Posts Tagged 'Scott Sumner'

Graeber Against Economics

David Graeber’s vitriolic essay “Against Economics” in the New York Review of Books has generated responses from Noah Smith and Scott Sumner among others. I don’t disagree with much that Noah or Scott have to say, but I want to dig a little deeper than they did into some of Graeber’s arguments, because even though I think he is badly misinformed on many if not most of the subjects he writes about, I actually have some sympathy for his dissatisfaction with the current state of economics. Graeber wastes no time on pleasantries.

There is a growing feeling, among those who have the responsibility of managing large economies, that the discipline of economics is no longer fit for purpose. It is beginning to look like a science designed to solve problems that no longer exist.

A serious polemicist should avoid blatant mischaracterizations, exaggerations and cheap shots, and should be well-grounded in the object of his critique, thereby avoiding criticisms that undermine his own claims to expertise. I grant that  Graeber has some valid criticisms to make, even agreeing with him, at least in part, on some of them. But his indiscriminate attacks on, and caricatures of, all neoclassical economics betrays a superficial understanding of that discipline.

Graeber begins by attacking what he considers the misguided and obsessive focus on inflation by economists.

A good example is the obsession with inflation. Economists still teach their students that the primary economic role of government—many would insist, its only really proper economic role—is to guarantee price stability. We must be constantly vigilant over the dangers of inflation. For governments to simply print money is therefore inherently sinful.

Every currency unit, or banknote issued by a central bank, now in circulation, as Graeber must know, has been “printed.” So to say that economists consider it sinful for governments to print money is either a deliberate falsehood, or an emotional rhetorical outburst, as Graeber immediately, and apparently unwittingly, acknowledges!

If, however, inflation is kept at bay through the coordinated action of government and central bankers, the market should find its “natural rate of unemployment,” and investors, taking advantage of clear price signals, should be able to ensure healthy growth. These assumptions came with the monetarism of the 1980s, the idea that government should restrict itself to managing the money supply, and by the 1990s had come to be accepted as such elementary common sense that pretty much all political debate had to set out from a ritual acknowledgment of the perils of government spending. This continues to be the case, despite the fact that, since the 2008 recession, central banks have been printing money frantically [my emphasis] in an attempt to create inflation and compel the rich to do something useful with their money, and have been largely unsuccessful in both endeavors.

Graeber’s use of the ambiguous pronoun “this” beginning the last sentence of the paragraph betrays his own confusion about what he is saying. Central banks are printing money and attempting to “create” inflation while supposedly still believing that inflation is a menace and printing money is a sin. Go figure.

We now live in a different economic universe than we did before the crash. Falling unemployment no longer drives up wages. Printing money does not cause inflation. Yet the language of public debate, and the wisdom conveyed in economic textbooks, remain almost entirely unchanged.

Again showing an inadequate understanding of basic economic theory, Graeber suggests that, in theory if not practice, falling unemployment should cause wages to rise. The Philips Curve, upon which Graeber’s suggestion relies, represents the empirically observed negative correlation between the rate of average wage increase and the rate of unemployment. But correlation does not imply causation, so there is no basis in economic theory to assert that falling unemployment causes the rate of increase in wages to accelerate. That the empirical correlation between unemployment and wage increases has not recently been in evidence provides no compelling reason for changing textbook theory.

From this largely unfounded and attack on economic theory – a theory which I myself consider, in many respects, inadequate and unreliable – Graeber launches a bitter diatribe against the supposed hegemony of economists over policy-making.

Mainstream economists nowadays might not be particularly good at predicting financial crashes, facilitating general prosperity, or coming up with models for preventing climate change, but when it comes to establishing themselves in positions of intellectual authority, unaffected by such failings, their success is unparalleled. One would have to look at the history of religions to find anything like it.

The ability to predict financial crises would be desirable, but that cannot be the sole criterion for whether economics has advanced our understanding of how economic activity is organized or what effects policy changes have. (I note parenthetically that many economists defensively reject the notion that economic crises are predictable on the grounds that if economists could predict a future economic crisis, those predictions would be immediately self-fulfilling. This response, of course, effectively disproves the idea that economists could predict that an economic crisis would occur in the way that astronomers predict solar eclipses. But this response slays a strawman. The issue is not whether economists can predict future crises, but whether they can identify conditions indicating an increased likelihood of a crisis and suggest precautionary measures to reduce the likelihood that a potential crisis will occur. But Graeber seems uninterested in or incapable of engaging the question at even this moderate level of subtlety.)

In general, I doubt that economists can make more than a modest contribution to improved policy-making, and the best that one can hope for is probably that they steer us away from the worst potential decisions rather than identifying the best ones. But no one, as far as I know, has yet been burned at the stake by a tribunal of economists.

To this day, economics continues to be taught not as a story of arguments—not, like any other social science, as a welter of often warring theoretical perspectives—but rather as something more like physics, the gradual realization of universal, unimpeachable mathematical truths. “Heterodox” theories of economics do, of course, exist (institutionalist, Marxist, feminist, “Austrian,” post-Keynesian…), but their exponents have been almost completely locked out of what are considered “serious” departments, and even outright rebellions by economics students (from the post-autistic economics movement in France to post-crash economics in Britain) have largely failed to force them into the core curriculum.

I am now happy to register agreement with something that Graeber says. Economists in general have become overly attached to axiomatic and formalistic mathematical models that create a false and misleading impression of rigor and mathematical certainty. In saying this, I don’t dispute that mathematical modeling is an important part of much economic theorizing, but it should not exclude other approaches to economic analysis and discourse.

As a result, heterodox economists continue to be treated as just a step or two away from crackpots, despite the fact that they often have a much better record of predicting real-world economic events. What’s more, the basic psychological assumptions on which mainstream (neoclassical) economics is based—though they have long since been disproved by actual psychologists—have colonized the rest of the academy, and have had a profound impact on popular understandings of the world.

That heterodox economists have a better record of predicting economic events than mainstream economists is an assertion for which Graeber offers no evidence or examples. I would not be surprised if he could cite examples, but one would have to weigh the evidence surrounding those examples before concluding that predictions by heterodox economists were more accurate than those of their mainstream counterparts.

Graeber returns to the topic of monetary theory, which seems a particular bugaboo of his. Taking the extreme liberty of holding up Mrs. Theresa May as a spokesperson for orthodox economics, he focuses on her definitive 2017 statement that there is no magic money tree.

The truly extraordinary thing about May’s phrase is that it isn’t true. There are plenty of magic money trees in Britain, as there are in any developed economy. They are called “banks.” Since modern money is simply credit, banks can and do create money literally out of nothing, simply by making loans. Almost all of the money circulating in Britain at the moment is bank-created in this way.

What Graeber chooses to ignore is that banks do not operate magically; they make loans and create deposits in seeking to earn profits; their decisions are not magical, but are oriented toward making profits. Whether they make good or bad decisions is debatable, but the debate isn’t about a magical process; it’s a debate about theory and evidence. Graeber describe how he thinks that economists think about how banks create money, correctly observing that there is a debate about how that process works, but without understanding those differences or their significance.

Economists, for obvious reasons, can’t be completely oblivious to the role of banks, but they have spent much of the twentieth century arguing about what actually happens when someone applies for a loan. One school insists that banks transfer existing funds from their reserves, another that they produce new money, but only on the basis of a multiplier effect). . . Only a minority—mostly heterodox economists, post-Keynesians, and modern money theorists—uphold what is called the “credit creation theory of banking”: that bankers simply wave a magic wand and make the money appear, secure in the confidence that even if they hand a client a credit for $1 million, ultimately the recipient will put it back in the bank again, so that, across the system as a whole, credits and debts will cancel out. Rather than loans being based in deposits, in this view, deposits themselves were the result of loans.

The one thing it never seemed to occur to anyone to do was to get a job at a bank, and find out what actually happens when someone asks to borrow money. In 2014 a German economist named Richard Werner did exactly that, and discovered that, in fact, loan officers do not check their existing funds, reserves, or anything else. They simply create money out of thin air, or, as he preferred to put it, “fairy dust.”

Graeber is right that economists differ in how they understand banking. But the simple transfer-of-funds view, a product of the eighteenth century, was gradually rejected over the course of the nineteenth century; the money-multiplier view largely superseded it, enjoying a half-century or more of dominance as a theory of banking, still remains a popular way for introductory textbooks to explain how banking works, though it would be better if it were decently buried and forgotten. But since James Tobin’s classic essay “Commercial banks as creators of money” was published in 1963, most economists who have thought carefully about banking have concluded that the amount of deposits created by banks corresponds to the quantity of deposits that the public, given their expectations about the future course of the economy and the future course of prices, chooses to hold. The important point is that while a bank can create deposits without incurring more than the negligible cost of making a book-keeping, or an electronic, entry in a customer’s account, the creation of a deposit is typically associated with a demand by the bank to hold either reserves in its account with the Fed or to hold some amount of Treasury instruments convertible, on very short notice, into reserves at the Fed.

Graeber seems to think that there is something fundamental at stake for the whole of macroeconomics in the question whether deposits created loans or loans create deposits. I agree that it’s an important question, but not as significant as Graeber believes. But aside from that nuance, what’s remarkable is that Graeber actually acknowledges that the weight of professional opinion is on the side that says that loans create deposits. He thus triumphantly cites a report by Bank of England economists that correctly explained that banks create money and do so in the normal course of business by making loans.

Before long, the Bank of England . . . rolled out an elaborate official report called “Money Creation in the Modern Economy,” replete with videos and animations, making the same point: existing economics textbooks, and particularly the reigning monetarist orthodoxy, are wrong. The heterodox economists are right. Private banks create money. Central banks like the Bank of England create money as well, but monetarists are entirely wrong to insist that their proper function is to control the money supply.

Graeber, I regret to say, is simply exposing the inadequacy of his knowledge of the history of economics. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations explained that banks create money who, in doing so, saved the resources that would have been wasted on creating additional gold and silver. Subsequent economists from David Ricardo through Henry Thornton, J. S. Mill and R. G. Hawtrey were perfectly aware that banks can supply money — either banknotes or deposits — at less than the cost of mining and minting new coins, as they extend their credit in making loans to borrowers. So what is at issue, Graeber to the contrary notwithstanding, is not a dispute between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

In fact, central banks do not in any sense control the money supply; their main function is to set the interest rate—to determine how much private banks can charge for the money they create.

Central banks set a rental price for reserves, thereby controlling the quantity of reserves into which bank deposits are convertible that is available to the economy. One way to think about that quantity is that the quantity of reserves along with the aggregate demand to hold reserves determines the exchange value of reserves and hence the price level; another way to think about it is that the interest rate or the implied policy stance of the central bank helps to determine the expectations of the public about the future course of the price level which is what determines – within some margin of error or range – what the future course of the price level will turn out to be.

Almost all public debate on these subjects is therefore based on false premises. For example, if what the Bank of England was saying were true, government borrowing didn’t divert funds from the private sector; it created entirely new money that had not existed before.

This is just silly. Funds may or may not be diverted from the private sector, but the total available resources to society is finite. If the central bank creates additional money, it creates additional claims to those resources and the creation of additional claims to resources necessarily has an effect on the prices of inputs and of outputs.

