that the increase in the S&P500 since November 8, 2016 or since January 20, 2017 has been very close to the average yearly rate of increase in the S&P 500 since January 20, 2009, when Barrack Obama took office. Here is a comparison of the year on year rate of increase in the S&P500 since January 20, 2010, one year after Obama took office.

Year

% year over year change in S&P 500

2010

41.3

2011

12.5

2012

2.7

2013

13.5

2014

23.5

2015

9.7

2016

-8.1

2017

22.2

2018

15.8

Now the percent change in the S&P 500 for 2018 is just the change for the 10 and a half months between January 20, 2017 and December 5 2017, so if the current rate of increase in the S&P 500 since January 20 is maintained, the annual increase would be about 18% which would still be less than the year-on-year increase in the last year of the Obama administration. Over the entire 8 years of the Obama administration, the S&P 500 increased by about 220%, or an annual rate of increase of a little over 12% a year. So the S&P 500 in the first year since the adoption of the current economic nationalist America First policies has done better — but only slightly better — than it did on average in the eight years of the Obama administration.

But if we are trying to gauge the success of the economic nationalist America First policies of the current administration, it seems appropriate to take not just the performance of the S&P 500, which disproportionately represents US companies but also the performance of stocks in other countries. One such index is the MSCI EAFE index. (The MSCI EAFE Index is an index designed to measure the equity market performance of developed markets outside of the U.S. and Canada. It is maintained by MSCI Inc.,; the EAFE acronym stands for Europe, Australasia and Far East.)

The accompanying chart shows the performance of the S&P500 and the MSCI EAFE index since January 20, 2009. I have normalized both indices to equal 100 on November 8, 2016.

The two vertical lines are drawn at November 8, 2016 and January 20, 2017, the two dates of especial interest for comparison purposes. In the period between the election and the inauguration, the S&P 500 actually performed slightly better than did the MSCI EAFE. But the opposite has obviously been the case since the new administration actually came into power. Since the inauguration, the economic nationalist America First policies adopted by the administration have resulted in proportionately much greater increases in stock prices in Europe, Australia and the Far East than in the US (as reflected in the S&P 500).

Here are the year over year comparisons:

Year

% year-over-year change in S&P 500

% year-over-year change in the MSCI EAFE

2010

41.3

96.4

2011

12.5

9.5

2012

2.7

-7.5

2013

13.5

1.3

2014

23.5

35.6

2015

9.7

20.9

2016

-8.1

23.4

2017

22.2

26.5

2018

15.8

59

In fact, the MSCI EAFE has outperformed the S&P 500 in every year since 2013. But the gap in the rates of increase in the two indices has skyrocketed since last January 20. I have no doubt that inquiring minds will want to know why the the economic nationalist America First policies of the new administration have been allowing the rest of the world to outperforming the US by an increasingly wide margins. Is that really what winning looks like? Sad!

PS I also can’t help but observe that during the Obama administration, rising stock prices were routinely dismissed by the geniuses at places like the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Heritage Foundation, and Freedomworks as evidence that Quantitative Easing was an elitist regressive policy aimed at enriching Wall Street and the one-percent at the expense of retirees living on fixed incomes, workers with stagnating wages, and all the others being left behind by the callous and elitist policies of the Fed and the previous administration. Under the current administration, it seems that rising stock prices are no longer evidence that the elites are exploiting the common people as used to be the case before the economic nationalist America First policies now being followed were adopted.

John Davidson’s Bad Faith Defense of General Kelly

John Daniel Davidson in The Federalist (a more apt name might The Confederalist or The CON-Federalist) rises to the defense of General Kelly’s infamous remarks to Laura Ingraham about Robert E. Lee and the Civil War. General Kelly called Robert E. Lee “an honorable man,” as if fighting to ensure the perpetual enslavement of millions of human beings counts for nothing in an assessment of a person’s character, and further opined that the Civil War was caused by “a lack of an ability to compromise,” as if the lack of an ability to compromise were a genetic incapacity rather than a choice, and as if it were an incapacity with which both sides in the Civil War were equally afflicted. Following that well-known doctrine of verbal conflict that the best defense is a good offense, Davidson quickly turns his defense of General Kelly into an all-out assault on Ta-Nehisi Coates who delivered a widely read Twitter storm demolishing General Kelly’s tendentious characterization of the cause of the Civil War.

In transitioning from a defense of General Kelly to an attack on Coates, Davidson relies greatly on the authority of Shelby Foote, the Southern novelist and author of an acclaimed 3-volume history of the Civil War, who was featured extensively in Ken Burns’s award-winning PBS series on the Civil War in 1990. Invoking Foote’s narrative history — “a masterpiece” and “a triumph of American history and literature” – Davidson scorns Jonathan Chait for daring to question the historical veracity of Foote’s work and of Burns’s remarkable documentary. Davidson offers an extended paean to Foote’s achievement:

The volumes, published between 1958 and 1974, were almost immediately hailed as a seminal contribution to American letters. Writing in the New Republic, literary scholar and critic Louis D. Rubin Jr. said Foote’s trilogy “is a model of what military history can be.” The New York Times Book Review called it “a remarkable achievement, prodigiously researched, vigorous, detailed, absorbing.” (Presumably by today’s standards these reviewers would be upbraided for praising Foote.)

Davidson might have been less inclined to insert his snide parenthetical remark had he taken the trouble to identify Louis D. Rubin Jr. as a prominent Southern literary figure and the unnamed Times reviewer (Nash K. Burger) as a native Mississippian, who despite a long tenure as an editor of the New York Times Book Review, was unabashed in avowing his Confederate ideology. Despite their emotional attachments to the South, neither reviewer was a racist or a blindly pro-Confederate partisans, but neither was a professional historian, and their praise of Foote’s work owed at least as much to its literary merits as to its historical analytical merits.

So even if one grants that Foote wrote a splendid book on the Civil War, his evaluation of Lee’s character and the role played by “the lack of an ability to compromise” can hardly be accepted as authoritative. I am not a historian, so I am not going to try to pass judgment on Foote’s magnum opus or on Burns’s classic documentary. But facts are facts, and Shelby Foote’s high opinion of him notwithstanding, the facts about Lee are:

(1) that he fought to defend the enslavement of millions of human beings and to ensure that the enslavement would continue in perpetuity,

(2) that he approved the capture and enslavement of free black citizens of the United States by his invading army,

(3) that he refused to allow black Union soldiers captured by the Confederate army to be exchanged for captured Confederate soldiers.

None of those facts supports a claim that Lee was an honorable man.

But Davidson is just getting warmed up:

[N]oting that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Kelly’s comments by citing the Burns documentary, Chait writes that Burns relies heavily on Foote, and “Foote presented Lee and other Confederate fighters as largely driven by motives other than preserving human property, and bemoaned the failure of the North and South to compromise (a compromise that would inevitably have preserved slavery).”

This should be dismissed as a simple case of historical ignorance. . . . Even someone with a cursory knowledge of the Civil War should know that the war came about, as all wars do, because of a failure to compromise.

Instead of making a historical argument, Davidson repeats a truism. Obviously, a compromise on some terms could avoid any war. In the context of the Civil War, however, the relevant question is who was — and who was not — willing to compromise. The answer is clear. The Union was, and always was, willing to make a compromise by allowing those states in which slavery had been legal upon entry into the Union to continue to enforce the rights of slave-holders . The long list of compromises is well-known and in most instances they involved concessions to Southern slave-holding interests. In the run-up to the Civil War, Republicans, so demonized by the South, never threatened to terminate slavery in states in which it remained legal, advocating only that a line be drawn beyond which the extension of slavery be would forbidden, leaving it to the discretion of slave states to decide when, or whether, to terminate that social evil within their own borders. But that compromise was rejected by the South. Of course, Confederate partisans, in characteristic confusion or bad faith, cite the willingness of Lincoln and the Republicans to compromise over slavery to avoid a Civil War as evidence that the Civil War was not really about slavery.

