I am continuing my reporting on my survey of monetary thinkers’ book recommendations for students of monetary matters. The next “victim” is Scott Sumner and lets jump right into it. Here is Scott’s book list:
David Hume. Essays on Economics
Irving Fisher. The Purchasing Power of Money
Keynes. A Tract on Monetary Reform
Ralph Hawtrey. The Gold Standard in Theory and Practice
Friedman and Schwartz. A Monetary History of the US
David Glasner. Free Banking and Monetary Reform
Robert Barro. Macroeconomics
I had asked for five book recommendations, but Scott gave me seven to choose between, but that doesn’t really matter the important thing is that we inspire people to read these books. Nonetheless Scott told me that if we had to cut it to five we should cut out Hume and Keynes. So my next step is not completely fair – I will focus on Keynes’ “A Tract on Monetary Reform”.
The reason is that Tract is a popular book among many of the monetary thinkers I have surveyed and it is not only Scott who has it on his list. The reason I find it interesting is that Tract is really a monetarist book rather than a Keynesian book. Keynesian here meaning the Keynes is The General Theory – Keynes’ most famous book.
To realise that Tract is very much a monetarist book just take a look at that preface. Here is a photo from my own copy of the book:
The point Keynes makes here is that in a free market without money the markets will tend to “clear” – supply and demand will match each other. This is basically a Walrasian world. However, once we introduce money there is a possibility that if get a disequilibrium between money supply and money demand this disequilibrium will spill-over into other markets or as Keynes express it:
“But they (other markets) cannot work properly if money, which they assume as a stable measuringrod, is undependable.”
In fact this is very much how Leland Yeager or Clark Warburton would explain macroeconomic disequilibrium – recession, deflation, inflation are results of monetary policy failure. It doesn’t get anymore monetarist than that.
Brad DeLong in an excellent review of Tract from 1996 went so far as to say that it was “the best monetarist economics book ever written”. I wouldn’t go so far as Brad, but I certainly agree that Tract fundamentally is monetarist and that is also is very good book. But it is not the best monetarist book ever written – far from it.
In general I would very much like to recommend Brad’s 1996 review of the Tract. It covers all five chapters of the book and in my view gives a pretty good description of Keynes’ views from the period prior to he became an “Keynesian”.
Get the monetary framework right and let the market take care of the rest
The overall message in the Tract in my view is that Keynes wants to demonstrate that if you mess up the monetary system you will mess up the entire economy. But if on the other hand ensures a stable and predictable – rule based – monetary system then the free market will tend to work well and the price mechanism will more or less ensure an efficient allocation of economic ressources. This of course has been Scott Sumner’s message all along. The Federal Reserve should conduct monetary policy based on – a predictable rule NGDP level targeting – and then the free market will take care of the rest.
The Federal Reserve and other central banks since 2008 has messed up the monetary system and as a result they have done great economic damage. Keynes has a message to today’s central bankers (also from the preface):
“Nowhere do conservative notions consider themselves more in place than in currency; yet nowhere is the need for innovation more urgent. One is often warned that a scientific treatment of currency questions is impossible because the banking world is intellectually incapable of understanding its own problems. If this is true, the order of Society, which they stand for, will decay. But I do not believe it. What we have lacked is a clear analysis of the real facts, rather than ability to understand an analysis already given. If the new ideas, now developing in many quarters, are sound and right, I do not doubt that sooner or later they will prevail.”
I find Keynes’ words from 1923 extremely suiting for the crisis of central banking today and even more suiting for Scott Sumner’s endless campaign to enlighten central bankers and the general society about the importance of proper “Monetary Reform”. In that sense Scott Sumner follows in the footsteps of the younger Keynes, Gustav Cassel, Leland Yeager and Milton Friedman in advocating radical monetary reform.
And finally I should of course note that later in the year Scott’s great work on the Great Depression will be published. I am sure it will become a classic on its own. I have been so privileged to read a draft version of the book and I hope you all buy it when it is published. Scott tells me the title of the book will be “The Midas Paradox: A New Look at the Great Depression and Economic Instability”
PS I just have to share Brad Delong’s great comments about the young and the old Keynes:
“The implicit point of view is that if the value of money is dependable then leaving saving to the private investors and investment to business will work well. The magnitude of the Great Depression of the 1930s would destroy Keynes’s faith in the proposition that stable internal prices implied a well-functioning macroeconomy and small business cycles. But from our perspective today–in which the Great Depression is seen as a unique disaster brought on by an unprecedented collapse in financial intermediation and in world trade, rather than as the largest species of the genus of business cycles–it is far from clear that Keynes of 1936 is to be preferred to Keynes of 1924. Besides, Keynes of 1924 writes better: his prose is clearer, less academic, less formal; his argument is more straightforward, linear, easier to follow; his style is as witty.”
PPS It is Sumner in Skyrup…