One might have imagined that such an admission would create something of a splash, and in certain restricted circles, it did. Central banks in Norway, Switzerland, and Germany quickly put out similar papers. Back in the UK, the immediate media response was simply silence. The Bank of England report has never, to my knowledge, been so much as mentioned on the BBC or any other TV news outlet. Newspaper columnists continued to write as if monetarism was self-evidently correct. Politicians continued to be grilled about where they would find the cash for social programs. It was as if a kind of entente cordiale had been established, in which the technocrats would be allowed to live in one theoretical universe, while politicians and news commentators would continue to exist in an entirely different one.

Even if we stipulate that this characterization of what the BBC and newspaper columnists believe is correct, what we would have — at best — is a commentary on the ability of economists to communicate their understanding of how the economy works to the intelligentsia that communicates to ordinary citizens. It is not in and of itself a commentary on the state of economic knowledge, inasmuch as Graeber himself concedes that most economists don’t accept monetarism. And that has been the case, as Noah Smith pointed out in his Bloomberg column on Graeber, since the early 1980s when the Monetarist experiment in trying to conduct monetary policy by controlling the monetary aggregates proved entirely unworkable and had to be abandoned as it was on the verge of precipitating a financial crisis.

Only after this long warmup decrying the sorry state of contemporary economic theory does Graeber begin discussing the book under review Money and Government by Robert Skidelsky.

What [Skidelsky] reveals is an endless war between two broad theoretical perspectives. . . The crux of the argument always seems to turn on the nature of money. Is money best conceived of as a physical commodity, a precious substance used to facilitate exchange, or is it better to see money primarily as a credit, a bookkeeping method or circulating IOU—in any case, a social arrangement? This is an argument that has been going on in some form for thousands of years. What we call “money” is always a mixture of both, and, as I myself noted in Debt (2011), the center of gravity between the two tends to shift back and forth over time. . . .One important theoretical innovation that these new bullion-based theories of money allowed was, as Skidelsky notes, what has come to be called the quantity theory of money (usually referred to in textbooks—since economists take endless delight in abbreviations—as QTM).

But these two perspectives are not mutually exclusive, and, depending on time, place, circumstances, and the particular problem that is the focus of attention, either of the two may be the appropriate paradigm for analysis.

The QTM argument was first put forward by a French lawyer named Jean Bodin, during a debate over the cause of the sharp, destablizing price inflation that immediately followed the Iberian conquest of the Americas. Bodin argued that the inflation was a simple matter of supply and demand: the enormous influx of gold and silver from the Spanish colonies was cheapening the value of money in Europe. The basic principle would no doubt have seemed a matter of common sense to anyone with experience of commerce at the time, but it turns out to have been based on a series of false assumptions. For one thing, most of the gold and silver extracted from Mexico and Peru did not end up in Europe at all, and certainly wasn’t coined into money. Most of it was transported directly to China and India (to buy spices, silks, calicoes, and other “oriental luxuries”), and insofar as it had inflationary effects back home, it was on the basis of speculative bonds of one sort or another. This almost always turns out to be true when QTM is applied: it seems self-evident, but only if you leave most of the critical factors out.

In the case of the sixteenth-century price inflation, for instance, once one takes account of credit, hoarding, and speculation—not to mention increased rates of economic activity, investment in new technology, and wage levels (which, in turn, have a lot to do with the relative power of workers and employers, creditors and debtors)—it becomes impossible to say for certain which is the deciding factor: whether the money supply drives prices, or prices drive the money supply.

As a matter of logic, if the value of money depends on the precious metals (gold or silver) from which coins were minted, the value of money is necessarily affected by a change in the value of the metals used to coin money. Because a large increase in the stock of gold and silver, as Graeber concedes, must reduce the value of those metals, subsequent inflation then being attributable, at least in part, to the gold and silver discoveries even if the newly mined gold and silver was shipped mainly to privately held Indian and Chinese hoards rather than minted into new coins. An exogenous increase in prices may well have caused the quantity of credit money to increase, but that is analytically distinct from the inflationary effect of a reduced value of gold or silver when, as was the case in the sixteenth century, money is legally defined as a specific weight of gold or silver.

Technically, this comes down to a choice between what are called exogenous and endogenous theories of money. Should money be treated as an outside factor, like all those Spanish dubloons supposedly sweeping into Antwerp, Dublin, and Genoa in the days of Philip II, or should it be imagined primarily as a product of economic activity itself, mined, minted, and put into circulation, or more often, created as credit instruments such as loans, in order to meet a demand—which would, of course, mean that the roots of inflation lie elsewhere?

There is no such choice, because any theory must posit certain initial conditions and definitions, which are given or exogenous to the analysis. How the theory is framed and which variables are treated as exogenous and which are treated as endogenous is a matter of judgment in light of the problem and the circumstances. Graeber is certainly correct that, in any realistic model, the quantity of money is endogenously, not exogenously, determined, but that doesn’t mean that the value of gold and silver may not usefully be treated as exogenous in a system in which money is defined as a weight of gold or silver.

To put it bluntly: QTM is obviously wrong. Doubling the amount of gold in a country will have no effect on the price of cheese if you give all the gold to rich people and they just bury it in their yards, or use it to make gold-plated submarines (this is, incidentally, why quantitative easing, the strategy of buying long-term government bonds to put money into circulation, did not work either). What actually matters is spending.

Graeber is talking in circles, failing to distinguish between the quantity theory of money – a theory about the value of a pure medium of exchange with no use except to be received in exchange — and a theory of the real value of gold and silver when money is defined as a weight of gold or silver. The value of gold (or silver) in monetary uses must be roughly equal to its value in non-monetary uses. which is determined by the total stock of gold and the demand to hold gold or to use it in coinage or for other uses (e.g., jewelry and ornamentation). An increase in the stock of gold relative to demand must reduce its value. That relationship between price and quantity is not the same as QTM. The quantity of a metallic money will increase as its value in non-monetary uses declines. If there is literally an unlimited demand for newly mined gold to be immediately sent unused into hoards, Graeber’s argument would be correct. But the fact that much of the newly mined gold initially went into hoards does not mean that all of the newly mined gold went into hoards.

In sum, Graeber is confused between the quantity theory of money and a theory of a commodity money used both as money and as a real commodity. The quantity theory of money of a pure medium of exchange posits that changes in the quantity of money cause proportionate changes in the price level. Changes in the quantity of a real commodity also used as money have nothing to do with the quantity theory of money.

Relying on a dubious account of the history of monetary theory by Skidelsky, Graeber blames the obsession of economists with the quantity theory for repeated monetary disturbances starting with the late 17th century deflation in Britain when silver appreciated relative to gold causing prices measured in silver to fall. Graeber thus fails to see that under a metallic money, real disturbances do have repercussion on the level of prices, repercussions having nothing to do with an exogenous prior change in the quantity of money.

According to Skidelsky, the pattern was to repeat itself again and again, in 1797, the 1840s, the 1890s, and, ultimately, the late 1970s and early 1980s, with Thatcher and Reagan’s (in each case brief) adoption of monetarism. Always we see the same sequence of events:

(1) The government adopts hard-money policies as a matter of principle.

(2) Disaster ensues.

(3) The government quietly abandons hard-money policies.

(4) The economy recovers.

(5) Hard-money philosophy nonetheless becomes, or is reinforced as, simple universal common sense.

There is so much indiscriminate generalization here that it is hard to know what to make of it. But the conduct of monetary policy has always been fraught, and learning has been slow and painful. We can and must learn to do better, but blanket condemnations of economics are unlikely to lead to better outcomes.

How was it possible to justify such a remarkable string of failures? Here a lot of the blame, according to Skidelsky, can be laid at the feet of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. An early advocate of QTM, Hume was also the first to introduce the notion that short-term shocks—such as Locke produced—would create long-term benefits if they had the effect of unleashing the self-regulating powers of the market:

Actually I agree that Hume, as great and insightful a philosopher as he was and as sophisticated an economic observer as he was, was an unreliable monetary theorist. And one of the reasons he was led astray was his unwarranted attachment to the quantity theory of money, an attachment that was not shared by his close friend Adam Smith.

Ever since Hume, economists have distinguished between the short-run and the long-run effects of economic change, including the effects of policy interventions. The distinction has served to protect the theory of equilibrium, by enabling it to be stated in a form which took some account of reality. In economics, the short-run now typically stands for the period during which a market (or an economy of markets) temporarily deviates from its long-term equilibrium position under the impact of some “shock,” like a pendulum temporarily dislodged from a position of rest. This way of thinking suggests that governments should leave it to markets to discover their natural equilibrium positions. Government interventions to “correct” deviations will only add extra layers of delusion to the original one.

I also agree that focusing on long-run equilibrium without regard to short-run fluctuations can lead to terrible macroeconomic outcomes, but that doesn’t mean that long-run effects are never of concern and may be safely disregarded. But just as current suffering must not be disregarded when pursuing vague and uncertain long-term benefits, ephemeral transitory benefits shouldn’t obscure serious long-term consequences. Weighing such alternatives isn’t easy, but nothing is gained by denying that the alternatives exist. Making those difficult choices is inherent in policy-making, whether macroeconomic or climate policy-making.

Although Graeber takes a valid point – that a supposed tendency toward an optimal long-run equilibrium does not justify disregard of an acute short-term problem – to an extreme, his criticism of the New Classical approach to policy-making that replaced the flawed mainstream Keynesian macroeconomics of the late 1970s is worth listening to. The New Classical approach self-consciously rejected any policy aimed at short-run considerations owing to a time-inconsistency paradox was based almost entirely on the logic of general-equilibrium theory and an illegitimate methodological argument rejecting all macroeconomic theories not rigorously deduced from the unarguable axiom of optimizing behavior by rational agents (and therefore not, in the official jargon, microfounded) as unscientific and unworthy of serious consideration in the brave New Classical world of scientific macroeconomics.

It’s difficult for outsiders to see what was really at stake here, because the argument has come to be recounted as a technical dispute between the roles of micro- and macroeconomics. Keynesians insisted that the former is appropriate to studying the behavior of individual households or firms, trying to optimize their advantage in the marketplace, but that as soon as one begins to look at national economies, one is moving to an entirely different level of complexity, where different sorts of laws apply. Just as it is impossible to understand the mating habits of an aardvark by analyzing all the chemical reactions in their cells, so patterns of trade, investment, or the fluctuations of interest or employment rates were not simply the aggregate of all the microtransactions that seemed to make them up. The patterns had, as philosophers of science would put it, “emergent properties.” Obviously, it was necessary to understand the micro level (just as it was necessary to understand the chemicals that made up the aardvark) to have any chance of understand the macro, but that was not, in itself, enough.