Here is how Lincoln described the prospects for compromise with the South in his Cooper Union speech in February 1860, a speech that Mr. Davidson, if he has a smidgen of intellectual honesty, could read with profit.

It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy [i.e., the Union] shall be at peace, and in harmony, one with another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so. Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can. Judging by all they say and do, and by the subject and nature of their controversy with us, let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them.

Will they be satisfied if the Territories be unconditionally surrendered to them? We know they will not. In all their present complaints against us, the Territories are scarcely mentioned. Invasions and insurrections are the rage now. Will it satisfy them, if, in the future, we have nothing to do with invasions and insurrections? We know it will not. We so know, because we know we never had anything to do with invasions and insurrections; and yet this total abstaining does not exempt us from the charge and the denunciation.

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

I am quite aware they do not state their case precisely in this way. Most of them would probably say to us, “Let us alone, do nothing to us, and say what you please about slavery.” But we do let them alone – have never disturbed them – so that, after all, it is what we say, which dissatisfies them. They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.

But Davidson holds a rather different view of the situation in 1861 from that of Lincoln of the situation in 1861

In our case, the entire history of the United States prior to outbreak of war in 1861 was full of compromises on the question of slavery. It began with the Three-Fifths Compromise written into the U.S. Constitution and was followed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel, excluding Missouri), the Compromise of 1850, then the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and eventually led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent secession of the southern states. Through all this, we inched toward emancipation, albeit slowly.

Really? What is the evidence of slow inching toward emancipation detected by Davidson? The Dred Scott decision (unmentioned by Davidson for obvious reasons)? The Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were clearly major steps in the opposite direction, so Davidson’s assertion of progress toward emancipation is refuted by his own examples and omissions. Any inching toward emancipation served only to inflame Southern recalcitrance and extremism on slavery. Unwilling or unable to offer a shred of evidence that the South was prepared to compromise in 1861, Davidson attacks Kelly’s critics for being opposed to compromise on principle, accusing Ta-Nehisi Coates of hating America because of the earlier compromises that preserved slavery and the Union, as if opposition to compromise were not characteristic of only one side in the Civil War.

The breakdown of all those decades of compromise did indeed lead to the Civil War. This is a point that Foote and other historians have made many times and that Kelly tried his best to paraphrase. Compromising on slavery had been part of how American stayed together, and staved off war, from the beginning. No historian disputes this.

What is the “this” that Davidson believes is not disputed? That until 1861 the Union had been preserved through compromise, almost all being concession to placate Southern slave-holding interests? But in 1861, as Lincoln made so devastatingly clear, the South was dead-set against any further compromises of the sort that had kept the Union together. The South flatly refused to tolerate the election of a Republican President who said explicitly that slavery was wrong, even though he disclaimed any intention to emancipate a single slave legally held under the laws of any sovereign state. Unable to abide an honest statement of moral disapprobation of slavery by the newly elected President, the South chose Civil War as a preemptive measure, because the South refused to coexist in a Union whose chief executive took seriously the proposition that all men are created equal. The Southern idea of compromise was simply: give me whatever I want or I will dissolve the Union.

Neither General Kelly nor Mr. Davidson will tell us exactly what further compromise they think could or should have prevented the War and preserved the Union. They won’t, because to do so they would have to acknowledge that the Civil War came, because the South would never be satisfied unless their view of slavery was adopted and enshrined in the US Constitution. Again read Lincoln’s words:

I am also aware they have not, as yet, in terms, demanded the overthrow of our Free-State Constitutions. Yet those Constitutions declare the wrong of slavery, with more solemn emphasis, than do all other sayings against it; and when all these other sayings shall have been silenced, the overthrow of these Constitutions will be demanded, and nothing be left to resist the demand. It is nothing to the contrary, that they do not demand the whole of this just now. Demanding what they do, and for the reason they do, they can voluntarily stop nowhere short of this consummation. Holding, as they do, that slavery is morally right, and socially elevating, they cannot cease to demand a full national recognition of it, as a legal right, and a social blessing.

Nor can we justifiably withhold this, on any ground save our conviction that slavery is wrong. If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality – its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension – its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Davidson describes Coates as anti-American because he decries the compromises that were made to preserve the Union literally on the backs of brutally oppressed black slaves (see the picture above).

For Coates and his ilk, the entire idea of America is indefensible. Our original sin of slavery can never be extirpated—not by the Civil War, not by the civil rights movement, not even by the remarkable fact that a black man became president of the United States, even as he has become one of the most celebrated and influential writers in America. Coates’ entire project is fundamentally anti-American. To speak of compromises that could have prevented or delayed the war is to speak of a great crime—slavery—for which there is no suitable punishment, except maybe extinction.

In Coates’ reading of history, even Lincoln is culpable. “Lincoln’s own platform was a compromise,” he writes. “Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He proposed to limit slavery’s expansion, not end it.”

And the South chose secession because they would not tolerate his platform of compromise!

Of course, Coates is wrong in a larger sense about Lincoln’s view of the matter. In his famous 1858 House Divided speech, Lincoln said the United States “cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Davidson obviously believes that he is having a gotcha moment here by finding that Coates believes slavery to be a great crime for which there is no suitable punishment, a crime in which Lincoln himself was complicit. Even if that is what Coates really believes – and Davidson is projecting views onto Coates, not quoting him directly — how different would that belief be from what Lincoln himself said in his Second Inaugural address?

The Almighty has his own purposes.  “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”  If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?  Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” [My emphasis]

Was there ever a more eloquent, more devastating indictment of the crime of American slavery — a crime for which, Lincoln clearly states, both sides in the War bore their share of blame and moral culpability?

Davidson goes onto quote Foote’s opposition to taking down monuments to the Confederacy as if Foote’s views on the preservation of history provide moral justification for preserving the public displays of monuments celebrating Confederate war heroes as a sort of historical imperative. Evidently insensitive to how insipid Foote sounds in the interviews, Davidson is unembarrassed to quote Foote’s cringe-worthy comparisons of war memorials erected by white Southerners celebrating Confederate war heroes to Jewish religious and ritual commemorations of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage and to memorials documenting the atrocities perpetrated against Jews in the Holocaust. If preserving the historical record is the object, then the picture above is worth a thousand Confederate statues.

General Kelly v. Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday General John Kelly, U. S. Marine Corps (retired) appeared on the Laura Ingraham Show on Fox News and made the following assertion.

I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.

General Kelly’s assertion that the cause of the Civil War was “a lack of an ability to compromise” was quickly subjected to severe criticism. But I actually think he made an excellent point. The problem is that he did not say who lacked the ability to compromise. But his subsequent reference to “men and women of good faith on both sides” and his praise for Robert E. Lee suggest that he holds that both sides were lacking “an ability to compromise.” The ability – and willingness — to compromise, the ability – and willingness — to engage in a dialogue with one’s adversaries rather than resort to a civil war to achieve the political objectives animating one section of the country was actually addressed at length by Abraham Lincoln in his magnificent Cooper Union Speech (watch Sam Waterston’s marvelous rendering of that speech at the Cooper Union on the 150th anniversary of the speech in 2010 here), which I have previously quoted from on this blog. Herewith is Lincoln’s take on the subject starting at about the half-way point in the speech.

And now, if they would listen – as I suppose they will not – I would address a few words to the Southern people.

I would say to them: – You consider yourselves a reasonable and a just people; and I consider that in the general qualities of reason and justice you are not inferior to any other people. Still, when you speak of us Republicans, you do so only to denounce us a reptiles, or, at the best, as no better than outlaws. You will grant a hearing to pirates or murderers, but nothing like it to “Black Republicans.” In all your contentions with one another, each of you deems an unconditional condemnation of “Black Republicanism” as the first thing to be attended to. Indeed, such condemnation of us seems to be an indispensable prerequisite – license, so to speak – among you to be admitted or permitted to speak at all. Now, can you, or not, be prevailed upon to pause and to consider whether this is quite just to us, or even to yourselves? Bring forward your charges and specifications, and then be patient long enough to hear us deny or justify.

