Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Return of Depression-Era Economics

Some economists are arguing for a shift in economic perspective as the U.S. faces the threat of credit default while struggling to lift itself out of a recession that many observers deny still exists despite high unemployment and market instability. The doctrine of supply-side economics is not holding true as the country segues into a position of a lack of demand to keep up with production. No one wants to face the prospect of inflation, including policy makers at the Federal Reserve who continue to dodge it through regulatory means, even though many economists feel it is obvious that inflation is the only thing that will stave off an actual Depression that could cause the country and the world to fall into a financial tailspin. For more on this continue reading the following article from Economist’s View.

Paul Krugman is taking a break from his column today (Arrrr!), so here's a summer rerun. Can you guess when he wrote this?:

Stop worrying and learn to love inflation, by Paul Krugman: ...depression economics - the kinds of problems that characterized much of the world economy in the 1930s but have not been seen since - has staged a stunning comeback.
Five years ago hardly anybody thought that modern nations would be forced to endure bone-crushing recessions for fear of currency speculators; that a major advanced country could be persistently unable to generate enough spending to keep its workers employed; that even the Federal Reserve would worry about its ability to counter a financial market panic. The world economy has turned out to be a much more dangerous place than we imagined. For the first time in two generations, failures on the demand side of the economy - insufficient private spending to make use of the available productive capacity - have become the clear and present limitation on prosperity for much of the world.
Economists and policymakers weren't ready for this. The specific set of silly ideas known as 'supply-side economics' is a crank doctrine, which would have little influence if it did not appeal to the prejudices of wealthy men; but over the past few decades there has been a steady drift in thinking away from the demand side to the supply side of the economy. The truth is that good old -fashioned demand-side macroeconomics has a lot to offer in our current predicament - but its defenders lack all conviction.
Paradoxically, if the theoretical weaknesses of demand-side economics are one reason we were unready for the return of depression-type issues, its practical successes are another. Central banks have repeatedly managed demand - cutting rates to keep spending high - so effectively that a prolonged slump due to insufficient demand became inconceivable. Except in the very short run, then, the only limitation on economic performance was an economy's ability to produce - that is, the supply-side. ...
The question of how to keep demand adequate to make use of the capacity has become crucial. Depression economics is back. ... The free-market faithful tend to think of Keynesian policies - deliberate efforts by governments to stimulate demand - as the enemy of what they stand for. But they are wrong. For in a world where there is often not enough demand to go around, the case for free markets is a hard case to make. ...
The right perspective is to realize how very much good free markets and globalization have done; the point is to preserve those gains. One cannot defend globalization merely by repeating free-market mantras as economy after economy crashes. If we want to see more nations making the transition from abject poverty to the hope of a decent life, we had better find answers to the problems of depression economics. ...
I don't like the idea that countries will need to interfere in markets - to limit the free market in order to save it. But it is hard to see how anyone who has been paying attention can still insist that nothing of the kind needs to be done, that financial markets will always reward virtue and punish only vice.
One of the most important obstacles to sensible action, however, is prejudice -by which I mean the adherence of too many influential people to orthodox views that are no longer relevant to our changed world. ...
This brings us to the deepest sense in which depression economics has returned. The quintessential economic sentence is supposed to be 'There is no free lunch'; it says that there are limited resources; to have more of one thing you must accept less of another. Depression economics, however, is the study of situations where there is a free lunch, if we can figure out how to get our hands on it, because there are unemployed resources that could be put to work.
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote that 'we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand'. The true scarcity in his world - and ours - was therefore not of resources, or even virtue, but understanding.
Originally published, 6.20.99

Then, as now, he points to inflation as the answer to a liquidity trap:

So what should we be doing differently? ... Japan, having fallen in its liquidity trap - unable to recover by means of conventional monetary policy, because even a zero interest rate is not low enough - and having exhausted its ability to spend its way out with budget deficits, must now radically expand its money supply. It must convince savers and investors that its current deflation will turn into sustained, though modest, inflation. Once the Japanese make up their mind to do this, the results will startle them. ... There is no economic evidence suggesting that inflation at the ... 4 per cent rate I believe Japan should target, does any noticeable harm; and the things advanced countries need to do to counter depression economics do not involve any compromise of the commitment to free markets. ...
This blog post was republished with permission from The Economist's View.

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