As an aisde, it’s worth noting that the denial or disregard of the possibility of any emergent properties by New Classical economists (of which what came to be known as New Keynesian economics is really a mildly schismatic offshoot) is nicely illustrated by the un-self-conscious alacrity with which the representative-agent approach was adopted as a modeling strategy in the first few generations of New Classical models. That New Classical theorists now insist that representative agency is not an essential to New Classical modeling is true, but the methodologically reductive nature of New Classical macroeconomics, in which all macroeconomic theories must be derived under the axiom of individually maximizing behavior except insofar as specific “frictions” are introduced by explicit assumption, is essential. (See here, here, and here)

The counterrevolutionaries, starting with Keynes’s old rival Friedrich Hayek . . . took aim directly at this notion that national economies are anything more than the sum of their parts. Politically, Skidelsky notes, this was due to a hostility to the very idea of statecraft (and, in a broader sense, of any collective good). National economies could indeed be reduced to the aggregate effect of millions of individual decisions, and, therefore, every element of macroeconomics had to be systematically “micro-founded.”

Hayek’s role in the microfoundations movement is important, but his position was more sophisticated and less methodologically doctrinaire than that of the New Classical macroeconomists, if for no other reason than that Hayek didn’t believe that macroeconomics should, or could, be derived from general-equilibrium theory. His criticism, like that of economists like Clower and Leijonhufvud, of Keynesian macroeconomics for being insufficiently grounded in microeconomic principles, was aimed at finding microeconomic arguments that could explain and embellish and modify the propositions of Keynesian macroeconomic theory. That is the sort of scientific – not methodological — reductivism that Hayek’s friend Karl Popper advocated: a theoretical and empirical challenge of reducing a higher level theory to its more fundamental foundations, e.g., when physicists and chemists search for theoretical breakthroughs that allow the propositions of chemistry to be reduced to more fundamental propositions of physics. The attempt to reduce chemistry to underlying physical principles is very different from a methodological rejection of all chemistry that cannot be derived from underlying deep physical theories.

There is probably more than a grain of truth in Graeber’s belief that there was a political and ideological subtext in the demand for microfoundations by New Classical macroeconomists, but the success of the microfoundations program was also the result of philosophically unsophisticated methodological error. How to apportion the share of blame going to mistaken methodology, professional and academic opportunism, and a hidden political agenda is a question worthy of further investigation. The easy part is to identify the mistaken methodology, which Graeber does. As for the rest, Graeber simply asserts bad faith, but with little evidence.

In Graeber’s comprehensive condemnation of modern economics, the efficient market hypothesis, being closely related to the rational-expectations hypothesis so central to New Classical economics, is not spared either. Here again, though I share and sympathize with his disdain for EMH, Graeber can’t resist exaggeration.

In other words, we were obliged to pretend that markets could not, by definition, be wrong—if in the 1980s the land on which the Imperial compound in Tokyo was built, for example, was valued higher than that of all the land in New York City, then that would have to be because that was what it was actually worth. If there are deviations, they are purely random, “stochastic” and therefore unpredictable, temporary, and, ultimately, insignificant.

Of course, no one is obliged to pretend that markets could not be wrong — and certainly not by a definition. The EMH simply asserts that the price of an asset reflects all the publicly available information. But what EMH asserts is certainly not true in many or even most cases, because people with non-public information (or with superior capacity to process public information) may affect asset prices, and such people may profit at the expense of those less knowledgeable or less competent in anticipating price changes. Moreover, those advantages may result from (largely wasted) resources devoted to acquiring and processing information, and it is those people who make fortunes betting on the future course of asset prices.

Graeber then quotes Skidelsky approvingly:

There is a paradox here. On the one hand, the theory says that there is no point in trying to profit from speculation, because shares are always correctly priced and their movements cannot be predicted. But on the other hand, if investors did not try to profit, the market would not be efficient because there would be no self-correcting mechanism. . .

Secondly, if shares are always correctly priced, bubbles and crises cannot be generated by the market….

This attitude leached into policy: “government officials, starting with [Fed Chairman] Alan Greenspan, were unwilling to burst the bubble precisely because they were unwilling to even judge that it was a bubble.” The EMH made the identification of bubbles impossible because it ruled them out a priori.

So the apparent paradox that concerns Skidelsky and Graeber dissolves upon (only a modest amount of) further reflection. Proper understanding and revision of the EMH makes it clear that bubbles can occur. But that doesn’t mean that bursting bubbles is a job that can be safely delegated to any agency, including the Fed.

Moreover, the housing bubble peaked in early 2006, two and a half years before the financial crisis in September 2008. The financial crisis was not unrelated to the housing bubble, which undoubtedly added to the fragility of the financial system and its vulnerability to macroeconomic shocks, but the main cause of the crisis was Fed policy that was unnecessarily focused on a temporary blip in commodity prices persuading the Fed not to loosen policy in 2008 during a worsening recession. That was a scenario similar to the one in 1929 when concern about an apparent stock-market bubble caused the Fed to repeatedly tighten money, raising interest rates, thereby causing a downturn and crash of asset prices triggering the Great Depression.

Graeber and Skidelsky correctly identify some of the problems besetting macroeconomics, but their indiscriminate attack on all economic theory is unlikely to improve the situation. A pity, because a focused and sophisticated critique of economics than they have served up has never been more urgently needed than it is now to enable economists to perform the modest service to mankind of which they might be capable.

Stigler Confirms that Wicksteed Did Indeed Discover the Coase Theorem

The world is full of surprises, a fact with which rational-expectations theorists have not yet come to grips. Yesterday I was surprised to find that a post of mine from May 2016, was attracting lots of traffic. When published, that post had not attracted much attention, and I had more or less forgotten about it, but when I quickly went back to look at it, I recalled that I had thought well of it, because in the process of calling attention to Wicksteed’s anticipation of the Coase Theorem, I thought that I had done a good job of demonstrating one of my favorite talking points: that what we think of as microeconomics (supply-demand analysis aka partial-equilibrium analysis) requires a macrofoundation, namely that all markets but the one under analysis are in equilibrium. In particular, Wicksteed showed that to use cost as a determinant of price in the context of partial-equilibrium analysis, one must assume that the prices of everything else have already been determined, because costs don’t exist independently of the prices of all other outputs. But, unfortunately, the post went pretty much unnoticed. Until yesterday.

After noticing all the traffic that an old post was suddenly receiving, I found that the source was Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog, a link to my three-year-old post having been included in a post with five other links. I was curious to see if readers of Tyler’s blog would react to my post, so I checked the comments to his post. Most of them were directed towards the other links that Tyler included, but there were a few that mentioned mine. None of the comments really engaged with my larger point about Wicksteed; most of them focused on my claim that Wicksteed had anticipated the Coase Theorem. Here’s the most pointed comment, by Alan Gunn.

If Wicksteed didn’t mention transaction costs, he didn’t discover the Coase theorem. The importance of transaction costs and the errors economists make when they ignore them are what make Coase’s work important. The stuff about how initial assignment of rights doesn’t matter if transaction costs are zero is obvious and trivial.

A bit later I found that Scott Sumner, whose recent post on Econlib was also linked to by Tyler, added a comment to my post that more gently makes precisely a point exactly opposite of Alan Gunn’s.

Very good post. Some would argue that the essence of the Coase Theorem is not that the initial distribution of property rights doesn’t matter, but rather that it doesn’t matter if there are no transactions costs. I seem to recall that that was Coase’s view.

I agree with Scott that the essential point of the Coase Theorem is that if there are zero transactions costs, the initial allocation doesn’t matter. To credit Wicksteed with anticipating the Coase Theorem, you have to assume that Wicksteed understood that transactions costs had to be zero. But the zero transactions costs assumption was the default assumption. The question is then whether the observation that the final allocation is independent of the initial allocation is a real discovery even if the assumption of zero transactions cost is made only implicitly. Wicksteed obviously did make that assumption, because his result would not have followed if transactions costs were zero. Articulating explicitly an assumption that was assumed implicitly is important, but the substance of the argument is unchanged.

I can’t comment on what Coase’s view of his theorem was, but Stigler clearly did view the Theorem to refer to a situation in which transactions costs were zero. And it was Stigler who attached the name Coase Theorem to Coase’s discovery, and he clearly thought that it was a discovery because the chapter in Stigler’s autobiography Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist in which he recounts the events surrounding the discovery of the Coase Theorem is entitle “Eureka!” (exclamation point is Stigler’s).

The chapter begins as follows:

Scientific discoveries are usually the product of dozens upon dozens tentative explorations, with almost as many blind alleys followed too long. The rare idea that grows into a hypothesis, even more rarely overcomes the difficulties and contradictions it soon encounters. An Archimedes who suddenly has a marvelous idea and shouts “Eureka!” is the hero of the rarest of events. I have spend all of my professional life in the company of first-class scholars but only once have I encountered something like the sudden Archimedian revelation – as an observer. (p. 73)

After recounting the history of the Marshallian doctrine of external economies and its development by Pigou into a deviation between private and social costs, Stigler continues:

The disharmonies between private and social interests produced by external economies and diseconomies became gospel to the economics profession. . . . When, in 1960, Ronald Coase criticized Pigou’s theory rather casually, in the course of a masterly analysis of the Federal Communications Commission’s work, Chicago economists could not understand how so fine an economist as Coase could make so obvious a mistake. Since he persisted [he persisted!], we invited Coase . . . to come and give a talk on it. Some twenty economists from the University of Chicago and Ronald Coase assembled one evening at the home of Aaron Director. Ronald asked us to assume, for a time, a world without transactions costs. That seemed reasonable because economists . . .  are accustomed . . . to deal with simplified . . . “models” and problems. . . .

Ronald asked us to believe . . . [that] whatever the assignment of legal liability for damages, or whatever assignment of legal rights of ownership, the assignments would have no effect upon the way economic resources would be used! We strongly objected to this heresy. Milton Friedman did most of the talking, as usual. He also did much of the thinking, as usual. In the course of two hours of argument the vote went from twenty against and one for Coase to twenty-one for Coase. What an exhilarating event! I lamented afterward that we had not the clairvoyance to tape it (pp. 74-76)

Stigler then summarizes Coase’s argument and proceeds to tell his understanding of the proposition that he called the Coase Theorem.

This proposition, that when there are no transactions costs the assignments of legal rights have no effect upon the allocation of resources among economic enterprises, will, I hope, be reasonable and possibly even obvious once it is explained. Nevertheless there were a fair number of “refutations” published in the economic journals. I christened the proposition the “Coase Theorem” and that is how it is known today. Scientific theories are hardly ever named after their first discoverers . . . so this is a rare example of correct attribution of a priority.

Well, not so much. Coase’s real insight was to see that all economic exchange involves an exchange of rights over resources rather than over the resources themselves. But the insight that the final allocation is independent of the initial allocation was Wicksteed’s.

My Paper “The Fisher Effect and the Financial Crisis of 2008” Is Now Available

Back in 2009 or 2010, I became intrigued by what seemed to me to be a consistent correlation between the tendency of the stock market to rise on news of monetary easing and potentially inflationary news. I suspected that there might be such a correlation because of my work on the Great Depression inspired by Earl Thompson, from whom I first learned about a monetary theory of the Great Depression very different from Friedman’s monetary theory expounded in his Monetary History of the United States. Thompson’s theory focused on disturbances in the gold market associated with the demonetization of gold during World War I and the attempt to restore the gold standard in the 1920s, which, by increasing the world demand for gold, was the direct cause of the deflation that led to the Great Depression.