You say we are sectional. We deny it. That makes an issue; and the burden of proof is upon you. You produce your proof; and what is it? Why, that our party has no existence in your section – gets no votes in your section. The fact is substantially true; but does it prove the issue? If it does, then in case we should, without change of principle, begin to get votes in your section, we should thereby cease to be sectional. You cannot escape this conclusion; and yet, are you willing to abide by it? If you are, you will probably soon find that we have ceased to be sectional, for we shall get votes in your section this very year. You will then begin to discover, as the truth plainly is, that your proof does not touch the issue. The fact that we get no votes in your section, is a fact of your making, and not of ours. And if there be fault in that fact, that fault is primarily yours, and remains until you show that we repel you by some wrong principle or practice. If we do repel you by any wrong principle or practice, the fault is ours; but this brings you to where you ought to have started – to a discussion of the right or wrong of our principle. If our principle, put in practice, would wrong your section for the benefit of ours, or for any other object, then our principle, and we with it, are sectional, and are justly opposed and denounced as such. Meet us, then, on the question of whether our principle, put in practice, would wrong your section; and so meet it as if it were possible that something may be said on our side. Do you accept the challenge? No! Then you really believe that the principle which “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live” thought so clearly right as to adopt it, and indorse it again and again, upon their official oaths, is in fact so clearly wrong as to demand your condemnation without a moment’s consideration.

Some of you delight to flaunt in our faces the warning against sectional parties given by Washington in his Farewell Address. Less than eight years before Washington gave that warning, he had, as President of the United States, approved and signed an act of Congress, enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory, which act embodied the policy of the Government upon that subject up to and at the very moment he penned that warning; and about one year after he penned it, he wrote LaFayette that he considered that prohibition a wise measure, expressing in the same connection his hope that we should at some time have a confederacy of free States.

Bearing this in mind, and seeing that sectionalism has since arisen upon this same subject, is that warning a weapon in your hands against us, or in our hands against you? Could Washington himself speak, would he cast the blame of that sectionalism upon us, who sustain his policy, or upon you who repudiate it? We respect that warning of Washington, and we commend it to you, together with his example pointing to the right application of it.

But you say you are conservative – eminently conservative – while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live;” while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new. True, you disagree among yourselves as to what that substitute shall be. You are divided on new propositions and plans, but you are unanimous in rejecting and denouncing the old policy of the fathers. Some of you are for reviving the foreign slave trade; some for a Congressional Slave-Code for the Territories; some for Congress forbidding the Territories to prohibit Slavery within their limits; some for maintaining Slavery in the Territories through the judiciary; some for the “gur-reat pur-rinciple” that “if one man would enslave another, no third man should object,” fantastically called “Popular Sovereignty;” but never a man among you is in favor of federal prohibition of slavery in federal territories, according to the practice of “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” Not one of all your various plans can show a precedent or an advocate in the century within which our Government originated. Consider, then, whether your claim of conservatism for yourselves, and your charge or destructiveness against us, are based on the most clear and stable foundations.

Again, you say we have made the slavery question more prominent than it formerly was. We deny it. We admit that it is more prominent, but we deny that we made it so. It was not we, but you, who discarded the old policy of the fathers. We resisted, and still resist, your innovation; and thence comes the greater prominence of the question. Would you have that question reduced to its former proportions? Go back to that old policy. What has been will be again, under the same conditions. If you would have the peace of the old times, readopt the precepts and policy of the old times.

You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it; and what is your proof? Harper’s Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise. If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need to be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander.

Some of you admit that no Republican designedly aided or encouraged the Harper’s Ferry affair, but still insist that our doctrines and declarations necessarily lead to such results. We do not believe it. We know we hold to no doctrine, and make no declaration, which were not held to and made by “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” You never dealt fairly by us in relation to this affair. When it occurred, some important State elections were near at hand, and you were in evident glee with the belief that, by charging the blame upon us, you could get an advantage of us in those elections. The elections came, and your expectations were not quite fulfilled. Every Republican man knew that, as to himself at least, your charge was a slander, and he was not much inclined by it to cast his vote in your favor. Republican doctrines and declarations are accompanied with a continual protest against any interference whatever with your slaves, or with you about your slaves. Surely, this does not encourage them to revolt. True, we do, in common with “our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live,” declare our belief that slavery is wrong; but the slaves do not hear us declare even this. For anything we say or do, the slaves would scarcely know there is a Republican party. I believe they would not, in fact, generally know it but for your misrepresentations of us, in their hearing. In your political contests among yourselves, each faction charges the other with sympathy with Black Republicanism; and then, to give point to the charge, defines Black Republicanism to simply be insurrection, blood and thunder among the slaves.

Slave insurrections are no more common now than they were before the Republican party was organized. What induced the Southampton insurrection, twenty-eight years ago, in which, at least three times as many lives were lost as at Harper’s Ferry? You can scarcely stretch your very elastic fancy to the conclusion that Southampton was “got up by Black Republicanism.” In the present state of things in the United States, I do not think a general, or even a very extensive slave insurrection is possible. The indispensable concert of action cannot be attained. The slaves have no means of rapid communication; nor can incendiary freemen, black or white, supply it. The explosive materials are everywhere in parcels; but there neither are, nor can be supplied, the indispensable connecting trains.

Much is said by Southern people about the affection of slaves for their masters and mistresses; and a part of it, at least, is true. A plot for an uprising could scarcely be devised and communicated to twenty individuals before some one of them, to save the life of a favorite master or mistress, would divulge it. This is the rule; and the slave revolution in Hayti was not an exception to it, but a case occurring under peculiar circumstances. The gunpowder plot of British history, though not connected with slaves, was more in point. In that case, only about twenty were admitted to the secret; and yet one of them, in his anxiety to save a friend, betrayed the plot to that friend, and, by consequence, averted the calamity. Occasional poisonings from the kitchen, and open or stealthy assassinations in the field, and local revolts extending to a score or so, will continue to occur as the natural results of slavery; but no general insurrection of slaves, as I think, can happen in this country for a long time. Whoever much fears, or much hopes for such an event, will be alike disappointed.

In the language of Mr. Jefferson, uttered many years ago, “It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation, and deportation, peaceably, and in such slow degrees, as that the evil will wear off insensibly; and their places be, pari passu, filled up by free white laborers. If, on the contrary, it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.”

Mr. Jefferson did not mean to say, nor do I, that the power of emancipation is in the Federal Government. He spoke of Virginia; and, as to the power of emancipation, I speak of the slaveholding States only. The Federal Government, however, as we insist, has the power of restraining the extension of the institution – the power to insure that a slave insurrection shall never occur on any American soil which is now free from slavery.

John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed. That affair, in its philosophy, corresponds with the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution. Orsini’s attempt on Louis Napoleon, and John Brown’s attempt at Harper’s Ferry were, in their philosophy, precisely the same. The eagerness to cast blame on old England in the one case, and on New England in the other, does not disprove the sameness of the two things.

And how much would it avail you, if you could, by the use of John Brown, Helper’s Book, and the like, break up the Republican organization? Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed. There is a judgment and a feeling against slavery in this nation, which cast at least a million and a half of votes. You cannot destroy that judgment and feeling – that sentiment – by breaking up the political organization which rallies around it. You can scarcely scatter and disperse an army which has been formed into order in the face of your heaviest fire; but if you could, how much would you gain by forcing the sentiment which created it out of the peaceful channel of the ballot-box, into some other channel? What would that other channel probably be? Would the number of John Browns be lessened or enlarged by the operation?

But you will break up the Union rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights.

That has a somewhat reckless sound; but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right, plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing.

