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Yield-Curve Inversion and the Agony of Central Banking

Suddenly, we have been beset with a minor panic attack about our increasingly inverted yield curve. Since fear of yield-curve inversion became a thing a little over a year ago, a lot of people have taken notice of the fact that yield-curve inversion has often presaged recessions. In June 2018, when the yield curve was on the verge of flatlining, I tried to explain the phenomenon, and I think that I provided a pretty good — though perhaps a tad verbose — explanation, providing the basic theory behind the typical upward slope of the yield curve as well as explaining what seems the most likely, though not the only, reason for inversion, one that explains why inversion so often is a harbinger of recession.

But in a Tweet yesterday responding to Sri Thiruvadanthai I think I framed the issue succinctly within the 280 character Twitter allotment. Here are the two tweets.

 

 

And here’s a longer version getting at the same point from my 2018 post:

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.

The question that I want to address now is why has the yield curve, after having been only slightly inverted or flat for the past year, suddenly — since about the beginning of August — become sharply inverted.

Last summer, when concerns about inversion was just beginning to be discussed, the Fed, which had been signaling a desire to raise short-term rates to “normal” levels, changed signals, indicating that it would not automatically continue raising rates as it had between 2003 and 2006, but would evaluate each rate increase in light of recent data bearing on the state of the economy. So after a further half-a-percent increase in the Fed’s target rate between June and the end of 2018, the Fed held off on further increases, and in July actually cut its rate by a quarter of a percent and even signaled a likely further quarter of a percent decrease in September.

Now to be sure the Fed might have been well-advised not to have raised its target rate as much as it did, and to have cut its rate more steeply than it did in July. Nevertheless, it would be hard to identify any particular monetary cause for the recent steep further inversion of the yield curve. So, the most likely reason for the sudden inversion is nervousness about the possibility of a trade war, which most people do not think is either good or easy to win.

After yesterday’s announcement by the administration that previously announced tariff increases on Chinese goods scheduled to take effect in September would be postponed until after the Christmas buying season, the stock market took some comfort in an apparent easing of tensions between the US and China over trade policy. But this interpretation was shot down by none other than Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross who, before the start of trading, told CNBC that the administration’s postponement of the tariffs on China was done solely in the interest of American shoppers and not to ease tensions with China. The remark — so unnecessary and so counterproductive — immediately aroused suspicions that Ross had an ulterior motive, like, say, a short position in the S&P 500 index, in sharing it on national television.

So what’s going on? Monetary policy has probably been marginally too tight for that past year, but only marginally. Unlike other inverted yield curve episodes that Fed has not been attempting to reduce the rate of inflation and has even been giving lip service to the goal of raising the rate of inflation, so if the Fed’s target rate was raised too high, it was based on an expectation that the economy was in the midst of an expansion; it was not an attempt to reduce growth. But the economy has weakened, and all signs suggest that the weakness stems from an uncertain economic environment particularly owing to the risk that new tariffs will be imposed or existing ones raised to even higher levels, triggering retaliatory measures by China and other affected countries.

In my 2018 post I mentioned a similar, but different, kind of uncertainty that held back recovery from the 2001-02 recession.

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.

The Fed responded to the uncertain environment of 2002 with a series of interest rate reductions that prevented a lapse into recession.

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.

Recently, the uncertainty caused by the imposition of tariffs and the threat of a destructive trade war seems to have discouraged firms to go forward with plans to invest and to expand output as decision-makers prefer to wait and see how events play out before making long-term commitments that would put assets and investments at serious risk if a trade war undermines the conditions necessary for those investment to be profitable. In the interim, decision-makers seeking short-term safety and the flexibility to deploy their assets and resources profitably once future prospects become less uncertain leads them to take highly liquid positions that don’t preclude taking future profitable actions once profitable opportunities present themselves.

However, when everyone resists making commitments, economic activity doesn’t keep going as before, it gradually slows down. And so a state of heightened uncertainty eventually leads to a stagnation or recession or something worse. To prevent or mitigate that outcome, a reduction in interest rates by the central bank can prevent or at least postpone the onset of a recession, as the Fed succeeded in doing in 2002-03 by reducing its interest rate target to 1%. Similar steps by the Fed may now be called for.

But there is another question that ought to be discussed. When the Fed reduced interest rates in 2002-03 because of the uncertainty created by the pending decision of the US government about whether to invade Iraq, the Fed was probably right to take that uncertainty as an exogenous decision in which it had no decision-making role or voice. The decision to invade or not would be made based on considerations over which the Fed rightly had no role to evaluate or opine upon. However, the Fed does have a responsibility for creating a stable economic environment and eliminating avoidable uncertainty about economic conditions caused by bad policy-making. Insofar as the current uncertain economic environment is the result of deliberate economic-policy actions that increase uncertainty, reducing interest rates to cushion the uncertainty-increasing effects of imposing, or raising, tariffs or of promoting a trade war would enable those uncertainty-increasing actions to be continued.

The Fed, therefore, now faces a cruel dilemma. Should it try to mitigate, by reducing interest rates, the effects of policies that increase uncertainty, thereby acting as a perhaps unwitting enabler of those policies, or should it stand firm and refuse to cushion the effects of policies that are themselves the cause of the uncertainty whose destructive effects the Fed is being asked to mitigate? This is the sort of dilemma that Arthur Burns, in a somewhat different context, once referred to as “The Agony of Central Banking.”

August 15, 1971: Unhappy Anniversary (Update)

[Update 8/15/2019: It seems appropriate to republish this post originally published about 40 days after I started blogging. I have made a few small changes and inserted a few comments to reflect my improved understanding of certain concepts like “sterilization” that I was uncritically accepting. I actually have learned a thing or two in the eight plus years that I’ve been blogging. I am grateful to all my readers — both those who agreed and those who disagreed — for challenging me and inspiring me to keep thinking critically. It wasn’t easy, but we did survive August 15, 1971. Let’s hope we survive August 15, 2019.]

August 15, 1971 may not exactly be a day that will live in infamy, but it is hardly a day to celebrate 40 years later.  It was the day on which one of the most cynical Presidents in American history committed one of his most cynical acts:  violating solemn promises undertaken many times previously, both before and after his election as President, Richard Nixon declared a 90-day freeze on wages and prices.  Nixon also announced the closing of the gold window at the US Treasury, severing the last shred of a link between gold and the dollar.  Interestingly, the current (August 13th, 2011) Economist (Buttonwood column) and Forbes  (Charles Kadlec op-ed) and today’s Wall Street Journal (Lewis Lehrman op-ed) mark the anniversary with critical commentaries on Nixon’s action ruefully focusing on the baleful consequences of breaking the link to gold, while barely mentioning the 90-day freeze that became the prelude to  the comprehensive wage and price controls imposed after the freeze expired.

Of the two events, the wage and price freeze and subsequent controls had by far the more adverse consequences, the closing of the gold window merely ratifying the demise of a gold standard that long since had ceased to function as it had for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In contrast to the final break with gold, no economic necessity or even a coherent economic argument on the merits lay behind the decision to impose a wage and price freeze, notwithstanding the ex-post rationalizations offered by Nixon’s economic advisers, including such estimable figures as Herbert Stein, Paul McKracken, and George Schultz, who surely knew better,  but somehow were persuaded to fall into line behind a policy of massive, breathtaking, intervention into private market transactions.

The argument for closing the gold window was that the official gold peg of $35 an ounce was probably at least 10-20% below any realistic estimate of the true market value of gold at the time, making it impossible to reestablish the old parity as an economically meaningful price without imposing an intolerable deflation on the world economy.  An alternative response might have been to officially devalue the dollar to something like the market value of gold $40-42 an ounce.  But to have done so would merely have demonstrated that the official price of gold was a policy instrument subject to the whims of the US monetary authorities, undermining faith in the viability of a gold standard.  In the event, an attempt to patch together the Bretton Woods System (the Smithsonian Agreement of December 1971) based on an official $38 an ounce peg was made, but it quickly became obvious that a new monetary system based on any form of gold convertibility could no longer survive.

How did the $35 an ounce price became unsustainable barely 25 years after the Bretton Woods System was created?  The problem that emerged within a few years of its inception was that the main trading partners of the US systematically kept their own currencies undervalued in terms of the dollar, promoting their exports while sterilizing the consequent dollar inflow, allowing neither sufficient domestic inflation nor sufficient exchange-rate appreciation to eliminate the overvaluation of their currencies against the dollar. [DG 8/15/19: “sterilization” is a misleading term because it implies that persistent gold or dollar inflows just happen randomly; the persistent inflow occur only because they are induced by a persistent increased demand for reserves or insufficient creation of cash.] After a burst of inflation in the Korean War, the Fed’s tight monetary policy and a persistently overvalued exchange rate kept US inflation low at the cost of sluggish growth and three recessions between 1953 and 1960.  It was not until the Kennedy administration came into office on a pledge to get the country moving again that the Fed was pressured to loosen monetary policy, initiating the long boom of the 1960s some three years before the Kennedy tax cuts were posthumously enacted in 1964.

