Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time

I am beginning to get a serious problem in keeping up with all the interesting papers, which are being published at the moment. The latest paper that I clearly have to read is a rather impressive paper (124 pages!) by Peter Boettke and Daniel Smith.

The topic of Pete’s and Daniel’s paper – which I still have not read – is basically a discussion of the public choice aspects of central banking. This is a topic I find extremely interesting and I look very much forward to reading the paper in the near future (I will be on vacation next week – so maybe…).

Here is the abstract of the paper “Monetary Policy and the Quest for Robust Political Economy”:

The economics profession not only failed to predict the recent financial crisis; it has been struggling in its aftermath to reach a consensus on the cause(s) of the crisis. While competing narratives are being offered and evaluated, the narrow scope of the debate on the strictly technical aspects of monetary policy that have contributed to and prolonged the crisis has precluded the a broader examination of questions of political economy that may prove to be of greater import. Attempting to find the technically optimal policy is futile when the Federal Reserve’s independence is undermined by the political influences of contemporary democracy. Nobel Laureates F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan each sought ways to constrain and protect a monetary authority from political pressures in their research. Each one ended up rejecting the possibility of doing so without a fundamental restructuring of our monetary regime. Hayek turned to denationalization, Buchanan to constitutionalism, and Friedman to binding rules. We incorporate their experiences to make a case for applying the concepts of robust political economy to the Federal Reserve. Robust political economy calls for relaxing idealized assumptions in order to seek out institutional regimes that can overcome both the epistemic and motivational hurdles that characterize contemporary democratic settings.

Even though I have not read the paper yet I have a pretty good idea where Pete and Daniel are going – they are questioning whether we can convince central bankers to do the right thing. Market Monetarists want central banks to target the nominal GDP level. We want central banks to follow rules. However, we are up against the powers of public choice theory. One can easily argue that central bankers will never give up their discretionary powers and politicians will always interfere with the conduct of monetary policy. It is simply in their selfish interest to do so and therefore the project to convince central bankers to do the right thing – NGDP level targeting – is just a waste of time. We should rather focus on fundamental institutional reforms.

This is fundamentally the issue that any reformist in any area will have to struggle with – how can we expect those in power to give up that power? How can we implement reforms? A way to beat the logic of public choice theory is through the powers of ideas. Milton Friedman was in the business of ideas all his life. The powers of governments – and central banks – can be rolled back through the sheer power of strong arguments and good ideas. It is never going to be easing, but when Scott Sumner started to blog about NGDP targeting nobody listened. Now Federal Reserve scholars are serious talking about it and doing research about it and even the FOMC has debate NGDP targeting. There is therefore reason to be optimistic. But I will be the first to admit that I find it unlikely that the Federal Reserve or the ECB will start targeting the NGDP level anytime – neither do I find it likely that these institutions will give up their discretionary powers. That said I never had any illusions that they would and I do agree that we need to talk about the fundamental institutional issues of central banking.

We need to debate whether we should abolish central banks altogether as Free Banking proponents are favouring and I certainly do not rule out that it fundamentally is a more fruitful strategy than to continue to talk about how central banks should ideally conduct monetary policy when we full well know that central banks never can be convinced to do the right thing. Or as Boettke and Smith write in the conclusion to their paper:

“What in our contemporary history of the Federal Reserve should give us any reason to not follow Friedman and tie the hands of the monetary authority so tightly that the bonds cannot be broken to juggle, let alone Hayek and point out that the only robust political economy option when it comes to central banking is to abolish it by taking away the juggler’s balls?”

PS Boettke and Smith does not explicitly mention Market Monetarists or NGDP targeting in paper, but a draft version of the paper was presented at the 2010 Southern Economic Association Annual Meeting Session “Are There Public Choice Problems with Nominal Income Targeting?” Pete has earlier written a blog post on this issue directly challenging the Market Monetarist position: “Political Economy Questions Which Even Market Monetarists Might Want to Think About”. Here is my response to that post.

PPS I have often argued that there is certainly no conflict between favouring NGDP level targeting for central bank and favouring Free Banking as NGDP level targeting in the same way as school vouchers can be seen as a privatization strategy

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14 Comments

  1. Eric Dennis

     /  March 30, 2012

    I have not read the paper either, but I’d like to mention one potential problem with a central bank NGDP target, even assuming that (i) the theoretical details of such a target could be sorted out, and that (ii) the central bank could be rule-bound to a robust process capable of hitting the target.

    In this case, it still remains that the definition and calculation of NGDP is tremendously complicated, with a huge number of knobs that can be turned in subtle ways to achieve materially different results. In effect, then, the discretion vested in the central bank to implement monetary policy in the broad sense is just mapped to a more technical discretion about defining NGDP. BUt the effective power of this discretion may remain essentially unchanged.

    And this would be equally a problem for a central bank target defined in terms of a hypothetical NGDP futures market, because NGDP would remain a theoretical aggregate to be defined by some authority.

    Reply
  2. What is remarkable is that Friedman and Hayek were wrong about the political influence they feared—today central banks are not too loose, they are too tight!!!

    The Bank of Japan?
    The Fed?
    The ECB?

    Reply
  3. Benjamin, I have been thinking about that as well. Central banks are not necessarily always bias in the direction of inflation. The problem rather seem that they they have other objectives than they really say the have. That sometimes lead to too high inflation – or as now too tight monetary policy. The problem however remains the same – how can it be ensured that central banks will do the right thing?

    Reply
  4. Lars-

    I think we are on the right path to compelling central banks to choose prosperity with Market Monetarism.

    I think FOMC meetings should be televised.

    If somehow central banker salaries could be tied to real GDP growth….probably not practical, but is incentivizing bakers possible?

    Reply
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