When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours, to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such a right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

This, plainly stated, is your language. Perhaps you will say the Supreme Court has decided the disputed Constitutional question in your favor. Not quite so. But waiving the lawyer’s distinction between dictum and decision, the Court have decided the question for you in a sort of way. The Court have substantially said, it is your Constitutional right to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. When I say the decision was made in a sort of way, I mean it was made in a divided Court, by a bare majority of the Judges, and they not quite agreeing with one another in the reasons for making it; that it is so made as that its avowed supporters disagree with one another about its meaning, and that it was mainly based upon a mistaken statement of fact – the statement in the opinion that “the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.”

An inspection of the Constitution will show that the right of property in a slave is not “distinctly and expressly affirmed” in it. Bear in mind, the Judges do not pledge their judicial opinion that such right is impliedly affirmed in the Constitution; but they pledge their veracity that it is “distinctly and expressly” affirmed there – “distinctly,” that is, not mingled with anything else – “expressly,” that is, in words meaning just that, without the aid of any inference, and susceptible of no other meaning.

If they had only pledged their judicial opinion that such right is affirmed in the instrument by implication, it would be open to others to show that neither the word “slave” nor “slavery” is to be found in the Constitution, nor the word “property” even, in any connection with language alluding to the things slave, or slavery; and that wherever in that instrument the slave is alluded to, he is called a “person;” – and wherever his master’s legal right in relation to him is alluded to, it is spoken of as “service or labor which may be due,” – as a debt payable in service or labor. Also, it would be open to show, by contemporaneous history, that this mode of alluding to slaves and slavery, instead of speaking of them, was employed on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.

To show all this, is easy and certain.

When this obvious mistake of the Judges shall be brought to their notice, is it not reasonable to expect that they will withdraw the mistaken statement, and reconsider the conclusion based upon it?

And then it is to be remembered that “our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live” – the men who made the Constitution – decided this same Constitutional question in our favor, long ago – decided it without division among themselves, when making the decision; without division among themselves about the meaning of it after it was made, and, so far as any evidence is left, without basing it upon any mistaken statement of facts.

Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as yours is, shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action? But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”

To be sure, what the robber demanded of me – my money – was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.

“The lack of an ability to compromise” was clearly a deficiency of one — and only one — party to the Civil War, the side for which Robert E. Lee chose to do battle. That point was conclusively demonstrated by Lincoln in his Cooper Union Speech. General Kelly, read the speech.

No! God Did Not Create all Slave-Holders Equal

In these troubled times, I find it hard to think and write about economics, so this post will be drawn largely from Abraham Lincoln’s great Cooper Union Speech which helped him gain the Republican nomination for President in 1860. What a difference a century and a half makes!

I am drawn to this speech because we are told that if we take down the statue of Robert E. Lee — a Virginian slave-holder who was once a hero of mine — in Charlottesville, Virginia, that will set us off on a road that will inevitably lead us to take down monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were also Virginian slave-holders. At least that’s what Tucker Carlson said on his show on Fox News on Tuesday night.

On Monday a mob tore down a civil war soldier’s memorial in Durham, North Carolina. Police stood idly by and liberals across the country applauded it. Which statues are next, the president asked today, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson? . . .

Thomas Jefferson indisputably was a great man. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence. Founder of the University of Virginia and maybe, most importantly, the greatest thinker in American political history.

All of us live in his shadow. Unfortunately, however, Jefferson was also a slave holder. That’s real. It’s a moral taint. We ought to remember it.

But to the fanatics on the left it means that Jefferson must be purged from public memory forever. The demands are already coming that we do that.

In 2015, the students at the University of Missouri demanded the removal of a Jefferson statue. Two years ago, on CNN, anchor Ashleigh Banfield suggested the Jefferson Memorial in Washington might have to go. . . .

Now, to be clear, as if it’s necessary, slavery is evil. If you believe in the rights of the individual, it’s actually hard to think of anything worse than slavery.

But let’s be honest. Up until 150 years ago when a group of brave Americans fought and died to finally put an end to it, slavery was the rule, rather than the exception around the world. And had been for thousands of years, sadly.

Plato owned saves, so did Mohammed — peace be upon him.

Many African tribes held slaves and sold them. The Aztecs did, too. Before he liberated Latin America, Simon Bolivar owned slaves.

Slave-holding was so common among the North American Indians that the Cherokee brought their slaves with them on the Trail of Tears. And it wasn’t something they learned from European settlers.

Indians were holding and trading slaves when Christopher Columbus arrived. And by the way, he owned slaves, too.

None of this is a defense of the atrocity of human bondage. And it is an atrocity.

The point however is that if we are going to judge the past by the standards of the present. If we are going to reduce a person’s life to the single worst thing he ever participated in, we had better be prepared for the consequences of that. And here’s why: Forty one of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence held slaves.

James Madison, the father of the Constitution, had a plantation full of slaves.

George Mason, the father of the Bill of Rights, also owned slaves, unfortunately. But does that make what they wrote illegitimate?

Carlson made no mention of George Washington, but others have.

Of course, the argument is sophistical, because it conflates all slave-holders, suggesting that all slave-holders are equal, so that to deny Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes the privilege of being immortalized in stone or in bronze would require us, on principle, to consider all other slave-holders equally unworthy of such honor. But here’s the difference: most slave-holders — people like Washington and Jefferson and Madison and Mason — held slaves, because they lived in societies in which slave-holding was condoned and socially acceptable. But not all slave-holders had the audacity to claim that slave-holding was a natural and inalienable right of theirs, for the vindication of which they would go to war against their fellow countrymen to establish a new regime that would preserve, protect and defend that sacred right till the end of time. Not all slave-holders dared to justify their slave-holding as a high principle; it was only those Secessionists who started the Civil War to create the Confederate States of America to uphold a society dedicated to the proposition that some men are divinely entitled to “wring their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces” who entertained that audacious and repugnant conception of their own natural and rightful supremacy.

In his Cooper Union speech (see a marvelous re-enactment of the speech by Sam Waterston here), Lincoln conclusively showed how vast a difference there was between the attitude to slavery of the Founders of the American Republic — including those who owned slaves — and that of the Secessionists who chose to make war rather than allow the Republic to survive.

Herewith are selections from Lincoln’s magnificent address:

In his speech last autumn, at Columbus, Ohio, as reported in “The New-York Times,” Senator Douglas said:

“Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.”

I fully indorse this, and I adopt it as a text for this discourse. I so adopt it because it furnishes a precise and an agreed starting point for a discussion between Republicans and that wing of the Democracy headed by Senator Douglas. It simply leaves the inquiry: “What was the understanding those fathers had of the question mentioned?”

What is the frame of government under which we live?

The answer must be: “The Constitution of the United States.” That Constitution consists of the original, framed in 1787, (and under which the present government first went into operation,) and twelve subsequently framed amendments, the first ten of which were framed in 1789.

Who were our fathers that framed the Constitution? I suppose the “thirty-nine” who signed the original instrument may be fairly called our fathers who framed that part of the present Government. It is almost exactly true to say they framed it, and it is altogether true to say they fairly represented the opinion and sentiment of the whole nation at that time. Their names, being familiar to nearly all, and accessible to quite all, need not now be repeated. . . .

What is the question which, according to the text, those fathers understood “just as well, and even better than we do now?”

It is this: Does the proper division of local from federal authority, or anything in the Constitution, forbid our Federal Government to control as to slavery in our Federal Territories?

Upon this, Senator Douglas holds the affirmative, and Republicans the negative. This affirmation and denial form an issue; and this issue – this question – is precisely what the text declares our fathers understood “better than we.” . . .

In 1789, by the first Congress which sat under the Constitution, an act was passed to enforce the Ordinance of ’87, including the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory. The bill for this act was reported by one of the “thirty-nine,” Thomas Fitzsimmons, then a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. It went through all its stages without a word of opposition, and finally passed both branches without yeas and nays, which is equivalent to a unanimous passage. In this Congress there were sixteen of the thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution. They were John Langdon, Nicholas Gilman, Wm. S. Johnson, Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Thos. Fitzsimmons, William Few, Abraham Baldwin, Rufus King, William Paterson, George Clymer, Richard Bassett, George Read, Pierce Butler, Daniel Carroll, James Madison.