Monetary expansion by the Fed reduced the relative overvaluation of the dollar in terms of other currencies, but the increasing export of dollars left the $35 an ounce peg increasingly dependent on the willingness of foreign government to hold dollars.  However, President Charles de Gaulle of France, having overcome domestic opposition to his rule, felt secure enough to assert [his conception of] French interests against the US, resuming the traditional French policy of accumulating physical gold reserves rather than mere claims on gold physically held elsewhere.  By 1967 the London gold pool, a central bank cartel acting to control the price of gold in the London gold market, was collapsing, as France withdrew from the cartel, demanding that gold be shipped to Paris from New York.  In 1968, unable to hold down the market price of gold any longer, the US and other central banks let the gold price rise above the official price, but agreed to conduct official transactions among themselves at the official price of $35 an ounce.  As market prices for gold, driven by US monetary expansion, inched steadily higher, the incentives for central banks to demand gold from the US at the official price became too strong to contain, so that the system was on the verge of collapse when Nixon acknowledged the inevitable and closed the gold window rather than allow depletion of US gold holdings.

Assertions that the Bretton Woods system could somehow have been saved simply ignore the economic reality that by 1971 the Bretton Woods System was broken beyond repair, or at least beyond any repair that could have been effected at a tolerable cost.

But Nixon clearly had another motivation in his August 15 announcement, less than 15 months before the next Presidential election.  It was in effect the opening shot of his reelection campaign.  Remembering all too well that he lost the 1960 election to John Kennedy because the Fed had not provided enough monetary stimulus to cut short the 1960-61 recession, Nixon had appointed his long-time economic adviser, Arthur Burns to replace William McChesney Martin as chairman of the Fed in 1970.  A mild tightening of monetary policy in 1969 as inflation was rising above a 5% annual rate, had produced a recession in late 1969 and early 1970, without providing much relief from inflation.  Burns eased policy enough to allow a mild recovery, but the economy seemed to be suffering the worst of both worlds — inflation still near 4 percent and unemployment at what then seemed an unacceptably high level of almost 6 percent. [For more on Burns and his deplorable role in all of this see this post.]

With an election looming ever closer on the horizon, Nixon in the summer of 1971 became consumed by the political imperative of speeding up the recovery.  Meanwhile a Democratic Congress, assuming that Nixon really did mean his promises never to impose wage and price controls to stop inflation, began clamoring for controls as the way to stop inflation without the pain of a recession, even authorizing the President to impose controls, a dare they never dreamed he would accept.  Arthur Burns, himself, perhaps unwittingly [I was being too kind], provided support for such a step by voicing frustration that inflation persisted in the face of a recession and high unemployment, suggesting that the old rules of economics were no longer operating as they once had.  He even offered vague support for what was then called an incomes policy, generally understood as an informal attempt to bring down inflation by announcing a target  for wage increases corresponding to productivity gains, thereby eliminating the need for businesses to raise prices to compensate for increased labor costs.  What such proposals usually ignored was the necessity for a monetary policy that would limit the growth of total spending sufficiently to limit the growth of wage incomes to the desired target. [On incomes policies and how they might work if they were properly understood see this post.]

Having been persuaded that there was no acceptable alternative to closing the gold window — from Nixon’s perspective and from that of most conventional politicians, a painfully unpleasant admission of US weakness in the face of its enemies (all this was occurring at the height of the Vietnam War and the antiwar protests) – Nixon decided that he could now combine that decision, sugar-coated with an aggressive attack on international currency speculators and a protectionist 10% duty on imports into the United States, with the even more radical measure of a wage-price freeze to be followed by a longer-lasting program to control price increases, thereby snatching the most powerful and popular economic proposal of the Democrats right from under their noses.  Meanwhile, with the inflation threat neutralized, Arthur Burns could be pressured mercilessly to increase the rate of monetary expansion, ensuring that Nixon could stand for reelection in the middle of an economic boom.

But just as Nixon’s electoral triumph fell apart because of his Watergate fiasco, his economic success fell apart when an inflationary monetary policy combined with wage-and-price controls to produce increasing dislocations, shortages and inefficiencies, gradually sapping the strength of an economic recovery fueled by excess demand rather than increasing productivity.  Because broad based, as opposed to narrowly targeted, price controls tend to be more popular before they are imposed than after (as too many expectations about favorable regulatory treatment are disappointed), the vast majority of controls were allowed to lapse when the original grant of Congressional authority to control prices expired in April 1974.

Already by the summer of 1973, shortages of gasoline and other petroleum products were becoming commonplace, and shortages of heating oil and natural gas had been widely predicted for the winter of 1973-74.  But in October 1973 in the wake of the Yom Kippur War and the imposition of an Arab Oil Embargo against the United States and other Western countries sympathetic to Israel, the shortages turned into the first “Energy Crisis.”  A Democratic Congress and the Nixon Administration sprang into action, enacting special legislation to allow controls to be kept on petroleum products of all sorts together with emergency authority to authorize the government to allocate products in short supply.

It still amazes me that almost all the dislocations manifested after the embargo and the associated energy crisis were attributed to excessive consumption of oil and petroleum products in general or to excessive dependence on imports, as if any of the shortages and dislocations would have occurred in the absence of price controls.  And hardly anyone realizes that price controls tend to drive the prices of whatever portion of the supply is exempt from control even higher than they would have risen in the absence of any controls.

About ten years after the first energy crisis, I published a book in which I tried to explain how all the dislocations that emerged from the Arab oil embargo and the 1978-79 crisis following the Iranian Revolution were attributable to the price controls first imposed by Richard Nixon on August 15, 1971.  But the connection between the energy crisis in all its ramifications and the Nixonian price controls unfortunately remains largely overlooked and ignored to this day.  If there is reason to reflect on what happened forty years ago on this date, it surely is for that reason and not because Nixon pulled the plug on a gold standard that had not been functioning for years.

Irving Fisher Demolishes the Loanable-Funds Theory of Interest

In some recent posts (here, here and here) I have discussed the inappropriate application of partial-equilibrium analysis (aka supply-demand analysis) when the conditions under which the ceteris paribus assumption underlying partial-equilibrium analysis are not satisfied. The two examples of inappropriate application of partial equilibrium analysis I have mentioned were: 1) drawing a supply curve of labor and demand curve for labor to explain aggregate unemployment in the economy, and 2) drawing a supply curve of loanable funds and a demand curve for loanable funds to explain the rate of interest. In neither case can one assume that a change in the wage of labor or in the rate of interest can occur without at the same time causing the demand curve and the supply curve to shift from their original position to a new one. Because of the feedback effects from a change in the wage or a change in the rate of interest inevitably cause the demand and supply curves to shift, the standard supply-and-demand analysis breaks down in the face of such feedback effects.

I pointed out that while Keynes correctly observed that demand-and-supply analysis of the labor market was inappropriate, it is puzzling that it did not occur to him that demand-and-supply analysis could not be used to explain the rate of interest.

Keynes explained the rate of interest as a measure of the liquidity premium commanded by holders of money for parting with liquidity when lending money to a borrower. That view is sometimes contrasted with Fisher’s explanation of the rate interest as a measure of the productivity of capital in shifting output from the present to the future and the time preference of individuals for consuming in the present rather waiting to consume in the future. Sometimes the Fisherian theory of the rate of interest is juxtaposed with the Keynesian theory by contrasting the liquidity preference theory with a loanable-funds theory. But that contrast between liquidity preference and loanable funds misrepresents Fisher’s view, because a loanable funds theory is also an inappropriate misapplication of partial-equilibrium analysis when general-equilibrium anlaysis is required.

I recently came upon a passage from Fisher’s classic 1907 treatise, The Rate of Interest: Its Nature, Determination and Relation to Economic Phenomena, which explicitly rejects supply-demand analysis of the market for loanable funds as a useful way of explaining the rate of interest. Here is how Fisher made that fundamental point.

