Watch this after 11:35.
…yes, Friedman went further than Bob. Friedman had also become a market monetarist. He wanted to use the market not only to evaluate monetary policy, but also to implement monetary policy.
Watch this after 11:35.
…yes, Friedman went further than Bob. Friedman had also become a market monetarist. He wanted to use the market not only to evaluate monetary policy, but also to implement monetary policy.
Posted by Lars Christensen on August 19, 2014
Today Milton Friedman would have turned 102 years. Happy birthday Uncle Milty!
I have over the last couple of years done numerous posts celebrating Milton Friedman so this post will not be long. Instead I will leave the job to Robert Hetzel who I am also celebrating this year as Bob turned 70 years on July 3.
So I find it suiting that my readers should read Bob’s paper The Contributions of Milton Friedman to Economics. Here is the abstract:
Milton Friedman began his teaching career at the University of Chicago isolated intellectually. He defended the ideas that competitive markets work efficiently to allocate resources and that central banks are responsible for inflation. By the 1980s, these ideas had become commonplace. Friedman was one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century because of his major influence on how a broad public understood the Depression, the Fed’s stop-go monetary policy of the 1970s, flexible exchange rates, and the ability of market forces to advance individual welfare.
I my view Bob – with David Laidler and Edward Nelson – is one of the foremost Friedman scholars of the world. Friedman of course was Bob’s teacher and PhD thesis advisor at the University of Chicago.
This is a list of some of my earlier tributes to Milton Friedman:
Milton Friedman’s answer to a student at the “CEPOS Akademi”
There is a pragmatic (but not a libertarian) case for a “Basic Income Guarantee”
The end of Prohibition and two great monetary thinkers
If there is a ‘bond bubble’ – it is a result of excessive monetary TIGHTENING
Two cheers for higher Japanese bond yields (in the spirit of Milton Friedman)
This should teach you not to mess with Milton Friedman
15 years too late: Reviving Japan (the ECB should watch and learn)
“The Euro: Monetary Unity To Political Disunity?”
BYU radio interview with Christensen
Bernanke says Friedman would have approved of Fed’s recent actions – I think is he more or less right
The Hetzel-Ireland Synthesis
Woodford on NGDP targeting and Friedman
Friedman’s Japanese lessons for the ECB
Friedman, Schuler and Hanke on exchange rates – a minor and friendly disagreement
You might know the words, but do you get the music?
I can hear Uncle Milty scream from upstairs – at James Bullard
“Free to Choose” now republished in Danish
Allen Sanderson on Milton Friedman
Understanding financial markets with MV=PY – a look at the bond market
Long and variable leads and lags
Christina Romer is also in love with Milton Friedman
A personal tribute to Milton Friedman
Dinner with Bob Chitester
Friedman should have supported NGDP targeting, but never did
Selgin is right – Friedman wanted to abolish the Fed
Friedman provided a theory for NGDP targeting
Friedman’s thermostat and why he obviously would support a NGDP target
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #1
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #2
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #3
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #4
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #5
Posted by Lars Christensen on July 31, 2014
This morning I had the pleasure of doing a presentation on “Milton Friedman, Market Monetarism and the Great Recession” (and a bit on internet-Austrians) for a group of clever young students at the CEPOS Akademi in Copenhagen. CEPOS Akademi is essentially the Danish Free Market think tank CEPOS’s summer university.
Obviously I had told the students that at the core of the euro crisis is monetary policy failure and that monetary policy in the euro zone remains deflationary and that the solution is quantitative easing within a rule-based framework – preferably nominal GDP targeting.
One of the students asked me a question that I have heard before: “If the solution is this simple why didn’t the ECB not do the right thing yet?”
I tried to answer the question as good as I could drawing Public Choice theory and “construction failure”, but as I was driving home in a taxi I opened a small pamphlet from the Institute of Economic Affairs that I had in my bag.
In the pamphlet Money, Inflation and the Constitutional Position of the Central Bank an article by Milton Friedman – The Counter-Revolution in Monetary Theory – has been reprinted.
On page 70 the answer to the student’s question popped up.
This is Milton Friedman – not on the euro crisis (for obviously reasons) but on the Great Depression, but the story is the same:
As it happens, this interpretation of the depression was completely wrong. It turns out, as I shall point out more fully below, that on re-examination, the depression is a tragic testament to the effectiveness of monetary policy, not a demonstration of its impotence. But what mattered for the world of ideas was not what was true but what was believed to be true. And it was believed at the time that monetary policy had been tried and had been found wanting.
In part that view reflected the natural tendency for the monetary authorities to blame other forces for the terrible economic events that were occurring. The people who run monetary policy are human beings, even as you and I, and a common human characteristic is that if anything bad happens it is somebody else’s fault. In the course of collaborating on a book on the monetary history of the United States, I had the dismal task of reading through 50 years of annual reports of the Federal Reserve Board. The only element that lightened that dreary task was the cyclical oscillation in the power attributed to monetary policy by the system. In good years the report would read ‘Thanks to the excellent monetary policy of the Federal Reserve…’ In bad years the report would read ‘Despite the excellent policy of the Federal Reserve…’, and it would go on to point out that monetary policy really was, after all, very weak and other forces so much stronger.
The monetary authorities proclaimed that they were pursuing easy money policies when in fact they were not, and their protestations were largely accepted.
This is of course the exact same discussion we are having today about the Great Recession. When in doubt – read Friedman.
PS Friedman tells the same story in this Youtube video.
Posted by Lars Christensen on June 29, 2014
As I have promised earlier I will in the coming weeks write a number of blog posts on Robert Hetzel’s contribution to monetary thinking celebrating that he will turn 70 on July 3. Today I will tell the story about what I regard to be Bob’s greatest and most revolutionary idea. An idea which I think marks the birth of Market Monetarism.
I should in that regard naturally say that Bob doesn’t talk about himself as market monetarist, but simply as a monetarist, but his ideas are at the centre of what in recent years has come to be known at Market Monetarism (I coined the phrase myself in 2011).
Here is how Bob describes his great idea in his book “The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve”:
“In February 1990, Richmond Fed President Robert Black testified before Congress on Representative Stephen Neal’s Joint Resolution 4009 mandating that the Fed achieved price stability with five years. Bob Black was a monetarist, and he recommend multiyear M2 targets. As an alternative, I had suggested Treasury issuance of matched-maturity securities half of which would be nominal and half indexed to the price level. The yield difference, which would measure expected inflation, would be a nominal anchor provided that the Fed committed to stabilizing it.
The idea came from observing how exchange-rate depreciation in small open economies constrained central banks because of the way it passed through immediately to domestic inflation. With a market measure of expected inflation, monetary policy seen by markets as inflationary would immediately trigger an alarm even if inflation were slow to respond. I mentioned my proposal to Milton Friedman, who encouraged me to write a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, which became Hetzel (1991).”
