Selgin’s Monetary Credo – Please Dr. Taylor read it!

Ok, there is no reason to hide it – I love George Selgin or at least his thinking on monetary theory. George of course is the source to go to on Free Banking theory and history (ok, Larry White is also pretty cool…) and he is of course an expert and a true pioneer on nominal income targeting. His work on the so-called Productivity Norm should be standard reading for anybody with the slightest interest in monetary theory. And now George is out with a comment on NGDP targeting. It is primarily a response to John Taylor’s recent critique of NGDP targeting.

Here is Selgin:

“Thus Professor Taylor complains that, “if an inflation shock takes the price level and thus NGDP above the target NGDP path, then the Fed will have to take sharp tightening action which would cause real GDP to fall much more than with inflation targetting.” Now, first of all, while it is apparently sound “Economics One” to begin a chain of reasoning by imagining an “inflation shock,” it is crappy Economics 101 (or pick your own preferred intro class number), because a (positive) P or inflation “shock” must itself be the consequence of an underlying “shock” to either the demand for or the supply of goods. The implications of the “inflation shock” will differ, moreover, according to its underlying cause. If an adverse supply shock is to blame, then the positive “inflation shock” has as its counterpart a negative output shock. If, on the other hand, the “inflation shock” is caused by an increase in aggregate demand, then it will tend to involve an increase in real output. Try it by sketching AS and AD schedules on a paper napkin, and you will see what I mean.”

Damn, I would not like to be on the receiving end of a critique from Dr. Selgin! But he is of course ever so right…inflation is alway and everywhere a monetary phenomenon (as is recessions) and the problem with the economics of John Taylor and other New Keynesians (yes guys, he is a New Keynesian!) is that they see inflation fluctuations as basically non-monetary shocks or at least think that monetary policy should be used to “counteract” non-monetary shocks.

John Taylor and other New Keynesians therefore see monetary policy as responding either with rules (as Taylor prefers) or with discretionary monetary policy to “shocks”. However, fluctuations in nominal GDP, the price level and inflation are monetary phenonoma. Therefore, monetary policy do not need to “respond” to “shocks”. Monetary policy should not create the shocks in the first place and that is the purpose of NGDP targeting. As I have earlier tired to explain – NGDP is not a form of monetary “fine tuning”. It is in fact the direct opposite.

Or say George explains: “We shall have no real progress in monetary policy until monetary economists realize that, although it is true that unsound monetary policy tends to contribute to undesirable and unnecessary fluctuations in prices and output, it does not follow that the soundest conceivable policy is one that eliminates such fluctuations altogether. The goal of monetary policy ought, rather, to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output–that is, departures of output from its full-information level–while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

Any Market Monetarist (in fact anybody with interest in monetary theory and policy) should remember these words. So lets repeat them (in a shorter version) and let us call it Selgin’s Monetary Credo:

The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

So one more time – the goal of monetary policy is NOT to fine tune the economic development, but to avoid creating “unnatural” fluctuations in nominal spending and prices.

I have often been critical about the call for “monetary stimulus” from some Market Monetarists as it has lead many to think that we are in favour of activist monetary policies. We are not in favour of activist policies, we are in favour of “Selgin’s monetary credo”!

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See my earlier overview of the Market Monetarist response to John Taylor’s critique of NGDP targeting here.

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Marcus Nunes also has a comment on Selgin as do Scott Sumner.

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9 Comments

  1. Alex Salter

     /  December 2, 2011

    We should take care to use the word “nominal” rather than “unnatural” in regards to fluctuations; the latter word has unintended normative connotations.

    Reply
  2. David Pearson

     /  December 2, 2011

    Lars,
    There is one problem with Selgin’s credo. Imagine that an economy grows above trend for many years, mostly due to pull-forward consumption by high consumption propensity borrowers. Following this period, an adjustment to the “actual” trend spending path must occur. MM’s would see this as an “unnatural” fluctuation in economic output and try to prevent it from happening.

    Real wages in the U.S. have been stagnant for a decade or more. That income trend has been masked by out-sized capital gains, 50% of which were reaped by the top 1%. Which is the actual income trend for the economy? Take away the cap gains, and you get a very different answer.

    Reply
  3. David Pearson: not quite, there are some problems with that picture of “no gains”. See here and here.

    Reply
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