This shows that, in their understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything in the Constitution, properly forbade Congress to prohibit slavery in the federal territory; else both their fidelity to correct principle, and their oath to support the Constitution, would have constrained them to oppose the prohibition.

Again, George Washington, another of the “thirty-nine,” was then President of the United States, and, as such approved and signed the bill; thus completing its validity as a law, and thus showing that, in his understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything in the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government, to control as to slavery in federal territory. . . .

In 1803, the Federal Government purchased the Louisiana country. Our former territorial acquisitions came from certain of our own States; but this Louisiana country was acquired from a foreign nation. In 1804, Congress gave a territorial organization to that part of it which now constitutes the State of Louisiana. New Orleans, lying within that part, was an old and comparatively large city. There were other considerable towns and settlements, and slavery was extensively and thoroughly intermingled with the people. Congress did not, in the Territorial Act, prohibit slavery; but they did interfere with it – take control of it – in a more marked and extensive way than they did in the case of Mississippi. The substance of the provision therein made, in relation to slaves, was:

First. That no slave should be imported into the territory from foreign parts.

Second. That no slave should be carried into it who had been imported into the United States since the first day of May, 1798.

Third. That no slave should be carried into it, except by the owner, and for his own use as a settler; the penalty in all the cases being a fine upon the violator of the law, and freedom to the slave. . . .

The sum of the whole is, that of our thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution, twenty-one – a clear majority of the whole – certainly understood that no proper division of local from federal authority, nor any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control slavery in the federal territories; while all the rest probably had the same understanding. Such, unquestionably, was the understanding of our fathers who framed the original Constitution; and the text affirms that they understood the question “better than we.”

But, so far, I have been considering the understanding of the question manifested by the framers of the original Constitution. In and by the original instrument, a mode was provided for amending it; and, as I have already stated, the present frame of “the Government under which we live” consists of that original, and twelve amendatory articles framed and adopted since. Those who now insist that federal control of slavery in federal territories violates the Constitution, point us to the provisions which they suppose it thus violates; and, as I understand, that all fix upon provisions in these amendatory articles, and not in the original instrument. The Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott case, plant themselves upon the fifth amendment, which provides that no person shall be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law;” while Senator Douglas and his peculiar adherents plant themselves upon the tenth amendment, providing that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution” “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Now, it so happens that these amendments were framed by the first Congress which sat under the Constitution – the identical Congress which passed the act already mentioned, enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory. Not only was it the same Congress, but they were the identical, same individual men who, at the same session, and at the same time within the session, had under consideration, and in progress toward maturity, these Constitutional amendments, and this act prohibiting slavery in all the territory the nation then owned. The Constitutional amendments were introduced before, and passed after the act enforcing the Ordinance of ’87; so that, during the whole pendency of the act to enforce the Ordinance, the Constitutional amendments were also pending.

The seventy-six members of that Congress, including sixteen of the framers of the original Constitution, as before stated, were pre- eminently our fathers who framed that part of “the Government under which we live,” which is now claimed as forbidding the Federal Government to control slavery in the federal territories.

Is it not a little presumptuous in any one at this day to affirm that the two things which that Congress deliberately framed, and carried to maturity at the same time, are absolutely inconsistent with each other? And does not such affirmation become impudently absurd when coupled with the other affirmation from the same mouth, that those who did the two things, alleged to be inconsistent, understood whether they really were inconsistent better than we – better than he who affirms that they are inconsistent?

It is surely safe to assume that the thirty-nine framers of the original Constitution, and the seventy-six members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly include those who may be fairly called “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” And so assuming, I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. I go a step further. I defy any one to show that any living man in the whole world ever did, prior to the beginning of the present century, (and I might almost say prior to the beginning of the last half of the present century,) declare that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. To those who now so declare, I give, not only “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live,” but with them all other living men within the century in which it was framed, among whom to search, and they shall not be able to find the evidence of a single man agreeing with them.

Now, and here, let me guard a little against being misunderstood. I do not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did. To do so, would be to discard all the lights of current experience – to reject all progress – all improvement. What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we.

Some of you delight to flaunt in our faces the warning against sectional parties given by Washington in his Farewell Address. Less than eight years before Washington gave that warning, he had, as President of the United States, approved and signed an act of Congress, enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory, which act embodied the policy of the Government upon that subject up to and at the very moment he penned that warning; and about one year after he penned it, he wrote LaFayette that he considered that prohibition a wise measure, expressing in the same connection his hope that we should at some time have a confederacy of free States. . . .

But you will break up the Union rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights.

That has a somewhat reckless sound; but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right, plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing.

When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours, to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such a right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

This, plainly stated, is your language. Perhaps you will say the Supreme Court has decided the disputed Constitutional question in your favor. Not quite so. But waiving the lawyer’s distinction between dictum and decision, the Court have decided the question for you in a sort of way. The Court have substantially said, it is your Constitutional right to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. When I say the decision was made in a sort of way, I mean it was made in a divided Court, by a bare majority of the Judges, and they not quite agreeing with one another in the reasons for making it; that it is so made as that its avowed supporters disagree with one another about its meaning, and that it was mainly based upon a mistaken statement of fact – the statement in the opinion that “the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.”

An inspection of the Constitution will show that the right of property in a slave is not “distinctly and expressly affirmed” in it. Bear in mind, the Judges do not pledge their judicial opinion that such right is impliedly affirmed in the Constitution; but they pledge their veracity that it is “distinctly and expressly” affirmed there – “distinctly,” that is, not mingled with anything else – “expressly,” that is, in words meaning just that, without the aid of any inference, and susceptible of no other meaning.

If they had only pledged their judicial opinion that such right is affirmed in the instrument by implication, it would be open to others to show that neither the word “slave” nor “slavery” is to be found in the Constitution, nor the word “property” even, in any connection with language alluding to the things slave, or slavery; and that wherever in that instrument the slave is alluded to, he is called a “person;” – and wherever his master’s legal right in relation to him is alluded to, it is spoken of as “service or labor which may be due,” – as a debt payable in service or labor. Also, it would be open to show, by contemporaneous history, that this mode of alluding to slaves and slavery, instead of speaking of them, was employed on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.

To show all this, is easy and certain.

When this obvious mistake of the Judges shall be brought to their notice, is it not reasonable to expect that they will withdraw the mistaken statement, and reconsider the conclusion based upon it?

And then it is to be remembered that “our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live” – the men who made the Constitution – decided this same Constitutional question in our favor, long ago – decided it without division among themselves, when making the decision; without division among themselves about the meaning of it after it was made, and, so far as any evidence is left, without basing it upon any mistaken statement of facts.

Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as yours is, shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action? But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”

To be sure, what the robber demanded of me – my money – was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle. . . .

A few words now to Republicans. It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, one with another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so. Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can. Judging by all they say and do, and by the subject and nature of their controversy with us, let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them. . . .

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

I am quite aware they do not state their case precisely in this way. Most of them would probably say to us, “Let us alone, do nothing to us, and say what you please about slavery.” But we do let them alone – have never disturbed them – so that, after all, it is what we say, which dissatisfies them. They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.

I am also aware they have not, as yet, in terms, demanded the overthrow of our Free-State Constitutions. Yet those Constitutions declare the wrong of slavery, with more solemn emphasis, than do all other sayings against it; and when all these other sayings shall have been silenced, the overthrow of these Constitutions will be demanded, and nothing be left to resist the demand. It is nothing to the contrary, that they do not demand the whole of this just now. Demanding what they do, and for the reason they do, they can voluntarily stop nowhere short of this consummation. Holding, as they do, that slavery is morally right, and socially elevating, they cannot cease to demand a full national recognition of it, as a legal right, and a social blessing.

