robert solow

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Robert Solow on 'Why Economies Grow'

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 10/05/2020 - 9:32pm in

As a follow-up and companion piece to my previous post, I decided to publish a transcription of a lecture on economic growth by Robert Solow that I transcribed originally as an aid for friends and colleagues who were studying economics. Although the lecture was given by Prof. Solow a few years ago during the height of the financial crisis, it contains loads of timeless insights, some of which is useful to be reminded of in the current situation, as discussions about the output gap resume in the next few years (see chart).

However, it's extremely important to keep in mind that in our current predicament as a result of covid potential GDP will also likely take a huge hit, as businesses and employees require some catching up in terms of business practices (misaligned with changing consumer preferences) and job training (due to skills entropy from employees being on furlough), to name only a few aspects that are likely to be impacted. In many ways, the post-covid period will bring us back to the type of economic analysis that used to occur a long time ago when natural catastrophes had significant and frequent impacts on economies' productive capacities.

The video of the lecture is included down below, though the sound quality is very bad, which is why I recommend reading the transcription instead (and you'll get through the transcript much faster by reading it).

Key insights are highlighted in bold font. Enjoy!

The business of this course is the long run. What are the sources of economic growth in the national economy or in the larger economy? Where does growth come from? And the policy implication – well, not implication, but policy question – is ‘How do you get an economy to grow rapidly and to have that growth widely shared in the nation?’
But there is a problem – it is a problem that appeared in the slides that Prof Newstone showed. It is a problem about getting there from here. So I’m going to start by talking a little bit about right now – this is not going to be the usual stuff about the financial crisis and all that – I have something else in mind.

There is something very odd about our economic situation in the US today. I read just recently an estimate from the Federal Reserve that about $7 trillion worth of wealth has been destroyed in the last year or year in a half (in 2008-2009). The country, so to speak, is $7 trillion poorer than it was.

When I wasn’t having a conversation with Cathy in the car, I was trying to divide 7 trillion by 300 million--the population of the US--in my head. It comes to about $23,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. Some, of course, have lost more, some have lost less.

What I want to point out is how strange that is: $7 trillion of wealth has gone down the drain but the productive capacity of the US economy – the capacity of our system to produce goods and service for its people – hasn’t diminished at all. In fact, it is undoubtedly higher than it was a year ago or 18 months ago: the labour force is a couple percent larger, the skills and education and training of the population is certainly not deteriorating and have probably gained. The net investment in capital has been positive – it’s been declining – but has been positive.

So we have a bigger stock of productive capital in the economy now than we did a year ago or 18 months ago. So the productive capacity of this economy is bigger than it was, despite of this $7 trillion of disappearance of wealth. If you are thinking of buying the US economy as a gift for your boyfriend or girlfriend, it would be worth just as much as it was worth – you know, like a used car – it would be worth just about as much as it was worth a year ago.

So in that sense we haven’t lost anything at all. But, of course, the point is we are in a recession. It is one year old according to pundits. And according to other pundits, or the same pundits, it’ll continue for at least until the second half of this year and maybe beyond. And the point is we are not using the productive capacity that we have.

You saw the unemployment numbers that Professor Newstone showed you. It is a lot harder to measure excess capacity in industry than it is to measure unemployment, but there are such figures, and they show an increase in unused capacity. So we have this machine for producing the goods and services for the population and we are not making full use of it. And that under-use of economic capacity, of productive capacity will go on for a long time. Even if the economy turns up in the second half of this year we will undoubtedly finish 2010 still with some slack in the economy because the slack disappears only gradually. 

So if you are interested – now, this is the point, this is why I started this way – if we are thinking about the long run growth of the economy (which means the long run growth of its capacity to produce), it’s not a separate but it’s an analytically slightly different problem to make sure that that capacity is used.

As long as we are not using all of the capacity that we have, the economy and the decision-makers in the economy are not likely to be motivated to do the things that increase potential output, that increase the productive capacity very rapidly.

So the short-run order of business – policy business – for us and every other rich country in Europe or Asia right now is to close that gap or narrow that gap between productive capacity and actual output, which means fundamentally trying to increase the demand for goods and services. And to do that in a way that at least doesn’t create obstacles to the long-run growth of the economy once the gap is closed, and maybe does some things that will help it.

So, imagine it is now January 2011 and the American economy and the economies of the other rich countries – developed countries of the world – are prospering reasonably well, are using their capacity, have closed that gap. Then the question is: What makes them grow? What economic activities that take place have the effect of increasing the capacity of the economy to produce useful goods and services? 

Now, you won’t be surprised – in fact, I’m staring at this monitor here and it says: so what determines the rate of economic growth in the economy? And that’s the question that I want to come to now, and it becomes relevant after we have done the short run task of closing that gap. There isn’t any one word or two word answer to that question. 

And I should make it explicit that I am thinking now about what determines the rate of economic growth in a rich economy, in an advanced industrial economy. I am not thinking about developing economies where the answers are related but the answers are somewhat different.

And the truth is that for an advanced economy the answers to that question – what are the sources of growth of national output, of productive capacity – are really the usual suspects. They are things we have known about now for quite a long time. And basically, what matters is what you might describe as investment in a very broad sense. I have to emphasize “in a very broad sense”.

What increases the productive of an economy like ours is investment in physical capital, in machinery, in computers and all the rest of that, investment in what economists call human capital, meaning skills and capacities of workers and people who work in the economy, and investment in new technology.

And here there is a slight difference between the US and even most of the countries in Europe. Not quite across the board but in most branches of industry the US is the technological leader. The gap was very big at the end of the Second World War and has closed considerably. But still, if you look at sector by sector, with some exceptions, the US is the technological leader.