I later came to discover that Ralph Hawtrey had already propounded Thompson’s theory in the 1920s almost a decade before the Great Depression started, and my friend and fellow student of Thompson, Ron Batchelder made a similar discovery about Gustave Cassel. Our shared recognition that Thompson’s seemingly original theory of the Great Depression had been anticipated by Hawtrey and Cassel led us to collaborate on our paper about Hawtrey and Cassel. As I began to see parallels between the financial fragility of the 1920s and the financial fragility that followed the housing bubble, I began to suspect that deflationary tendencies were also critical to the financial crisis of 2008.

So I began following daily fluctuations in the principal market estimate of expected inflation: the breakeven TIPS spread. I pretty quickly became persuaded that the correlation was powerful and meaningful, and I then collected data about TIPS spreads from 2003, when the Treasury began offering TIPS securities, to see if the correlation between expected inflation and asset prices had been present 2003 or was a more recent phenomenon.

My hunch was that the correlation would not be observed under normal macroeconomic conditions, because it is only when the expected yield from holding money approaches or exceeds the yield from holding real assets that an increase in expected inflation, by reducing the expected yield from holding money, would induce people to switch from holding money to holding assets, thereby driving up the value of assets.

And that’s what the data showed; the correlation between expected inflation and asset prices only emerged after in 2008 in the period after a recession started at the end of 2007, even before the start of the financial crisis exactly 10 years in September 2008. When I wrote up the paper and posted it (“The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations“), Scott Sumner, who had encouraged me to write up the results after I told him about my results, wrote a blogpost about the paper. Paul Krugman picked up on Scott’s post and wrote about it on his blog, generating a lot of interest in the paper.

Although I was confident that the data showed a strong correlation between inflation and stock prices after 2008, I was less confident that I had done the econometrics right, so I didn’t try to publish the original 2011 version of the paper. With Scott’s encouragement, I have continued to collected more data as time passed, confirming that the correlation remained even after the start of a recovery while short-term interest rates remained at or near the zero lower bound. The Mercatus Center whose Program on Monetary Policy is directed by Scott has just released the new version of the paper as a Working Paper. The paper can also be downloaded from SSRN.

Aside from longer time span covered, the new version of the paper has refined and extended the theoretical account for when and why a correlation between expected inflation and asset prices is likely be observed and when and why it is unlikely to be observed. I have also done some additional econometric testing beyond the basic ordinary least square (OLS) regression estimates originally presented, and explained why I think it is unlikely that more sophisticated econometric techniques such as an error-correction model would generate more reliable results than those generated by simple OLS regrissions. Perhaps in further work, I will attempt to actually construct an explicit error-correction model and compare the results using OLS and an error-correction model.

Here is the abstract of the new version of the paper.

This paper uses the Fisher equation relating the nominal interest rate to the real interest rate and
expected inflation to provide a deeper explanation of the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recovery than attributing it to the bursting of the housing-price bubble. The paper interprets the Fisher equation as an equilibrium condition in which expected returns from holding real assets and cash are equalized. When inflation expectations decline, the return to holding cash rises relative to holding real assets. If nominal interest rates are above the zero lower bound, equilibrium is easily restored by adjustments in nominal interest rates and asset prices. But at the zero lower bound, nominal interest rates cannot fall, forcing the entire adjustment onto falling asset prices, thereby raising the expected real return from holding assets. Such an adjustment seems to have triggered the financial crisis of 2008, when the Federal Reserve delayed reducing nominal interest rates out of a misplaced fear of inflation in the summer of 2008 when the economy was already contracting rapidly. Using stock market price data and inflation-adjusted US Treasury securities data, the paper finds that, unlike the 2003–2007 period, when stock prices were uncorrelated with expected inflation, from 2008 through at least 2016, stock prices have been consistently and positively correlated with expected inflation.

Bernanke’s Continuing Confusion about How Monetary Policy Works

TravisV recently posted a comment on this blog with a link to his comment on Scott Sumner’s blog flagging two apparently contradictory rationales for the Fed’s quantitative easing policy in chapter 19 of Ben Bernanke’s new book in which he demurely takes credit for saving Western Civilization. Here are the two quotes from Bernanke:

1              Our goal was to bring down longer-term interest rates, such as the rates on thirty-year mortgages and corporate bonds. If we could do that, we might stimulate spending—on housing and business capital investment, for example…..Similarly, when we bought longer-term Treasury securities, such as a note maturing in ten years, the yields on those securities tended to decline.

2              A new era of monetary policy activism had arrived, and our announcement had powerful effects. Between the day before the meeting and the end of the year, the Dow would rise more than 3,000 points—more than 40 percent—to 10,428. Longer-term interest rates fell on our announcement, with the yield on ten-year Treasury securities dropping from about 3 percent to about 2.5 percent in one day, a very large move. Over the summer, longer-term yields would reverse and rise to above 4 percent. We would see that increase as a sign of success. Higher yields suggested that investors were expecting both more growth and higher inflation, consistent with our goal of economic revival. Indeed, after four quarters of contraction, revised data would show that the economy would grow at a 1.3 percent rate in the third quarter and a 3.9 percent rate in the fourth.

Over my four years of blogging — especially the first two – I have written a number of posts pointing out that the Fed’s articulated rationale for its quantitative easing – the one expressed in quote number 1 above: that quantitative easing would reduce long-term interest rates and stimulate the economy by promoting investment – was largely irrelevant, because the magnitude of the effect would be far too small to have any noticeable macroeconomic effect.

In making this argument, Bernanke bought into one of the few propositions shared by both Keynes and the Austrians: that monetary policy is effective by operating on long-term interest rates, and that significant investments by business in plant and equipment are responsive to relatively small changes in long-term rates. Keynes, at any rate, had the good sense to realize that long-term investment in plant and equipment is not very responsive to changes in long-term interest rates – a view he had espoused in his Treatise on Money before emphasizing, in the General Theory, expectations about future prices and profitability as the key factor governing investment. Austrians, however, never gave up their theoretical preoccupation with the idea that the entire structural profile of a modern economy is dominated by small changes in the long-term rate of interest.

So for Bernanke’s theory of how QE would be effective to be internally consistent, he would have had to buy into a hyper-Austrian view of how the economy works, which he obviously doesn’t and never did. Sometimes internal inconsistency can be a sign that being misled by bad theory hasn’t overwhelmed a person’s good judgment. So I say even though he botched the theory, give Bernanke credit for his good judgment. Unfortunately, Bernanke’s confusion made it impossible for him to communicate a coherent story about how monetary policy, undermining, or at least compromising, his ability to build popular support for the policy.

Of course the problem was even deeper than expecting a marginal reduction in long-term interest rates to have any effect on the economy. The Fed’s refusal to budge from its two-percent inflation target, drastically limited the potential stimulus that monetary policy could provide.

I might add that I just noticed that I had already drawn attention to Bernanke’s inconsistent rationale for adopting QE in my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations” written before I started this blog, which both Scott Sumner and Paul Krugman plugged after I posted it on SSRN.

Here’s what I said in my paper (p. 18):

If so, the expressed rationale for the Fed’s quantitative easing policy (Bernanke 2010), namely to reduce long term interest rates, thereby stimulating spending on investment and consumption, reflects a misapprehension of the mechanism by which the policy would be most likely to operate, increasing expectations of both inflation and future profitability and, hence, of the cash flows derived from real assets, causing asset values to rise in step with both inflation expectations and real interest rates. Rather than a policy to reduce interest rates, quantitative easing appears to be a policy for increasing interest rates, though only as a consequence of increasing expected future prices and cash flows.

I wrote that almost five years ago, and it still seems pretty much on the mark.

Neo-Fisherism and All That

A few weeks ago Michael Woodford and his Columbia colleague Mariana Garcia-Schmidt made an initial response to the Neo-Fisherian argument advanced by, among others, John Cochrane and Stephen Williamson that a central bank can achieve its inflation target by pegging its interest-rate instrument at a rate such that if the expected inflation rate is the inflation rate targeted by the central bank, the Fisher equation would be satisfied. In other words, if the central bank wants 2% inflation, it should set the interest rate instrument under its control at the Fisherian real rate of interest (aka the natural rate) plus 2% expected inflation. So if the Fisherian real rate is 2%, the central bank should set its interest-rate instrument (Fed Funds rate) at 4%, because, in equilibrium – and, under rational expectations, that is the only policy-relevant solution of the model – inflation expectations must satisfy the Fisher equation.

The Neo-Fisherians believe that, by way of this insight, they have overturned at least two centuries of standard monetary theory, dating back at least to Henry Thornton, instructing the monetary authorities to raise interest rates to combat inflation and to reduce interest rates to counter deflation. According to the Neo-Fisherian Revolution, this was all wrong: the way to reduce inflation is for the monetary authority to reduce the setting on its interest-rate instrument and the way to counter deflation is to raise the setting on the instrument. That is supposedly why the Fed, by reducing its Fed Funds target practically to zero, has locked us into a low-inflation environment.

Unwilling to junk more than 200 years of received doctrine on the basis, not of a behavioral relationship, but a reduced-form equilibrium condition containing no information about the direction of causality, few monetary economists and no policy makers have become devotees of the Neo-Fisherian Revolution. Nevertheless, the Neo-Fisherian argument has drawn enough attention to elicit a response from Michael Woodford, who is the go-to monetary theorist for monetary-policy makers. The Woodford-Garcia-Schmidt (hereinafter WGS) response (for now just a slide presentation) has already been discussed by Noah Smith, Nick Rowe, Scott Sumner, Brad DeLong, Roger Farmer and John Cochrane. Nick Rowe’s discussion, not surprisingly, is especially penetrating in distilling the WGS presentation into its intuitive essence.

Using Nick’s discussion as a starting point, I am going to offer some comments of my own on Neo-Fisherism and the WGS critique. Right off the bat, WGS concede that it is possible that by increasing the setting of its interest-rate instrument, a central bank could, move the economy from one rational-expectations equilibrium to another, the only difference between the two being that inflation in the second would differ from inflation in the first by an amount exactly equal to the difference in the corresponding settings of the interest-rate instrument. John Cochrane apparently feels pretty good about having extracted this concession from WGS, remarking

My first reaction is relief — if Woodford says it is a prediction of the standard perfect foresight / rational expectations version, that means I didn’t screw up somewhere. And if one has to resort to learning and non-rational expectations to get rid of a result, the battle is half won.

And my first reaction to Cochrane’s first reaction is: why only half? What else is there to worry about besides a comparison of rational-expectations equilibria? Well, let Cochrane read Nick Rowe’s blogpost. If he did, he might realize that if you do no more than compare alternative steady-state equilibria, ignoring the path leading from one equilibrium to the other, you miss just about everything that makes macroeconomics worth studying (by the way I do realize the question-begging nature of that remark). Of course that won’t necessarily bother Cochrane, because, like other practitioners of modern macroeconomics, he has convinced himself that it is precisely by excluding everything but rational-expectations equilibria from consideration that modern macroeconomics has made what its practitioners like to think of as progress, and what its critics regard as the opposite .

