Paul Krugman

Two cheers for Paul Krugman


Paul Krugman says that this (from this Branco Milanovic paper) gives you recent history in one chart, and it's hard to disagree: 010115krugman1-tmagArticle

Everyone got richer in real terms, although some a lot more than others – and this doesn't fully include technological developments that make pocket supercomputers cheap enough that even people on quite low incomes (for rich countries) can afford them. Like Scott I am more interested in the bottom 80 percent than the top 20 percent, so this is broadly good news. The bottom 10 percent do seem to be left behind to some extent, but African poverty has still fallen by 38% during this period, and most health-related metrics have improved. Maybe issuing more unskilled work visas to poor Africans and Indians would help to boost the incomes of the bottom 10 percent even more.

In another post, Krugman points out that the left's "econoheroes" tend to be of a pretty good academic calibre (he cites himself and Joe Stiglitz, both Nobel Prize winners), whereas the most popular economists on the right tend to be slightly less impressive supply-siders. I think that's fair, and it's a pity. When's the last time you heard a right-wing pundit citing Nobel Prize winner (and not-so-secret free marketeer) Eugene Fama's work on the efficiency of financial markets? Or, indeed, Milton Friedman's monetary prescription for stagnant economies like Japan or, now, the Eurozone?

Well, we try to here at the Adam Smith Institute, and a very honourable mention goes to the excellent James Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute. There are others, but in general I think Krugman's point is pretty fair. For example, I often meet right-wingers who think using monetary policy to generate extra inflation during demand-side recessions is somehow a left-wing idea. This would come as a surprise to Milton Friedman!

I have a theory about why: the post-Cold War consensus has been so good for us – that is, the "Overton Window" of debate has shifted so far rightwards — that the best ideas have been absorbed by the 'centre' and the less compelling ones are all that's left over. That seems unsatisfactory to me, but it does leave me wondering what it means to be a free marketeer, if not a strong preoccupation with the supply side. Maybe Hayek has an answer.

A miracle cure for central bank impotence


Are central banks ever unable to create inflation? The question may seem absurd – why would we ever want them to create more inflation? The typical answer is that deflation can be a lot worse than inflation. But this ignores the fact that prices can fall simply because we can produce things more cheaply. Falling oil prices mean cheaper production, which should mean cheaper consumer products. That's 'good' deflation.

But 'bad' deflation, caused by tight money, can be very harmful, and indeed is what Milton Friedman blamed the Great Depression on. A variant of this view, which looks at market expectations, blames expectations of deflation for the crisis in 2008. Those of us who think that nominal GDP is what matters – since contracts and wages are set in nominal terms – recognise that deflation can knock NGDP off-course and cause widespread bankruptcies and unemployment that would not have taken place in a more stable macroeconomic environment. (Free banking, say.)

So if inflation is sometimes desirable, when it prevents deflation (or collapses in NGDP), the power of the central bank to create it really does matter. That's where Paul Krugman and the Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard have clashed. In response to Krugman's claim that central banks are impotent when their interest rates are zero, Evans-Pritchard writes:

Central banks can always create inflation if they try hard enough. As Milton Friedman said, they can print bundles of notes and drop from them helicopters. The modern variant might be a $100,000 electronic transfer into the bank account of every citizen. That would most assuredly create inflation.

I don’t see how Prof Krugman can refute this, though I suspect that he will deftly change the goal posts by stating that this is not monetary policy. To anticipate this counter-attack, let me state in advance that the English language does not belong to him. It is monetary policy. It is certainly not interest rate policy.

The piece is worth reading in full. I'm less convinced that 'helicopter drops' are actually needed now – if central banks said that they'd do as much conventional QE as it took to raise the inflation rate or NGDP level to x%, that may well be enough. But Evans-Pritchard's basic point that central banks are never 'out of ammo' is what counts.

Do technological advances destroy jobs without creating new ones?

In a very readable article in the New York Times Paul Krugman expresses sympathy for the Luddites, suggesting that the benefits of future technological developments may not accrue very equally across society. This being the case, he suggests that policies such as a universal basic income may be one way of compensating the unlucky who have spent lots of resources on, say, a university education which has now devalued, something they couldn't possibly have predicted. Since I share Krugman's basic luck egalitarian intuitions, I am very sympathetic to his case.

The beef I have is with a response written by Gavin Mueller in Jacobin magazine. Up until now almost everything I've seen from Jacobin has been well researched, even handed and thoughtful, if coming from a very different set of basic premises to those I hold, but this is an exception. He makes much stronger claims than Krugman, calling technology "a weapon used against us" and arguing that a long-term goal of "abundance and leisure for all" (one I share!) may require "smashing the relations of production" in the short-term. Perhaps the line which most annoys me is "the belief that technology doesn't destroy jobs, but merely creates new and better ones, is, like so much else about bourgeois economics, a baseless assumption."