Nor can we justifiably withhold this, on any ground save our conviction that slavery is wrong. If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality – its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension – its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.

So, Mr. Carlson, before you start opining about slavery again, instead of citing Plato and Muhammed, peace be upon him, why not try reading some of the speeches of the sixteenth President of the United States?

What’s Wrong with the Price-Specie-Flow Mechanism? Part I

The tortured intellectual history of the price-specie-flow mechanism (PSFM), which received its classic exposition in an essay (“Of the Balance of Trade”) by David Hume about 275 years ago is not a history that, properly understood, provides solid grounds for optimism about the chances for progress in what we, somewhat credulously, call economic science. In brief, the price-specie-flow mechanism asserts that, under a gold or commodity standard, deviations between the price levels of those countries on the gold standard induce gold to be shipped from countries where prices are relatively high to countries where prices are relatively low, the gold flows continuing until price levels are equalized. Hence, the compound adjective “price-specie-flow,” signifying that the mechanism is set in motion by price-level differences that induce gold (specie) flows.

The PSFM is thus premised on a version of the quantity theory of money in which price levels in each country on the gold standard are determined by the quantity of money circulating in that country. In his account, Hume assumed that money consists entirely of gold, so that he could present a scenario of disturbance and re-equilibration strictly in terms of changes in the amount of gold circulating in each country. Inasmuch as Hume held a deeply hostile attitude toward banks, believing them to be essentially inflationary engines of financial disorder, subsequent interpretations of the PSFM had to struggle to formulate a more general theoretical account of international monetary adjustment to accommodate the presence of the fractional-reserve banking so detested by Hume and to devise an institutional framework that would facilitate operation of the adjustment mechanism under a fractional-reserve-banking system.

In previous posts on this blog (e.g., here, here and here) a recent article on the history of the (misconceived) distinction between rules and discretion, I’ve discussed the role played by the PSFM in one not very successful attempt at monetary reform, the English Bank Charter Act of 1844. The Bank Charter Act was intended to ensure the maintenance of monetary equilibrium by reforming the English banking system so that it would operate the way Hume described it in his account of the PSFM. However, despite the failings of the Bank Charter Act, the general confusion about monetary theory and policy that has beset economic theory for over two centuries has allowed PSFM to retain an almost canonical status, so that it continues to be widely regarded as the basic positive and normative model of how the classical gold standard operated. Using the PSFM as their normative model, monetary “experts” came up with the idea that, in countries with gold inflows, monetary authorities should reduce interest rates (i.e., lending rates to the banking system) causing monetary expansion through the banking system, and, in countries losing gold, the monetary authorities should do the opposite. These vague maxims described as the “rules of the game,” gave only directional guidance about how to respond to an increase or decrease in gold reserves, thereby avoiding the strict numerical rules, and resulting financial malfunctions, prescribed by the Bank Charter Act.

In his 1932 defense of the insane gold-accumulation policy of the Bank of France, Hayek posited an interpretation of what the rules of the game required that oddly mirrored the strict numerical rules of the Bank Charter Act, insisting that, having increased the quantity of banknotes by about as much its gold reserves had increased after restoration of the gold convertibility of the franc, the Bank of France had done all that the “rules of the game” required it to do. In fairness to Hayek, I should note that decades after his misguided defense of the Bank of France, he was sharply critical of the Bank Charter Act. At any rate, the episode indicates how indefinite the “rules of the game” actually were as a guide to policy. And, for that reason alone, it is not surprising that evidence that the rules of the game were followed during the heyday of the gold standard (roughly 1880 to 1914) is so meager. But the main reason for the lack of evidence that the rules of the game were actually followed is that the PSFM, whose implementation the rules of the game were supposed to guarantee, was a theoretically flawed misrepresentation of the international-adjustment mechanism under the gold standard.

Until my second year of graduate school (1971-72), I had accepted the PSFM as a straightforward implication of the quantity theory of money, endorsed by such luminaries as Hayek, Friedman and Jacob Viner. I had taken Axel Leijonhufvud’s graduate macro class in my first year, so in my second year I audited Earl Thompson’s graduate macro class in which he expounded his own unique approach to macroeconomics. One of the first eye-opening arguments that Thompson made was to deny that the quantity theory of money is relevant to an economy on the gold standard, the kind of economy (allowing for silver and bimetallic standards as well) that classical economics, for the most part, dealt with. It was only after the Great Depression that fiat money was widely accepted as a viable system for the long-term rather than a mere temporary wartime expedient.

What determines the price level for a gold-standard economy? Thompson’s argument was simple. The value of gold is determined relative to every other good in the economy by exactly the same forces of supply and demand that determine relative prices for every other real good. If gold is the standard, or numeraire, in terms of which all prices are quoted, then the nominal price of gold is one (the relative price of gold in terms of itself). A unit of currency is specified as a certain quantity of gold, so the price level measure in terms of the currency unit varies inversely with the value of gold. The amount of money in such an economy will correspond to the amount of gold, or, more precisely, to the amount of gold that people want to devote to monetary, as opposed to real (non-monetary), uses. But financial intermediaries (banks) will offer to exchange IOUs convertible on demand into gold for IOUs of individual agents. The IOUs of banks have the property that they are accepted in exchange, unlike the IOUs of individual agents which are not accepted in exchange (not strictly true as bills of exchange have in the past been widely accepted in exchange). Thus, the amount of money (IOUs payable on demand) issued by the banking system depends on how much money, given the value of gold, the public wants to hold; whenever people want to hold more money than they have on hand, they obtain additional money by exchanging their own IOUs – not accepted in payment — with a bank for a corresponding amount of the bank’s IOUs – which are accepted in payment.

Thus, the simple monetary theory that corresponds to a gold standard starts with a value of gold determined by real factors. Given the public’s demand to hold money, the banking system supplies whatever quantity of money is demanded by the public at a price level corresponding to the real value of gold. This monetary theory is a theory of an ideal banking system producing a competitive supply of money. It is the basic monetary paradigm of Adam Smith and a significant group of subsequent monetary theorists who formed the Banking School (and also the Free Banking School) that opposed the Currency School doctrine that provided the rationale for the Bank Charter Act. The model is highly simplified and based on assumptions that aren’t necessarily fulfilled always or even at all in the real world. The same qualification applies to all economic models, but the realism of the monetary model is certainly open to question.

So under the ideal gold-standard model described by Thompson, what was the mechanism of international monetary adjustment? All countries on the gold standard shared a common price level, because, under competitive conditions, prices for any tradable good at any two points in space can deviate by no more than the cost of transporting that product from one point to the other. If geographic price differences are constrained by transportation costs, then the price effects of an increased quantity of gold at any location cannot be confined to prices at that location; arbitrage spreads the price effect at one location across the whole world. So the basic premise underlying the PSFM — that price differences across space resulting from any disturbance to the equilibrium distribution of gold would trigger equilibrating gold shipments to equalize prices — is untenable; price differences between any two points are always constrained by the cost of transportation between those points, whatever the geographic distribution of gold happens to be.

Aside from the theoretical point that there is a single world price level – actually it’s more correct to call it a price band reflecting the range of local price differences consistent with arbitrage — that exists under the gold standard, so that the idea that local prices vary in proportion to the local money stock is inconsistent with standard price theory, Thompson also provided an empirical refutation of the PSFM. According to the PSFM, when gold is flowing into one country and out of another, the price levels in the two countries should move in opposite directions. But the evidence shows that price-level changes in gold-standard countries were highly correlated even when gold flows were in the opposite direction. Similarly, if PSFM were correct, cyclical changes in output and employment should have been correlated with gold flows, but no such correlation between cyclical movements and gold flows is observed in the data. It was on this theoretical foundation that Thompson built a novel — except that Hawtrey and Cassel had anticipated him by about 50 years — interpretation of the Great Depression as a deflationary episode caused by a massive increase in the demand for gold between 1929 and 1933, in contrast to Milton Friedman’s narrative that explained the Great Depression in terms of massive contraction in the US money stock between 1929 and 1933.