I remember when I first read about Bob’s idea I thought it was brilliant and was fast convinced that it would be much preferable to the traditional monetarist idea of money supply targeting. Milton Friedman obviously for decades advocated money supply targeting, but he also became convinced that Bob’s idea was preferable to his own idea.
Hence, in Friedman’s book Money Mischief (1992) he went on to publicly endorse Bob’s ideas. This is Friedman:
“Recently, Robert Hetzel has made an ingenious proposal that may be more feasible politically than my own earlier proposal for structural change, yet that promises to be highly effective in restraining inflationary bias that infects government…
…a market measure of expected inflation would make it possible to monitor the Federal Reserve’s behavior currently and to hold it accountable. That is difficult at present because of the “long lag” Hetzel refers to between Fed’s actions and the market reaction. Also, the market measure would provide the Fed itself with information to guide its course that it now lacks.”
In a letter to then Bank of Israel governor Michael Bruno in 1991 Friedman wrote (quoted from Hetzel 2008):
“Hetzel has suggested a nominal anchor different from those you or I may have considered in the past…His proposal is…that the Federal Reserve be instructed by Congress to keep that (nominal-indexed yield) difference below some number…It is the first nominal anchor that has been suggested that seems to me to have real advantages over the nominal money supply. Clearly it is far better than a price level anchor which…is always backward looking.”
The two versions of Bob’s idea
It was not only Friedman who liked Hetzel’s ideas. President Clinton’s assistant treasury secretary Larry Summers also liked the idea – or at least the idea about issuing bonds linked to inflation. This led the US Treasury to start issuing so-called Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) in 1997. Since then a number of countries in the world have followed suit and issued their own inflation-linked bonds (popularly known as linkers).
However, while Bob succeed in helping the process of issuing inflation-linked bonds in the US he was less successfully in convincing the Fed to actually use market expectations for inflation as a policy goal.
In what we could call the strict version of Bob’s proposal the central bank would directly target the market’s inflation expectations so they always were for example 2%. This would be a currency board-style policy where monetary policy was fully automatic. Hence, if market expectations for, for example inflation two years ahead were below the 2% target then the central bank would automatically expand the money base – by for example buying TIPS, foreign currency, equities or gold for that matter. The central bank would continue to expand the money base until inflation expectations had moved back to 2%. The central bank would similarly reduce the money base if inflation expectations were higher than the targeted 2%.
In this set-up monetary policy would fully live up to Friedman’s ideal of replacing the Fed with a “computer”. There would be absolutely no discretion in monetary policy. Everything would be fully rule based and automatic.
In the soft version of Bob’s idea the central bank will not directly target market inflation expectations, but rather use the market expectations as an indicator for monetary policy. In this version the central bank would likely also use other indicators for monetary policy – for example money supply growth or surveys of professional forecasters.
One can argue that this is what the Federal Reserve was actually doing from around 2000-3 to 2008. Another example of a central bank that de facto comes close to conducting monetary policy in way similar to what has been suggested by Hetzel is the Bank of Israel (and here there might have been a more or less direct influence through Bruno, but also through Stanley Fisher and other University of Chicago related Bank of Israel officials). Hence, for more than a decade the BoI has communicated very clearly in terms of de facto targeting market expectations for inflation and the result has been a remarkable degree of nominal stability (See here).
Even in the soft version it is likely that the fact that the central bank openly is acknowledging market expectations as a key indicator for monetary policy will likely do a lot to provide nominal stability. This is in fact what happened in the US – and partly in other places during the 2000s – until everything when badly wrong in 2008 and inflation expectations were allowed to collapse (more on that below).
Targeting market expectations and the monetary transmission mechanism
It is useful when trying to understand the implications of Bob’s idea to target the market expectations for inflation to understand how the monetary transmission mechanism would work in such a set-up.
As highlighted above thinking about fixed exchange rate regimes gave Bob the idea to target market inflation expectations, and fundamentally the transmission mechanism under both regimes are very similar. In both regimes both money demand and the money supply (both for the money base and broad money) become endogenous.
Both money demand and the money supply will automatically adjust to always “hit” the nominal anchor – whether the exchange rate or inflation expectations.
One thing that is interesting in my view is that both in a fixed exchange rate regime and in Bob’s proposal the actual implementation of the policy will likely happen through adjustments in money demand - or said in another way the market will implement the policy. Or that will at least be the case if the regime is credible.
Lets first look at a credible fixed exchange regime and lets say that for some reason the exchange rate is pushed away from the central bank’s exchange rate target so the actual exchange rate is stronger than the targeted rate. If the target is credible market participants will know that the central bank will act – intervene in the currency market to sell the currency – so to ensure that in the “next period” the exchange rate will be back at the targeted rate.
As market participants realize this they will reduce their currency holdings and that in itself will push back the exchange rate to the targeted level. Hence, under 100% credibility of the fixed exchange rate regime the central bank will actually not need to do any intervention to ensure that the peg is kept in place – there will be no need to change the currency reserve/money base. The market will effectively ensure that the pegged is maintained.
The mechanism is very much the same in a regime where the central bank targets the market’s inflation expectations. Lets again assume that the regime is fully credible. Lets say that the central bank targets 2% inflation (expectations) and lets assume that for some reason a shock has pushes inflation expectations above the 2%.
This should cause the central bank to automatically reduce the money base until inflation expectations have been pushed back to 2%. However, as market participants realize this they will also realize that the value of money (the inverse of the price level) will increase – as the central bank is expected to reduce the money base. This will cause market participants to increase money demand. For a given money base this will in itself push down inflation until the 2% inflation expectations target is meet.
Hence, under full credibility the central bank would not have to do a lot to implement its target – either a fixed exchange rate target or a Hetzel style target – the markets would basically take care of everything and the implementation of the target would happen through shifts in money demand rather than in the money base. That said, it should of course be noted that it is exactly because the central bank has full control of the money base and can always increase or decrease it as much as it wants that the money demand taking care of the actual “lifting” so the central bank don’t actually have to do much in terms of changing the money base.
This basically means that the money base will remain quite stable while the broad money supply/demand will fluctuate – maybe a lot – as will money-velocity. Hence, under a credible Hetzel style regime there will be a lot of nominal stability, but it will look quite non-monetarist if one think of monetarism of an idea to keep money supply growth stable. Obviously there is nothing non-monetarist about ensuring a stable nominal anchor. The anchor is just different from what Friedman – originally – suggested.
Had the Fed listened to Bob then there would have been no Great Recession
Effectively during the Great Moderation – or at least since the introduction of TIPS in 1997 – the world increasingly started to look as if the Federal Reserve actually had introduced Bob’s proposal and targeted break-even inflation expectations (around 2.5%). The graph below illustrates this.
The graph shows that from 2004 to 2008 we see that the 5-year “break-even” inflation rate fluctuated between 2 and 3%. We could also note that we during that period also saw a remarkable stable growth in nominal GDP growth. In that sense we can say that monetary policy was credible as it ensured nominal stability – defined as stable inflation expectations.
