What Does Crowding Out Even Mean?

Paul Krugman is taking some guff for this column where he argues that the US economy is now at potential, or full employment, so any shift in the federal budget toward deficit will just crowd out private demand.

Whether higher federal spending (or lower taxes) could, in present conditions, lead to higher output is obviously a factual question, on which people may read the evidence in different ways. As it happens, I don’t agree that current output is close to the limits of current productive capacity. But that’s not what I want to write about right now. Instead I want to ask: What concretely would crowding out even mean right now?

Below, I run through six possible meanings of crowding out, and then ask if any of them gives us a reason, even in principle, to worry about over-expansionary policy today. (Another possibility, suggested by Jared Bernstein, is that while we don’t need to worry about supply constraints for the economy as a whole, tax cuts could crowd out useful spending due to some unspecified financial constraint on the federal government. I don’t address that here.) Needless to say, doubts about the economic case for crowding-out are in no way an argument for the specific deficit-boosting policies favored by the new administration.

The most straightforward crowding-out story starts from a fixed supply of private savings. These savings can either be lent to the government, or to business. The more the former takes, the less is left for the latter. But as Keynes pointed out long ago, this simple loanable-funds story assumes what it sets out to prove. The total quantity of saving is fixed only if total income is fixed. If higher government spending can in fact raise total income, it will raise total saving as well. We can only tell a story about government and business competing for a given pool of saving if we have already decided for some other reason that GDP can’t change.

The more sophisticated version, embodied in the textbook ISLM model, postulates a fixed supply of money, rather than saving. [1] In Hicks’ formulation, money is used both for transactions and as the maximally liquid store of wealth. The higher is output, the more money is needed for transactions, and the less is available to be held as wealth. By the familiar logic of supply and demand, this means that wealthholders must be paid more to part with their remaining stock of money. The price wealthholders receive to give up their money is interest; so as GDP rises, so does the interest rate.

Unlike the loanable funds story with fixed saving, this second story does give a logically coherent account of crowding out. In a world of commodity money, if such ever was, it might even be literally true. But in a world of bank-created credit money, it’s at best a metaphor. Is it a useful metaphor? That would require two things. First, that the interest rate (whichever one we are interested in) is set by the financial system. And second, that the process by which this happens causes rates to systematically rise with demand. The first premise is immediately rejected by the textbooks, which tell us that “the central bank sets the interest rate.” But we needn’t take this at face value. There are many interest rates, not just one, and the spreads between them vary quite a bit; logically it is possible that strong demand could lead to wider spreads, as banks stretch must their liquidity further to make more loans. But in reality, the opposite seems more likely. Government debt is a source of liquidity for private banks, not a use of it; lending more to the government makes it easier, not harder, for them to also lend more to private borrowers. Also, a booming economy is one in which business borrowers are more profitable; marginal borrowers look safer and are likely to get better terms. And rising inflation, obviously, reduces the real value of outstanding debt; however annoying this is to bankers, rationally it makes them more willing to lend more to their now less-indebted clients. Wicksell, the semi-acknowledged father of modern central banking theory, built his big book around the premise that in a credit-money system, inflation would give private banks no reason to raise interest rates.

And in fact this is what we see. Interest rate spreads are narrow in booms; they widen in crises and remain wide in downturns.

So crowding out mark two, the ISLM version, requires us to accept both that central banks cannot control the economically relevant interest rates, and that private banks systematically raise interest rates when times are good. Again, in a strict gold standard world there might something to this — banks have to raise rates, their gold reserves are running low — but if we ever lived in that world it was 150 or 200 years ago or more.

A more natural interpretation of the claim that the economy is at potential, is that any further increase in demand would just  lead to inflation. This is the version of crowding out in better textbooks, and also the version used by MMT folks. On a certain level, it’s obviously correct. Suppose the amount of money-spending in an economy increases. Then either the quantity of goods and services increases, or their prices do. There is no third option: The total percent increase in money spending, must equal the sum of the percent increase in “real” output and the percent increase in average prices. But how does the balance between higher output and higher prices play out in real life? One possibility is that potential output is a hard line: each dollar of spending up to there increases real output one for one, and leaves prices unchanged; each dollar of spending above there increases prices one for one and leaves output unchanged. Alternatively, we might imagine a smooth curve where as spending increases, a higher fraction of each marginal dollar translates into higher prices rather than higher output. [2] This is certainly more realistic, but it invites the question of which point exactly on this curve we call “potential”. And it awakens the great bane of postwar macro – an inflation-output tradeoff, where the respective costs and benefits must be assessed politically.