Other countries of the world, that were even fairly rich countries have the luxury of being able to acquire technology by innovation, essentially by adopting, using what is already known. This country (i.e., the US) is in the position of having – so to speak – to invent its own future.

So basically, if we are looking now at the US, the things we have to look after in order to have a successful fairly high rate of growth (we can talk about the equity issues later) are a high rate of savings and investment in plant and equipment. I’d rather have the saving done here than abroad so that, in effect, the capital equipment that is built by investment in this country is owned in this country, and the returns to it stay in this country. It’s not necessary but it’s probably desirable. 

We need an extraordinary amount of emphasis – and we’ll talk more about this later – on investment in human capital, on producing the labour force that has the skills that are necessary to successfully operate that plant and equipment. And that is especially important because a country like this also has to invest in new technology. There is no place it can copy from – it has to in most cases create it itself.

Now, when I say new technology, the phrase tends to have a “high tech” air about it. But I don’t mean it that way.  New technology needn’t be high tech. It turns out that – in many ways – the most important contributors to productivity in the US over the last decade or two have been the application of information technology to wholesale trade, retail trade and financial services.

In fact, there are studies trying to understand why the major, big European economies, Germany, France, UK and Italy have lagged behind the US in productivity terms, general productivity terms. And the common answer seems to be that they have been slow to adapt the information technology to the service sectors. In manufacturing, there is very little gap, if any. But the gap is in the service sectors. 

So, this is extremely important. And I want to emphasize it, even at the risk of some repetition. One of the standard, valid, almost universal generalizations about the way people behave economically is that technically the income elasticity of the demand for services is high. All over the world, as incomes rise, personal incomes rise, people want to spend, [and] choose to spend a larger fraction of that income on services rather than goods. And you can understand why that should be so.

So this means that most of the rapidly growing advanced economies grow more rapidly in the service-producing sectors than in the goods-producing sector. There are exceptions to that. A country like Germany – to a lesser extent Japan, or formally Japan, not so much anymore – has a strong bias toward trying to make its living from simply exporting high quality manufactured goods. You notice I said exporting because the population of Germany, like the population of anywhere else, wants to consume services as it gets rich, not goods.

So those are the things, the essentially important things that a country like the US needs to do to generate long-run growth of productive capacity. 

I should say, in terms of policy, that you should beware of any universal advice like “well, the market will take care of that”. You know, if the alternative to the free-market economy is some kind of central planning, there is no question to where the advantage lies. But there is absolutely no evidence in the historical record of the advanced economies that zero regulation or weak regulation of industry is somehow conducive to rapid growth, or that minimal involvement of the government in the economy is conducive to rapid growth.

The functions of the government in terms of long run growth are just what you would deduce from what I have already said: promoting research and development, providing incentives for investment when they are lacking, taking care of education, and looking after mobility. By the way, it is probably also true that a country – there is less evidence for this generalization, but it’s probably also true – that business cycle instability is bad for economic growth.

For countries that are given to wide fluctuations like the ones we were looking at a few minutes ago, that’s not helpful for long-run growth because it adds to uncertainty. The likelihood of broad fluctuations adds to uncertainty is bad for all forward looking activities, like investment, like mobility, like education.

I wanted to say one more thing about the issue of mobility. When I say mobility, I mean industrial mobility and occupational mobility. In a rapidly growing, technologically-based economy, people have to change the nature of their jobs frequently and capital has to flow freely from obsolescent industries to new industries.

It is very important when you come in this course to talk about issues of equity. I think it is very important to find ways so that the burdens that are associated with necessary mobility don’t fall on workers and other people who are ill-equipped to prepare them [for that eventuality].

Dislocation and sometimes dislocation is probably an inevitable part of fast, mainly technologically-based growth. But it is the task of economic policy to find ways of combining that with income security, up to now, where it’s mostly below the median for incomes.

The macroeconomics of Robert Solow: A partial view

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 05/05/2020 - 10:09am in

During a hearing before a Congressional Committee on Science and Technology, Robert Solow (MIT) described himself as a "generally quite traditional, mainstream economist".

In my view, either Prof. Solow is unaware of who qualifies as a "traditional, mainstream economist" these days or the definitions of the words "traditional" and "mainstream" need to be completely changed!

Consider, for instance, his views on the notion of "expansionary fiscal consolidation":

[H]ow does a human race with limited intelligence...deal with situations in which the short run need for policy are quite different from the long run need for policy? The feeble-minded, it seems to me, attempt to solve this problem [by asserting] that fiscal consolidation is really expansionary in the short run. I have never been able to understand the mental processes that underlie that statement. But I will take it seriously only -- only -- when its protagonists faced with a situation of clear excess demand propose fiscal expansion. Because if fiscal consolidation is expansionary then fiscal expansion must be contractionary. I don't believe that would happen. So I don't take that argument seriously at all. I think it's cooked up to make a real difficulty go away. (The Feasibility of European Monetary and Fiscal Policies: Rethinking Policy from a Transatlantic Perspective)

...on the supposed lack of microfoundations in Keynesian economics:

You know, there is something a little ludicrous in the belief that microfoundations for macroeconomics were invented some time in the 1970s. If you read Keynes's General Theory or Pigou's Employment and Equilibrium (or many lesser works) you will see that they are full of informal microfoundations. Every author tries to make his behavioral assumptions plausible by talking about the way that groups or ordinary economic agents might be expected to act...But you can recall Keynes's argument that the marginal propensity to consume should be between zero and one, or his discussion about whether the marginal efficiency of investment should be sensitive to current output or should depend primarily on "the state of long-term expectations". Those are microfoundations. (2004, p. 659)