However, in 2008 “something” happened and break-even inflation expectations collapsed. Said, in another way – the Fed’s credibility broke down. The markets no longer believed that the Fed would be able to keep inflation at 2.5% going forward. Afterwards, however, one should also acknowledge that some credibility has returned as break-even inflation particularly since 2011 has been very stable around 2%. This by the way is contrary to the ECB – as euro zone break-even inflation on most time horizons is well-below the ECB’s official 2% inflation target.
While most observers have been arguing that the “something”, which happened was the financial crisis and more specifically the collapse of Lehman Brothers Market Monetarists – and Bob Hetzel – have argued that what really happened was a significant monetary contraction and this is very clearly illustrated by the collapse in inflation expectations in 2008.
Now imagine what would have happened if the Fed had implemented what I above called the strict version of Bob’s proposal prior to the collapse of Lehman Brother. And now lets say that Lehman Brothers collapses (out of the blue). Such a shock likely would cause a significant decline in the money-multiplier and a sharp decline in the broad money supply and likely also a sharp rise in money demand as investors run away from risky assets.
This shock on its own is strongly deflationary – and if the shock is big enough this potentially could give a shock to the Fed’s credibility and therefore we initially could see inflation expectations drop sharply as we actually saw in 2008.
However, had Bob’s regime been in place then the Fed would automatically have moved into action (not in a discretionary fashion, but following the rule). There would not have been any discussion within the FOMC whether to ease monetary policy or not. In fact there would not be a need for a FOMC at all – monetary policy would be 100% automatic.
Hence, as the shock hits and inflation expectations drop the Fed would automatically – given the rule to target for example 2.5% break-even inflation expectations – increase the money base as much as necessary to keep inflation expectations at 2.5%.
This would effectively have meant that the monetary consequences of Lehman Brothers’ collapse would have been very limited and the macroeconomic contraction therefore would have been much, much smaller and we would very likely not have had a Great Recession. In a later blog post I will return to Bob’s explanation for the Great Recession, but as this discussion illustrates it should be very clear that Bob – as I do – strongly believe that the core problem was monetary disorder rather than market failure.
Hetzel and NGDP targeting
There is no doubt in my mind that the conduct of monetary policy would be much better if it was implemented within a market-based set-up as suggested by Robert Hetzel than when monetary policy is left to discretionary decisions.
That said as other Market Monetarists and I have argued that central banks in general should target the nominal GDP level rather than expected inflation as originally suggested by Bob. This means that we – the Market Monetarists – believe that governments should issue NGDP-linked bonds and that central banks should use NGDP expectations calculated from the pricing of these bonds.
Of course that means that the target is slightly different than what Bob originally suggested, but the method is exactly the same and the overall outcome will likely be very similar whether one or the other target is chosen if implemented in the strict version, where the central bank effectively would be replaced by a “computer” (the market).
In the coming days and weeks I will continue my celebration of Robert Hetzel. In my next Hetzel-post I will look at “Bob’s model” and I will try to explain how Bob makes us understand the modern world within a quantity theoretical framework.
PS I should say that Bob is not the only economist to have suggested using markets and market expectations to implement monetary policy and to ensure nominal stability. I would particularly highlight the proposals of Irving Fisher (the Compensated Dollar Plan), Earl Thompson (nominal wage targeting “The Perfect Monetary System”) and of course Scott Sumner (NGDP targeting).
Suggested further reading:
I have in numerous early posts written about Bob’s suggestion for targeting market inflation expectations. See for example here:
Posted by Lars Christensen on June 22, 2014
The ECB is today widely expected to introduce a number of measures to ease monetary conditions in the euro zone and it seems like the ECB is finally beginning to recognize the serious deflationary risks facing the euro zone.
But how far behind the curve is the ECB? There are a lot of measures of that, but if we look at the ECB’s own stated goal of 2% inflation then we will see that the ECB has basically failed consistently since 2008.
Below I look at the the level of the GDP deflator (which I believe is a better indicator of inflation than the ECB’s prefered measure – the HCIP inflation).
I think the graph very well illustrates just how big the ECB’s policy failure has been since 2008. From 1999 to 2008 the ECB basically kept the actual price level on a straight 2% path in line with its stated policy goal. However, since 2008 GDP deflator-inflation has consistently been well-below the 2%. As a result what I here call the price gap - the percentage difference between the actual price level and the 2% path – has kept on widening so the gap today is around 4%.
This is a massive policy mistake – and this is why the euro zone remains in crisis – and given the fact that we are basically not seeing any broad money supply growth at the moment the price gap is very likely to continue to widen. In fact outright deflation seems very likely if the ECB once again fails to take decisive action.
What should be done? It is really easy, but the ECB is likely to make it complicated
At the ECB in Frankfurt they are happy to repeat Milton Friedman’s dictum that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. So it should be really simple – if you have less than 2% inflation and want to ensure 2% inflation then you need to create more money. Unfortunately the ECB seems to think that it is in someway ‘dirty’ to create money and therefore we are unlikely to see any measures today to actually create money.
Most analysts expect a cut in ECB’s deposit rate to negative territory and maybe a new LTRO and even some kind of lending scheme to European SMEs. But all of that is basically credit policies and not monetary policy. Credit policy has the purpose of distorting market prices – and that shouldn’t really be the business of central banks – while monetary policy is about hitting nominal variables such as the price level or nominal spending by controlling the money base (money creation).
The ECB needs to stop worrying about credit markets and instead focus on ensuring nominal stability. So to me it is very simple. Today Mario Draghi simply should announce that the ECB has failed since 2008, but that that will now change.
He should pre-commit to bringing back the price level to the ‘old’ trend within the next two years and do that he should keep expanding the euro zone money base (by buying a basket of GDP weight euro zone government bonds) until he achieves that goal and he should make is completely clear that there will be no limits to the expansion of the money base. The sole purpose of his actions will be to ensure that the price level is brought back on track as fast as possible.
Once the price level is brought back to the old trend it should be kept on this 2% trend path.
How hard can it be?
PS Yes, I fundamentally would like the ECB to target the nominal GDP level, but targeting the GDP deflator price level would be pretty close to my preferred policy.
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Posted by Lars Christensen on June 5, 2014
Recently there has been a debate about whether low interest rates counterintuitively actually leads deflation. Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Minneapolis Fed, made such an argument a couple of years ago (but seems to have changed his mind now) and it seems like BIS’ Claudio Borio has been making an similar argument recently. Maybe surprisingly to some (market) monetarists will make a similar argument. We will just turn the argument upside down a bit. Let me explain.
Most people would of course say that low interest rates equals easy monetary policy and that that leads to higher inflation – and not deflation. However, this traditional keynesian (not New Keynesian) view is wrong because it confuses “the” interest rate for the central bank’s policy instrument, while the interest rate actually in the current setting for most inflation targeting central banks is an intermediate target.
The crucial difference between instruments, intermediate instruments and policy goals
To understand the problem at hand I think it is useful to remind my readers of the difference between monetary policy instruments, intermediate targets and policy goals.