If a modern business man is asked what determines the rate of interest, he may usually be expected to answer, “the supply and demand of loanable money.” But “supply and demand” is a phrase which has been too often into service to cover up difficult problems. Even economists have been prone to employ it to describe economic causation which they could not unravel. It was once wittily remarked of the early writers on economic problems, “Catch a parrot and teach him to say ‘supply and demand,’ and you have an excellent economist.” Prices, wages, rent, interest, and profits were thought to be fully “explained” by this glib phrase. It is true that every ratio of exchange is due to the resultant of causes operating on the buyer and seller, and we may classify these as “demand” and supply.” But this fact does not relieve us of the necessity of examining specifically the two sets of causes, including utility in its effect on demand, and cost in its effect on supply. Consequently, when we say that the rate of interest is due to the supply and demand of “capital” or of “money” or of “loans,” we are very far from having an adequate explanation. It is true that when merchants seek to discount bills at a bank in large numbers and for large amounts, the rate of interest will tend to be low. But we must inquire for what purposes and from what causes merchants thus apply to a bank for the discount of loans and others supply the bank with the funds to be loaned. The real problem is: What causes make the demand for loans and what causes make the supply? This question is not answered by the summary “supply and demand” theory. The explanation is not simply that those who have little capital demand them. In fact, the contrary is often the case. The depositors in savings banks are the lenders, and they are usually poor, whereas those to whom the savings bank in turn lends the funds are relatively rich. (pp. 6-7)

The Mendacity of Yoram Hazony, Virtue Signaler

Yoram Hazony, an American-educated, Israeli philosopher and political operator, former assistant to Benjamin Netanyahu, has become a rising star of the American Right. The week before last, Hazony made his media debut at the Washington DC National Conservatism Conference inspired by his book The Virtue of Nationalism. Sponsored by the shadowy Edmund Burke Foundation, the Conference on “National Conservatism” – a title either remarkably tone-deaf, or an in-your-face provocation echoing another “national ‘ism” ideological movement – featured a keynote address by Fox New personality and provocateur par excellence Tucker Carlson, and various other right-wing notables of varying degrees of respectability, though self-avowed white nationalists were kept at a discreet distance — a distance sufficient to elicit resentful comments and nasty insinuations about Hazony’s origins and loyalties.

I had not planned to read Hazony’s book, having read enough of his articles to know Hazony’s would not be book to read for either pleasure or edification. But sometimes duty calls, so I bought Hazony’s book on Amazon at half price. I have now read the Introduction and the first three chapters. I plan to continue reading till the end, but I thought that I would write down some thoughts as I go along. So consider yourself warned, this may not be my last post about Hazony.

Hazony calls his Introduction “A Return to Nationalism;” it is not a good beginning.

Politics in Britain and America have taken a turn toward nationalism. This has been troubling to many, especially in educated circles, where global integration has long been viewed as a requirement of sound policy and moral decency. From this perspective, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the “America First” rhetoric coming out of Washington seem to herald a reversion to a more primitive stage in history, when war-mongering and racism were voiced openly and permitted to set the political agenda of nations. . . .

But nationalism was not always understood to be the evil that current public discourse suggests. . . . Progressives regarded Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the Atlantic Charter of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as beacons of hope for mankind – and this precisely because they were considered expressions of nationalism, promising national independence and self-determination to enslaved peoples around the world. (pp. 1-2)

Ahem, Hazony cleverly – though not truthfully — appropriates Wilson, FDR and Churchill to the cause of nationalism. Although it was clever move by Hazony to try to disarm opposition to his brief for nationalism by misappropriating Wilson, FDR and Churchill to his side, it was not very smart, it being so obviously contradicted by well-known facts. Merely because Wilson, FDR, and Churchill all supported, with varying degrees of consistency and sincerity, the right of self-determination by national ethnic communities that had never, or not for a long time, enjoyed sovereign control over the territories in which they dwelled, does not mean that they did not also favor international cooperation and supra-national institutions.

For example, points 3 and 4 of Wilson’s Fourteen Points were the following:

The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.

Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.

And here is point 14:

A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike. That association of course was realized as the League of Nations, which Wilson strove mightily to create but failed to convince the United States Senate to ratify the Treaty whereby the US would have joined the League.

I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds awfully globalist .

Now what about The Atlantic Charter?

While it supported the right of self-determination of all peoples, it also called for the lowering of trade barriers and for global economic cooperation. Moreover, Churchill, far from endorsing the unqualified right of all peoples to self-determination, flatly rejected the idea that the right of self-determination extended to British India.

But besides withholding the right of self-determination from British colonial possessions and presumably those of other European powers, Churchill, in a famous speech, endorsed the idea of a United States of Europe. Now Churchill did not necessarily envision a federal union along the lines of the European Union as now constituted, but he obviously did not reject on principle the idea of some form of supra-national governance.

We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.

So it is simply a fabrication and a misrepresentation to suggest that nationalism has ever been regarded as anything like a universal principle of political action, governance or justice. It is one of many principles, all of which have some weight, but must be balanced against, and reconciled with, other principles of justice, policy and expediency.

Going from bad to worse, Hazony continues,

Conservatives from Teddy Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower likewise spoke of nationalism as a positive good. (Id.)

Where to begin? Hazony, who is not adverse to footnoting (216 altogether, almost one per page, often providing copious references to sources and scholarly literature) offers not one documentary or secondary source for this assertion. To be sure Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were Republicans. But Roosevelt differed from most Republicans of his time, gaining the Presidency only because McKinley wanted to marginalize him by choosing him as a running mate at a time when no Vice-President since Van Buren had succeeded to the Presidency, except upon the death of the incumbent President.

Eisenhower had been a non-political military figure with no party affiliation until his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination, as an alternative to the preferred conservative choice, Robert Taft. Eisenhower did not self-identify as a conservative, preferring to describe himself as a “modern Republican” to the disgust of conservatives like Barry Goldwater, whose best-selling book The Conscience of a Conservative was a sustained attack on Eisenhower’s refusal even to try to roll back the New Deal.

Moreover, when TR coined the term “New Nationalism” in a famous speech he gave in 1912, he was running for the Republican Presidential nomination against his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, by whom TR felt betrayed for trying to accommodate the conservative Republicans TR so detested. Failing to win the Republican nomination, TR ran as the candidate of the Progressive Party, splitting the Republican party, thereby ensuring the election of the progressive, though racist, Woodrow Wilson. Nor was that the end of it. Roosevelt was himself an imperialist, who had supported the War against Spain and the annexation of the Phillipines, and an early and militant proponent of US entry into World War I against Germany on the side of Britain and France. And, after the war, Roosevelt supported US entry into the League of Nations. These are not obscure historical facts, but Hazony, despite his Princeton undergraduate degree and doctorate in philosophy from Rutgers, shows no awareness of them.

Hazony seems equally unaware that, in the American context, nationalism had an entirely different meaning from its nineteenth-century European meaning, as the right of national ethnic populations, defined mainly by their common language, to form sovereign political units rather than the multi-ethnic, largely undemocratic kingdoms and empires by which they were ruled. In America, nationalism was distinguished from sectionalism, expressing the idea that the United States had become an organic unit unto itself, not merely an association of separate and distinct states. This idea, emphasized by Hamilton and the Federalists, and later the Whigs, against the states’ rights position of the Jeffersonian Democrats who resisted the claims of national and federal primacy. The classic expression of the uniquely American national sensibility was provided by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

Lincoln offered a conception of nationhood entirely different from that which inspired demands for the right of self-determination by European national ethnic and linguistic communities. If the notion of American exceptionalism is to have any clear meaning, it can only be in the context of Lincoln’s description of the origin and meaning of the American nationality.

After his clearly fraudulent appropriation of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower to the Nationalist Conservative cause, Hazony seizes upon Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “In their day,’ Hazony assures us, “Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were welcomed by conservatives for the ‘new nationalism’ they brought to political life.” For good measure, Hazony also adds David Ben-Gurion and Mahatma Gandhi to his nationalist pantheon, though, unaccountably, he omits any mention of their enthusiastic embrace by conservatives.

Hazony favors his readers with a single footnote at the end of this remarkable and fantastical paragraph. Forget the fact that “new nationalism” is a term peculiarly associated with Teddy Roosevelt, not with Reagan, who to my knowledge, never uttered the phrase, but the primary source cited by Hazony doesn’t even refer to Reagan in the same context as “new nationalism.” Here is the text of that footnote.

On Reagan’s “new nationalism,” see Norman Podhoretz, “The New American Majority,” Commentary (January 1981); Irving Kristol, “The Emergence of Two Republican Parties,” Reflections of a Neo-Conservative (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 111. (p. 237)

I am unable to find the Kristol text on the internet, but I did find Podhoretz’s article on the Commentary website. I will quote the entire paragraph in which the words “new nationalism” make their only appearance (it is also the only appearance of “nationalism” in the article). But before reproducing the paragraph, I will register my astonishment at the audacity of Hazony in invoking the two godfathers of neo-conservatism as validators of spurious claim made by Hazony on Reagan’s behalf to posthumous recognition as a National Conservative hero, inasmuch as Hazony goes out of his way, as we shall see presently, to cast neo-conservatism into the Gehenna of imperialistic liberalism. But first, let us consider — and marvel at — Podhoretz’s discussion of the “new nationalism.”

In my opinion, because of Chappaquiddick alone, Edward Kennedy could not have become President of the United States in 1980. Yet even if Chappaquiddick had not been a factor, Edward Kennedy would still not have been a viable candidate — not for the Democratic nomination and certainly not for the Presidency in the general election. But if this is so, why did so many Democrats (over 50 percent in some of the early polls taken before he announced) declare their support for him? Here again it is impossible to say with complete assurance. But given the way the votes were subsequently cast in 1980, I think it is a reasonable guess that in those early days many people who had never paid close attention to him took Kennedy for the same kind of political figure his brother John had been. We know from all the survey data that the political mood had been shifting for some years in a consistent direction — away from the self-doubts and self-hatreds and the neo-isolationism of the immediate post-Vietnam period and toward what some of us have called a new nationalism. In the minds of many people caught up in the new nationalist spirit, John F. Kennedy stood for a powerful America, and in expressing enthusiasm for Edward Kennedy, they were in all probability identifying him with his older brother.