...on the claim there is a connection between the money supply and price level:

[T]he financial press sometimes writes as though there is some special direct connection between the money supply and price level. So far as fundamentals are concerned, monetary policy works through its effects on aggregate nominal demand, just like fiscal policy, in the long run, too. The only direct connection I can think of is itself the creation of pop economics. If business people and others become convinced that there is some causal immaculate connection from the money supply to the price level, completely bypassing the real economy, then the news of a monetary-policy action will generate inflationary or disinflationary expectations and induce the sorts of actions that will tend to bring about the expected outcome and thus confirm the expectations and strengthen the underlying beliefs. (1998:4)

...on the problem with Milton Friedman's reliance on correlations between and M and other variables to infer policy conclusions and the assumption of an exogenous money supply (with John Kareken):

The unreliability of this line of argument is suggested by the following reducto ad absurdum. Imagine an economy buffeted by all kinds of cyclical forces, endogenous and exogenous. Suppose that by heroic, and perhaps even cyclical variation in the money stock and its rate of change, the Federal Reserve manages deftly to counter all disturbing impulses and to stabilize the level of economic activity absolutely. Then an observer following the Friedman method would see peaks and troughs in monetary changes accompanied by a steady level of economic activity. He would presumably conclude that monetary policy has no effects at all, which would be precisely the opposite of the truth. (Karaken and Solow, 1963, p. 16)

...on choosing the right model in macroeconomics:

[I] believe rather strongly that the "right" model for an occasion depends on the context --  the institutional context, of course -- but also on the current mix of beliefs, attitudes, norms, and "theories" that inhabits the minds of businessmen, bankers, consumers, and savers. (2004, p.xi)

...on the problems with the DSGE model:

I do not think that the currently popular DSGE models pass the smell test. They take it for granted that the whole economy can be thought about as if it were a single, consistent person or dynasty carrying out a rationally designed, long-term plan, occasionally disturbed by unexpected shocks, but adapting to them in a rational, consistent way. I do not think that this picture passes the smell test. The protagonists of this idea make a claim to respectability by asserting that it is founded on what we know about microeconomic behavior, but I think that this claim is generally phony. The advocates no doubt believe what they say, but they seem to have stopped sniffing or to have lost their sense of smell altogether. (For more, see here and here)

...on the difference between budgetary and real resources costs:

The trouble is that the great world -- including a large part of the intellectual world -- has lost sight of the fundamental difference between budgetary costs and real resource costs. An unemployed worker and an underutilized or idle plant is not something we're saving up for the future. Today's labor can't be used next year or the year after. And the machine time in a plant that's down can't be redone two years from now or three years from now. Three years from now we hope that the plant will be running for current uses. So there's that important sense in which idle resources are almost - and maybe literally - free to the economy. The problem is to get them used in a reasonable way. (see 22:00 here):

...on the importance of fiscal policy for stabilization purposes:

I start from the belief that non-trivial imbalances of aggregate supply and demand do occur in modern industrial capitalist economies, and last long enough that public policy should not ignore them...When such imbalances occur, fiscal policy is a useful tool. The single instrument of monetary policy can not do justice to the multiplicity of policy objectives; and the Ricardian equivalence claim is in practice not nearly enough to convince a realist of the ineffectiveness of fiscal policy. The real obstacles to the rational conduct of fiscal policy are the uncertainties about the proper target for real output and employment, and the tendency for stabilization goals to become inextricably tangled in and distracted by distributional and allocational controversy. (Is fiscal policy possible? Is it desirable?, p. 23)

...on the long run potency of deficit spending financed by bonds vs. deficits financed by money creation, and on the contractionary nature of open market purchases of government bonds (with Alan Blinder):

[N]ot only is deficit spending financed by bonds expansionary in the long run, it is even more expansionary than the same spending financed by the creation of money. [Foonote: An interesting corollary of this is that an open-market purchase, i.e. a swap of B for M by the government with G unchanged, will be contractionary!] (Blinder and Solow: Does Fiscal Policy Matter? 1973)

...on how statements by a central bank can influence how the public translates relative price changes into expectations about the consumer price index:

There are various interest groups in the economy: bankers, investors, savers, lenders, borrowers, buyers and sellers and what not. There is no reason for them to react in the same way. How does one aggregate expectations?

...on the use of "expectations" to explain macro policy outcomes:

[T]o rest the whole argument on expectations -- that all-purpose unobservable -- just stops rational discussion in its tracks. I agree that the expectations, beliefs, theories, and prejudices of market participants are all important determinants of what happens. The trouble is that there is no outcome or behavior pattern that cannot be explained by one or another drama starring expectations. Since none of us can measure expectations (whose?) we have a lot of freedom to write the scenario we happen to like today. Should I respond...by writing a different play, starring somewhat different expectations? No thanks, I'd rather look at data. (1998:93)

...on the claim of self-correcting markets and the role of aggregate demand in causing output fluctuations:

Capitalist economies do not behave like well-oiled equilibrium machines. For all sorts of reasons they can stray above or below potential output for meaningful periods of time, though apparently they are sightly more likely to stray below than above. Even apart from considerations of growth, macro policy should lean in the general direction that will nudge aggregate demand toward potential, whenever a noticeable gap occurs. The relevant point is that this strategy is also growth-promoting. Whatever the level of real interest rates, excessively weak aggregate demand -- and the prospect of weak and fluctuating aggregate demand -- works against investment. Few things are as bad for expected return on investment as weak and uncertain future sales...Successful stabilization contributes to growth too. (Role of macroeconomic policy, p. 301)