The central bank really only has one instrument and that is the control of the amount of base money in the economy (now and in the future). The central bank has full control of this.
On the other hand interest rates or bond yields are not under the direct control of the central bank. Rather they are intermediate targets. So when a central bank says it is it is cutting or hiking interest rates it is not really doing that. It is intervening in the money market (or for that matter in the bond market) to change market pricing. But it is doing so by controlling the money base. This is why interest rates is an intermediate target. The idea is that by changing the money base the central bank can push interest rates up or down and there by influencing the aggregate demand to increase or decrease inflation is that is what the central bank ultimately wants to “hit”.
Similarly Milton Friedman’s suggestion for central banks to target money supply growth is an intermediate target. The central bank does not directly control M2 or M3, but only the money base.
So while interest rates (or bond yields) and the money supply are not money policy instruments they are intermediate targets. Something central banks “targets” to hit an the ultimate target of monetary policy. What we could call this the policy goal. This could be for example inflation or nominal GDP.
When you say interest rates will be low – you tell the markets you plan to fail
Why is this discussion important? Well, it is important because because when central banks are confused about these concepts they also fail to send the right signals about the monetary policy stance.
Milton Friedman of course famously told us that when interest rates are low it is normally because monetary policy has been tight. This of course is nothing else than what Irving Fisher long ago taught us – that there is a crucial difference between real and nominal interest rates. When inflation expectations increase nominal interest rates will increase – leaving real interest rates unchanged.
The graph below pretty well illustrates this relationship.
The correlation is pretty obvious – there is a positive (rather than a negative) correlation between on the one hand interest rates/bond yields and on the other hand inflation (PCE core). This of course says absolutely nothing about causality, but it seems to pretty clearly show that Friedman and Fisher were right – interest rates/yields are high (low) when inflation is high (low).
This is of course does not mean that we can increase inflation by hiking interest rates. This is exactly because the central bank does not directly control interest rates and yields. Arguably the central bank can of course (in some circumstances) in the short decrease rates and yields through a liquidity effect. For example by buying bonds the central banks can in the short-term push up the price of bonds and hence push down yields. However, if the policy is continued in a committed fashion it should lead to higher inflation expectations – this will push up rates and yields. This is exactly what the graph above shows. Central bankers might suffer from money illusion, but you can’t fool everybody all of the time and investors, consumers and labourers will demand compensation for any increase in inflation.
This also illustrates that it might very well be counterproductive for central bankers to communicate about monetary in terms of interest rates or yields. Because when central bankers in recent years have said that they want to keep rates ‘low for longer’ or will do quantitative easing to push down bond yields they are effectively saying that they will ensure lower inflation or even deflation. Yes, that is correct central bankers have effectively been saying that they want to fail.
Said, in another if the central bank communicates as if the interest rate is it’s policy goal then when it says that it will ensure low interest rates then market expectation will adjust to reflect that. Therefore, market participants should expect low inflation or deflation. This will lead to an increase in money demand (lower velocity) and this will obviously on its own be deflationary. This is why “low for longer” if formulated as a policy goal could actually lead to deflation.
Obviously this is not really what central bankers want. But they are sending confusing signals then they talk about keeping rates and yields low and at the same time want to “stimulate” aggregate demand. As consequence “low for longer”-communication is actually undermining the commitment to spurring aggregate demand and “fighting” deflation.
Forget about rates and yields – communicates in terms of the ultimate target/goal
Therefore, central bankers should stop communicating about monetary policy in terms of interest rates or bond yields. Instead central bankers should only communicate in terms of what they ultimately want to achieve – whether that is an inflation target or a NGDP target. In fact the word “target” might be a misnomer. Maybe it is actually better to talk about the goal of monetary policy.
Lets take an example. The Federal Reserve wants to hit a given NGDP level goal. It therefore should announces the following:
“To ensure our goal of achieve 5% nominal GDP growth (level targeting) we will in the future adjust the money base in such a fashion to alway aiming at hitting our policy goal. There will be no limits to increases or decreases in the money base. We will also do whatever is necessary to hit this goal.”
And lets say Fed boss Janet Yellen is asked by a journalist about the interest rates and bond yields. Yellen should reply the following:
“Interest rate and bond yields are market prices in the same way as the exchange rate or property prices. The Fed is not targeting either and it is not our policy instrument. Our policy goal is the level of nominal GDP and we use changes in the money base – this is our policy instrument – to ensure this policy goal. We expect interest rates and yield to adjust in such a fashion to reflect our monetary policy. My only advice to investors is to expect us to alway hit our policy goal.”
Said in another way interest rates and yields are endogenous. They reflect market expectations for inflation and growth. So when the Fed and other central banks in giving “forward guidance” in terms of interest rates they are seriously missing the point about forward guidance. The only forward guidance needed is what policy goal the central bank has and an “all-in” commitment to hit that policy goal by adjusting the money base.
Finally, notice that I am NOT arguing that the Fed or any other central bank should hike interest rates to fight deflation – that would be complete nonsense. I am arguing to totally stop communicating about rates and yields as it totally mess up central bank communication.
PPS Mike Belongia has been helpful in shaping my view on these matters.
Posted by Lars Christensen on June 1, 2014
Most economists pay little or no attention to nominal GDP when they think (and talk) about the business cycle, but if they had to explain how nominal GDP is determined they would likely mostly talk about NGDP as a quasi-residual. First real GDP is determined – by both supply and demand side factors – and then inflation is simply added to get to NGDP.
Market Monetarists on the other hand would think of nominal GDP determining real GDP. In fact if you read Scott Sumner’s excellent blog The Money Illusion – the father of all Market Monetarist blogs – you are often left with the impression that the causality always runs from NGDP to RGDP. I don’t think Scott thinks so, but that is nonetheless the impression you might get from reading his blog. Old-school monetarists like Milton Friedman were basically saying the same thing – or rather that the causality was running from the money supply to nominal spending to prices and real GDP.
In my view the truth is that there is no “natural” causality from RGDP to NGDP or the other way around. I will instead here argue that the macroeconomic causality is fully dependent about the central bank’s monetary policy rules and the credibility of and expectations to this rule.
In essenssens this also means that there is no given or fixed causality from money to prices and this also explains the apparent instability between the lags and leads of monetary policy.
From RGDP to NGDP – the US economy in 2008-9?
Some might argue that the question of causality and whilst what model of the economy, which is the right one is a simple empirical question. So lets look at an example – and let me then explain why it might not be all that simple.
The graph below shows real GDP and nominal GDP growth in the US during the sharp economic downturn in 2008-9. The graph is not entirely clearly, but it certainly looks like real GDP growth is leading nominal GDP growth.
Looking at the graph is looks as if RGDP growth starts to slow already in 2004 and further takes a downturn in 2006 before totally collapsing in 2008-9. The picture for NGDP growth is not much different, but if anything NGDP growth is lagging RGDP growth slightly.