But Nick Rowe actually takes the trouble to show what might happen if you try to specify the path by which you could get from rational-expectations equilibrium A with the interest-rate instrument of the central bank set at i to rational-expectations equilibrium B with the interest-rate instrument of the central bank set at i ­+ ε. If you try to specify a process of trial-and-error (tatonnement) that leads from A to B, you will almost certainly fail, your only chance being to get it right on your first try. And, as Nick further points out, the very notion of a tatonnement process leading from one equilibrium to another is a huge stretch, because, in the real world there are “no backs” as there are in tatonnement. If you enter into an exchange, you can’t nullify it, as is the case under tatonnement, just because the price you agreed on turns out not to have been an equilibrium price. For there to be a tatonnement path from the first equilibrium that converges on the second requires that monetary authority set its interest-rate instrument in the conventional, not the Neo-Fisherian, manner, using variations in the real interest rate as a lever by which to nudge the economy onto a path leading to a new equilibrium rather than away from it.

The very notion that you don’t have to worry about the path by which you get from one equilibrium to another is so bizarre that it would be merely laughable if it were not so dangerous. Kenneth Boulding used to tell a story about a physicist, a chemist and an economist stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat except a can of food, but nothing to open the can with. The physicist and the chemist tried to figure out a way to open the can, but the economist just said: “assume a can opener.” But I wonder if even Boulding could have imagined the disconnect from reality embodied in the Neo-Fisherian argument.

Having registered my disapproval of Neo-Fisherism, let me now reverse field and make some critical comments about the current state of non-Neo-Fisherian monetary theory, and what makes it vulnerable to off-the-wall ideas like Neo-Fisherism. The important fact to consider about the past two centuries of monetary theory that I referred to above is that for at least three-quarters of that time there was a basic default assumption that the value of money was ultimately governed by the value of some real commodity, usually either silver or gold (or even both). There could be temporary deviations between the value of money and the value of the monetary standard, but because there was a standard, the value of gold or silver provided a benchmark against which the value of money could always be reckoned. I am not saying that this was either a good way of thinking about the value of money or a bad way; I am just pointing out that this was metatheoretical background governing how people thought about money.

Even after the final collapse of the gold standard in the mid-1930s, there was a residue of metalism that remained, people still calculating values in terms of gold equivalents and the value of currency in terms of its gold price. Once the gold standard collapsed, it was inevitable that these inherited habits of thinking about money would eventually give way to new ways of thinking, and it took another 40 years or so, until the official way of thinking about the value of money finally eliminated any vestige of the gold mentality. In our age of enlightenment, no sane person any longer thinks about the value of money in terms of gold or silver equivalents.

But the problem for monetary theory is that, without a real-value equivalent to assign to money, the value of money in our macroeconomic models became theoretically indeterminate. If the value of money is theoretically indeterminate, so, too, is the rate of inflation. The value of money and the rate of inflation are simply, as Fischer Black understood, whatever people in the aggregate expect them to be. Nevertheless, our basic mental processes for understanding how central banks can use an interest-rate instrument to control the value of money are carryovers from an earlier epoch when the value of money was determined, most of the time and in most places, by convertibility, either actual or expected, into gold or silver. The interest-rate instrument of central banks was not primarily designed as a method for controlling the value of money; it was the mechanism by which the central bank could control the amount of reserves on its balance sheet and the amount of gold or silver in its vaults. There was only an indirect connection – at least until the 1920s — between a central bank setting its interest-rate instrument to control its balance sheet and the effect on prices and inflation. The rules of monetary policy developed under a gold standard are not necessarily applicable to an economic system in which the value of money is fundamentally indeterminate.

Viewed from this perspective, the Neo-Fisherian Revolution appears as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the present confused state of monetary theory in which the price level and the rate of inflation are entirely subjective and determined totally by expectations.

Why Theories of National Income Based on Accounting Identities Are Nonsensical and Error-Ridden, Part IV

In my previous post, I tried to relate the discussion of accounting identities to the familiar circular-flow diagram with injections into and leakages out of the flows of income, expenditure and output. My hopes that framing the discussion in terms of injections and leakages, with investment viewed as an injection into, and savings as a withdrawal out of, the flows of income and expenditure would help clarify my position about accounting identities were disappointed, as defenders of those accounting identities were highly critical of the injections-leakages analogy, launching a barrage of criticism at my argument that the basic macroeconomic model of income determination should not be understood in terms of the income-expenditure or the investment-savings identities.

I think that criticism of the injections-leakages analogy was, for the most part, misplaced and a based on a misunderstanding of what I have been aiming to do, but much of the criticism was prompted by my incomplete or inadequate explanation of my reasoning. So, before continuing with my summary of Lipsey’s essay on the subject, on which this series is based, I need to address at least some of the points that have been made by my (and Lipsey’s) various critics. In the course of doing so, I believe it will be helpful if I offer a revised version of Lipsey’s Table 1, which I reproduced in part III of this series.

First, I am not saying that the standard accounting identities are wrong. Definitions are neither right nor wrong, but they may be useful or not useful depending on the context. In everyday conversation, we routinely ascribe one of many possible meanings to particular words used by selecting one of the many possible definitions as that which is most likely to make an entire sequence of words – a phrase, a clause, or a sentence – meaningful. Our choice of which definition to use is generally determined by the context in which the word appears. Choosing one definition over another doesn’t mean that others are not valid, just that the others would not work as well or at all in the context in which the word in question appears. Working with an inappropriate definition in a given context can lead, as we all know from personal experience, to confusion, misunderstanding and error. Defining savings and investment to be equal in every state of the world is certainly possible, and doing so is not invalid, but doing so is not necessarily useful in the context of formulating a macroeconomic theory of income determination.

There are two reasons why defining savings and investment to be identically equal in all states of the world is not useful in a macroeconomic theory of income. First, if we define savings and investment (or income and expenditure) to be identically equal, we can’t solve, either algebraically or graphically, the system of equations describing the model for a unique equilibrium. According to the model, aggregate expenditure is assumed to be a function of income, but if income and expenditure are identical, expenditure is simply identical to itself, so the system of equations described by the model collapses onto the 45-degree line representing the expenditure-income identity.

Second, even if we interpret the equality of income and expenditure as an ex ante equilibrium condition, while asserting that identity between income and expenditure must always hold ex post, the ex post definitional equality tells us nothing about the adjustment process that restores equilibrium when, owing to some parameter change that disturbs a pre-existing equilibrium, the ex ante equilibrium condition does not hold. For a dynamic adjustment path to take the model from one equilibrium to another via a sequence of discrete adjustments, the model must incorporate some lags. Without lags, the adjustment would be instantaneous, and the model would move from its old equilibrium to a new equilibrium in one fell swoop. But in the course of a sequence of partial adjustments, savings and investment will typically have to be defined by the model so that they are not equal, and this will be reflected in the implied course of savings and investment if the model is worked out period-by-period. Or if you were to observe the Phillips machine (a hydraulic macroeconomic model built by A. W. Phillips of Phillips Curve fame) in action, you could actually see that the savings and investment flows were of unequal magnitudes as machine responded to a change in the settings and moved from one hydraulic equilibrium to another.

It is a common mistake, and the primary object of Richard Lipsey’s scorn in his essay, to attribute causal significance to the savings-investment identity, as if it were the force of the identity itself that guided the dynamic adjustment, when, in reality, the identity, which can always be recovered if one does all the necessary accounting and classifies all the transactions according to the accounting conventions, is irrelevant to the adjustment path. Doing the accounting does not explain how the model moves from the old to a new equilibrium; it just assures us that nothing has been omitted from a final description of what has happened. Rather, the causal mechanism driving the adjustment process can be described using the intuitive idea that income changes because there are injections (in the form of investment) into the income and expenditure flows and leakages (in the form of savings) out of those flows, and when the injections and leakages are unequal in magnitude, the discrepancy between the injections and the leakages causes a corresponding change in the income and expenditure flows.

One commenter pointed out that, even in the numerical example (taken from Lipsey’s essay) that I gave in my earlier post, the sequence of adjustments preserved the definitional equality between savings and investment and income and expenditure, even though the verbal explanation of the adjustment process showed that the equality of savings and investment required a rather forced interpretation of the meaning of savings: the difference between the cash balance expected at the end of a period and the actual cash balance at the end of the period. This peculiar interpretation of savings and its equality with investment reflected the way that Lipsey chose to introduce a lag between expenditure and income into the model: by assuming that income was disbursed by businesses to households at the end of the period in which households provide services to businesses. The income received at the end of one period is then used to finance consumption expenditures and savings in the following period.

I should have pointed out that if one made the trivial adjustment in the expenditure-income lag, so that incomes earned in one period are not at the end of the current period, but at the beginning of the following period, then income and expenditure and savings and investment would not remain equal over the course of the adjustment from the old to the new equilibrium. The sequence of adjustments under the alternative assumption is shown in Table 1 below.

Of course, if we assume that there is a one-period lag between expenditure and income, one could define something called total savings, which would be household savings plus business savings, where business savings is defined as the difference between cash held by businesses at the end of the current period and cash held by businesses at the end of the previous period. And total savings is identically equal to investment. However, it is important to bear in mind that from the point of view of the simple income-expenditure model, the relevant causal variable in determining equilibrium is not total savings, but household savings.

Why do I say that household savings, not business savings, is the relevant causal factor in determining equilibrium income in the simple income-expenditure model? The reason should be obvious: the solution for equilibrium in the simple income-expenditure model is Y = A/(1 – MPC), where A represents the autonomous component of consumption plus planned investment by business firms and MPC is the marginal propensity to consume by households, so that (1 – MPC) is the marginal propensity to save (MPS) . . . by households!

In this setup, business savings is a pure residual adjusting to make up the difference between household savings and investment. When household savings exceeds investment, businesses accumulate their holdings of cash, and when investment is greater than household saving, businesses reduce their accumulate cash. The operation of the banking system might be relevant at this point, but that analysis would take this discussion to a whole new level, which I am not going to get started on at this point.

I will close at this point by just saying that I think that I have provided an answer to the following comment on my previous post asking what is gained by introducing an alternative set of definitions of saving and investment under which savings and investment are equal only in equilibrium, but not otherwise:

But let’s just say you have a system of accounts where definitions are different and saving is different from investment. I can do a mathematical transformation to a new set of variables in which standard identities hold. What is the point of writing so much? Absolutely nothing.

The point of course is that by defining savings and investment so that they are equal only in equilibrium, we now have a system of two linear equations in two unknowns that can be solved for a unique solution, something that cannot be done if savings and investment are identically equal. Second, when we have defined savings and investment so that they can be unequal, but define their equality to be a condition of equilibrium, we can write the following dynamic relationships characterizing the system:

dY/dt = 0 <=> I = S

dY/dt > 0 <=> I > S

dY/dt < 0 <=> I < S

where I and S are defined under the behavioral assumptions in this example as actual investment by businesses and saving by households. The precise definition of I and S would depend, in each particular case, on the specific behavioral assumptions about the underlying lag structure of the model for that particular case. The definitional equality of total savings and investment has no causal significance, but simply reflects the fact that total savings is defined in such a way that it must equal investment.