This is just an astoundingly brazen misrepresentation by Hazony in hypocritically misappropriating Reagan, to whose memory most Republicans and conservatives feel some lingering sentimental attachment, even as they discard and disavow many of his most characteristic political principles.

The extent to which Hazony repudiates the neo-conservative world view that was a major pillar of the Reagan Presidency becomes clear in a long paragraph in which Hazony sets up his deeply misleading, dichotomy between the virtuous nationalism he espouses and the iniquitous liberal imperialism that he excoriates as the only two possible choices for organizing our political institutions.

This debate between nationalism and imperialism became acutely relevant again with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. At that time, the struggle against Communism ended, and the minds of Western leaders became preoccupied with two great imperialist project: the European Union, which has progressively relieved member nations of many of the powers usually associated with political independence; and the project of establishing an American “world order,” in which nations that do not abide by international law will be coerced into doing so principally by means of American military might. These imperialist projects, even though their proponents do not like to call them that, for two reasons: First, their purpose is to remove decision-making from the hands of independent national governments and place it in the hands of international governments or bodies. And second, as you can immediately see from the literature produced by these individuals and institutions supporting these endeavors, they are consciously part of an imperialist political tradition, drawing their historical inspiration from the Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the British Empire. For example, Charles Krauthammer’s argument for American “Universal Dominion,” written at the dawn of the post-Cold War period, calls for American to create a “super-sovereign,” which will preside over the permanent “depreciation . . . of the notion of sovereignty” for all nations on earth. Krauthammer adopts the Latin term pax Americana to describe this vision, invoking the image of the United States as the new Rome: Just as the Roman Empire supposedly established a pax Romana . . . that obtained security and quiet for all of Europe, so America would now provide security and quiet for the entire world. (pp. 3-4)

I do not defend Krauthammer’s view of pax Americana and his support for invading Iraq in 2003. But the war in Iraq was largely instigated by a small group of right-wing ideologists with whom Krauthammer and other neo-conservatives like William Kristol and Robert Kagan were aligned. In the wake of September 11, 2001, they leveraged fear of another attack into a quixotic and poorly-thought-out and incompetently executed military adventure into Iraq.

That invasion was not, as Hazony falsely suggests, the inevitable result of liberal imperialism (as if liberalism and imperialism were cognate ideas). Moreover, it is deeply dishonest for Hazony to single out Krauthammer et al. for responsibility for that disaster, when Hazony’s mentor and sponsor, Benjamin Netanyahu, was a major supporter and outspoken advocate for the invasion of Iraq.

There is much more to be said about Hazony’s bad faith, but I have already said enough for one post.

Dr. Shelton Remains Outspoken: She Should Have Known Better

I started blogging in July 2011, and in one of my first blogposts I discussed an article in the now defunct Weekly Standard by Dr. Judy Shelton entitled “Gold Standard or Bust.” I wrote then:

I don’t know, and have never met Dr. Shelton, but she has been a frequent op-ed contributor to the Wall Street Journal and various other publications of a like ideological orientation for 20 years or more, invariably advocating a return to the gold standard.  In 1994, she published a book Money Meltdown touting the gold standard as a cure for all our monetary ills.

I was tempted to provide a line-by-line commentary on Dr. Shelton’s Weekly Standard piece, but it would be tedious and churlish to dwell excessively on her deficiencies as a wordsmith or lapses from lucidity.

So I was not very impressed by Dr. Shelton then. I have had occasion to write about her again a few times since, and I cannot report that I have detected any improvement in the lucidity of her thought or the clarity of her exposition.

Aside from, or perhaps owing to, her infatuation with the gold standard, Dr. Shelton seems to have developed a deep aversion to what is commonly, and usually misleadingly, known as currency manipulation. Using her modest entrepreneurial skills as a monetary-policy pundit, Dr. Shelton has tried to use the specter of currency manipulation as a talking point for gold-standard advocacy. So, in 2017 Dr. Shelton wrote an op-ed about currency manipulation for the Wall Street Journal that was so woefully uninformed and unintelligible, that I felt obligated to write a blogpost just for her, a tutorial on the ABCs of currency manipulation, as I called it then. Here’s an excerpt from my tutorial:

[i]t was no surprise to see in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal that monetary-policy entrepreneur Dr. Judy Shelton has written another one of her screeds promoting the gold standard, in which, showing no awareness of the necessary conditions for currency manipulation, she assures us that a) currency manipulation is a real problem and b) that restoring the gold standard would solve it.

Certainly the rules regarding international exchange-rate arrangements are not working. Monetary integrity was the key to making Bretton Woods institutions work when they were created after World War II to prevent future breakdowns in world order due to trade. The international monetary system, devised in 1944, was based on fixed exchange rates linked to a gold-convertible dollar.

No such system exists today. And no real leader can aspire to champion both the logic and the morality of free trade without confronting the practice that undermines both: currency manipulation.

Ahem, pray tell, which rules relating to exchange-rate arrangements does Dr. Shelton believe are not working? She doesn’t cite any. And, what, on earth does “monetary integrity” even mean, and what does that high-minded, but totally amorphous, concept have to do with the rules of exchange-rate arrangements that aren’t working?

Dr. Shelton mentions “monetary integrity” in the context of the Bretton Woods system, a system based — well, sort of — on fixed exchange rates, forgetting – or choosing not — to acknowledge that, under the Bretton Woods system, exchange rates were also unilaterally adjustable by participating countries. Not only were they adjustable, but currency devaluations were implemented on numerous occasions as a strategy for export promotion, the most notorious example being Britain’s 30% devaluation of sterling in 1949, just five years after the Bretton Woods agreement had been signed. Indeed, many other countries, including West Germany, Italy, and Japan, also had chronically undervalued currencies under the Bretton Woods system, as did France after it rejoined the gold standard in 1926 at a devalued rate deliberately chosen to ensure that its export industries would enjoy a competitive advantage.

The key point to keep in mind is that for a country to gain a competitive advantage by lowering its exchange rate, it has to prevent the automatic tendency of international price arbitrage and corresponding flows of money to eliminate competitive advantages arising from movements in exchange rates. If a depreciated exchange rate gives rise to an export surplus, a corresponding inflow of foreign funds to finance the export surplus will eventually either drive the exchange rate back toward its old level, thereby reducing or eliminating the initial depreciation, or, if the lower rate is maintained, the cash inflow will accumulate in reserve holdings of the central bank. Unless the central bank is willing to accept a continuing accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves, the increased domestic demand and monetary expansion associated with the export surplus will lead to a corresponding rise in domestic prices, wages and incomes, thereby reducing or eliminating the competitive advantage created by the depressed exchange rate. Thus, unless the central bank is willing to accumulate foreign-exchange reserves without limit, or can create an increased demand by private banks and the public to hold additional cash, thereby creating a chronic excess demand for money that can be satisfied only by a continuing export surplus, a permanently reduced foreign-exchange rate creates only a transitory competitive advantage.

I don’t say that currency manipulation is not possible. It is not only possible, but we know that currency manipulation has been practiced. But currency manipulation can occur under a fixed-exchange rate regime as well as under flexible exchange-rate regimes, as demonstrated by the conduct of the Bank of France from 1926 to 1935 while it was operating under a gold standard. And the most egregious recent example of currency manipulation was undertaken by the Chinese central bank when it effectively pegged the yuan to the dollar at a fixed rate. Keeping its exchange rate fixed against the dollar was precisely the offense that the currency-manipulation police accused the Chinese of committing.

I leave it to interested readers to go back and finish the rest of my tutorial for Dr. Shelton. And if you read carefully and attentively, you are likely to understand the concept of currency manipulation a lot more clearly than when you started.

Alas, it’s obvious that Dr. Shelton has either not read or not understood the tutorial I wrote for her, because, in her latest pronouncement on the subject she covers substantially the same ground as she did two years ago, with no sign of increased comprehension of the subject on which she expounds with such misplaced self-assurance. Here are some samples of Dr. Shelton’s conceptual confusion and historical ignorance.

History can be especially informative when it comes to evaluating the relationship between optimal economic performance and monetary regimes. In the 1930s, for example, the “beggar thy neighbor” tactic of devaluing currencies against gold to gain a trade export advantage hampered a global economic recovery.

Beggar thy neighbor policies were indeed adopted by the United States, but they were adopted first in the 1922 (the Fordney-McCumber Act) and again in 1930 (Smoot-Hawley Act) when the US was on the gold standard with the value of the dollar pegged at $4.86 $20.67 for an ounce of gold. The Great Depression started in late 1929, but the stock market crash of 1929 may have been in part precipitated by fears that the Smoot-Hawley Act would be passed by Congress and signed into law by President Hoover.