So looking at just at this graph it is hard to make that (market) monetarist argument that this crisis indeed was caused by a nominal shock. If anything it looks like a real shock caused first RGDP growth to drop and NGDP just followed suit. This is my view is not the correct story even though it looks like it. I will explain that now.
A real shock + inflation targeting => drop in NGDP growth expectations
So what was going on in 2006-9. I think the story really starts with a negative supply shock – a sharp rise in global commodity prices. Hence, from early 2007 to mid-2008 oil prices were more than doubled. That caused headline US inflation to rise strongly – with headline inflation (CPI) rising to 5.5% during the summer of 2008.
The logic of inflation targeting – the Federal Reserve at that time (and still is) was at least an quasi-inflation targeting central bank – is that the central bank should move to tighten monetary condition when inflation increases.
Obviously one could – and should – argue that clever inflation targeting should only target demand side inflation rather than headline inflation and that monetary policy should ignore supply shocks. To a large extent this is also what the Fed was doing during 2007-8. However, take a look at this from the Minutes from the June 24-25 2008 FOMC meeting:
Some participants noted that certain measures of the real federal funds rate, especially those using actual or forecasted headline inflation, were now negative, and very low by historical standards. In the view of these participants, the current stance of monetary policy was providing considerable support to aggregate demand and, if the negative real federal funds rate was maintained, it could well lead to higher trend inflation…
…Conditions in some financial markets had improved… the near-term outlook for inflation had deteriorated, and the risks that underlying inflation pressures could prove to be greater than anticipated appeared to have risen. Members commented that the continued strong increases in energy and other commodity prices would prompt a difficult adjustment process involving both lower growth and higher rates of inflation in the near term. Members were also concerned about the heightened potential in current circumstances for an upward drift in long-run inflation expectations.With increased upside risks to inflation and inflation expectations, members believed that the next change in the stance of policy could well be an increase in the funds rate; indeed, one member thought that policy should be firmed at this meeting.
Hence, not only did some FOMC members (the majority?) believe monetary policy was easy, but they even wanted to move to tighten monetary policy in response to a negative supply shock. Hence, even though the official line from the Fed was that the increase in inflation was due to higher oil prices and should be ignored it was also clear that that there was no consensus on the FOMC about this.
The Fed was of course not the only central bank in the world at that time to blur it’s signals about the monetary policy response to the increase in oil prices.
Notably both the Swedish Riksbank and the ECB hiked their key policy interest rates during the summer of 2008 – clearly reacting to a negative supply shock.
Most puzzling is likely the unbelievable rate hike from the Riksbank in September 2008 amidst a very sharp drop in Swedish economic activity and very serious global financial distress. This is what the Riksbank said at the time:
…the Executive Board of the Riksbank has decided to raise the repo rate to 4.75 per cent. The assessment is that the repo rate will remain at this level for the rest of the year… It is necessary to raise the repo rate now to prevent the increases in energy and food prices from spreading to other areas.
The world is falling apart, but we will just add to the fire by hiking interest rates. It is incredible how anybody could have come to the conclusion that monetary tightening was what the Swedish economy needed at that time. Fans of Lars E. O. Svensson should note that he has Riksbank deputy governor at the time actually voted for that insane rate hike.
Hence, it is very clear that both the Fed, the ECB and the Riksbank and a number of other central banks during the summer of 2008 actually became more hawkish and signaled possible rates (or actually did hike rates) in reaction to a negative supply shock.
So while one can rightly argue that flexible inflation targeting in principle would mean that central banks should ignore supply shocks it is also very clear that this is not what actually what happened during the summer and the late-summer of 2008.
So what we in fact have is that a negative shock is causing a negative demand shock. This makes it look like a drop in real GDP is causing a drop in nominal GDP. This is of course also what is happening, but it only happens because of the monetary policy regime. It is the monetary policy rule – where central banks implicitly or explicitly – tighten monetary policy in response to negative supply shocks that “creates” the RGDP-to-NGDP causality. A similar thing would have happened in a fixed exchange rate regime (Denmark is a very good illustration of that).
NGDP targeting: Decoupling NGDP from RGDP shocks
I hope to have illustrated that what is causing the real shock to cause a nominal shock is really monetary policy (regime) failure rather than some naturally given economic mechanism.
The case of Israel illustrates this quite well I think. Take a look at the graph below.
What is notable is that while Israeli real GDP growth initially slows very much in line with what happened in the euro zone and the US the decline in nominal GDP growth is much less steep than what was the case in the US or the euro zone.
Hence, the Israeli economy was clearly hit by a negative supply shock (sharply higher oil prices and to a lesser extent also higher costs of capital due to global financial distress). This caused a fairly sharp deceleration real GDP growth, but as I have earlier shown the Bank of Israel under the leadership of then governor Stanley Fischer conducted monetary policy as if it was targeting nominal GDP rather than targeting inflation.
Obviously the BoI couldn’t do anything about the negative effect on RGDP growth due to the negative supply shock, but a secondary deflationary process was avoid as NGDP growth was kept fairly stable and as a result real GDP growth swiftly picked up in 2009 as the supply shock eased off going into 2009.
In regard to my overall point regarding the causality and correlation between RGDP and NGDP growth it is important here to note that NGDP targeting will not reverse the RGDP-NGDP causality, but rather decouple RGDP and NGDP growth from each other.
Hence, under “perfect” NGDP targeting there will be no correlation between RGDP growth and NGDP growth. It will be as if we are in the long-run classical textbook case where the Phillips curve is vertical. Monetary policy will hence be “neutral” by design rather than because wages and prices are fully flexible (they are not). This is also why we under a NGDP targeting regime effectively will be in a Real-Business-Cycle world – all fluctuations in real GDP growth (and inflation) will be caused by supply shocks.
This also leads us to the paradox – while Market Monetarists argue that monetary policy is highly potent under our prefered monetary policy rule (NGDP targeting) it would look like money is neutral also in the short-run.
The Friedmanite case of money (NGDP) causing RGDP
So while we under inflation targeting basically should expect causality to run from RGDP growth to NGDP growth we under NGDP targeting simply should expect that that would be no correlation between the two – supply shocks would causes fluctuations in RGDP growth, but NGDP growth would be kept stable by the NGDP targeting regime. However, is there also a case where causality runs from NGDP to RGDP?
Yes there sure is – this is what I will call the Friedmanite case. Hence, during particularly the 1970s there was a huge debate between monetarists and keynesians about whether “money” was causing “prices” or the other way around. This is basically the same question I have been asking – is NGDP causing RGDP or the other way around.
Milton Friedman and other monetarist at the time were arguing that swings in the money supply was causing swings in nominal spending and then swings in real GDP and inflation. In fact Friedman was very clear – higher money supply growth would first cause real GDP growth to pick and later inflation would pick-up.