Crowding out mark three, the inflation version, is definitely right in some sense — you can’t produce more concrete use values without limit simply by increasing the quantity of money borrowed by the government (or some other entity). But we have to ask first, positively, when we will see this inflation, and second, normatively, how we value lower inflation vs higher output and income.

In the post-1980s orthodoxy, we as society are never supposed to face these questions. They are settled for us by the central bank. This is the fourth, and probably most politically salient, version of crowding out: higher government spending will cause the central bank to raise interest rates. This is the practical content of the textbook story, and in fact newer textbooks replace the LM curve — where the interest rate is in some sense endogenous — with a straight line at whatever interest rate is chosen by the central bank. In the more sophisticated textbooks, this becomes a central bank reaction function — the central bank’s actions change from being policy choices, to a fundamental law of the economic universe. The master parable for this story is the 1990s, when the Clinton administration came in with big plans for stimulus, only to be slapped down by Alan Greenspan, who warned that any increase in public spending would be offset by a contractionary shift by the federal reserve. But once Clinton made the walk to Canossa and embraced deficit reduction, Greenspan’s fed rewarded him with low rates, substituting private investment in equal measure for the foregone public spending. In the current contest, this means: Any increase in federal borrowing will be offset one for one by a fall in private investment —  because the Fed will raise rates enough to make it happen.

This story is crowding out mark four. It depends, first, on what the central bank reaction function actually is — how confident are we that monetary policy will respond in a direct, predictable way to changes in the federal budget balance or to shifts in demand? (The more attention we pay to how the monetary sausage gets made, the less confident we are likely to be.) And second, on whether the central bank really has the power to reliably offset shifts in fiscal policy. In the textbooks this is taken for granted but there are reasons for doubt. It’s also not clear why the actions of the central bank should be described as crowding out by fiscal policy. The central bank’s policy rule is not a law of nature. Unless there is some other reason to think expansionary policy can’t work, it’s not much of an argument to say the Fed won’t allow it. We end up with something like: “Why can’t we have deficit-financed nice things?” “Because the economy is at potential – any more public spending will just crowd out private spending.” “How will it be crowded out exactly?” “Interest rates will rise.” “Why will they rise?” “Because the federal reserve will tighten.” “Why will they tighten?” “Because the economy is at potential.”

Suppose we take the central bank out of the picture. Suppose we allow supply constraints to bind on their own, instead of being anticipated by the central planners at the Fed. What would happen as demand pushed up against the limits of productive capacity? One answer, again, is rising inflation. But we shouldn’t expect prices to all rise in lockstep. Supply constraints don’t mean that production growth halts at once; rather, bottlenecks develop in specific areas. So we should expect inflation to begin with rising prices for inputs in inelastic supply — land, oil, above all labor. Textbook models typically include a Phillips curve, with low unemployment leading to rising wages, which in turn are passed on to higher prices.

But why should they be passed on completely? It’s easy to imagine reasons why prices don’t respond fully or immediately to changes in wages. In which case, as I’ve discussed before, rising wages will result in an increase in the wage share. Some people will object that such effects can only be temporary. I’m not sure this makes sense — why shouldn’t labor, like anything else, be relatively more expensive in a world where it is relatively more scarce? But even if you think that over the long-term the wage share is entirely set on the supply side, the transition from one “fundamental” wage share to another still has to involve a period of wages  rising faster or slower than productivity growth — which in a Phillips curve world, means a period above or below full employment.

We don’t hear as much about the labor share as the fundamental supply constraint, compared with savings, inflation or interest rates. But it comes right out of the logic of standard models. To get to crowding out mark five, though, we have to take one more step. We have to also postulate that demand in the economy is profit-led — that a distributional shift from profits toward wages reduces desired investment by more than it increases desired consumption. Whether (or which) real economies display wage-led or profit-led demand is a subject of vigorous debate in heterodox macro. But there’s no need to adjudicate that now. Right now I’m just interested in what crowding out could possibly mean.