At any rate, exchange rates among most major countries were pegged to either gold or the dollar until September 1931 when Britain suspended the convertibility of the pound into gold. The Great Depression was the result of a rapid deflation caused by gold accumulation by central banks as they rejoined the gold standard that had been almost universally suspended during World War I. Countries that remained on the gold standard during the Great Depression were condemned to suffer deflation as gold became ever more valuable in real terms, so that currency depreciation against gold was the only pathway to recovery. Thus, once convertibility was suspended and the pound allowed to depreciate, the British economy stopped contracting and began a modest recovery with slowly expanding output and employment.

The United States, however, kept the dollar pegged to its $4.86 $20.67 an ounce parity with gold until April 1933, when FDR saved the American economy by suspending convertibility and commencing a policy of deliberate reflation (i.e. inflation to restore the 1926 price level). An unprecedented expansion of output, employment and income accompanied the rise in prices following the suspension of the gold standard. Currency depreciation was the key to recovery from, not the cause of, depression.

Having exposed her ignorance of the causes of the Great Depression, Dr. Shelton then begins a descent into her confusion about the subject of currency manipulation, about which I had tried to tutor her, evidently without success.

The absence of rules aimed at maintaining a level monetary playing field invites currency manipulation that could spark a backlash against the concept of free trade. Countries engaged in competitive depreciation undermine the principles of genuine competition, and those that have sought to participate in good faith in the global marketplace are unfairly penalized by the monetary sleight of hand executed through central banks.

Currency manipulation is possible only under specific conditions. A depreciating currency is not normally a manipulated currency. Currencies fluctuate in relative values for many different reasons, but if prices adjust in rough proportion to the change in exchange rates, the competitive positions of the countries are only temporarily affected by the change in exchange rates. For a country to gain a sustained advantage for its export and import-competing industries by depreciating its exchange rate, it must adopt a monetary policy that consistently provides less cash than the public demands or needs to satisfy its liquidity needs, forcing the public to obtain the desired cash balances through a balance-of-payments surplus and an inflow of foreign-exchange reserves into the country’s central bank or treasury.

U.S. leadership is necessary to address this fundamental violation of free-trade practices and its distortionary impact on free-market outcomes. When the United States’ trading partners engage in currency manipulation, it is not competing — it’s cheating.

That is why it is vital to weigh the implications of U.S. monetary policy on the dollar’s exchange-rate value against other currencies. Trade and financial flows can be substantially altered by speculative market forces responding to the public comments of officials at the helm of the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan or the People’s Bank of China — with calls for “additional stimulus” alerting currency players to impending devaluation policies.

Dr. Shelton here reveals a comprehensive misunderstanding of the difference between a monetary policy that aims to stimulate economic activity in general by raising the price level or increasing the rate of inflation to stimulate expenditure and a policy of monetary restraint that aims to raise the relative price of domestic export and import-competing products relative to the prices of domestic non-tradable goods and services, e.g., new homes and apartments. It is only the latter combination of tight monetary policy and exchange-rate intervention to depreciate a currency in foreign-exchange markets that qualifies as currency manipulation.

And, under that understanding, it is obvious that currency manipulation is possible under a fixed-exchange-rate system, as France did in the 1920s and 1930s, and as most European countries and Japan did in the 1950s and early 1960s under the Bretton Woods system so well loved by Dr. Shelton.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the US dollar was chronically overvalued. The situation was not remediated until the 1960s under the Kennedy administration when consistently loose monetary policy by the Fed made currency manipulation so costly for the Germans and Japanese that they revalued their currencies upward to avoid the inflationary consequences of US monetary expansion.

And then, in a final flourish, Dr. Shelton puts her ignorance of what happened in the Great Depression on public display with the following observation.

When currencies shift downward against the dollar, it makes U.S. exports more expensive for consumers in other nations. It also discounts the cost of imported goods compared with domestic U.S. products. Downshifting currencies against the dollar has the same punishing impact as a tariff. That is why, as in the 1930s during the Great Depression, currency devaluation prompts retaliatory tariffs.

The retaliatory tariffs were imposed in response to the US tariffs that preceded the or were imposed at the outset of the Great Depression in 1930. The devaluations against gold promoted economic recovery, and were accompanied by a general reduction in tariff levels under FDR after the US devalued the dollar against gold and the remaining gold standard currencies. Whereof she knows nothing, thereof Dr. Shelton would do better to remain silent.

Phillips Curve Musings: Second Addendum on Keynes and the Rate of Interest

In my two previous posts (here and here), I have argued that the partial-equilibrium analysis of a single market, like the labor market, is inappropriate and not particularly relevant, in situations in which the market under analysis is large relative to other markets, and likely to have repercussions on those markets, which, in turn, will have further repercussions on the market under analysis, violating the standard ceteris paribus condition applicable to partial-equilibrium analysis. When the standard ceteris paribus condition of partial equilibrium is violated, as it surely is in analyzing the overall labor market, the analysis is, at least, suspect, or, more likely, useless and misleading.

I suggested that Keynes in chapter 19 of the General Theory was aiming at something like this sort of argument, and I think he was largely right in his argument. But, in all modesty, I think that Keynes would have done better to have couched his argument in terms of the distinction between partial-equilibrium and general-equilibrium analysis. But his Marshallian training, which he simultaneously embraced and rejected, may have made it difficult for him to adopt the Walrasian general-equilibrium approach that Marshall and the Marshallians regarded as overly abstract and unrealistic.

In my next post, I suggested that the standard argument about the tendency of public-sector budget deficits to raise interest rates by competing with private-sector borrowers for loanable funds is fundamentally misguided, because it, too, inappropriately applies the partial-equilibrium analysis of a narrow market for government securities, or even a more broadly defined market for loanable funds in general.

That is a gross mistake, because the rate of interest is determined in a general-equilibrium system along with markets for all long-lived assets, embodying expected flows of income that must be discounted to the present to determine an estimated present value. Some assets are riskier than others and that risk is reflected in those valuations. But the rate of interest is distilled from the combination of all of those valuations, not prior to, or apart from, those valuations. Interest rates of different duration and different risk are embeded in the entire structure of current and expected prices for all long-lived assets. To focus solely on a very narrow subset of markets for newly issued securities, whose combined value is only a small fraction of the total value of all existing long-lived assets, is to miss the forest for the trees.

What I want to point out in this post is that Keynes, whom I credit for having recognized that partial-equilibrium analysis is inappropriate and misleading when applied to an overall market for labor, committed exactly the same mistake that he condemned in the context of the labor market, by asserting that the rate of interest is determined in a single market: the market for money. According to Keynes, the market rate of interest is that rate which equates the stock of money in existence with the amount of money demanded by the public. The higher the rate of interest, Keynes argued, the less money the public wants to hold.

Keynes, applying the analysis of Marshall and his other Cambridge predecessors, provided a wonderful analysis of the factors influencing the amount of money that people want to hold (usually expressed in terms of a fraction of their income). However, as superb as his analysis of the demand for money was, it was a partial-equilibrium analysis, and there was no recognition on his part that other markets in the economy are influenced by, and exert influence upon, the rate of interest.

What makes Keynes’s partial-equilibrium analysis of the interest rate so difficult to understand is that in chapter 17 of the General Theory, a magnificent tour de force of verbal general-equilibrium theorizing, explained the relationships that must exist between the expected returns for alternative long-lived assets that are held in equilibrium. Yet, disregarding his own analysis of the equilibrium relationship between returns on alternative assets, Keynes insisted on explaining the rate of interest in a one-period model (a model roughly corresponding to IS-LM) with only two alternative assets: money and bonds, but no real capital asset.

A general-equilibrium analysis of the rate of interest ought to have at least two periods, and it ought to have a real capital good that may be held in the present for use or consumption in the future, a possibility entirely missing from the Keynesian model. I have discussed this major gap in the Keynesian model in a series of posts (here, here, here, here, and here) about Earl Thompson’s 1976 paper “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory.”

Although Thompson’s model seems to me too simple to account for many macroeconomic phenomena, it would have been a far better starting point for the development of macroeconomics than any of the models from which modern macroeconomic theory has evolved.

Phillips Curve Musings: Addendum on Budget Deficits and Interest Rates

In my previous post, I discussed a whole bunch of stuff, but I spent a lot of time discussing the inappropriate use of partial-equilibrium supply-demand analysis to explain price and quantity movements when price and quantity movements in those markets are dominated by precisely those forces that are supposed to be held constant — the old ceteris paribus qualification — in doing partial equilibrium analysis. Thus, the idea that in a depression or deep recession, high unemployment can be cured by cutting nominal wages is a classic misapplication of partial equilibrium analysis in a situation in which the forces primarily affecting wages and employment are not confined to a supposed “labor market,” but reflect broader macro-economic conditions. As Keynes understood, but did not explain well to his economist readers, analyzing unemployment in terms of the wage rate is futile, because wage changes induce further macroeconomic effects that may counteract whatever effects resulted from the wage changes.

