Roth’s Monetary and Fiscal Framework for Economic Stability

Steve Roth over at http://www.asymptosis.com has a comment on my previous post ”Be right for the right reasons”, which in itself was a comment on Richard Williamson who had commented on one of my previous comments (“NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy”) so you might consider this as ponzi-commenting…Anyway, Steve’s comment deserves an answer. He has some intriguing ideas.

What Steve suggests is what he calls “the MMTer’s guaranteed employment scheme”. For those who are not following the monetary debate in blogosphere it might be helpful to tell that MMT means Modern Monetary Theory – or what in the old days was known as Chartalism. I don’t want to use too much time explaining Chartalism (I am not really that strong on what they think), but lets just say that MMTer’s fundamentally think that monetary policy and fiscal policy is the same thing and that money enters circulation through government spending.

Steve’s idea is the following:

“My personal preferred stabilizer is to up the EITC bigtime, expand it up the income spectrum, pay it on weekly paychecks, and index its benefit levels to some measure of unemployment.”

EITC for those who don’t know it means “Earned Income Tax Credit” and is a Federal tax credit given to low income families in the US.

Steve does not say it directly, but I guess that his idea is that the Federal Reserve should fund this scheme. Or at least for a monetarist or a Market Monetarist this is crucial if the programme is going to “work”.

Some would consider Steve Roth’s idea to be completely insane. I do not. However, I have a number of reservations, but most important I have serious trouble with Steve’s premise.

I fundamentally think that recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon and hence monetary and fiscal policy should not be designed to be “countercyclical”. Monetary policy should be designed not mess with Say’s Law or said in another way monetary policy should not create recessions in the first place. If central banks where to engage in countercyclical policies then it basically end up fighting against it’s own past mistakes. This is also why I so strongly oppose when some Market Monetarists call for “monetary stimulus” as it exactly sounds as if we would like central banks to follow some kind of “countercyclical” policy.

Therefore there is no need for an “employment scheme” if central banks stop messing with Say’s Law by introducing credible NGDP level targeting.

That said, Roth’s scheme might not be in conflict with the idea of NGDP target. In fact if the Federal Reserve said that it in the future would say it would send each a American a cheque of the same size as the average EITC (hence doubling the EITC cheque) and that it would do so until NGDP had returned to the pre-crisis level then that in my view most likely would be a successful mechanism for returning NGDP to the pre-crisis trend. That does not mean that I endorse Steve’s scheme and and the fact that I think it would “work” does not mean that I in anyway agree with MMT theories – I don’t. The only thing it really means is that I think monetary policy is very powerful and that NGDP always can be increased by the use of monetary policy – then it is less important how you inject the money into the economy.

Fundamentally I think it is a pretty bad idea to have the central bank funding government expenditure and given central banks exist I believe they would be made independent of political pressures.

Finally, a comment on my headline. When I read Steve’s comment I came to think of a paper Milton Friedman wrote back in 1948 “A Monetary and Fiscal Framework for Economic Stability”. In the paper Friedman suggests something similar to Steve. Friedman’s suggestion is basically that the government should balance its budgets over the “business cycle”, but in downturns the central bank should print money to finance the public deficits. That in Friedman’s view creates a monetary-fiscal stabiliser of the economy. Friedman luckily became wiser as he aged. Here is a he said about in 1960 in “A Program for Monetary Stability” about his 1948 proposal:

“I have become increasingly persuaded that the proposal is more sophisticated and complex than is necessary, that a much simpler rule would also produce highly satisfactory results and would have two great advantages: first, its simplicity would facilitate the public understanding and backing that is necessary if the rule is to provide an effective barrier to opportunistic “tinkering”; second, it would largely separate the monetary problem from the fiscal and hence would require less far-reaching reform over a narrower area.”

So Steve, I don’t think we need to get the central bank involved in getting NGDP back on track and monetary policy should not be funding government programmes – especially not programmes that are not to great to begin with.

