Calvinist economics – the sin of our times

A couple a days ago I had a discussion with a colleague of mine about the situation in Greece. My view is that it is pretty clear to everybody in the market that Greece is insolvent and therefore sooner or later we would have to see Greece default in some way or another and that it therefore is insane to continue to demand even more austerity measures from the Greek government, while at the same time asking the already insolvent Greek government to take on even more debt. My colleague on the other hand insisted that the Greeks “should pay back what they owe” and said “we can’t let countries default on their debt then everybody will do it”. It was a moral and not an economic argument he was making.

I am certainly not a Keynesian and I do not think that fiscal tightening necessarily is a bad thing for Greece, but I do, however, object strongly to what I would call Calvinist economic thinking, which increasingly is taking hold of our profession.

At the core of Calvinist economics is that Greece and other countries have committed a sin and therefore now have to repent and pay for these sins. It is obvious that the Greek government failed to tighten fiscal policy in time and even lied about the numbers, but its highly problematic that economic thinking should be based on some kind of quasi-religious morals. If a country is insolvent then that means that it will never be able to pay back its debt. It is therefore in the interest for both the country and its creditors that a deal on debt restructuring is reached. That’s textbook economics. There is no “right” or “wrong” about it – it is simple math. If you can’t be pay back your debts then you can’t pay. It’s pretty simple.

In another area very Calvinist economic thinking is widespread is in the conduct of monetary policy. Around the world central bankers resist easing monetary policy despite clear disinflationary or even deflationary tendencies and the main reason for this is not economic analysis of the economic situation, but rather the view that a loosening of monetary policy would be immoral. The Calvinists are screaming out “We will have another bubble if you ease monetary policy! Don’t let the speculators of the hook!”

The problem is that the Calvinists are confusing an easing of monetary policy or the default of insolvent nations with moral hazard.

If a central bank for example has a inflation target of 2% and inflation is running at below 1% and the central bank then decides to loosen monetary policy – then that might well be positive for “speculators” – such as property owners, banks or equity investors. The Calvinists see this as evil. As immoral, but the fact is that that is exactly what a central bank that is undershooting its inflation target should. Monetary policy is not about making judgements of what is “fair” or not, but rather about securing a nominal anchor in which investors, labour, companies and consumers can conduct there business in the market place.

The Calvinists are saying “It will be Japan”, “the global economy will not grow for a decade” and blah, blah…it nearly seems as if they want this to happen. We have sinned and now we need to repent. The interesting thing is that these Calvinists where not Calvinists back in 2005-6 and when some of us warned about excesses in the global economy they where all cheerleaders of the boom. They are like born-again Christian ex-alcoholics.

And finally just to get it completely clear. I am not in favour of bailing out anybody, or against fiscal austerity and I despise inflation. But my economics is back on economic reasoning and not on quasi-religious dogma.

PS anybody that studies history will note that Calvinist economics dominated economic thinking in countries which held on to the gold standard for too long. This is what Peter Temin has called the “Gold Standard mentality”. The in countries like France and Austria the gold standard mentality were widespread in the 1930s. We today know the consequences of that – Austria had major banking crisis in 1931, the country defaulted in 1938 and the same it ceased to existed as an independent nation. Good luck with your Calvinist economics. It spells ruins for nations around the world.

—–

UPDATE: Douglas Irwin has kindly reminded me that my post remind him of Gustav Cassel. Cassel used the term “puritans” about what I call Calvinist economics. Maybe Market Monetarists are New Casselians?

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19 Comments

  1. Lars – excellent post as always. I think this kind of framing is the key to advancing the public debate about monetary matters. We need politicians and the public that support them to understand that inflation per se is not evil. The “evilness” comes from unanchored inflation expectations.

    Actually I guess what we need first is for them to understand the difference between long-run models where money is neutral and and the short-run implications of sticky prices where nominal prices don’t adjust as they “should”.

    Reply
  2. Junior

     /  October 20, 2011

    Please implement an RSS feed.

    Reply
  3. Junior, RSS feed is now up and running.

    Reply
  4. Junior

     /  October 20, 2011

    Thank you!

    Reply
  5. Lars, Have you read that (On Gold Standard mentallity)?
    http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/90effa18-faa3-11e0-8fe7-00144feab49a.html.
    It seems that for this mentallity, gold has not rise sufficiently…Because of a conspirancy of central banks…
    On th other hand, Spain is not very Calvinist (as you can suppose) but there is that mentallity of sin and paying for it. All the solution proposed to solve the crisis are focused in “rendention by ourself”. Nothing about ECB. ¿Masochism? “Fans of Pain”? ECB is God, we are the sinners, WE MUST satisfy the God law.

    Reply
  6. Luis, I am afraid you are right – the Calvinist mentality is that monetary easing is evil. The fact however is that ECB’s overly tight monetary policy is a key contributor to the crisis. ECB has so far done very little to help solve this crisis.

    Reply
  7. yes, true, but almost no one says it in Europe. In any case, in Spain

    Reply
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