The definitional equality of savings and investment, as Scott Sumner has observed, is exactly analogous to the quantity identity MV ≡ PY, when V is treated not as the reciprocal of the amount of money demanded as a fraction of income — which is to say as a measurable magnitude understood to be a function of specifiable independent variables — but simply as a residual whose value, by definition, must always be identically equal to PY/M. The quantity identity, lacking being consistent with all possible states of the world, because V is defined not as an independent variable, but as a mere residual. The quantity identity is therefore of no use in describing the dynamic process of adjustment to a change in the quantity of money or what in telling us what are the causes of such a process.

UPDATE (3/29/15): In writing a response to Jamie’s comment, I realized that in the third paragraph after the table above, I misstated the relationship between business savings and the difference between investment and household savings. I have made the correction, and apologize for not being more careful.

Imagination and Identity

Before continuing my summary of the key points of Richard Lipsey’s important paper, “The Foundations of the Theory of National Income,” I want to clear up a point that the deliberately provocative title may have obscured. The accounting identities that I am singling out for criticism are the identities between income and expenditure (and output) and between savings and investment. It is true that, as Scott Sumner points out in a comment on my previous post, every theory has to define its terms in some way or another, so there is no point in asserting that a definition is wrong. Scott believes that I am a saying that it is wrong to define investment and savings as the same thing, but I am not saying that. I am saying that, in the context of the basic income-expenditure theory of national income, it makes the theory incoherent, so that there is a mismatch between the definition and the theory.

It is also true that sometimes identities follow directly from basic definitions. Such identities are like conservation laws in physics. For example, purchases must equal sales, because purchasing and selling are reciprocal activities; to assert that purchases are, or could be, unequal to sales would be self-contradictory. Keynes, when ridiculed by Hawtrey for asserting that a) savings and investment are equal by definition, and b) that the equality of savings and investment is achieved by variations in income, responded by comparing the equality of savings and investment to the equality of purchases and sales. Purchases are necessarily equal to sales, but prices adjust to achieve equality between desired purchases and desired sales.

The problem with Keynes’s response to Hawtrey is that to assert that purchases are unequal to sales is to misconstrue in a really fundamental way the meaning of the terms “purchase” and “sales.” But when it comes to national-income accounting, the identity of “investment” and “savings” does not follow immediately from the meaning of those terms. It must be derived from the meaning of two other terms: income and expenditure. So the question becomes whether the act of spending (i.e., expenditure) necessarily entails an immediate and corresponding accrual of income, in the same way that the act of purchasing necessarily entails the act of selling. To assert that expenditure and income are identical is then to assert that any expenditure necessarily and simultaneously entails a corresponding accrual of income.

Before pursuing this line of thought further, let’s just pause for a moment to recall the context for this discussion. We are talking about a fairly primitive model of an economy in which there are households that are units of consumption and providers of factor services. Households purchase consumption goods and provide factor services to business firms. Business firms are units of production that combine factor services provided by households with raw materials purchased from other business firms, and new or existing capital goods produced now or previously by other business firms, to produce raw materials, consumption goods, and capital goods. Raw materials and capital goods are sold to other business firms and consumption goods are sold to households. Business firms are owned by households, so profits earned by business firms are remitted, along with payments for factor services, to households. But although the flow of payments from households to business firms corresponds to a flow of payments from business firms to households, the two flows, which can be measured separately, are, at not identical, or at least not obviously so. When I bought a tall Starbucks coffee just now at a Barnes & Noble cafe, my purchase of $1.98 was exactly and necessarily matched by a sale by Barnes & Noble to the guy who writes for the Uneasy Money blog. But expenditure of $1.98 by the Uneasy Money blogger to Barnes & Noble did not trigger an immediate and corresponding flow of $1.98 to households from Barnes & Noble.

Now I grant that it is possible for income so to be defined that every act of expenditure involves a corresponding accrual of income to providers of factor services to the firm, and of profit to owners of the firm. But expenditure entails simultaneous accrual of income only by virtue of an imputation of income to providers of factor services and of profit to owners of firms. Mere imputation does not and cannot constitute an actual flow of payments by firms to households. The identity between purchases and sales is entailed by the definition of “purchase” and “sales,’ but the supposed identity between expenditure and income is entailed by nothing but an act of imagination. I am not criticizing imagination, which may often provide us with an excellent grasp of reality. But imagination, no matter how well attuned to reality, does not and cannot establish identity.

Did David Hume Discover the Vertical Phillips Curve?

In my previous post about Nick Rowe and Milton Friedman, I pointed out to Nick Rowe that Friedman (and Phelps) did not discover the argument that the long-run Phillips Curve, defined so that every rate of inflation is correctly expected, is vertical. The argument I suggested can be traced back at least to Hume. My claim on Hume’s behalf was based on my vague recollection that Hume distinguished between the effect of a high price level and a rising price level, a high price level having no effect on output and employment, while a rising price level increases output and employment.

Scott Sumner offered the following comment, leaving it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what he meant by “didn’t quite get there.”:

As you know Friedman is one of the few areas where we disagree. Here I’ll just address one point, the expectations augmented Phillips Curve. Although I love Hume, he didn’t quite get there, although he did discuss the simple Phillips Curve.

I wrote the following response to Scott referring to the quote that I was thinking of without quoting it verbatim (because I couldn’t remember where to find it):

There is a wonderful quote by Hume about how low prices or high prices are irrelevant to total output, profits and employment, but that unexpected increases in prices are a stimulus to profits, output, and employment. I’ll look for it, and post it.

Nick Rowe then obligingly provided the quotation I was thinking of (but not all of it):

Here, to my mind, is the “money quote” (pun not originally intended) from David Hume’s “Of Money”:

“From the whole of this reasoning we may conclude, that it is of no manner of consequence, with regard to the domestic happiness of a state, whether money be in a greater or less quantity. The good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still encreasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, and encreases the stock of labour, in which consists all real power and riches.”

The first sentence is fine. But the second sentence is very clearly a problem.

Was it Friedman who said “we have only advanced one derivative since Hume”?

OK, so let’s see the whole relevant quotation from Hume’s essay “Of Money.”

Accordingly we find, that, in every kingdom, into which money begins to flow in greater abundance than formerly, everything takes a new face: labour and industry gain life; the merchant becomes more enterprising, the manufacturer more diligent and skilful, and even the farmer follows his plough with greater alacrity and attention. This is not easily to be accounted for, if we consider only the influence which a greater abundance of coin has in the kingdom itself, by heightening the price of Commodities, and obliging everyone to pay a greater number of these little yellow or white pieces for everything he purchases. And as to foreign trade, it appears, that great plenty of money is rather disadvantageous, by raising the price of every kind of labour.

To account, then, for this phenomenon, we must consider, that though the high price of commodities be a necessary consequence of the encrease of gold and silver, yet it follows not immediately upon that encrease; but some time is required before the money circulates through the whole state, and makes its effect be felt on all ranks of people. At first, no alteration is perceived; by degrees the price rises, first of one commodity, then of another; till the whole at last reaches a just proportion with the new quantity of specie which is in the kingdom. In my opinion, it is only in this interval or intermediate situation, between the acquisition of money and rise of prices, that the encreasing quantity of gold and silver is favourable to industry. When any quantity of money is imported into a nation, it is not at first dispersed into many hands; but is confined to the coffers of a few persons, who immediately seek to employ it to advantage. Here are a set of manufacturers or merchants, we shall suppose, who have received returns of gold and silver for goods which they sent to CADIZ. They are thereby enabled to employ more workmen than formerly, who never dream of demanding higher wages, but are glad of employment from such good paymasters. If workmen become scarce, the manufacturer gives higher wages, but at first requires an encrease of labour; and this is willingly submitted to by the artisan, who can now eat and drink better, to compensate his additional toil and fatigue.

He carries his money to market, where he, finds everything at the same price as formerly, but returns with greater quantity and of better kinds, for the use of his family. The farmer and gardener, finding, that all their commodities are taken off, apply themselves with alacrity to the raising more; and at the same time can afford to take better and more cloths from their tradesmen, whose price is the same as formerly, and their industry only whetted by so much new gain. It is easy to trace the money in its progress through the whole commonwealth; where we shall find, that it must first quicken the diligence of every individual, before it encrease the price of labour. And that the specie may encrease to a considerable pitch, before it have this latter effect, appears, amongst other instances, from the frequent operations of the FRENCH king on the money; where it was always found, that the augmenting of the numerary value did not produce a proportional rise of the prices, at least for some time. In the last year of LOUIS XIV, money was raised three-sevenths, but prices augmented only one. Corn in FRANCE is now sold at the same price, or for the same number of livres, it was in 1683; though silver was then at 30 livres the mark, and is now at 50. Not to mention the great addition of gold and silver, which may have come into that kingdom since the former period.

From the whole of this reasoning we may conclude, that it is of no manner of consequence, with regard to the domestic happiness of a state, whether money be in a greater or less quantity. The good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still encreasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, and encreases the stock of labour, in which consists all real power and riches. A nation, whose money decreases, is actually, at that time, weaker and more miserable than another nation, which possesses no more money, but is on the encreasing hand. This will be easily accounted for, if we consider, that the alterations in the quantity of money, either on one side or the other, are not immediately attended with proportionable alterations in the price of commodities. There is always an interval before matters be adjusted to their new situation; and this interval is as pernicious to industry, when gold and silver are diminishing, as it is advantageous when these metals are encreasing. The workman has not the same employment from the manufacturer and merchant; though he pays the same price for everything in the market. The farmer cannot dispose of his corn and cattle; though he must pay the same rent to his landlord. The poverty, and beggary, and sloth, which must ensue, are easily foreseen.

So Hume understands that once-and-for-all increases in the stock of money and in the price level are neutral, and also that in the transition from one price level to another, there will be a transitory effect on output and employment. However, when he says that the good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still increasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, he seems to be suggesting that the long-run Phillips Curve is actually positively sloped, thus confirming Milton Friedman (and Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner) in saying that Hume was off by one derivative.

While I think that is a fair reading of Hume, it is not the only one, because Hume really was thinking in terms of price levels, not rates of inflation. The idea that a good magistrate would keep the stock of money increasing could not have meant that the rate of inflation would indefinitely continue at a particular rate, only that the temporary increase in the price level would be extended a while longer. So I don’t think that Hume would ever have imagined that there could be a steady predicted rate of inflation lasting for an indefinite period of time. If he could have imagined a steady rate of inflation, I think he would have understood the simple argument that, once expected, the steady rate of inflation would not permanently increase output and employment.

At any rate, even if Hume did not explicitly anticipate Friedman’s argument for a vertical long-run Phillips Curve, certainly there many economists before Friedman who did. I will quote just one example from a source (Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty) that predates Friedman by about eight years. There is every reason to think that Friedman was familiar with the source, Hayek having been Friedman’s colleague at the University of Chicago between 1950 and 1962. The following excerpt is from p. 331 of the 1960 edition.

Inflation at first merely produces conditions in which more people make profits and in which profits are generally larger than usual. Almost everything succeeds, there are hardly any failures. The fact that profits again and again prove to be greater than had been expected and that an unusual number of ventures turn out to be successful produces a general atmosphere favorable to risk-taking. Even those who would have been driven out of business without the windfalls caused by the unexpected general rise in prices are able to hold on and to keep their employees in the expectation that they will soon share in the general prosperity. This situation will last, however, only until people begin to expect prices to continue to rise at the same rate. Once they begin to count on prices being so many per cent higher in so many months’ time, they will bid up the prices of the factors of production which determine the costs to a level corresponding to the future prices they expect. If prices then rise no more than had been expected, profits will return to normal, and the proportion of those making a profit also will fall; and since, during the period of exceptionally large profits, many have held on who would otherwise have been forced to change the direction of their efforts, a higher proportion than usual will suffer losses.