PS Steve, you have one advantage in the debate with me. Friedman suggested in 1948 to use a monetary-fiscal stabiliser and the EITC is of course a (bad) variation of Friedman’s suggestion for a Negative Income Tax and I hate arguing against any of Friedman’s ideas.

PPS Steve got my surname slightly wrong – it is Christensen and not Christiansen.

Be right for the right reasons

Richard Williamson has a comment on my earlier post ”NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy”.

While Richard agrees on the Market Monetarist call for NGDP targeting he nonetheless disagree with my arguments for NGDP targeting. He is Richard:

“That’s from Lars Christensen, in a post arguing that a lot of people (I presume he doesn’t intend to be talking to me, but he might as well be) of a market monetarist persuasion are using Keynesian-type terms when talking about NGDP targeting. Whilst I believe it is technically correct to argue that central bank NGDP targeting would improve ‘macro-stability’, or that we need ‘monetary stimulus’, or that NGDP targeting is conducive to higher long-run real GDP growth, I should probably recognise that a lot of these phrases comes with a whole load of connotations (especially to economists) that I don’t necessarily intend.”

I fundamentally do not have problem with using consequentialist arguments like “NGDP targeting would improve macro-stability”. Most Market Monetarists are doing that all the time. However, I am quite sceptical about that the call for “monetary stimulus”.

It might be because Richard is not an economist (no offence intend), but to a quasi-reactionary economist like myself when I hear the word “stimulus” I am reminded of discretionary policies. Market Monetarists are arguing strongly against discretionary policies and in favour of rules.

The key reason that quantitative easing of monetary policy in the US has not worked better than has been the case is to a very large extent that the Federal Reserve implemented QE without stating what it tried to achieve and hence missed anchoring expectations. Furthermore, if the Fed had been operating a NGDP level target or a price level target then it would not have needed to take nearly as aggressive action in terms of increasing the money base as the Chuck Norris effect probably would have done a lot to stabilise the macroeconomic situation. Said in another way a credible monetary target would have ensured that market forces would have done most of the lifting and therefore the unprecedented increase in the US monetary based would not have been needed.

So in conclusion Market Monetarists should be more focused on arguing the case for a monetary policy rule like NGDP level targeting or price level targeting rather than pushing for further QE.  Obviously further QE is likely needed if the Federal Reserve would do the right thing and a target a return of NGDP to the pre-crisis trend.

In fact from a strategically point of view more QE without a clear monetary policy rule might in fact undermine the public/political support for NGDP level targeting as another round of QE just risks just increasing the money base without really increasing expectations for NGDP growth. This is a key reason why it is so important for me to stress why we are favouring NGDP targeting. We have to be right for the right reasons.

Furthermore, again from a strategy perspective I think it would be much easier to win over conservative and libertarian economists and policy makers for the case for NGDP level targeting if is made completely clear that Market Monetarists are in favour restricting central banks’ powers rather than increasing their discretionary powers. Furthermore, it is also key that we make it completely clear that we are certainly not inflationists. In fact I personally think that in an ideal world central banks would targeting NGDP to ensure what George Selgin calls a productivity norm, which in fact would mean moderate (productive driven) deflation.

I am well aware it could be pretty counterproductive to argue for deflation right now as must people don’t understand the crucial difference between deflation generated by monetary excessive money demand and deflation as a result of productivity growth. But on the other hand there comes a day when we get out of the present mess and then we want to be able to argue as forcefully as now that monetary policy is overly loose. I would not have liked to be on the wrong side of the debate in the 1970s (I was born in the early 1970s so I did not do much debating on monetary policy then – that only started in the 1980s).

Sometime certain arguments can be “convenient”, but in the long-run convenient arguments don’t win the debates. The correct arguments win debates in the long-run. Just ask Milton Friedman.

Finally thanks to Richard Williamson for commenting on my post. It is highly appreciated even if I disagree.

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