...on the need for public policy to address the unemployment of unskilled labor:

It needs to be insisted that the root of the problem lies in the enormous range of earning capacities generated by the interaction of modern technology (and other influences on the demand for unskilled labor) with the demographic and educational outcomes on the supply side of the labor market. There is no really good way for a market economy to deal humanely with that spread. (Too Optimistic)

...on the fallacy of self-correcting markets and the limits of monetary policy during deep recessions:

One important lesson that I hope we have learned from the crisis and the deep recession still going on is that economies like ours can experience uncomfortably long intervals of general excess supply or excess demand. Of course, we -- economists and interested civilians -- used to know that. But it was widely forgotten during the Great Moderation and the accompanying optimism among economists and civilians about smoothly self-correcting markets. The general belief than was that monetary policy was an adequate tool for taking care of any minor blip. During long and deep recessions, however, it has become evident that monetary policy may reach its limits without being able to generate enough aggregate demand to close the excess supply gap. (IMF Talk: Macro and Growth Policies)

...on the problems with Ricardian equivalence:

What might interfere with [the claim that it is optimal for households to save a tax reduction]? Any number of things: if households had been unable to consume as much as their optimal plan required because they lacked liquid assets and could not borrow freely, then the added liquidity provided by the tax reduction would enable them to consumer more now. If the Treasury were a more efficient, less risky, borrower than many households, then the appearance of some new public debt would also affect real behavior. And, of course, if consumers do not look ahead very far or very carefully, if they give little weight to the interests of descendants, or if they tend to ignore or underestimate the future implications of current budgetary actions, then Ricardian equivalence will fail, and tax reduction financed by borrowing will indeed be expansionary. All those "if" clauses strike me as very likely to be real and quantitatively important, and that suggests that Ricardian equivalence is not a practically significant limitation on fiscal policy. (Is fiscal policy possible? Is it desirable?, p. 12)

...on the problem with the natural rate of unemployment hypothesis:

Let me try to explain what nags at me in all this...We are left here with a theory whose two central concepts, the natural rate of unemployment or output and the expected rate of inflation have three suspicious characteristics in common. They are not directly observable. They are not very well defined. And, so far as we can tell, they move around too much for comfort -- they are not stable. I suspect this is an intrinsic difficulty. I have no wish to minimize the importance of, say, inflationary expectations. But we are faced with a real problem: here is a concept that seems in our minds to play an important role in macro behavior, and yet it's very difficult to deal with because it escapes observation and it even escapes clear definition. 

On the natural rate of unemployment, I think the behavior of the profession exhibits problems. In order to make sensible use of this kind of theory, you want the natural rate of unemployment to be a fairly stable quantity. It won't do its job if it jumps around violently from one year to the next. But that's what seems to happen. We, the profession, are driven to explaining events by inventing movements of the natural rate, which we have not observed and have not very well defined. The issue came up first in the passage of the big European economies from 2 percent unemployment, on average, to 8 or 9 percent unemployment, on average, within a few years. The only way to explain that within the standard model is to say that the natural rate of unemployment must have increased from something like 2 percent to something like 8 or 9 percent. The actual facts that could account for any such dynamics never seemed to me or to any critical person to be capable of explaining so big a change. So we are left with inventing changes in the natural rate of unemployment to explain the facts, and it is all done in our heads, not in any tested model. I regret to say that you often find this kind of reasoning: the inflation rate is increasing because the unemployment rate is below the natural rate. How do you know that the unemployment rate is below the natural rate? Because the inflation rate is increasing. I think we are all good enough logicians to realize that this is exactly equivalent to saying that the rate of inflation is increasing, and nothing more. 

It seems to me that we ought to be thinking much more about the determinants of whatever you choose to call it. I hate to use the phrase "natural rate" but of course I do. It was a masterpiece of persuasive definition by Milton. Who could ever want an unnatural rate of unemployment? (Fifty years of the Phillips Curve: A Dialogue on what we have learned, p.84)

...and more on the natural rate of unemployment:

There is nothing like an adjustable, unobservable parameter to keep a theory afloat in rough seas...I think the doctrine [of the natural rate of unemployment] to be theoretically and empirically as soft as a grape. To say that in the long run the unemployment rate tends to return to the natural rate of unemployment is to say almost nothing. In the long run the unemployment rate goes where it goes. You can call where it goes the natural rate; but unless you have a more convincing story than I have seen about the length of the long run and the location of the natural rate, you are only giving a tendentious name to a vague concept (1998, pp. 9, 91)

It's baaack: Paul's Japan paper (monetary policy and expectations in an era of low inflation) (trying not to be wonkish)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 24/11/2014 - 12:19am in

One of the ongoing debates in economic policy these days is the question of whether a central bank on its own can be effective at getting an economy out of the doldrums.

The most famous exposition of the idea that a central bank, by itself, has the ability to boost economic activity is Paul Krugman's paper entitled "It's baaack: Japan's Slump and the Return of the Liquidity Trap" (1998).

In the paper, Prof. Krugman explains that, in a (hypothetical) world of Ricardian equivalence in which fiscal policy has no effect on the real economy, the central bank can get households and firms to borrow and spend by announcing it will bring about higher inflation in the future.

Prof. Krugman knows that the assumption of Ricardian equivalence is far fetched and unrealistic; he only includes this simplifying and unrealistic assumption in his paper to make the point that the central bank can on its own stimulate the economy when fiscal policy is unavailable as a policy option (due to policymakers ideological aversion to public spending, the presence of high public debt, etc.).

