The late Nobel laureate knew that fiscal and monetary policy worked best together, and that low inflation alone would not sustain a strong economy.
Larry Klein, a 1980 Nobel Prize winner in economics, died on Sunday. I interviewed him often when I was an economics reporter, and one of his most vehement beliefs had long stuck in my mind. He was an early Keynesian and built models to simulate the economy that could have predictive power. Because, like Keynes, he believed in the power of aggregate demand to drive the economy, he forecast that there would be no post-World War II Depression because of pent-up demand and the buying power of returning soldiers.
What stuck in my mind was Klein’s anger about evolving government policy. Even Keynesian economists had come to believe that monetary policy was more effective than Keynes’s fiscal policies. Klein argued to me that these stimulus policies only worked well in tandem. You need both monetary loosening, meaning mostly lower interest rates, and fiscal stimulus, meaning government spending or tax cuts, to restore strong economic growth.
The economic consensus did not take this lesson seriously. Most economists were pretty certain across much of the political spectrum that they had already learned how to manage the economy, and it wasn’t Klein’s way. Both Robert Lucas, the rational expectationist, and Olivier Blanchard, who leaned a bit towards Keynes, said with no small trace of hubris that macroeconomists had pretty much solved the big problem. Ben Bernanke also expressed confidence that the profession had at last learned the job.
There were some disagreements between the Lucas school of thought and economists like Blanchard. What they agreed on was that fiscal policies a la Keynes were not needed. Consumers and business would expect a rise in taxes if the federal government ran deficits, and so would save rather than spend, countering any stimulus. This phenomenon is known as Ricardian equivalence. At best, fiscal policy was politically clumsy, requiring Congressional approval for spending and all that.
In a 2010 publication called Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy, written with colleagues for the International Monetary Fund, where he is still chief economist, Blanchard admitted economists had been wrong. It took the housing and financial crash of 2007-2008 and the Great Recession to bring some sense to the profession. Blanchard and his co-authors wrote that what economists thought they knew was wrong. Economists had believed there was a single policy objective for controlling the economy, which was stable inflation, and there was also only a single tool, the interest rate. The 2010 piece was a mea culpa.
What lulled economists into complacency was what many now call the Great Moderation, an economy that was not too hot and not too cold. The way to get to this ideal state was merely to use monetary policies to stabilize inflation, preferably at low levels. It was the justification for what came to be called inflation targeting, either the hard kind with a precise target or the soft kind that was discretionary. Economists noted that the result of these policies since the early 1980s was both less volatile inflation and less volatile output (basically, GDP).
That was it. The major assumption was that stable GDP would push the economy to its optimal rate of growth, or in Blanchard’s more technical terms, “So long as inflation was stable, the output gap was likely to be small and stable and monetary policy did its job.”
But fiscal policy was decidedly secondary. And there is no mention of maximizing employment at all in the Blanchard piece; it wasn’t a thought in a mainstream economist’s mind, apparently. It was believed that the economy operated so efficiently with low, stable inflation that unemployment would automatically settle at its lowest, non-inflationary rate. Moreover, there was no serious discussion of growth, even though economic growth in the U.S. was not especially fast in these years. Here, then, was the general equilibrium model, a central assumption in economics and policymaking, simply taken for granted as true.
One other sentence in Blanchard is worth quoting: “[W]e thought of financial regulation as mostly outside the macroeconomic policy framework.”
Speculative bubbles, these economists believed, should not be deflated by regulators. The mess could easily be cleaned up later.
Macroeconomists were wrong not only about regulations and bubbles, admit Blanchard and his colleagues, but also about placing fiscal stimulus in the back seat.
It’s by no means clear that macroeconomists have cleaned up their act. They still think low inflation will get us to maximum employment, for example. But at least they are now entertaining more objectives than one.
Their bad theory led us to sequestration today. There is too much water under the bridge for economists who correctly recommend fiscal stimulus to easily win the day when so many argued for so long that Keynesianism did not work. This is why Larry Klein was deeply frustrated.
America’s version of austerity economics is still winning the day, despite recantations like Blanchard’s. In coming months an agreement to cut the deficit over the next 10 years will be discussed, or apparently reckless Republicans will close the government down again. Medicare and Social Security cuts will be on the table. There is absolutely no economic need for this. The deficit is under control, and so is federal debt.
But the misleading macroeconomics practiced by America’s most prestigious university professors has left a long and damaging shadow. Klein would have shed some light.
Jeff Madrick is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.