Well, driving home this afternoon, I was listening to Marketplace on NPR with Kai Ryssdal interviewing Neil Irwin. Ryssdal asked Irwin why there is so much nervousness about the economy when unemployment and inflation are both about as low as they have ever been — certainly at the same time — in the last 50 years. Irwin’s response was that it is unsettling to many people that, with budget deficits high and rising, we observe stable inflation and falling interest rates on long-term Treasuries. This, after we have been told for so long that budget deficits drive up the cost of borrowing money and also cause are a major cause of inflation. The cognitive dissonance of stable inflation, falling interest rates and rapidly rising budget deficits, Irwin suggested, accounts for a vague feeling of disorientation, and gives rise to fears that the current apparent stability can’t last very long and will lead to some sort of distress or crisis in the future.

I’m not going to try to reassure Ryssdal and Irwin that there will never be another crisis. I certainly wouldn’t venture to say that all is now well with the Republic, much less with the rest of the world. I will just stick to the narrow observation that the bad habit of predicting the future course of interest rates by the size of the current budget deficit has no basis in economic theory, and reflects a colossal misunderstanding of how interest rates are determined. And that misunderstanding is precisely the one I discussed in my previous post about the misuse of partial-equilibrium analysis when general-equilibrium analysis is required.

To infer anything about interest rates from the market for government debt is a category error. Government debt is a long-lived financial asset providing an income stream, and its price reflects the current value of the promised income stream. Based on the price of a particular instrument with a given duration, it is possible to calculate a corresponding interest rate. That calculation is just a fairly simple mathematical exercise.

But it is a mistake to think that the interest rate for that duration is determined in the market for government debt of that duration. Why? Because, there are many other physical assets or financial instruments that could be held instead of government debt of any particular duration. And asset holders in a financially sophisticated economy can easily shift from one type of asset to another at will, at fairly minimal transactions costs. So it is very unlikely that any long-lived asset is so special that the expected yield from holding that asset varies independently from the expected yield from holding alternative assets that could be held.

That’s not to say that there are no differences in the expected yields from different assets, just that at the margin, taking into account the different characteristics of different assets, their expected returns must be fairly closely connected, so that any large change in the conditions in the market for any single asset are unlikely to have a large effect on the price of that asset alone. Rather, any change in one market will cause shifts in asset-holdings across different markets that will tend to offset the immediate effect that would have been reflected in a single market viewed in isolation.

This holds true as long as each specific market is relatively small compared to the entire economy. That is certainly true for the US economy and the world economy into which the US economy is very closely integrated. The value of all assets — real and financial — dwarfs the total outstanding value of US Treasuries. Interest rates are a measure of the relationship between expected flows of income and the value of the underlying assets.

To assume that increased borrowing by the US government to fund a substantial increase in the US budget deficit will substantially affect the overall economy-wide relationship between current and expected future income flows on the one hand and asset values on the other is wildly implausible. So no one should be surprised to find that the recent sharp increase in the US budget deficit has had no perceptible effect on the interest rates at which US government debt is now yielding.

A more likely cause of a change in interest rates would be an increase in expected inflation, but inflation expectations are not necessarily correlated with the budget deficit, and changing inflation expectations aren’t necessarily reflected in corresponding changes in nominal interest rates, as Monetarist economists have often maintained.

So it’s about time that we disabused ourselves of the simplistic notion that changes in the budget deficit have any substantial effect on interest rates.

Phillips Curve Musings

There’s a lot of talk about the Phillips Curve these days; people wonder why, with the unemployment rate reaching historically low levels, nominal and real wages have increased minimally with inflation remaining securely between 1.5 and 2%. The Phillips Curve, for those untutored in basic macroeconomics, depicts a relationship between inflation and unemployment. The original empirical Philips Curve relationship showed that high rates of unemployment were associated with low or negative rates of wage inflation while low rates of unemployment were associated with high rates of wage inflation. This empirical relationship suggested a causal theory that the rate of wage increase tends to rise when unemployment is low and tends to fall when unemployment is high, a causal theory that seems to follow from a simple supply-demand model in which wages rise when there is an excess demand for labor (unemployment is low) and wages fall when there is an excess supply of labor (unemployment is high).

Viewed in this light, low unemployment, signifying a tight labor market, signals that inflation is likely to rise, providing a rationale for monetary policy to be tightened to prevent inflation from rising at it normally does when unemployment is low. Seeming to accept that rationale, the Fed has gradually raised interest rates for the past two years or so. But the increase in interest rates has now slowed the expansion of employment and decline in unemployment to historic lows. Nor has the improving employment situation resulted in any increase in price inflation and at most a minimal increase in the rate of increase in wages.

In a couple of previous posts about sticky wages (here and here), I’ve questioned whether the simple supply-demand model of the labor market motivating the standard interpretation of the Phillips Curve is a useful way to think about wage adjustment and inflation-employment dynamics. I’ve offered a few reasons why the supply-demand model, though applicable in some situations, is not useful for understanding how wages adjust.

The particular reason that I want to focus on here is Keynes’s argument in chapter 19 of the General Theory (though I express it in terms different from his) that supply-demand analysis can’t explain how wages and employment are determined. The upshot of his argument I believe is that supply demand-analysis only works in a partial-equilibrium setting in which feedback effects from the price changes in the market under consideration don’t affect equilibrium prices in other markets, so that the position of the supply and demand curves in the market of interest can be assumed stable even as price and quantity in that market adjust from one equilibrium to another (the comparative-statics method).

Because the labor market, affecting almost every other market, is not a small part of the economy, partial-equilibrium analysis is unsuitable for understanding that market, the normal stability assumption being untenable if we attempt to trace the adjustment from one labor-market equilibrium to another after an exogenous disturbance. In the supply-demand paradigm, unemployment is a measure of the disequilibrium in the labor market, a disequilibrium that could – at least in principle — be eliminated by a wage reduction sufficient to equate the quantity of labor services supplied with the amount demanded. Viewed from this supply-demand perspective, the failure of the wage to fall to a supposed equilibrium level is attributable to some sort of endogenous stickiness or some external impediment (minimum wage legislation or union intransigence) in wage adjustment that prevents the normal equilibrating free-market adjustment mechanism. But the habitual resort to supply-demand analysis by economists, reinforced and rewarded by years of training and professionalization, is actually misleading when applied in an inappropriate context.

So Keynes was right to challenge this view of a potentially equilibrating market mechanism that is somehow stymied from behaving in the manner described in the textbook version of supply-demand analysis. Instead, Keynes argued that the level of employment is determined by the level of spending and income at an exogenously given wage level, an approach that seems to be deeply at odds with idea that price adjustments are an essential part of the process whereby a complex economic system arrives at, or at least tends to move toward, an equilibrium.

One of the main motivations for a search for microfoundations in the decades after the General Theory was published was to be able to articulate a convincing microeconomic rationale for persistent unemployment that was not eliminated by the usual tendency of market prices to adjust to eliminate excess supplies of any commodity or service. But Keynes was right to question whether there is any automatic market mechanism that adjusts nominal or real wages in a manner even remotely analogous to the adjustment of prices in organized commodity or stock exchanges – the sort of markets that serve as exemplars of automatic price adjustments in response to excess demands or supplies.

Keynes was also correct to argue that, even if there was a mechanism causing automatic wage adjustments in response to unemployment, the labor market, accounting for roughly 60 percent of total income, is so large that any change in wages necessarily affects all other markets, causing system-wide repercussions that might well offset any employment-increasing tendency of the prior wage adjustment.

But what I want to suggest in this post is that Keynes’s criticism of the supply-demand paradigm is relevant to any general-equilibrium system in the following sense: if a general-equilibrium system is considered from an initial non-equilibrium position, does the system have any tendency to move toward equilibrium? And to make the analysis relatively tractable, assume that the system is such that a unique equilibrium exists. Before proceeding, I also want to note that I am not arguing that traditional supply-demand analysis is necessarily flawed; I am just emphasizing that traditional supply-demand analysis is predicated on a macroeconomic foundation: that all markets but the one under consideration are in, or are in the neighborhood of, equilibrium. It is only because the system as a whole is in the neighborhood of equilibrium, that the microeconomic forces on which traditional supply-demand analysis relies appear to be so powerful and so stabilizing.

However, if our focus is a general-equilibrium system, microeconomic supply-demand analysis of a single market in isolation provides no basis on which to argue that the system as a whole has a self-correcting tendency toward equilibrium. To make such an argument is to commit a fallacy of composition. The tendency of any single market toward equilibrium is premised on an assumption that all markets but the one under analysis are already at, or in the neighborhood of, equilibrium. But when the system as a whole is in a disequilibrium state, the method of partial equilibrium analysis is misplaced; partial-equilibrium analysis provides no ground – no micro-foundation — for an argument that the adjustment of market prices in response to excess demands and excess supplies will ever – much less rapidly — guide the entire system back to an equilibrium state.