Thompson’s ideas about the gold standard, which he had been working on for years before I encountered them, were in the air, and it wasn’t long before I encountered them in the work of Harry Johnson, Bob Mundell, Jacob Frenkel and others at the University of Chicago who were then developing what came to be known as the monetary approach to the balance of payments. Not long after leaving UCLA in 1976 for my first teaching job, I picked up a volume edited by Johnson and Frenkel with the catchy title The Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments. I studied many of the papers in the volume, but only two made a lasting impression, the first by Johnson and Frenkel “The Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments: Essential Concepts and Historical Origins,” and the last by McCloskey and Zecher, “How the Gold Standard Really Worked.” Reinforcing what I had learned from Thompson, the papers provided a deeper understanding of the relevant history of thought on the international-monetary-adjustment  mechanism, and the important empirical and historical evidence that contradicts the PSFM. I also owe my interest in Hawtrey to the Johnson and Frenkel paper which cites Hawtrey repeatedly for many of the basic concepts of the monetary approach, especially the existence of a single arbitrage-constrained international price level under the gold standard.

When I attended the History of Economics Society Meeting in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, I had the  pleasure of meeting Deirdre McCloskey for the first time. Anticipating that we would have a chance to chat, I reread the 1976 paper in the Johnson and Frenkel volume and a follow-up paper by McCloskey and Zecher (“The Success of Purchasing Power Parity: Historical Evidence and Its Implications for Macroeconomics“) that appeared in a volume edited by Michael Bordo and Anna Schwartz, A Retrospective on the Classical Gold Standard. We did have a chance to chat and she did attend the session at which I talked about Friedman and the gold standard, but regrettably the chat was not a long one, so I am going to try to keep the conversation going with this post, and the next one in which I will discuss the two McCloskey and Zecher papers and especially the printed comment to the later paper that Milton Friedman presented at the conference for which the paper was written. So stay tuned.

PS Here is are links to Thompson’s essential papers on monetary theory, “The Theory of Money and Income Consistent with Orthodox Value Theory” and “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” about which I have written several posts in the past. And here is a link to my paper “A Reinterpretation of Classical Monetary Theory” showing that Earl’s ideas actually captured much of what classical monetary theory was all about.

Hayek and Temporary Equilibrium

In my three previous posts (here, here, and here) about intertemporal equilibrium, I have been emphasizing that the defining characteristic of an intertemporal equilibrium is that agents all share the same expectations of future prices – or at least the same expectations of those future prices on which they are basing their optimizing plans – over their planning horizons. At a given moment at which agents share the same expectations of future prices, the optimizing plans of the agents are consistent, because none of the agents would have any reason to change his optimal plan as long as price expectations do not change, or are not disappointed as a result of prices turning out to be different from what they had been expected to be.

The failure of expected prices to be fulfilled would therefore signify that the information available to agents in forming their expectations and choosing optimal plans conditional on their expectations had been superseded by newly obtained information. The arrival of new information can thus be viewed as a cause of disequilibrium as can any difference in information among agents. The relationship between information and equilibrium can be expressed as follows: differences in information or differences in how agents interpret information leads to disequilibrium, because those differences lead agents to form differing expectations of future prices.

Now the natural way to generalize the intertemporal equilibrium model is to allow for agents to have different expectations of future prices reflecting their differences in how they acquire, or in how they process, information. But if agents have different information, so that their expectations of future prices are not the same, the plans on which agents construct their subjectively optimal plans will be inconsistent and incapable of implementation without at least some revisions. But this generalization seems incompatible with the equilibrium of optimal plans, prices and price expectations described by Roy Radner, which I have identified as an updated version of Hayek’s concept of intertemporal equilibrium.

The question that I want to explore in this post is how to reconcile the absence of equilibrium of optimal plans, prices, and price expectations, with the intuitive notion of market clearing that we use to analyze asset markets and markets for current delivery. If markets for current delivery and for existing assets are in equilibrium in the sense that prices are adjusting in those markets to equate demand and supply in those markets, how can we understand the idea that  the optimizing plans that agents are seeking to implement are mutually inconsistent?

The classic attempt to explain this intermediate situation which partially is and partially is not an equilibrium, was made by J. R. Hicks in 1939 in Value and Capital when he coined the term “temporary equilibrium” to describe a situation in which current prices are adjusting to equilibrate supply and demand in current markets even though agents are basing their choices of optimal plans to implement over time on different expectations of what prices will be in the future. The divergence of the price expectations on the basis of which agents choose their optimal plans makes it inevitable that some or all of those expectations won’t be realized, and that some, or all, of those agents won’t be able to implement the optimal plans that they have chosen, without at least some revisions.

In Hayek’s early works on business-cycle theory, he argued that the correct approach to the analysis of business cycles must be analyzed as a deviation by the economy from its equilibrium path. The problem that he acknowledged with this approach was that the tools of equilibrium analysis could be used to analyze the nature of the equilibrium path of an economy, but could not easily be deployed to analyze how an economy performs once it deviates from its equilibrium path. Moreover, cyclical deviations from an equilibrium path tend not to be immediately self-correcting, but rather seem to be cumulative. Hayek attributed the tendency toward cumulative deviations from equilibrium to the lagged effects of monetary expansion which cause cumulative distortions in the capital structure of the economy that lead at first to an investment-driven expansion of output, income and employment and then later to cumulative contractions in output, income, and employment. But Hayek’s monetary analysis was never really integrated with the equilibrium analysis that he regarded as the essential foundation for a theory of business cycles, so the monetary analysis of the cycle remained largely distinct from, if not inconsistent with, the equilibrium analysis.

I would suggest that for Hayek the Hicksian temporary-equilibrium construct would have been the appropriate theoretical framework within which to formulate a monetary analysis consistent with equilibrium analysis. Although there are hints in the last part of The Pure Theory of Capital that Hayek was thinking along these lines, I don’t believe that he got very far, and he certainly gave no indication that he saw in the Hicksian method the analytical tool with which to weave the two threads of his analysis.

I will now try to explain how the temporary-equilibrium method makes it possible to understand  the conditions for a cumulative monetary disequilibrium. I make no attempt to outline a specifically Austrian or Hayekian theory of monetary disequilibrium, but perhaps others will find it worthwhile to do so.

As I mentioned in my previous post, agents understand that their price expectations may not be realized, and that their plans may have to be revised. Agents also recognize that, given the uncertainty underlying all expectations and plans, not all debt instruments (IOUs) are equally reliable. The general understanding that debt – promises to make future payments — must be evaluated and assessed makes it profitable for some agents to specialize in in debt assessment. Such specialists are known as financial intermediaries. And, as I also mentioned previously, the existence of financial intermediaries cannot be rationalized in the ADM model, because, all contracts being made in period zero, there can be no doubt that the equilibrium exchanges planned in period zero will be executed whenever and exactly as scheduled, so that everyone’s promise to pay in time zero is equally good and reliable.

For our purposes, a particular kind of financial intermediary — banks — are of primary interest. The role of a bank is to assess the quality of the IOUs offered by non-banks, and select from the IOUs offered to them those that are sufficiently reliable to be accepted by the bank. Once a prospective borrower’s IOU is accepted, the bank exchanges its own IOU for the non-bank’s IOU. No non-bank would accept a non-bank’s IOU, at least not on terms as favorable as those on which the bank offers in accepting an IOU. In return for the non-bank IOU, the bank credits the borrower with a corresponding amount of its own IOUs, which, because the bank promises to redeem its IOUs for the numeraire commodity on demand, is generally accepted at face value.