The stimulating effect of inflation will thus operate only so long as it has not been foreseen; as soon as it comes to be foreseen, only its continuation at an increased rate will maintain the same degree of prosperity. If in such a situation price rose less than expected, the effect would be the same as that of unforeseen deflation. Even if they rose only as much as was generally expected, this would no longer provide the expectational stimulus but would lay bare the whole backlog of adjustments that had been postponed while the temporary stimulus lasted. In order for inflation to retain its initial stimulating effect, it would have to continue at a rate always faster than expected.

This was certainly not the first time that Hayek made the same argument. See his Studies in Philosophy Politics and Economics, p. 295-96 for a 1958 version of the argument. Is there any part of Friedman’s argument in his 1968 essay (“The Role of Monetary Policy“) not contained in the quote from Hayek? Nor is there anything to indicate that Hayek thought he was making an argument that was not already familiar. The logic is so obvious that it is actually pointless to look for someone who “discovered” it. If Friedman somehow gets credit for making the discovery, it is simply because he was the one who made the argument at just the moment when the rest of the profession happened to be paying attention.

What Is Free Banking All About?

I notice that there has been a bit of a dustup lately about free banking, triggered by two posts by Izabella Kaminska, first on FTAlphaville followed by another on her own blog. I don’t want to get too deeply into the specifics of Kaminska’s posts, save to correct a couple of factual misstatements and conceptual misunderstandings (see below). At any rate, George Selgin has a detailed reply to Kaminska’s errors with which I mostly agree, and Scott Sumner has scolded her for not distinguishing between sensible free bankers, e.g., Larry White, George Selgin, Kevin Dowd, and Bill Woolsey, and the anti-Fed, gold-bug nutcases who, following in the footsteps of Ron Paul, have adopted free banking as a slogan with which to pursue their anti-Fed crusade.

Now it just so happens that, as some readers may know, I wrote a book about free banking, which I began writing almost 30 years ago. The point of the book was not to call for a revolutionary change in our monetary system, but to show that financial innovations and market forces were causing our modern monetary system to evolve into something like the theoretical model of a free banking system that had been worked out in a general sort of way by some classical monetary theorists, starting with Adam Smith, who believed that a system of private banks operating under a gold standard would supply as much money as, but no more money than, the public wanted to hold. In other words, the quantity of money produced by a system of competing banks, operating under convertibility, could be left to take care of itself, with no centralized quantitative control over either the quantity of bank liabilities or the amount of reserves held by the banking system.

So I especially liked the following comment by J. V. Dubois to Scott’s post

[M]y thing against free banking is that we actually already have it. We already have private banks issuing their own monies directly used for transactions – they are called bank accounts and debit/credit cards. There are countries like Sweden where there are now shops that do not accept physical cash (only bank monies) – a policy actively promoted government, if you can believe it.

There are now even financial products like Xapo Debit Card that automatically converts all payments received on your account into non-monetary assets (with Xapo it is bitcoins) and back into monies when you use the card for payment. There is a very healthy international bank money market so no matter what money you personally use, you can travel all around the world and pay comfortably without ever seeing or touching official local government currency.

In opposition to the Smithian school of thought, there was the view of Smith’s close friend David Hume, who famously articulated what became known as the Price-Specie-Flow Mechanism, a mechanism that Smith wisely omitted from his discussion of international monetary adjustment in the Wealth of Nations, despite having relied on PSFM with due acknowledgment of Hume, in his Lectures on Jurisprudence. In contrast to Smith’s belief that there is a market mechanism limiting the competitive issue of convertible bank liabilities (notes and deposits) to the amount demanded by the public, Hume argued that banks were inherently predisposed to overissue their liabilities, the liabilities being issuable at almost no cost, so that private banks, seeking to profit from the divergence between the face value of their liabilities and the cost of issuing them, were veritable engines of inflation.

These two opposing views of banks later morphed into what became known almost 70 years later as the Banking and Currency Schools. Taking the Humean position, the Currency School argued that without quantitative control over the quantity of banknotes issued, the banking system would inevitably issue an excess of banknotes, causing overtrading, speculation, inflation, a drain on the gold reserves of the banking system, culminating in financial crises. To prevent recurring financial crises, the Currency School proposed a legal limit on the total quantity of banknotes beyond which limit, additional banknotes could be only be issued (by the Bank of England) in exchange for an equivalent amount of gold at the legal gold parity. Taking the Smithian position, the Banking School argued that there were market mechanisms by which any excess liabilities created by the banking system would automatically be returned to the banking system — the law of reflux. Thus, as long as convertibility obtained (i.e., the bank notes were exchangeable for gold at the legal gold parity), any overissue would be self-correcting, so that a legal limit on the quantity of banknotes was, at best, superfluous, and, at worst, would itself trigger a financial crisis.

As it turned out, the legal limit on the quantity of banknotes proposed by the Currency School was enacted in the Bank Charter Act of 1844, and, just as the Banking School predicted, led to a financial crisis in 1847, when, as soon as the total quantity of banknotes approached the legal limit, a sudden precautionary demand for banknotes led to a financial panic that was subdued only after the government announced that the Bank of England would incur no legal liability for issuing banknotes beyond the legal limit. Similar financial panics ensued in 1857 and 1866, and they were also subdued by suspending the relevant statutory limits on the quantity of banknotes. There were no further financial crises in Great Britain in the nineteenth century (except possibly for a minicrisis in 1890), because bank deposits increasingly displaced banknotes as the preferred medium of exchange, the quantity of bank deposits being subject to no statutory limit, and because the market anticipated that, in a crisis, the statutory limit on the quantity of banknotes would be suspended, so that a sudden precautionary demand for banknotes never materialized in the first place.

Let me pause here to comment on the factual and conceptual misunderstandings in Kaminska’s first post. Discussing the role of the Bank of England in the British monetary system in the first half of the nineteenth century, she writes:

But with great money-issuance power comes great responsibility, and more specifically the great temptation to abuse that power via the means of imprudent money-printing. This fate befell the BoE — as it does most banks — not helped by the fact that the BoE still had to compete with a whole bunch of private banks who were just as keen as it to issue money to an equally imprudent degree.

And so it was that by the 1840s — and a number of Napoleonic Wars later — a terrible inflation had begun to grip the land.

So Kaminska seems to have fallen for the Humean notion that banks are inherently predisposed to overissue and, without some quantitative restraint on their issue of liabilities, are engines of inflation. But, as the law of reflux teaches us, this is not true, especially when banks, as they inevitably must, make their liabilities convertible on demand into some outside asset whose supply is not under their control. After 1821, the gold standard having been officially restored in England, the outside asset was gold. So what was happening to the British price level after 1821 was determined not by the actions of the banking system (at least to a first approximation), but by the value of gold which was determined internationally. That’s the conceptual misunderstanding that I want to correct.

Now for the factual misunderstanding. The chart below shows the British Retail Price Index between 1825 and 1850. The British price level was clearly falling for most of the period. After falling steadily from 1825 to about 1835, the price level rebounded till 1839, but it prices again started to fall reaching a low point in 1844, before starting another brief rebound and rising sharply in 1847 until the panic when prices again started falling rapidly.

uk_rpi_1825-50

From a historical perspective, the outcome of the implicit Smith-Hume disagreement, which developed into the explicit dispute over the Bank Charter Act of 1844 between the Banking and Currency Schools, was highly unsatisfactory. Not only was the dysfunctional Bank Charter Act enacted, but the orthodox view of how the gold standard operates was defined by the Humean price-specie-flow mechanism and the Humean fallacy that banks are engines of inflation, which made it appear that, for the gold standard to function, the quantity of money had to be tied rigidly to the gold reserve, thereby placing the burden of adjustment primarily on countries losing gold, so that inflationary excesses would be avoided. (Fortunately, for the world economy, gold supplies increased fairly rapidly during the nineteenth century, the spread of the gold standard meant that the monetary demand for gold was increasing faster than the supply of gold, causing gold to appreciate for most of the nineteenth century.)

When I set out to write my book on free banking, my intention was to clear up the historical misunderstandings, largely attributable to David Hume, surrounding the operation of the gold standard and the behavior of competitive banks. In contrast to the Humean view that banks are inherently inflationary — a view endorsed by quantity theorists of all stripes and enshrined in the money-multiplier analysis found in every economics textbook — that the price level would go to infinity if banks were not constrained by a legal reserve requirement on their creation of liabilities, there was an alternative view that the creation of liabilities by the banking system is characterized by the same sort of revenue and cost considerations governing other profit-making enterprises, and that the equilibrium of a private banking system is not that value of money is driven down to zero, as Milton Friedman, for example, claimed in his Program for Monetary Stability.

The modern discovery (or rediscovery) that banks are not inherently disposed to debase their liabilities was made by James Tobin in his classic paper “Commercial Banks and Creators of Money.” Tobin’s analysis was extended by others (notably Ben Klein, Earl Thompson, and Fischer Black) to show that the standard arguments for imposing quantitative limits on the creation of bank liabilities were unfounded, because, even with no legal constraints, there are economic forces limiting their creation of liabilities. A few years after these contributions, F. A. Hayek also figured out that there are competitive forces constraining the creation of liabilities by the banking system. He further developed the idea in a short book Denationalization of Money which did much to raise the profile of the idea of free banking, at least in some circles.

If there is an economic constraint on the creation of bank liabilities, and if, accordingly, the creation of bank liabilities was responsive to the demands of individuals to hold those liabilities, the Friedman/Monetarist idea that the goal of monetary policy should be to manage the total quantity of bank liabilities so that it would grow continuously at a fixed rate was really dumb. It was tried unsuccessfully by Paul Volcker in the early 1980s, in his struggle to bring inflation under control. It failed for precisely the reason that the Bank Charter Act had to be suspended periodically in the nineteenth century: the quantitative limit on the growth of the money supply itself triggered a precautionary demand to hold money that led to a financial crisis. In order to avoid a financial crisis, the Volcker Fed constantly allowed the monetary aggregates to exceed their growth targets, but until Volcker announced in the summer of 1982 that the Fed would stop paying attention to the aggregates, the economy was teetering on the verge of a financial crisis, undergoing the deepest recession since the Great Depression. After the threat of a Friedman/Monetarist financial crisis was lifted, the US economy almost immediately began one of the fastest expansions of the post-war period.

Nevertheless, for years afterwards, Friedman and his fellow Monetarists kept warning that rapid growth of the monetary aggregates meant that the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s would soon return. So one of my aims in my book was to use free-banking theory – the idea that there are economic forces constraining the issue of bank liabilities and that banks are not inherently engines of inflation – to refute the Monetarist notion that the key to economic stability is to make the money stock grow at a constant 3% annual rate of growth.