The lack of automatic market forces that return a system not in the neighborhood — for purposes of this discussion “neighborhood” is left undefined – of equilibrium back to equilibrium is implied by the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu Theorem, which shows that, even if a unique general equilibrium exists, there may be no rule or algorithm for increasing (decreasing) prices in markets with excess demands (supplies) by which the general-equilibrium price vector would be discovered in a finite number of steps.

The theorem holds even under a Walrasian tatonnement mechanism in which no trading at disequilibrium prices is allowed. The reason is that the interactions between individual markets may be so complicated that a price-adjustment rule will not eliminate all excess demands, because even if a price adjustment reduces excess demand in one market, that price adjustment may cause offsetting disturbances in one or more other markets. So, unless the equilibrium price vector is somehow hit upon by accident, no rule or algorithm for price adjustment based on the excess demand in each market will necessarily lead to discovery of the equilibrium price vector.

The Sonnenschein Mantel Debreu Theorem reinforces the insight of Kenneth Arrow in an important 1959 paper “Toward a Theory of Price Adjustment,” which posed the question: how does the theory of perfect competition account for the determination of the equilibrium price at which all agents can buy or sell as much as they want to at the equilibrium (“market-clearing”) price? As Arrow observed, “there exists a logical gap in the usual formulations of the theory of perfectly competitive economy, namely, that there is no place for a rational decision with respect to prices as there is with respect to quantities.”

Prices in perfect competition are taken as parameters by all agents in the model, and optimization by agents consists in choosing optimal quantities. The equilibrium solution allows the mutually consistent optimization by all agents at the equilibrium price vector. This is true for the general-equilibrium system as a whole, and for partial equilibrium in every market. Not only is there no positive theory of price adjustment within the competitive general-equilibrium model, as pointed out by Arrow, but the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu Theorem shows that there’s no guarantee that even the notional tatonnement method of price adjustment can ensure that a unique equilibrium price vector will be discovered.

While acknowledging his inability to fill the gap, Arrow suggested that, because perfect competition and price taking are properties of general equilibrium, there are inevitably pockets of market power, in non-equilibrium states, so that some transactors in non-equilibrium states, are price searchers rather than price takers who therefore choose both an optimal quantity and an optimal price. I have no problem with Arrow’s insight as far as it goes, but it still doesn’t really solve his problem, because he couldn’t explain, even intuitively, how a disequilibrium system with some agents possessing market power (either as sellers or buyers) transitions into an equilibrium system in which all agents are price-takers who can execute their planned optimal purchases and sales at the parametric prices.

One of the few helpful, but, as far as I can tell, totally overlooked, contributions of the rational-expectations revolution was to solve (in a very narrow sense) the problem that Arrow identified and puzzled over, although Hayek, Lindahl and Myrdal, in their original independent formulations of the concept of intertemporal equilibrium, had already provided the key to the solution. Hayek, Lindahl, and Myrdal showed that an intertemporal equilibrium is possible only insofar as agents form expectations of future prices that are so similar to each other that, if future prices turn out as expected, the agents would be able to execute their planned sales and purchases as expected.

But if agents have different expectations about the future price(s) of some commodity(ies), and if their plans for future purchases and sales are conditioned on those expectations, then when the expectations of at least some agents are inevitably disappointed, those agents will necessarily have to abandon (or revise) the plans that their previously formulated plans.

What led to Arrow’s confusion about how equilibrium prices are arrived at was the habit of thinking that market prices are determined by way of a Walrasian tatonnement process (supposedly mimicking the haggling over price by traders). So the notion that a mythical market auctioneer, who first calls out prices at random (prix cries au hasard), and then, based on the tallied market excess demands and supplies, adjusts those prices until all markets “clear,” is untenable, because continual trading at disequilibrium prices keeps changing the solution of the general-equilibrium system. An actual system with trading at non-equilibrium prices may therefore be moving away from, rather converging on, an equilibrium state.

Here is where the rational-expectations hypothesis comes in. The rational-expectations assumption posits that revisions of previously formulated plans are never necessary, because all agents actually do correctly anticipate the equilibrium price vector in advance. That is indeed a remarkable assumption to make; it is an assumption that all agents in the model have the capacity to anticipate, insofar as their future plans to buy and sell require them to anticipate, the equilibrium prices that will prevail for the products and services that they plan to purchase or sell. Of course, in a general-equilibrium system, all prices being determined simultaneously, the equilibrium prices for some future prices cannot generally be forecast in isolation from the equilibrium prices for all other products. So, in effect, the rational-expectations hypothesis supposes that each agent in the model is an omniscient central planner able to solve an entire general-equilibrium system for all future prices!

But let us not be overly nitpicky about details. So forget about false trading, and forget about the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorem. Instead, just assume that, at time t, agents form rational expectations of the future equilibrium price vector in period (t+1). If agents at time t form rational expectations of the equilibrium price vector in period (t+1), then they may well assume that the equilibrium price vector in period t is equal to the expected price vector in period (t+1).

Now, the expected price vector in period (t+1) may or may not be an equilibrium price vector in period t. If it is an equilibrium price vector in period t as well as in period (t+1), then all is right with the world, and everyone will succeed in buying and selling as much of each commodity as he or she desires. If not, prices may or may not adjust in response to that disequilibrium, and expectations may or may not change accordingly.

Thus, instead of positing a mythical auctioneer in a contrived tatonnement process as the mechanism whereby prices are determined for currently executed transactions, the rational-expectations hypothesis posits expected future prices as the basis for the prices at which current transactions are executed, providing a straightforward solution to Arrow’s problem. The prices at which agents are willing to purchase or sell correspond to their expectations of prices in the future. If they find trading partners with similar expectations of future prices, they will reach agreement and execute transactions at those prices. If they don’t find traders with similar expectations, they will either be unable to transact, or will revise their price expectations, or they will assume that current market conditions are abnormal and then decide whether to transact at prices different from those they had expected.

When current prices are more favorable than expected, agents will want to buy or sell more than they would have if current prices were equal to their expectations for the future. If current prices are less favorable than they expect future prices to be, they will not transact at all or will seek to buy or sell less than they would have bought or sold if current prices had equaled expected future prices. The dichotomy between observed current prices, dictated by current demands and supplies, and expected future prices is unrealistic; all current transactions are made with an eye to expected future prices and to their opportunities to postpone current transactions until the future, or to advance future transactions into the present.

If current prices for similar commodities are not uniform in all current transactions, a circumstance that Arrow attributes to the existence of varying degrees of market power across imperfectly competitive suppliers, price dispersion may actually be caused, not by market power, but by dispersion in the expectations of future prices held by agents. Sellers expecting future prices to rise will be less willing to sell at relatively low prices now than are suppliers with pessimistic expectations about future prices. Equilibrium occurs when all transactors share the same expectations of future prices and expected future prices correspond to equilibrium prices in the current period.

Of course, that isn’t the only possible equilibrium situation. There may be situations in which a future event that will change a subset of prices can be anticipated. If the anticipation of the future event affects not only expected future prices, it must also and necessarily affect current prices insofar as current supplies can be carried into the future from the present or current purchases can be postponed until the future or future consumption shifted into the present.

The practical upshot of these somewhat disjointed reflections is, I think,primarily to reinforce skepticism that the traditional Phillips Curve supposition that low and falling unemployment necessarily presages an increase in inflation. Wages are not primarily governed by the current state of the labor market, whatever the labor market might even mean in macroeconomic context.

Expectations rule! And the rational-expectations revolution to the contrary notwithstanding, we have no good theory of how expectations are actually formed and there is certainly no reason to assume that, as a general matter, all agents share the same set of expectations.

The current fairly benign state of the economy reflects the absence of any serious disappointment of price expectations. If an economy is operating not very far from an equilibrium, although expectations are not the same, they likely are not very different. They will only be very different after the unexpected strikes. When that happens, borrowers and traders who had taken positions based on overly optimistic expectations find themselves unable to meet their obligations. It is only then that we will see whether the economy is really as strong and resilient as it now seems.

Expecting the unexpected is hard to do, but you can be sure that, sooner or later, the unexpected is going to happen.

Say’s (and Walras’s) Law Revisited

Update (6/18/2019): The current draft of my paper is now available on SSRN. Here is a link.

The annual meeting of the History of Economics Society is coming up in two weeks. It will be held at Columbia University at New York, and I will be presenting an unpublished paper of mine “Say’s Law and the Classical Theory of Depressions.” I began writing this paper about 20 years ago, but never finished it. My thinking about Say’s Law goes back to my first paper on classical monetary theory, and I have previously written blog-posts about Say’s Law (here and here). And more recently I realized that in a temporary-equilibrium framework, both Say’s Law and Walras’s Law, however understood, may be violated.