Market monetarists maintain Friedman’s basic position that monetary easing will cause an increase in real GDP growth in the short run. (M, V and NGDP => RGDP, P). However, we would even to a larger extent than Friedman stress that this relationship is not stable – not only is there “variable lags”, but expectations and polucy rules might even turn lags into leads. Or as Scott Sumner likes to stress “monetary policy works with long and variable LEADS”.
It is undoubtedly correct that if we are in a situation where there is no clearly established monetary policy rule and the economic agent really are highly uncertain about what central bankers will do next (maybe surprisingly to some this has been the “norm” for central bankers as long as we have had central banks) then a monetary shock (lower money supply growth or a drop in money-velocity) will cause a contraction in nominal spending (NGDP), which will cause a drop in real GDP growth (assuming sticky prices).
This causality was what monetarists in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were trying to prove empirically. In my view the monetarist won the empirical debate with the keynesians of the time, but it was certainly not a convincing victory and there was lot of empirical examples of what was called “revered causality” – prices and real GDP causing money (and NGDP).
What Milton Friedman and other monetarists of the time was missing was the elephant in the room – the monetary policy regime. As I hopefully has illustrated in this blog post the causality between NGDP (money) and RGDP (and prices) is completely dependent on the monetary policy regime, which explain that the monetarists only had (at best) a narrow victory over the (old) keynesians.
I think there are two reasons why monetarists in for example the 1970s were missing this point. First of all monetary policy for example in the US was highly discretionary and the Fed’s actions would often be hard to predict. So while monetarists where strong proponents of rules they simply had not thought (enough) about how such rules (also when highly imperfect) could change the monetary transmission mechanism and money-prices causality. Second, monetarists like Milton Friedman, Karl Brunner or David Laidler mostly were using models with adaptive expectations as rational expectations only really started to be fully incorporated in macroeconomic models in the 1980s and 1990s. This led them to completely miss the importance of for example central bank communication and pre-announcements. Something we today know is extremely important.
That said, the monetarists of the times were not completely ignorant to these issues. This is my big hero David Laidler in his book “Monetarist Perspectives” (page 150):
“If the structure of the economy through which policy effects are transmitted does vary with the goals of policy, and the means adopted to achieve them, then the notion of of a unique ‘transmission mechanism’ for monetary policy is chimera and it is small wonder that we have had so little success in tracking it down.”
Macroeconomists to this day unfortunately still forget or ignore the wisdom of David Laidler.
HT DL and RH.
Posted by Lars Christensen on May 10, 2014
The Ghanaian cedi has lost more than 30% against the US dollar over the past year and the sell-off in the currency has escalated since the beginning of the year as the Ghanaian markets have been hit by the same turmoil we have seen in other Emerging Markets.
The sharp cedi sell-off has sparked widespread concerns in Ghanaian society. One of the more bizarre examples of this came on Sunday when Archbishop Nicholas Duncan-Williams actually prayed for the cedi to recover! Just listen here.
The prayers didn’t work – so now the Bank of Ghana has introduced draconian currency controls
However, Duncan-Williams prayers did not work and the sell-off in the cedi has continued this week and that has caused the Ghanaian authorities to introduces draconian measures to prop up the currency.
First we got the introduction of currency controls on Tuesday. This is the statement Bank of Ghana issued on Tuesday:
Further to Bank of Ghana Notices Nos. BG/GOV/SEC/2007/3 and BG/GOV/SEC/2007/4, it is announced for the information of all authorized dealer banks and the general public that with effect from February 5, 2014, the rules governing the operations of FEA and FCA have been revised.
These rules are intended to streamline the operations of these accounts and bring about clarity and transparency in their operations as well as ensure compliance with Bank of Ghana Notice No. BG/GOV/SEC/2012/12 dated October 10, 2012 on the pricing, advertising receipts and payments for goods and services in foreign currency in Ghana. The Notice states that all transactions in the country are required to be conducted in Ghana cedis, which is the sole legal tender.
MODE OF OPERATION
The Bank of Ghana has revised the mode of operation for the FEA and FCA as follows:
a. No cheques or cheque books shall be issued on the FEA and FCA.
b. Cash withdrawals over the counter from FEA and FCA shall only be permitted for travel purposes outside Ghana and shall not exceed US$10,000.00 or its equivalent in convertible foreign currency, per person, per travel.
c. Authorised dealers shall not sell foreign exchange for the credit of FEA or FCA of their customers.
d. Transfers from one foreign currency denominated account to another are not permitted.
e. All transfers outside Ghana from FEA and FCA shall be supported by relevant documentation.
Margin Account for Import Bills
f. Foreign exchange purchased for the settlement of import bills shall be credited to a margin account which shall be operated and managed by the bank on behalf of the importer for a period not exceeding 30 days.
Foreign Currency Denominated Loans
g. No bank shall grant a foreign currency denominated loan or foreign currency linked facility to a customer who is not a foreign exchange earner.
h. All undrawn foreign currency denominated facilities shall be converted into local currency with the coming into effect of this Notice. However, existing fully drawn foreign currency denominated facilities and loans to non-foreign exchange earners shall run until expiry.
Banks and the general public are hereby advised to note the above and be guided accordingly.
Frankly speaking I don’t know what is most stupid – praying for the currency to recover or introducing currency controls of this kind, but as if that was not enough the Bank of Ghana today announced that it had hiked its key policy rate by 200bp to 18% from 16%. So not only is this likely to lead to a completely stop to any foreign direct investments into the economy – the Bank of Ghana will also send domestic demand into a free fall.
The first of many? Lets pray it is not
Luckily not many countries have done what Ghana just did over the past five years. There is only two other countries – Iceland and Cyprus – which have introduced major capital controls since 2008. I have followed the Icelandic economy closely for years and in my mind there is no doubt that the capital controls are having a very negative effect. Most notable has been the extremely negative impact on foreign direct investment into Iceland. It has completely disappeared and I don’t that this is a result of the capital controls. Furthermore, even the Icelandic government said that the controls would only temporary there are no signs that we will see any major liberalization of the controls anytime soon.
One could certainly fear that the same thing will happen in Ghana. The currency controls will become permanent. As Milton Friedman once said “There is nothing as permanent as a temporary government program”.
The question many investors now are asking is whether other Emerging Markets will copy Iceland and Ghana and introduce capital controls. I pray that that will not happen and investors are certainly nervous that it could happen. If that fear gets more widspread then we are likely to see a lot more Emerging Markets turmoil.
PS If you ask me what the Bank of Ghana should have done I would tell you that the Bank should have introduced an Export Price Norm and pegged the cedi to a basket of the USD dollar and the prices of the main commodities Ghana is exporting such as cocoa, petroleum and liquefied natural gas to ensure a stable development in nominal spending growth. And obvious all capital and currency controls should be abolished.
Posted by Lars Christensen on February 6, 2014
When Milton Friedman turned 90 years back in 2002 Ben Bernanke famously apologized for the Federal Reserve’s role in the Great Depression:
Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.
On Twiiter Ravi Varghese has paraphrased Bernanke to describe the role of the ECB in the present crisis:
“You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But we’re not sure we can get out of it.”