Another goal was to explain that competitive banks necessarily have to select some outside asset into which to make their liabilities convertible. Otherwise those liabilities would have no value, or at least so I argued, and still believe. The existence of what we now call network effects forces banks to converge on whatever assets are already serving as money in whatever geographic location they are trying to draw customers from. Thus, free banking is entirely consistent with an already existing fiat currency, so that there is no necessary link between free banking and a gold (or other commodity) standard. Moreover, if free banking were adopted without abolishing existing fiat currencies and legal tender laws, there is almost no chance that, as Hayek argued, new privately established monetary units would arise to displace the existing fiat currencies.

My final goal was to suggest a new way of conducting monetary policy that would enhance the stability of a free banking system, proposing a monetary regime that would ensure the optimum behavior of prices over time. When I wrote the book, I had been convinced by Earl Thompson that the optimum behavior of the price level over time would be achieved if an index of nominal wages was stabilized. He proposed accomplishing this objective by way of indirect convertibility of the dollar into an index of nominal wages by way of a modified form of Irving Fisher’s compensated dollar plan. I won’t discuss how or why that goal could be achieved, but I am no longer convinced of the optimality of stabilizing an index of nominal wages. So I am now more inclined toward nominal GDP level targeting as a monetary policy regime than the system I proposed in my book.

But let me come back to the point that I think J. V. Dubois was getting at in his comment. Historically, idea of free banking meant that private banks should be allowed to issue bank notes of their own (with the issuing bank clearly identified) without unreasonable regulations, restrictions or burdens not generally applied to other institutions. During the period when private banknotes were widely circulating, banknotes were a more prevalent form of money than bank deposits. So in the 21st century, the right of banks to issue hand to hand circulating banknotes is hardly a crucial issue for monetary policy. What really matters is the overall legal and regulatory framework under which banks operate.

The term “free banking” does very little to shed light on most of these issues. For example, what kind of functions should banks perform? Should commercial banks also engage in investment banking? Should commercial bank liabilities be ensured by the government, and if so under what terms, and up to what limits? There are just a couple of issues; there are many others. And they aren’t necessarily easily resolved by invoking the free-banking slogan. When I was writing, I meant by “free banking” a system in which the market determined the total quantity of bank liabilities. I am still willing to use “free banking” in that sense, but there are all kinds of issues concerning the asset side of bank balance sheets that also need to be addressed, and I don’t find it helpful to use the term free banking to address those issues.

Ludwig von Mises Explains (and Solves) Market Failure

Last week Major Freedom, a relentless and indefatigable web-Austrian troll – and with a name like that, I predict a bright future for him as a professional wrestler should he ever tire of internet trolling — who regularly occupies Scott Sumner’s blog, responded to a passing reference by Scott to F. A. Hayek’s support for NGDP targeting with an outraged rant against Hayek, calling Hayek a social democrat, a description of Hayek that for some reason brought to my mind Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover showing what the world looks like from 9th Avenue in Manhattan.

saul_steinberg_newyorker

Hayek was not a libertarian by the way. He was a social democrat. If you read his works closely, you’ll realize he was politically leftist very soon after his earlier economics works. Hayek was actually an economist for only a short period of time. He soon became disenchanted with free market economics, and delved into sociology where his works were all heavily influenced by leftist politics. He was an ardent critic of government, but not because he was anti-government, but because the present day governments were not his ideal.

Hayek favored central banks preventing NGDP from falling yes, but he was a contradictory writer. It is dishonest to only focus on the one side of the contradiction that supports your own ideology. If you were honest, you would make it a point that Hayek also favored monetary denationalization, of competitive free market currencies. He wrote a book on that for crying out loud. His contradictions are “Hayekian.” NGDP targeting is merely the Dr. Jekyll to his Mr. Hyde.

Then responding to the incredulity of another commenter at his calling Hayek a social democrat, the Major let loose this barrage:

From [Hans-Hermann] Hoppe:

According to Hayek, government is “necessary” to fulfill the following tasks: not merely for “law enforcement” and “defense against external enemies” but “in an advanced society government ought to use its power of raising funds by taxation to provide a number of services which for various reasons cannot be provided, or cannot be provided adequately, by the market.” (Because at all times an infinite number of goods and services exist that the market does not provide, Hayek hands government a blank check.)

Among these goods and services are:

“…protection against violence, epidemics, or such natural forces as floods and avalanches, but also many of the amenities which make life in modern cities tolerable, most roads … the provision of standards of measure, and of many kinds of information ranging from land registers, maps and statistics to the certification of the quality of some goods or services offered in the market.”

Additional government functions include “the assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone”; government should “distribute its expenditure over time in such a manner that it will step in when private investment flags”; it should finance schools and research as well as enforce “building regulations, pure food laws, the certification of certain professions, the restrictions on the sale of certain dangerous goods (such as arms, explosives, poisons and drugs), as well as some safety and health regulations for the processes of production; and the provision of such public institutions as theaters, sports grounds, etc.”; and it should make use of the power of “eminent domain” to enhance the “public good.”

Moreover, it generally holds that “there is some reason to believe that with the increase in general wealth and of the density of population, the share of all needs that can be satisfied only by collective action will continue to grow.”

Further, government should implement an extensive system of compulsory insurance (“coercion intended to forestall greater coercion”), public, subsidized housing is a possible government task, and likewise “city planning” and “zoning” are considered appropriate government functions — provided that “the sum of the gains exceed the sum of the losses.” And lastly, “the provision of amenities of or opportunities for recreation, or the preservation of natural beauty or of historical sites or scientific interest … Natural parks, nature-reservations, etc.” are legitimate government tasks.

In addition, Hayek insists we recognize that it is irrelevant how big government is or if and how fast it grows. What alone is important is that government actions fulfill certain formal requirements. “It is the character rather than the volume of government activity that is important.” Taxes as such and the absolute height of taxation are not a problem for Hayek. Taxes — and likewise compulsory military service — lose their character as coercive measures,

“…if they are at least predictable and are enforced irrespective of how the individual would otherwise employ his energies; this deprives them largely of the evil nature of coercion. If the known necessity of paying a certain amount of taxes becomes the basis of all my plans, if a period of military service is a foreseeable part of my career, then I can follow a general plan of life of my own making and am as independent of the will of another person as men have learned to be in society.”

But please, it must be a proportional tax and general military service!

The disgust felt by the Major for the crypto-statist Hayek is palpable, reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s pathological abhorrence of Hayek for tolerating welfare-statism. Ah, but Ludwig von Mises, there is a man after the Major’s very own heart.

In distinct contrast, how refreshingly clear — and very different — is Mises! For him, the definition of liberalism can be condensed into a single term: private property. The state, for Mises, is legalized force, and its only function is to defend life and property by beating antisocial elements into submission. As for the rest, government is “the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisonment. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.”

Moreover (and this is for those who have not read much of Mises but invariably pipe up, “but even Mises is not an anarchist”), certainly the younger Mises allows for unlimited secession, down to the level of the individual, if one comes to the conclusion that government is not doing what it is supposed to do: to protect life and property.

Well, the remark about Hayek’s support for — perhaps acquiescence in would be a better description — conscription (see the Constitution of Liberty) reminded me that in Human Action no less – for the uninitiated that’s Mises’s magnum opus, a 900+ page treatise on economics and praxeology — Mises himself weighed in on the issue of military conscription.

From this point of view one has to deal with the often-raised problem of whether conscription and the levy of taxes mean a restriction of freedom. If the principles of the market economy were acknowledged by all people all over the world, there would not be any reason to wage war and the individual states could live in undisturbed peace. But as conditions are in our age, a free nation is continually threatened by the aggressive schemes of totalitarian autocracies. If it wants to preserve its freedom, it must be prepared to defend its independence. If the government of a free country forces every citizen to cooperate fully in its designs to repel the aggressors and every able-bodied man to join the armed forces, it does not impose upon the individual a duty that would step beyond the tasks the praxeological law dictates. In a world full of unswerving aggressors and enslavers, integral unconditional pacifism is tantamount to unconditional surrender to the most ruthless oppressors. He who wants to remain free, must fight unto death those who are intent upon depriving him of his freedom. As isolated attempts on the part of each individual to resist are doomed to failure, the only workable way is to organize resistance by the government. The essential task of government is defense of the social system not only against domestic gangsters but also against external foes. He who in our age opposes armaments and conscription is, perhaps unbeknown to himself, an abettor of those aiming at the enslavement of all.

There it is. With characteristic understatement, Ludwig von Mises, a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society listed on the advisory board of the Society’s flagship publication American Opinion during the 1960s, calls anyone opposed to conscription an abettor of those aiming at the enslavement of all. But what I find interesting in Mises’s diatribe are the two sentences before the last one in the paragraph.

He who wants to remain free, must fight unto death those who are intent upon depriving him of his freedom. As isolated attempts on the part of each individual to resist are doomed to failure, the only workable way is to organize resistance by the government.

Here Mises says that we have to defend ourselves to maintain our freedom, otherwise we will be enslaved. OK. And then he says that voluntary self-defense will not work. Why won’t it work? Because the market isn’t working. And what causes the market to fail? “Isolated attempts on the part of each individual to resist” will fail. In other words, defense is a public good. People will free ride on the efforts of others. But Mises has the solution. Impose a draft, and compel the able-bodied to defend the homeland and force everyone to pay taxes to finance the provision of the public good, which the unhampered free market is unable to do on its own. Of course, this is just one example of market failure, but Mises doesn’t actually explain why the provision of national defense is the only public good. But, analytically of course, there is no distinction between national defense and other public goods, which confer benefits on people irrespective of whether they have paid for the good. So Mises acknowledges that there is such a thing as a public good, and supports the use of government coercion to supply the public good, but without providing any criterion for which public goods may be provided by the government and which may not. If conscription can be justified to solve a certain kind of public-good problem, why is it unthinkable to rely on taxation to solve other kinds of public-good problems, whose existence Mises, apparently unbeknown to himself, has implicitly conceded?

With the logical rigor that his acolytes find so compelling, Mises concludes this particular diatribe with the following pronouncement:

Every step a government takes beyond the fulfillment of its essential functions of protecting the smooth operation of the market economy against aggression, whether on the part of domestic or foreign disturbers, is a step forward on a road that directly leads into the totalitarian system where there is no freedom at all.

Let’s think about that one. “Every step a government takes beyond the fulfillment of its essential function of protecting the smooth operation of the market economy against aggression . . . is a step forward on a road that leads into the totalitarian system where there is no freedom at all.” Pretty scary words, but how logically compelling is this apodictally certain praxeological law?

Well, I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, a short distance from US Route 29. When I visit Baltimore about 35 miles from my home, I often come back from Baltimore via Interstate 70 which starts at a park-and-ride station near Baltimore and continues for about 2153 miles to Cove Fort, Utah. I am happy to report that I have never once driven from Baltimore to Cove Fort. In fact the first exit off of Interstate 70 puts me on US Route 29. What’s more, even if I miss the exit for Route 29, as I have done occasionally, there are other exits further down the highway that allow me to get to Route 29; just because I drive the first four miles on Interstate 70 from Baltimore, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I will wind up in Cove Fort, Utah. So this particular example of the supposedly impeccable Misesian logic sure seems like a non-sequitur to me.

 


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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