Now before I go any further I want to say that I'm a huge fan of Paul Krugman. I think he's one of the most sensible economic commentators out there and I agree with almost all his views on policy. On the effectiveness of central banks alone to boost economic activity during a deep recession or depression, however, I'm quite skeptical.

The logic in Prof. Krugman's paper can be summarized as follows:

  • households and firms will borrow and spend if they expect higher inflation in the future;
  • borrowing and spending is influenced by the real interest rate (i.e., the nominal rate of interest less the expected rate of inflation); and 
  • a rise in expected inflation is for all intents and purposes equivalent to (i.e., has the same effect as) a fall in the real interest rate.

In other words, Prof. Krugman is saying that an increase in expected inflation of, say, three percent will have the same expansionary effect as a three percent cut in interest rates.

All this makes for a plausible story. However, things aren't as simple in the real world.

The problem is that Prof. Krugman's 1998 paper makes inflation a function of expected future inflation, as in the New Keynesian Philips curve (which, in passing, since it assumes no trade-off between inflation and output gap stabilization, is "neither Keynesian or a Philips curve", as Robert Solow once quipped).

In the real world -- and the evidence and the current state of economic activity seem to support this -- inflation is a function of backward-looking expectations: inflation displays significant inertia. Peoples' beliefs about expected inflation are based on past and present inflation. The notion that past inflation is irrelevant, as embodied in the New Keynesian Philips curve, seems to me implausible.

Prof. Krugman is aware of this criticism. Economists Robert Gordon, Alan Blinder and Martin Neil Baily all raised this point during the discussion that took place following the presentation of his paper. Here are the minutes that were recorded from that discussion:

Robert Gordon...criticized the assumption in Krugman's models that the monetary authorities can easily change inflationary expectations for the future -- that the announcement of a policy will change expectations despite present slack in the economy. He believed that agents' expectations depend largely on actual experience, and that they will experience increased inflation only when there is pressure in the markets for goods, services, and labor. Alan Blinder agreed. He thought that Krugman's inflationary policy would work if it could be implemented; but that would require the Bank of Japan to create expected inflation, which, in turn, would require persuading people that the future was going to be fundamentally different from the past. Japan had zero inflation in the past six years, and the average in the previous decade was 1.8 percent per year. Thus to create expected inflation of 4 percent, with actual inflation lagging behind, would be difficult.[Martin] Baily concurred, observing that it would be easy for Russia to be credible in announcing inflationary policy but hard for Japan. (Krugman, 1998:201)

True believers in the power of central banks will respond to this line of criticism by reverting to this old saw: a credible central bank would not have let inflation get too low in the first place, thus people's expectations would never had been unhinged as a consequence. To this, I say: wishful thinking!

When it comes to the role of expectations in explaining macroeconomic outcomes, Robert Solow warned that it should be used with caution (though Solow said this in a different context):

...[T]o rest the whole argument on expectations -- that all-purpose unobservable -- just stops rational discussion in its tracks. I agree that the expectations, beliefs, theories, and prejudices of market participants are all important determinants of what happens. The trouble is that there is no outcome or behavior pattern that cannot be explained by one or another drama starring expectations. Since none of us can measure expectations (whose?) we have a lot of freedom to write the scenario we happen to like today. Should I respond...by writing a different play, starring somewhat different expectations? No thanks, I'd rather look at the data. (Solow and Taylor, 1998:93)

The problem with economics and economic policymaking these days is that too much of it relies on monetary policy and the role of the central bank. There are limits to what central banks can do because people do not believe central banks are omnipotent and have the ability to control inflation expectations on demand. For this reason, Old Keynesians had it right: fiscal policy must be resorted to bring about normal economic activity.

To summarize: Inflation displays inertia and peoples' expectations about the future cannot be dictated by the central bank alone. Basically, inflation is the result of the interplay of supply of demand for goods and services. When you have more demand than supply, prices and inflation accelerate; when you have more supply than demand, prices and inflation decelerate. It's that simple. That's the secret to understanding what creates inflation, barring the effect of any bottleneck issues.

The central bank can have an impact on future inflation, but mainly as a result of its influence in affecting aggregate demand and real economic activity in the present and future, not as a result of its ability to affect expected inflation and overall expectations in general.

The ongoing low inflation affecting economies at present despite considerable monetary stimulus and the use of unconventional monetary policies such as forward guidance in countries such as the U.S., the U.K, and Japan is evidence that expected inflation relies on past and actual inflation and that central banks' ability to stimulate economies at present via the so-called expectations channel or by attempting to increase expected inflation is currently severely limited.*

To follow me on Twitter, just look me up @circuit_FRB.

References

Solow, Robert, and John Tayor, Inflation, Unemployment and Monetary Policy, (MIT Press: Cambridge MA), 1998

Krugman, Paul. It's Baaack: "Japan's Slump and the Return of the Liquidity Trap", Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2:1998

* This post is dedicated to my heroes in macroeconomics: Robert Solow, Alan Blinder, Robert Gordon, Martin Neil Baily and Paul Krugman, to whom I owe so much for their insights

Deficit, Deficit, Who's got the Deficit? (Secular stagnation edition)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/10/2014 - 5:47am in

Over 50 years ago, James Tobin wrote an article for the New Republic entitled "Deficit, Deficit, Who's got the Deficit" (1963) that explains why the US federal government almost always needs to run a budget deficit.

The article is a gem. It has everything a good macroeconomics article should have: lots of debunking, all the relevant data, and a good dose of policy recommendations.