Here’s the abstract from my paper:

Say’s Law occupies a prominent, but equivocal, position in the history of economics, having been the object of repeated controversies about its meaning and significance since it was first propounded early in the nineteenth century. It has been variously defined, and arguments about its meaning and validity have not reached consensus about what was being attacked or defended. This paper proposes a unifying interpretation of Say’s Law based on the idea that the monetary sector of an economy with a competitively supplied money involves at least two distinct markets not just one. Thus, contrary to the Lange-Patinkin interpretation of Say’s Law, an excess supply or demand for money does not necessarily imply an excess supply or demand for goods in a Walrasian GE model. Beyond modifying the standard interpretation of the inconsistency between Say’s Law and a monetary economy, the paper challenges another standard interpretation of Say’s Law as being empirically refuted by the existence of lapses from full employment and economic depressions. Under the alternative interpretation, originally suggested by Clower and Leijonhufvud and by Hutt, Say’s Law provides a theory whereby disequilibrium in one market, causing the amount actually supplied to fall short of what had been planned to be supplied, reduces demand in other markets, initiating a cumulative process of shrinking demand and supply. This cumulative process of contracting supply is analogous to the Keynesian multiplier whereby a reduction in demand initiates a cumulative process of declining demand. Finally, it is shown that in a temporary-equilibrium context, Walras’s Law (and a fortiori Say’ Law) may be violated.

Here is the Introduction of my paper.

I. Introduction

Say’s Law occupies a prominent, but uncertain, position in the history of economics, having been the object of repeated controversies since the early nineteenth century. Despite a formidable secondary literature, the recurring controversies still demand a clear resolution. Say’s Law has been variously defined, and arguments about its meaning and validity have failed to achieve any clear consensus about just what is being defended or attacked. So, I propose in this paper to reconsider Say’s Law in a way that is faithful in spirit to how it was understood by its principal architects, J. B. Say, James Mill, and David Ricardo as well as their contemporary critics, and to provide a conceptual framework within which to assess the views of subsequent commentators.

In doing so, I hope to dispel perhaps the oldest and certainly the most enduring misunderstanding about Say’s Law: that it somehow was meant to assert that depressions cannot occur, or that they are necessarily self-correcting if market forces are allowed to operate freely. As I have tried to suggest with the title of this paper, Say’s Law was actually an element of Classical insights into the causes of depressions. Indeed, a version of the same idea expressed by Say’s Law implicitly underlies those modern explanations of depressions that emphasize coordination failures, though Say’s Law actually conveys an additional insight missing from most modern explanations.

The conception of Say’s Law articulated in this paper bears a strong resemblance to what Clower (1965, 1967) and Leijonhufvud (1968, 1981) called Say’s Principle. However, their artificial distinction between Say’s Law and Say’s Principle suggests a narrower conception and application of Say’s principle than, I believe, is warranted.  Moreover, their apparent endorsement of the idea that the validity of Say’s Law somehow depends in a critical way on the absence of money implied a straightforward misinterpretation of Say’s Law earlier propounded by, among other, Hayek, Lange and Patinkin in which only what became known as Walras’s Law and not Say’s Law is a logically necessary property of a general-equilibrium system. Finally, it is appropriate to note at the outset that, in most respects, the conception of Say’s Law for which I shall be arguing was anticipated in a quirky, but unjustly neglected, work by Hutt (1975) and by the important, and similarly neglected, work of Earl Thompson (1974).

In the next section, I offer a restatement of the Classical conception of Say’s Law. That conception was indeed based on the insight that, in the now familiar formulation, supply creates its own demand. But to grasp how this insight was originally understood, one must first understand the problem for which Say’s Law was proposed as a solution. The problem concerns the relationship between a depression and a general glut of all goods, but it has two aspects. First, is a depression in some sense caused by a general glut of all goods? Second, is a general glut of all goods logically conceivable in a market economy? In section three, I shall consider the Classical objections to Say’s Law and the responses offered by the Classical originators of the doctrine in reply to those objections. In section four, I discuss the modern objections offered to Say’s Law, their relation to the earlier objections, and the validity of the modern objections to the doctrine. In section five, I re-examine the Classical doctrine, relating it explicitly to a theory of depressions characterized by “inadequate aggregate demand.” I also elaborate on the subtle, but important, differences between my understanding of Say’s Law and what Clower and Leijonhufvud have called Say’s Principle. In section six, I show that when considered in the context of a temporary-equilibrium model in there is an incomplete set of forward and state-contingent markets, not even Walras’s Law, let alone Say’s Law, is logically necessary property of the model. An understanding of the conditions in which neither Walras’s Law nor Say’s Law is satisfied provides an important insight into financial crises and the systemic coordination failures that are characteristic of the deep depression to which they lead.

And here are the last two sections of the paper.

VI. Say’s Law Violated

            I have just argued that Clower, Leijonhufvud and Hutt explained in detail how the insight provided by Say’s Law into the mechanism whereby disturbances causing disequilibrium in one market or sector can be propagated and amplified into broader and deeper economy-wide disturbances and disequilibria. I now want to argue that by relaxing the strict Walrasian framework in which since Lange (1942) articulated Walras’s Law and Say’s Law, it is possible to show conditions under which neither Walras’s Law nor Say’s Law is satisfied.

            I relax the Walrasian framework by assuming that there is not a complete set of forward and state-contingent markets in which future transactions can be undertaken in the present. Because there a complete set of markets in which future prices are determined and visible to everyone, economic agents must formulate their intertemporal plans for production and consumption relying not only on observed current prices, but also on their expectations of currently unobservable future prices. As already noted, the standard proof of Walras’s Law and a fortiori of Say’s Law (or Identity) are premised on the assumption that all agents make their decisions about purchases and sales on their common knowledge of all prices.

            Thus, in the temporary-equilibrium framework, economic agents make their production and consumption decisions not on the basis of their common knowledge of future market prices common, but on their own conjectural expectations of those prices, expectations that may, or may not, be correct, and may, or may not, be aligned with the expectations of other agents. Unless the agents’ expectations of future prices are aligned, the expectations of some, or all, agents must be disappointed, and the plans to buy and sell formulated based on those expectations will have to be revised, or abandoned, once agents realize that their expectations were incorrect.

            Consider a simple two-person, two-good, two-period model in which agents make plans based on current prices observed in period 1 and their expectations of what prices will be in period 2. Given price expectations for period 2, period-1 prices are determined in a tatonnement process, so that no trading occurs until a temporary- equilibrium price vector for period 1 is found. Assume, further, that price expectations for period 2 do not change in the course of the tatonnement. Once a period-1 equilibrium price vector is found, the two budget constraints subject to which the agents make their optimal decisions, need not have the same values for expected prices in period 2, because it is not assumed that the period-2 price expectations of the two agents are aligned. Because the proof of Walras’s Law depends on agents basing their decisions to buy and sell each commodity on prices for each commodity in each period that are common to both agents, Walras’s Law cannot be proved unless the period-2 price expectations of both agents are aligned.

            The implication of the potential violation of Walras’s Law is that when actual prices turn out to be different from what they were expected to be, economic agents who previously assumed obligations that are about to come due may be unable to discharge those obligations. In standard general-equilibrium models, the tatonnement process assures that no trading takes place unless equilibrium prices have been identified. But in a temporary-equilibrium model, when decisions to purchase and sell are based not on equilibrium prices, but on actual prices that may not have been expected, the discharge of commitments is not certain.

            Of course, if Walras’s Law cannot be proved, neither can Say’s Law. Supply cannot create demand when the insolvency of economic agents obstructs mutually advantageous transactions between agents when some agents have negative net worth. The negative net worth of some agents can be transmitted to other agents holding obligations undertaken by agents whose net worth has become negative.

            Moreover, because the private supply of a medium of exchange by banks depends on the value of money-backing assets held by banks, the monetary system may cease to function in an economy in which the net worth of agents whose obligations are held banks becomes negative. Thus, the argument made in section IV.A for the validity of Say’s Law in the Identity sense breaks down once a sufficient number of agents no longer have positive net worth.

VII.      Conclusion

            My aim in this paper has been to explain and clarify a number of the different ways in which Say’s Law has been understood and misunderstood. A fair reading of the primary and secondary literature allows one to understand that many of the criticisms of Say’s Law have been not properly understood the argument that Say’s Law was either intended or could be reasonably interpreted to have said. Indeed, Say’s Law, properly understood, can actually help one understand the cumulative process of economic contraction whose existence supposedly proved its invalidity. However, I have also been able to show that there are plausible conditions in which a sufficiently serious financial breakdown, associated with financial crises in which substantial losses of net worth lead to widespread and contagious insolvency, when even Walras’s Law, and a fortiori Say’s Law, no longer hold. Understanding how Say’s Law may be violated may thus help in understanding the dynamics of financial crises and the cumulative systemic coordination failures of deep depressions.

I will soon be posting the paper on SSRN. When it’s posted I will post a link to an update to this post.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

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

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