Most people do “national accounting economics” – including most Austrians

Yesterday, I did a presentation about  monetary explanations for the Great Depression (See my paper here) at a conference hosted by the Danish Libertas Society. The theme of the conference was Austrian economics so we got of to an interesting start when I started my presentation with a bashing of Austrian business cycle theory – particularly the Rothbardian version (you know that has given me a headache recently).

The debate at the conference reminded me that most people – economists and non-economists – have a rather simple keynesian model in their heads or rather a simple national account model in their head.

We all the know the basic national account identity:

(1) Y=C+I+G+X-M

It is notable that most people are not clear about whether Y is nominal or real GDP. In the standard keynesian textbook model it is of course not important as prices (P) are assumed to be fixed and equal to one.

The fact that most people see the macroeconomics in this rather standard keynesian formulation means that they fail to understand the nominal character of recessions and hence nearly by construction they are unable to comprehend that the present crisis is a result of monetary policy mistake.

Whether austrian, keynesian or lay-person the assumption is that something happened on the righthand side of (1) and that caused Y to drop. The Austrians claim that we had an unsustainable boom in investments (I) caused by too low interest rates and that that boom ended in a unavoidable drop I. The keynesians (of the more traditional style) on the other hand claim that private consumption (C) and investments (I) is driven by animal spirits –  both in the boom and the bust.

What both keynesians and austrians completely fail to realise is the importance of money. The starting point of macroeconomic analysis should not be (1), but rather the equation of exchange:

(2) MV=PY

I have earlier argued that when we teach economics we should start out we money-free and friction-free micro economy. Then we should add money, move to aggregated prices and quantities and price rigidities. That is what we call macroeconomics.

If we can make people understand that the starting point of macroeconomic analysis should be (2) and not (1) then we can also convince them that the present recession (as all other recessions) is caused by a monetary contraction rather than drop in C or I. The drop in C and I are consequences rather the reasons for the recessions.

In this regard it is also important to note that Austrian Business Cycle Theory as formulated by Hayek or Rothbard basically is keynesian in nature in the sense that it is not really monetary theory. The starting point is that interest rates impact the capital structure and investments and that impacts Y – first as a boom and then as a bust. This is also why it is hard to convince Austrians that the present crisis is caused by tight money. (You could also choose to see Austrian business cycle theory as a growth theory that explain secular swings in real GDP, but that is not a business cycle theory).

Austrians and keynesians disagree on the policy response to the crisis. The Austrians want “liquidation” and the keynesians want to use fiscal policy (G) to fill the hole left empty by the drop in C and I in (1). This might actually also explain why “Austrians” often resort to quasi-moralist arguments against monetary or fiscal easing. In the Austrian model it would actually “work” if fiscal or monetary policy was eased, but that is politically unacceptable so you need to come up with some other objection. Ok, that is maybe not fair, but that is at least the feeling you get when you listen to populist part of the “Austrian movement” which is popular especially among commentators and young libertarians around the world – the Ron Paul crowd so to speak.

If people understood that our starting point should be (2) rather than (1) then people would also get a much better understanding of the monetary transmission mechanism. It is not about changes in interest rates to change C or I or changes in the exchange rate to change net exports (X-M). (Note of course in (1) M means imports and in (2) M means money). If we focus on (2) rather than (1) we will understand that a devaluation impact nominal demand by changes in M or V – it is really not about “competitiveness” – its about money.

So what we really want is a textbook that starts out with Arrow–Debreu in microeconomics and then move on (2) and macroeconomics. Imagine if economics students were not introduce to the mostly irrelevant national account identity (1) before they had a good understand on the equation of exchange (2)? Then I am pretty sure that we would not have these endless discussions about fiscal policy and most economists would then readily acknowledge that recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.


PS I am of course aware this partly is a caricature of both the Austrian and the keynesian position. New Keynesians are more clever than just relying on (1), but nonetheless fails really to grasp the importance of money. And then some modern day Austrians like Steve Horwitz fully appreciate that we should start out with (2) rather than (1). However, I am not really sure that I would consider Steve’s macro model to be a Austrian model. There is a lot more Leland Yeager and Clark Warburton in Steve’s model than there is Rothbard or Hayek. That by the way is no critique, but rather why I generally like Steve’s take on the world.

PPS Take a Scott Sumner’s discussion of Bank of England’s inflation. You will see Scott is struggling with the BoE’s research departments lack of understanding nominal vs real. Basically at the BoE they also start out with (1) rather than (2) and that is a central bank! No surprise they get monetary policy wrong…

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