Posted by Lars Christensen on December 17, 2013
When I first read Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose when I was in my teens two things particularly impressed me. First of course Friedman’s monetarist ideas and second his strategies for moving from a Welfare State to a classical liberal society.
My blog is mostly committed to monetarist ideas. However, in this blog post I will write a bit about the strategies to move towards a classical liberal society. Two of such strategies that Milton Friedman suggested in Free to Choose (and in Capitalism and Freedom for that matter) are education vouchers and the so-called Negative Income Tax.
I have always had considerable sympathy for these ideas and still find both ideas much preferable to most of the welfare schemes we know from today’s Western societies. Not because I think of these ideas as ideal, but because I think there are good pragmatic reasons to advocate these ideas. After all I consider myself a pragmatic revolutionary.
Recently the idea of a Negative Income Tax has gotten some attention among libertarian bloggers. Or rather the more generalized form of a Basic Income Guarantee.
What is a Basic Income Guarantee?
In a recent blog post my friend Sam Bowman who is Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute in London makes the case for a Basic Income and explains the basic idea. This is Sam:
The British government spends more on welfare than it does on anything else apart from healthcare. The benefits system is arcane and unwieldy, a mish-mash of disparate attempts to address different social problems in a piecemeal fashion. It creates perverse incentives for those on it, such as people stuck in a ‘benefits trap’ where they lose almost as much money in benefits by working as they are earning, and distorts entire markets by inflating prices, as housing benefit does to the housing market.
…The ideal welfare system is a basic income, replacing the existing anti-poverty programmes the government carries out (tax credits and most of what the Department for Work and Pensions does besides pensions and child benefit). This would guarantee a certain income to people who have no earnings from work at all, and would gradually be tapered out according to earnings for people who do have an income until the tax-free allowance point, at which point they would begin to be taxed.
For example, we could set a basic income of £10,000/year by using a cut-off point of £20,000/year, and withdrawal rate of 50%. The basic income supplement would be equal to 50% of the difference between someone’s earnings from work and the £20,000 cut-off point. A person with no earnings would get a basic income of £10,000/year; a person who earned £10,000/year would get a supplementary income of £5,000; a person on £15,000/year would get a supplementary income of £2,500; and a person on £20,000 would get nothing (and begin paying tax on the next pound they earned).
These numbers are representative: no need to tell me that £10,000 is too low or too high. What matters is the mechanism.
What Sam here suggests is basically a system similar to the Negative Income Tax, which Friedman suggested in Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose.
Matt Zwolinski’s libertarian case for redistribution
Sam is not the only libertarian to recently having made the case a Basic Income Guarantee. Hence, in a recent post on libertarianism.org Matt Zwolinski spells out The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income.
I must admit that when I read Matt’s blog post I was not totally convinced by his arguments – despite my general sympathy for the idea – and I felt like writing a blog post refuting some of Matt’s arguments for a Basic Income.
David Friedman, however, beat me to it and in a new blog post he discusses Matt’s arguments.
I find myself generally agreeing with David’s objections to Matt’s position on a Basic Income Guarantee. Or maybe I should say David’s objections to Matt’s libertarian case for income redistribution. That, however, does not mean that I agree with all of David’s objections as you will see below.
Matt makes three overall arguments for a Basic Income.
1) A Basic Income Guarantee would be much better than the current welfare state
This is Matt:
Current federal social welfare programs in the United States are an expensive, complicated mess. According to Michael Tanner, the federal government spent more than $668 billion on over one hundred and twenty-six anti-poverty programs in 2012. When you add in the $284 billion spent by state and local governments, that amounts to $20,610 for every poor person in America.
Wouldn’t it be better just to write the poor a check?
Each one of those anti-poverty programs comes with its own bureaucracy and its own Byzantine set of rules. If you want to shrink the size and scope of government, eliminating those departments and replacing them with a program so simple it could virtually be administered by a computer seems like a good place to start. Eliminating bloated bureaucracies means more money in the hands of the poor and lower costs to the taxpayer. Win/Win.
A Basic Income Guarantee would also be considerably less paternalistic then the current welfare state, which is the bastard child of “conservative judgment and progressive condescension” toward the poor, in Andrea Castillo’s choice words. Conservatives want to help the poor, but only if they can demonstrate that they deserve it by jumping through a series of hoops meant to demonstrate their willingness to work, to stay off drugs, and preferably to settle down into a nice, stable, bourgeois family life. And while progressives generally reject this attempt to impose traditional values on the poor, they have almost always preferred in-kind grants to cash precisely as a way of making sure the poor get the help they “really” need. Shouldn’t we trust poor people to know what they need better than the federal government?
I think Matt has a point here – and it is very similar to the kind of argument Milton Friedman made for the Negative Income Tax – if you are going to redistribute income anyway then why not do it in the least paternalistic way and at the lowest possible economic cost?
This is not a particularly strict libertarian argument, but from a purely pragmatic perspective it makes a lot of sense. And it is surely much less statist and interventionist than most of the present day welfare schemes in the Western world.
However, David Friedman explains why this might be less simple than his dad (and Matt and I) seemed to think. This is David:
That is probably true (that the Basic Income would be an improvement compared to the present welfare system), especially if you imagine it replacing not only welfare but all policies, such as the farm program, that are defended as helping poor people. The problem, as Matt appears to realize, is that if a guaranteed minimum income is introduced it will almost certainly be an addition to, not a substitute for, current programs.
David clearly also has a point, but I am afraid that this is an argument basically against any free market reforms that is not 100% denationalization and I can certainly easily see welfare reforms inspired by the Negative Income Tax/Basic Income Guarantee that will improve that present welfare system.
Hence, in the case of for example the Danish wide-ranging welfare system I could easily imagine a number different welfare schemes being “merged” into a Negative Income Tax style system – for example a NIT for all able-bodied persons between the age of 18 and 35 years. That surely would be an improvement over the present system. Would it be political realistic? Probably not, but realistic enough to being discussed and to generate ideas for genuine welfare reform.
2) A Basic Income Guarantee might be required on libertarian grounds as reparation for past injustice
Back to Matt’s second argument for a Basic Income:
One of libertarianism’s most distinctive commitments is its belief in the near-inviolability of private property rights. But it does not follow from this commitment that the existing distribution of property rights ought to be regarded as inviolable, because the existing distribution is in many ways the product of past acts of uncompensated theft and violence. However attractive libertarianism might be in theory, “Libertarianism…Starting Now!” has the ring of special pleading, especially when it comes from the mouths of people who have by and large emerged at the top of the bloody and murderous mess that is our collective history.
Radical libertarians have proposed several approaches to dealing with past injustice. But one suggestion that a lot of people seem to forget about comes from an unlikely source. Most people remember Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia as a fairly uncompromising defense of natural-rights libertarianism. And most people remember that Nozick wrote that any state that goes beyond the minimal functions of protecting its citizens’ negative rights would be itself rights-violating and therefore unjust.
But Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice is a historical one, and an important component of that theory is a “principle of rectification” to deal with past injustice. Nozick himself provided almost no details at all regarding the nature or proper application of this principle (though others have speculated). But in one fascinating passage, Nozick suggests that we might regard patterned principles of justice (like Rawls’ Difference Principle) as “rough rules of thumb” for approximating the result of a detailed application of the principle of rectification. Here’s what Nozick has to say:
“Perhaps it is best to view some patterned principles of distributive justice as rough rules of thumb meant to approximate the general results of applying the principle of rectification of injustice. For example, lacking much historical information, and assuming (1) that victims of injustice generally do worse than they otherwise would and (2) that those from the least well-off group in the society have the highest probabilities of being the (descendants of) victims of the most serious injustice who are owed compensation by those who benefited from the injustices (assumed to be those better off, though sometimes the perpetrators will be others in the worst-off group), then a rough rule of thumb for rectifying injustices might seem to be the following: organize society so as to maximize the position of whatever group ends up least well-off in the society (p. 231).”
In a world in which all property was acquired by peaceful processes of labor-mixing and voluntary trade, a tax-funded Basic Income Guarantee might plausibly be held to violate libertarian rights. But our world is not that world. And since we do not have the information that would be necessary to engage in a precise rectification of past injustices, and since simplyignoring those injustices seems unfair, perhaps something like a Basic Income Guarantee can be justified as an approximate rectification?
I must admit that I don’t find Matt’s arguments particularly convincing – as I didn’t find Nozick’s arguments convincing (when I long ago read Anarchy, State and Utopia). The problem in my view is that Matt is trying to make a libertarian argument in favour of redistribution (rather than just in favour of a Basic Income Guarantee). I generally don’t think you can make such an argument. David seems to agree:
As he (Matt) points out, the existing state of the world is in part a result of past rights violations. Land claims in libertarian theory may be based on a series of voluntary transfers beginning with the person who first mixed his labor with the land, but many land claims in the real world run back to an initial seizure by force. Similarly, claims to other forms of wealth must be justified, in libertarian moral theory, by a chain of voluntary transactions back to a first creator.
In at least some cases that chain is interrupted by involuntary transactions. Consider a house built by slave labor. Is the legitimate owner the person with the present title to it or the heir of the slaves forced to build it, or is it perhaps partly the legitimate property of one and partly of the other? What about property in other forms inherited through a chain that leads back to a slave holding or slave trading ancestor who owed, but never paid, compensation to his victims?
Most libertarians would recognize this as a legitimate problem, although many might point at the practical difficulty of establishing just ownership in such cases as justifying some sort of statute of limitations with regard to wrongs in the distant past. Matt’s alternative, suggested by a passage he quotes from Nozick, is to argue that the descendants of those who gained by past rights violations are on average better off than the descendants of those who lost, hence redistribution from richer to poorer in the form of a guaranteed minimum income represents an approximate rectification for past injustice.
While the argument suggests that transfers from richer to poorer might do a better job of rectification of past injustices than random transfers, it does not imply that such transfers do a better job than doing nothing, that they on net reduce injustice rather than increasing it. Some present wealth may be due to causes that are, from the standpoint of libertarian moral theory, unjust, but not all. If I justly owe you forty cents, taking a dollar from me and giving it to you makes the resulting distribution less just, not more. Unless most inequalities are inherited from past rights violations, a claim I think few libertarians would support, the logic of the argument breaks down.
3. A Basic Income Guarantee might be required to meet the basic needs of the poor
Again back to Matt and his third argument:
The previous two arguments both view a basic income as a kind of “second-best” policy, desirable not for its own sake but either as less-bad than what we’ve currently got or a necessary corrective to past injustice. But can libertarians go further than this? Could there be a libertarian case for the basic income not as a compromise but as an ideal?
There can and there has.
Both Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek advocated for something like a Basic Income Guarantee as a proper function of government, though on somewhat different grounds. Friedman’s argument comes in chapter 9 of his Capitalism and Freedom, and is based on the idea that private attempts at relieving poverty involve what he called “neighborhood effects” or positive externalities. Such externalities, Friedman argues, mean that private charity will be undersupplied by voluntary action.
“[W]e might all of us be willing to contribute to the relief of poverty, provided everyone else did. We might not be willing to contribute the same amount without such assurance.”
And so, Friedman concludes, some “governmental action to alleviate poverty” is justified. Specifically, government is justified in setting “a floor under the standard of life of every person in the community,” a floor that takes the form of his famous “Negative Income Tax” proposal.
I must admit when I first read Friedman’s argument (or maybe later…) I found it a quite weak argument for redistribution and I don’t find it any stronger today. Here again I agree with David:
One version of that is to point out that private charity faces a public good problem, hence that we are on net better off if government taxes us to provide the charity that each of us wants provided but would prefer that other people pay for. This is not a particularly libertarian argument, but it is essentially the same as one that many libertarians accept in the context of national defense.
One problem with the argument here is that we do not have any way of setting up mechanisms for income transfer that can only work in the way we would want them to. Once those mechanisms exist, individuals will try to game or alter them in order to be transferred to rather than from. That will impose real costs—resources spent gaming existing rules and lobbying to change them. And we may end up, as we often have in the past, with transfers that go up the income ladder rather than down or in all directions at once.
I totally agree – in fact I mostly tend to find collective goods arguments for government intervention to be quite weak as there are other mechanisms than government intervention to solve collective goods problems and furthermore Public Choice theory teaches us that there is no guarantee that government intervention will solve collective goods problems.
The Basic Income Guarantee should inspire welfare reform (but there is no libertarian case for redistribution)
Concluding, so while I have a lot of sympathy for Matt’s suggestion for a Basic Income Guarantee I have major problems with his arguments for income redistribution. Hence, I continue to think a Basic Income Guarantee or a Negative Income Tax is a good idea as a denationalization strategy that could bring us (a little) closer to the ideal of a non-paternalitic classical liberal society.
In that sense even though I agree with Matt’s policy suggestion (for a Basic Income Guarantee) I do not agree with his overall arguments for this suggestion. Overall, it seems to me that Matt’s Bleeding Heart Libertarian project in general is to find libertarian (sounding) arguments for income redistribution and even though I generally find this discussion interesting and an inspiring I seldom find myself convinced by the arguments. That is unfortunately also the case this time around.
PS Even though I do not consider myself to be a Bleeding Heart Libertarian (or a “left-libertarian”) I have quite a bit of sympathy for their general focus on “social justice” and their general arguments that classical liberal societies should not serve certain “class interests”. Capitalism is not an ideal to benefit the capitalists.
PPS don’t expect me to venture into a lot of political-philosophical posts in the future. I am an economist and I am obsessed with monetary matters. That will also be the case in the future and I do not for one second try to pretend to be more clever than people like Matt when it comes to political philosophy. I am not.
Posted by Lars Christensen on December 8, 2013