Unfortunately, the article is nowhere to be found on the internet. This post seeks to fix that by providing some key excerpts. Another purpose of this post is to use Tobin's analytical framework in that article and apply it to today's economic environment in the US.

Tobin on US Sectoral Financial Balances, circa 1963

The article starts off by describing the fundamental (iron?) law of financial balances:

For every buyer there must be a seller, and for every lender a borrower. One man's expenditure is another's receipt. My debts are your assets, my deficits your surplus. 

If each of us was consistently "neither borrower nor lender," as Polonius advised, no one would ever need to violate the revered wisdom of Mr. Micawber. But if the prudent among us insist on running and lending surpluses, some of the rest of us are willy-nilly going to borrow to finance budget deficits. 

In the United States today one budget that is usually left holding a deficit is that of the federal government. When no one else borrows the surpluses of the thrifty, the Treasury ends up doing so. Since the role of debtor and borrower is thought to be particularly unbecoming to the federal government , the nation feels frustated and guilty. 

Unhappily, crucial decisions of economic policy too often reflect blind reactions to these feelings. The truisms that borrowing is the counterpart of lending and deficits the counterpart of surpluses are overlooked in popular and Congressional discussions of government budgets and taxes. Both guilt feelings and policy are based serious misunderstanding of the origin of federal budget and surpluses. (1963:10)

Tobin then goes on to explain that both the household and financial sectors were running large financial surpluses (worth $20 billion combined in 1963):

American households and financial institutions consistently run financial surpluses. They have money to lend, beyond their own needs to borrow. As a group American households and non-profit institutions have in recent years shown a net financial surplus averaging about $15 billion a year -- that is, households are ready to lend, or to put into equity investments...more than they are ready to borrow. [...] In addition, financial institutions regularly generate a lendable surplus, now of the order of $5 billion a year. For the most part these institutions -- banks, saving and loans associations, insurance companies, pension funds, and like -- are simply intermediaries which borrow and relend the public's money. Their surpluses result from the fact that they earn more their lending operations than they distribute or credit to their depositors, shareowners, and policyholders. [...]

The article goes on to list the sectors of the economy that must borrow the $20 billion in surplus funds available from households and financial institutions:

State and local governments as a group have been averaging $3-4 billion a year of net borrowing...Unincorporated businesses, including farms, absorb another 3-4 billion a year. To the rest of the world we can lend perhaps $2 billion a year. We cannot lend abroad -- net -- more than the surplus of our exports over our imports of goods and services, and some of that surplus we give away in foreign aid. [...]

The remainder -- some $10-12 billion -- must be used either by nonfinancial corporate business or by the federal government. Only if corporations as a group take $10-12 billion of external funds, by borrowing or issuing new equities, can the federal government expect to break even. [...]

Tobin then follows into a discussion about the policy implications of these lending and borrowing dynamics:

The moral is inescapable, if startling. If you would like the federal deficit to be smaller, the deficits of business must be bigger. Would you like the federal government to run a surplus and reduce its debt? Then the business deficits must be big enough to absorb that surplus as well as the funds available from households and financial institutions. 

That does not mean business must run at a loss -- quite the contrary. Sometimes, it is true, unprofitable business are forced to borrow or to spend financial reserves just to stay afloat; this was a major reason for business deficits in the depths of the Great Depression. But normally it is business with good profits and good prospects that borrow and sell new shares of stock, in order to finance expansion and modernization...The incurring of financial deficits by business firms -- or by households and governments for that matter -- does not usually mean that such institutions are living beyond their means and consuming their capital. Financial deficits are typically the means of accumulating nonfinancial assets -- real property in the form of inventories, buildings and equipment. 

When does business run big deficits? When do corporations draw heavily on the capital markets? The record is clear: when business is very good, when sales are pressing hard on capacity, when businessmen see further expansion ahead. Though corporations' internal funds -- depreciation allowances and plowed-back profits -- are large during boom times, their investment programs are even larger. [...]

Recession, idle capacity, unemployment, economic slack -- these are the enemies of the balanced government budget. When the economy is faltering, households have more surpluses available to lend, and business firms are less inclined to borrow them. (1963:11)

The Corporate Sector: From Deficits to Large Surpluses

Of course, at the time Tobin wrote this article, US financial balances weren't exactly the same as they are today. Households as a group were running financial surpluses, the US was mostly a net lendor to the rest of the world, and the corporate sector was a net borrower of funds. Essentially, three things have changed since the mid-1980s with respect to financial balances (see charts below, double-click to enlarge).




First, starting in the mid-1980s, the US has become a net borrower to the rest of the world. Second, since the early 1990s and until the financial crisis, households were net borrowers to other sectors; since 2007, the household sector has returned to its traditional role of being a net lender. Finally, since the 1990s, the corporate sector has been at different times either a net lender or net borrower. However, since 2009, the corporate sector has been running a very large net financial surplus.*

What is the main policy implication to take-away from this state of affairs?

I would venture that the main take-away is that it's unlikely the US federal government will balance its budget any time soon unless households and/or firms start spending again.