Thus, bank debt functions as a medium of exchange even as it enables non-bank agents to make current expenditures they could not have made otherwise if they can demonstrate to the bank that they are sufficiently likely to repay the loan in the future at agreed upon terms. Such borrowing and repayments are presumably similar to the borrowing and repayments that would occur in the ADM model unmediated by any financial intermediary. In assessing whether a prospective borrower will repay a loan, the bank makes two kinds of assessments. First, does the borrower have sufficient income-earning capacity to generate enough future income to make the promised repayments that the borrower would be committing himself to make? Second, should the borrower’s future income, for whatever reason, turn out to be insufficient to finance the promised repayments, does the borrower have collateral that would allow the bank to secure repayment from the collateral offered as security? In making both kinds of assessments the bank has to form an expectation about the future — the future income of the borrower and the future value of the collateral.

In a temporary-equilibrium context, the expectations of future prices held by agents are not the same, so the expectations of future prices of at least some agents will not be accurate, and some agents won’tbe able to execute their plans as intended. Agents that can’t execute their plans as intended are vulnerable if they have incurred future obligations based on their expectations of future prices that exceed their repayment capacity given the future prices that are actually realized. If they have sufficient wealth — i.e., if they have asset holdings of sufficient value — they may still be able to repay their obligations. However, in the process they may have to sell assets or reduce their own purchases, thereby reducing the income earned by other agents. Selling assets under pressure of obligations coming due is almost always associated with selling those assets at a significant loss, which is precisely why it usually preferable to finance current expenditure by borrowing funds and making repayments on a fixed schedule than to finance the expenditure by the sale of assets.

Now, in adjusting their plans when they observe that their price expectations are disappointed, agents may respond in two different ways. One type of adjustment is to increase sales or decrease purchases of particular goods and services that they had previously been planning to purchase or sell; such marginal adjustments do not fundamentally alter what agents are doing and are unlikely to seriously affect other agents. But it is also possible that disappointed expectations will cause some agents to conclude that their previous plans are no longer sustainable under the conditions in which they unexpectedly find themselves, so that they must scrap their old plans replacing them with completely new plans instead. In the latter case, the abandonment of plans that are no longer viable given disappointed expectations may cause other agents to conclude that the plans that they had expected to implement are no longer profitable and must be scrapped.

When agents whose price expectations have been disappointed respond with marginal adjustments in their existing plans rather than scrapping them and replacing them with new ones, a temporary equilibrium with disappointed expectations may still exist and that equilibrium may be reached through appropriate price adjustments in the markets for current delivery despite the divergent expectations of future prices held by agents. Operation of the price mechanism may still be able to achieve a reconciliation of revised but sub-optimal plans. The sub-optimal temporary equilibrium will be inferior to the allocation that would have resulted had agents all held correct expectations of future prices. Nevertheless, given a history of incorrect price expectations and misallocations of capital assets, labor, and other factors of production, a sub-optimal temporary equilibrium may be the best feasible outcome.

But here’s the problem. There is no guarantee that, when prices turn out to be very different from what they were expected to be, the excess demands of agents will adjust smoothly to changes in current prices. A plan that was optimal based on the expectation that the price of widgets would be $500 a unit may well be untenable at a price of $120 a unit. When realized prices are very different from what they had been expected to be, those price changes can lead to discontinuous adjustments, violating a basic assumption — the continuity of excess demand functions — necessary to prove the existence of an equilibrium. Once output prices reach some minimum threshold, the best response for some firms may be to shut down, the excess demand for the product produced by the firm becoming discontinuous at the that threshold price. The firms shutting down operations may be unable to repay loans they had obligated themselves to repay based on their disappointed price expectations. If ownership shares in firms forced to cease production are held by households that have predicated their consumption plans on prior borrowing and current repayment obligations, the ability of those households to fulfill their obligations may be compromised once those firms stop paying out the expected profit streams. Banks holding debts incurred by firms or households that borrowers cannot service may find that their own net worth is reduced sufficiently to make the banks’ own debt unreliable, potentially causing a breakdown in the payment system. Such effects are entirely consistent with a temporary-equilibrium model if actual prices turn out to be very different from what agents had expected and upon which they had constructed their future consumption and production plans.

Sufficiently large differences between expected and actual prices in a given period may result in discontinuities in excess demand functions once prices reach critical thresholds, thereby violating the standard continuity assumptions on which the existence of general equilibrium depends under the fixed-point theorems that are the lynchpin of modern existence proofs. C. J. Bliss made such an argument in a 1983 paper (“Consistent Temporary Equilibrium” in the volume Modern Macroeconomic Theory edited by  J. P. Fitoussi) in which he also suggested, as I did above, that the divergence of individual expectations implies that agents will not typically regard the debt issued by other agents as homogeneous. Bliss therefore posited the existence of a “Financier” who would subject the borrowing plans of prospective borrowers to an evaluation process to determine if the plan underlying the prospective loan sought by a borrower was likely to generate sufficient cash flow to enable the borrower to repay the loan. The role of the Financier is to ensure that the plans that firms choose are based on roughly similar expectations of future prices so that firms will not wind up acting on price expectations that must inevitably be disappointed.

I am unsure how to understand the function that Bliss’s Financier is supposed to perform. Presumably the Financier is meant as a kind of idealized companion to the Walrasian auctioneer rather than as a representation of an actual institution, but the resemblance between what the Financier is supposed to do and what bankers actually do is close enough to make it unclear to me why Bliss chose an obviously fictitious character to weed out business plans based on implausible price expectations rather than have the role filled by more realistic characters that do what their real-world counterparts are supposed to do. Perhaps Bliss’s implicit assumption is that real-world bankers do not constrain the expectations of prospective borrowers sufficiently to suggest that their evaluation of borrowers would increase the likelihood that a temporary equilibrium actually exists so that only an idealized central authority could impose sufficient consistency on the price expectations to make the existence of a temporary equilibrium likely.

But from the perspective of positive macroeconomic and business-cycle theory, explicitly introducing banks that simultaneously provide an economy with a medium of exchange – either based on convertibility into a real commodity or into a fiat base money issued by the monetary authority – while intermediating between ultimate borrowers and ultimate lenders seems to be a promising way of modeling a dynamic economy that sometimes may — and sometimes may not — function at or near a temporary equilibrium.

We observe economies operating in the real world that sometimes appear to be functioning, from a macroeconomic perspective, reasonably well with reasonably high employment, increasing per capita output and income, and reasonable price stability. At other times, these economies do not function well at all, with high unemployment and negative growth, sometimes with high rates of inflation or with deflation. Sometimes, these economies are beset with financial crises in which there is a general crisis of solvency, and even apparently solvent firms are unable to borrow. A macroeconomic model should be able to account in some way for the diversity of observed macroeconomic experience. The temporary equilibrium paradigm seems to offer a theoretical framework capable of accounting for this diversity of experience and for explaining at least in a very general way what accounts for the difference in outcomes: the degree of congruence between the price expectations of agents. When expectations are reasonably consistent, the economy is able to function at or near a temporary equilibrium which is likely to exist. When expectations are highly divergent, a temporary equilibrium may not exist, and even if it does, the economy may not be able to find its way toward the equilibrium. Price adjustments in current markets may be incapable of restoring equilibrium inasmuch as expectations of future prices must also adjust to equilibrate the economy, there being no market mechanism by which equilibrium price expectations can be adjusted or restored.

This, I think, is the insight underlying Axel Leijonhufvud’s idea of a corridor within which an economy tends to stay close to an equilibrium path. However if the economy drifts or is shocked away from its equilibrium time path, the stabilizing forces that tend to keep an economy within the corridor cease to operate at all or operate only weakly, so that the tendency for the economy to revert back to its equilibrium time path is either absent or disappointingly weak.

The temporary-equilibrium method, it seems to me, might have been a path that Hayek could have successfully taken in pursuing the goal he had set for himself early in his career: to reconcile equilibrium-analysis with a theory of business cycles. Why he ultimately chose not to take this path is a question that, for now at least, I will leave to others to try to answer.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,842 other followers

Follow Uneasy Money on WordPress.com
Advertisements