Does Mueller really believe that claim? Unemployment is 7.8%. Employment is touching 30m, its highest level ever. Since the 1750s there has been a tide of vastly transformative technological improvement and yet somehow a much larger population is employed. At the same time, this larger workforce is working much fewer hours and enjoys much greater abundance. Surely these widely available facts are enough to suggest that the assumption technology creates—as well as destroys—jobs is more than just a "baseless assumption"?

By no means is it certain that the trends of the past, which have seen mobile phones, more hygienic toilets and tasty soft drinks spread to even the poorest areas of the world, will continue. But certainly some evidence (e.g. the graph above) seems to suggest that technologies are spreading throughout society—and benefiting the general populace, not just the wealthy—faster than ever before. This is great, and implies that we can hope for greater abundance and leisure without smashing new technologies. If it turns out that not all benefit, then what we need is something like Krugman's universal basic income, not drastic societal upheaval.

Monetary policy still has teeth

A storm has erupted over the past few days in a lot of the economics blogosphere, over an article by Mike Konzcal, backed by Paul Krugman, which claimed that current economic developments were evidence that monetary policy wasn't all-powerful and boosting demand sometimes required fiscal intervention. The claim faced convincing push-back from Scott Sumner, Matt Yglesias, and Ryan Avent. Before I look at the specifics of the claim, I’ll outline a (heavily oversimplified but still broadly true) model of the economy to help us to understand the debate.

In economists' simplest model of the macroeconomy, aggregate demand (AD) and aggregate supply (AS) interact to produce the price level. At the onset of the financial crisis and recession, AD crashed. Usually a crash in demand would produce a movement along the supply curve until price and supply have both fallen to produce a new equilibrium.

But the biggest market in the economy is the labour market, and many nominal prices (especially one of the most important prices, wages) are sticky-downwards. This means that prices do not fall enough to equilibrate the market, and output stays far below where it could be (this is what economists call the output gap).

This is where fiscal and monetary policy come in. Since prices are stuck, we need extra AD to get back where we were before, at the original pre-recession level of output. In theory, both monetary policy (here I will just look at interest rates) and fiscal policy (cutting taxes or boosting spending) can have the same effect on AD.

As far as I know, pretty much every mainstream economist agrees with everything I've said so far. But a key Keynesian claim – which the Konzcal article was arguing for – was that monetary policy is ineffective in special situations. Nominal interest rates can only go to zero – beyond that point savers will simply stash their cash in their mattress. Real interest rates (taking into account inflation) can only go to zero minus inflation. This is called the zero lower bound.

Konzcal said the Federal Reserve’s ‘Bernanke-Evans Rule’ – which promises to keep interest rates low until unemployment falls below 6.5 per cent – has failed to outweigh the $85bn (£55bn) federal cutbacks as part of ‘sequestration’. His evidence is Friday’s GDP release, showing that the US economy grew 0.6 per cent in the first quarter (2.5 per cent sped up as if the quarter were a year) below expectations it would expand 0.7 per cent. Konzcal said this GDP report showed the US economy was stagnating, and that the B-E rule failed to outweigh the sequestration.

But his critics pointed out that this was a big jump in growth over the previous quarter, when government spending hadn’t been cut and the Bernanke-Evans rule had barely taken effect – and growth was under 0.1 per cent (or 0.4 per cent on an annual basis). They point out that by creating inflation – and future expectations of inflation – a central bank can boost AD with monetary policy even when at the bottom bound, reducing real interest rates even when nominal rates can’t fall further. And they argue that monetary policy is dominant; it can always overrule fiscal policy.

If Konzcal's critics are right, it has at least two major implications for the UK. One is that Ed Balls’ plan to slow the pace of austerity further while keeping the Bank of England’s two per cent inflation target would only shift output to the government sector, not boost growth. In fact, if he pressed the Bank into actually achieving their target (consumer price inflation has been above target for 39 successive months) it would mean lower demand and perhaps even a triple-dip recession, as they would have to roll back QE and hike interest rates.

A second upshot is that spending cuts have not harmed growth (though the distortions from tax hikes may have). This is because any fiscal austerity has been offset by the central bank. If the government had not cut spending, the central bank would have had to rein in inflation with less quantitative easing (electronic money printing that can be rolled back) – unless it wanted inflation even further above target.