In a recent article for an IMF publication entitled "Secular Stagnation: Affluent Economies Stuck in Neutral", economist Robert Solow (MIT) discussed the business sector's net lending position as a possible sign that there may be a "shortage of investment opportunities yielding a rate of return acceptable to investors" or, stated differently, that the "real rate of interest compatible with full utilization is negative, and not consistently achievable", a situation associated with the notion of "secular stagnation":

In the United States, at least, business investment has recovered only partially from the recession, although corporate profits have been very strong. The result, as pointed out in an unpublished paper by Brookings Institution Senior Fellows Martin Baily and Barry Bosworth, is that business saving has exceeded business investment since 2009. The corporate sector, normally a net borrower, became a net lender to the rest of the economy. This does smell rather like a reaction to an expected fall in the rate of return on investment, as the stagnation hypothesis suggests. (see chart below)

Source: Baily and Bosworth, 2013Secular Stagnation

So what can be done? Paul Samuelson and Anthony Scott asked a similar question in the 1971 Canadian edition of their Economics textbook:

What if our continental economy is in for what Harvard's Alvin Hansen called "secular stagnation"? - which means a long period in which slowing population increase, [...], high corporate saving, the vast piling up of capital goods, and a bias toward capital-saving inventions will imply depressed investment schedules relative to saving schedules? Will not active fiscal policy designed to wipe out such deflationary gaps then result in running a deficit most of the time, leading to a secular growth in the public debt? The modern answer is "Under these conditions, yes; and over the decades the budget should not necessarily be balanced." (1971:436-7)

In my next post, I'll write more about secular stagnation and policy responses to address its possible eventuality.

* This post by Brian Romanchuk contains many useful charts and information on financial balances, as well as discusses secular stagnation from a stock-flow consistent perspective.

Update: I added charts on 2014-10-14, following a comment by Ramanan.

References

Baily, M. N., B. Bosworth, "The United States Economy: Why such a weak recovery", September 11, 2013, Brookings Institution, Washington DC.

Samuelson and Scott, Economics, 3rd Canadian Edition, McGraw-Hill, 1971

Solow, R., "Secular Stagnation: Affluent Economies Stuck in Neutral", in Looming Ahead, Finance and Development, vol. 51 , no.3. September 2014.

Tobin, J., "Deficit, Deficit, Who's got the Deficit?", New Republic, January 19, 1963

When the Fed supported a Job Guarantee policy (and the economist who made it happen)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 10/03/2014 - 1:39am in

Circuit here. I'm back from a few months hiatus following the birth of my second child, a baby girl. Thanks to all readers for your continued interest in this blog.

A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone magazine ran a piece by Jesse Myerson supporting the idea that the government should guarantee a job to anyone who is willing to work. In their recent work, Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein also give support to this policy proposal. Randy Wray, Warren Mosler and other modern money (MMT) economists have been pushing for this idea for a long time. On the center-right and right, the idea is being promoted by Peter Cove and Kevin Hasset.

This is good news. I certainly welcome a good debate on this idea. That said, it's too bad that commentators who are skeptical of the idea simply dismiss it as a non-starter for policymakers.

This, of course, is overstating the case somewhat. It's worth recalling that in the 1970s none other than the Chairman of the Federal Reserve supported the idea that the federal government should be the "employer of last resort". Here's the former Fed Chairman Arthur Burns back in 1975:

I believe that the ultimate objective of labor market policies should be to eliminate all involuntary unemployment. This is not a radical or impractical goal. It rests on the simple but often neglected fact that work is far better than the dole, both for the jobless individual and for the nation. A wise government will always strive to create an environment that is conducive to high employment in the private sector. Nevertheless, there may be no way to reach the goal of full employment short of making the government an employer of last resort. This could be done by offering public employment -- for example, in hospitals, schools, public parks, or the like -- to anyone who is willing to work at a rate of pay somewhat below the Federal minimum wage. 

Burns

With proper administration, these public service workers would be engaged in productive labor, not leaf-raking or other make-work. To be sure, such a program would not reach those who are voluntarily unemployed, but there is also no compelling reason why it should do so. What it would do is to make jobs available for those who need to earn some money. 

It is highly important, of course, that such a program should not become a vehicle for expanding public jobs at the expense of private industry. Those employed at the special public jobs will need to be encouraged to seek more remunerative and more attractive work. This could be accomplished by building into the program certain safeguards -- perhaps through a Constitutional amendment -- that would limit upward adjustment in the rate of pay for these special public jobs. With such safeguards, the budgetary cost of eliminating unemployment need not be burdensome. I say this, first, because the number of individuals accepting the public service jobs would be much smaller than the number now counted as unemployed; second, because the availability of public jobs would permit sharp reduction in the scope of unemployment insurance and other governmental programs to alleviate income loss. To permit active searching for a regular job, however, unemployment insurance for a brief period -- perhaps 13 weeks or so -- would still serve a useful function.

The idea was even supported by one of the most respected names in economics at the time: Franco Modigliani.  When asked to comment on Chairman Burns's proposal during a testimony before the Congressional Banking committee in 1976, Modigliani said the following:

...the idea of a public employment program as an employer of last resort, which is an alternative to unemployment compensation, strikes me as a very sound idea (p. 110).

Interestingly, the economist who got Burns and the Fed to put serious thought into the idea of a job guarantee was another well-respected contributor to US public policy during that period: Eli Ginzberg.

Job Creation through Public Service Employment

Eli Ginzberg was a Professor of Economics at Columbia University and author of numerous books on human resources and manpower economics. He was also -- in the language of Harold Wilensky and organizational sociology -- a "contact man", a person who provides ideas and furnishes intelligence to decision-makers on the political and ideological tendencies in the society at large. Ginzberg played this role throughout his career as presidential adviser for many administrations and through his affiliation with the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), which recently marked its 40th year of operation.

Ginzberg was an institutional economist in the tradition of John M. Clark and Wesley C. Mitchell who believed fervently that "people, rather than physical or financial capital, were the principal source of productivity and wealth" (1987:107). For this reason, Ginzberg believed it was critical for the government to eliminate unemployment as quickly as possible through the use of a publicly-funded jobs program.

Another reason why Ginzberg believed the government ought to be employer of last resort is that he understood that economies sometimes face a shortfall in jobs that makes it impossible for all unemployed workers to find work:

Just as reality has mocked the ethos of equality of opportunity for many minority children, the counterpart doctrine that adults are responsible for their own support and that of their dependents has been undermined by the continuing shortfall in jobs. The existence of high unemployment rates make it socially callous, even reprehensible, for a society to continue to affirm the doctrine that all adults who need income should work and then not provide adequate opportunities for many of them to fulfill this imperative. 

Although the US experimented with federally financed job creation in the 1930s and again in the 1970s, the record in retrospect must be viewed as equivocal. Most students believe that on balance the New Deal was right to put large numbers of the unemployed to work on governmentally financed programs rather than to keep them on the dole as the British did. (1987:162) 

GinzbergOn this last point concerning whether income transfers or guaranteed work should be the centerpiece of US social policy, Ginzberg's view was informed by the work he did during the Great Depression. Here's how Ginzberg summarized the conclusions of a 1947 book entitled The Unemployed that he co-authored on the topic of unemployment during the Great Depression:

The principal lessons I extracted included the superiority of work relief over cash support...; the cause of unemployment being rooted in a shortfall in demand for labor, not in the inadequacies of the unemployed; the centrality of work and self-support for the integrity of the individual worker, his family, and the community. By the time our investigation was concluded, [we] were convinced that no society concerned about its security and survival could afford to remain passive and inert in the face of long-term unemployment. We argued that in the absence of an adequate number of private sector jobs, it was the responsibility of government to create public sector jobs. (1987:111)

Ginzberg also believed that guaranteed work for those who are able and willing would find greater acceptability among Americans than a policy that would require government providing a guarantee income to everyone. According to Ginzberg, providing guaranteed income to everyone would conflict with the powerful American ethos of self-reliance and the American population's highly favorable view toward the culture of work:

There is no simple way, in fact, there is no way to square the following: to provide a decent minimum income for every needy person/family in the US, given the differentials in living standards, public attitudes, and state taxing capacity, and at the same time avoid serious distortions in basic value and incentive systems that expect people to be self-supporting through income earned from paid employment. (157)

For this reason, Ginzberg believed that a job guarantee should play a key role in social policy:

Accordingly, I would like to shift the focus from welfare to work, from income transfers to the opportunity to compete, from dependency status to participation in society. In advocating this shift toward jobs and earned income and away from unemployment and income transfers, the planners must focus on two fundamentals: the developmental experiences that young people need in order to be prepared to enter and succeed in the world of work; and the level of employment opportunities that a society must provide so that everybody able and willing to work, at least at the minimum wage, will be able to do so. (157)

In the 1970s, Ginzberg held the position of Chairman of the National Commission for Manpower Policy, a government-mandated commission that produced some of the best policy-oriented research on the topic of public service employment, including an excellent paper entitled "Public Service Employment as Macroeconomic Policy" by Martin Neil Baily and Robert Solow (1978) that explains how public service employment (PSE), while not necessarily more stimulative than the normal kind of fiscal policy (e.g., government spending on goods and services and tax measures), can be a perfectly sensible policy if the program is well-administered and the jobs that are created provide useful social output:

Solow and BailyWe conclude that the main advantages of PSE over conventional fiscal policy are: (a) that it can be targeted to provide jobs for hard-to-employ groups in the labour force, and for especially depressed cities and regions; (b) that PSE employment, correctly targeted, may be slightly less inflationary than the same amount of ordinary private sector employment, so that total employment can safely be a little higher with a PSE component; and (c) that PSE can be coordinated with other forms of social insurance -- public assistance and unemployment insurance, for instance -- to make them perhaps more effective and certainly more acceptable to public opinion. (1978:30)

Solow later revisited the issue of public service employment in Work and Welfare (1998), in which he argued that any attempt to reform the welfare system in order to get the unemployed back to work would only succeed if every able and willing worker is given access to a job through public service employment and/or by offering incentives to businesses to hire the unemployed.

The Deal 

It was in the 1970s that Ginzberg persuaded Chairman Burns to call on the US federal government to become the employer of last resort.  Here's Ginzberg's account of how he was able to get the Fed Chairman to support the job guarantee:

I made a deal with Arthur Burns when he was the head of the Federal Reserve, that I would try to control the amount of money we asked for from the Congress for manpower training if he would come out in favor of the government as the employer of last resort. And he did it. It took him a year, but I negotiated with him and he did it.

A final word. Although Ginzberg supported the idea of a job guarantee, he fully recognized the high budgetary cost that such a policy would entail and the practical challenges facing public administrators in terms of successfully implementing a public service employment program. To address these concerns, he believed the government authorities should make improvements to the program using trial and error and cautious experimentation. But the key, he would argue, is to ensure that the jobs created through these measures provide productive social output:

There is no big trick to put more and more people on public service employment. If that is the only thing that one is interested in, obviously, the Federal Government can create the money by fiat and put more people on public service employment. The question is what are the short- and long-run implications of doing that in terms of keeping our economy productive, competitive and innovative....So I do not think it is just jobs; it is productive jobs and that is another way of saying that the Federal Government can go only part of the way in terms of assuring that we have a productive economy. 

References

Baily, Martin N. and Robert Solow, "Public Service Employment as Macroeconomic Policy", National Commission for Manpower Policy, 1978

Ginzberg, Eli, The Skeptical Economist, Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1987

National Commission for Manpower Policy, "Job Creation through Public Service Employment: An Interim Report to the Congress", 1978

Solow, Robert, Work and Welfare, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998