Demand can affect distribution only if wage increases are not fully passed on to prices. One reason this might happen is that in an open economy, businesses lack pricing power; if they try to pass on increased costs, they’ll lose market share to imports. Follow that logic to its endpoint and there are no supply constraints — any increase in spending that can’t be satisfied by domestic production is met by imports instead. For an ideal small, open economy potential output is no more relevant than the grocery store’s inventory is for an individual household when we go shopping. Instead, like the household, the small open economy faces a budget constraint or a financing constraint — how much it can buy depends on how much it can pay for.

Needless to say, we needn’t go to that extreme to imagine a binding external constraint. It’s quite reasonable to suppose that, thanks to dependence on imported inputs and/or demand for imported consumption goods, output can’t rise without higher imports. And a country may well run out of foreign exchange before it runs out of domestic savings, finance or productive capacity. This is the idea behind multiple gap models in development economics, or balance of payments constrained growth. It also seems like the direction orthodoxy is heading in the eurozone, where competitiveness is bidding to replace inflation as the overriding concern of macro policy.

Crowding out mark six says that any increase in demand from the government sector will absorb scarce foreign exchange that will no longer be available to private sector. How relevant it is depends on how inelastic import demand is, the extent to which the country as a whole faces a binding budget or credit constraint and, what concrete form that constraint faces — what actually happens if international creditors are stiffed, or worry they might be? But the general logic is that higher spending will lead to a higher trade deficit, which at some point can no longer be financed.

So now we have six forms of crowding out:

1. Government competes with business for fixed saving.

2. Government competes with business for scarce liquidity.

3. Increased spending would lead to higher inflation.

4. Increased spending would cause the central bank to raise interest rates.

5. Overfull employment would lead to overfast wage increases.

6. Increased spending would lead to a higher trade deficit.

The next question is: Is there any reason, even in principle, to worry about any of these outcomes in the US today? We can decisively set aside the first, which is logically incoherent, and confidently set aside the second, which doesn’t fit a credit-money economy in which government liabilities are the most liquid asset. But the other four certainly could, in principle, reflect real limits on expansionary policy. The question is: In the US in 2017, are higher inflation, higher interest rates, higher wages or a weaker balance of payments position problems we need to worry about? Are they even problems at all?

First, higher inflation. This is the most natural place to look for the costs of demand pushing up against capacity limits. In some situations you’d want to ask how much inflation, exactly, would come from erring on the side of overexpansion, and how costly that higher inflation would be against the benefits of lower unemployment. But we don’t have to ask that question right now, because inflation is by conventional measures, too low; so higher inflation isn’t a cost of expansionary policy, but an additional benefit. The problem is even worse for Krugman, who has been calling for years now for a higher inflation target, usually 4 percent. You can’t support higher inflation without supporting the concrete action needed to bring it about, namely, a period of aggregate spending in excess of potential. [2] Now you might say that changing the inflation target is the responsibility of the Fed, not the fiscal authorities. But even leaving aside the question of democratic accountability, it’s hard to take this response seriously when we’ve spent the last eight years watching the Fed miss its existing target; setting a new higher target isn’t going to make a difference unless something else happens to raise demand. I just don’t see how you can write “What do we want? Four percent! When do we want it? Now!” and then turn around and object to expansionary fiscal policy on the grounds that it might be inflationary.

OK, but what if the Fed does raise rates in response to any increase in the federal budget deficit, as many observers expect? Again, if you think that more expansionary policy is otherwise desirable, it would seem that your problem here is with the Fed. But set that aside, and assume our choice is between a baseline 2018-2020, and an alternative with the same GDP but with higher budget deficits and higher interest rates. (This is the worst case for crowding out.) Which do we prefer? In the old days, the low-deficit, low-interest world would have been the only respectable choice: Private investment is obviously preferable to whatever government deficits might finance. (And to be fair, in the actual 2018-2020, they will mostly be financing high-end tax cuts.) But as Brad DeLong points out, the calculation is different today. Higher interest rates are now a blessing, not a curse, because they create more running room for the Fed to respond to a downturn. [3] In the second scenario, there will be some help from conventional monetary policy in the next recession, for whatever it’s worth; in the first scenario there will be no help at all. And one thing we’ve surely learned since 2008 is the costs of cyclical downturns are much larger than previously believed. So here again, what is traditionally considered a costs of pushing past supply constraints turns out on closer examination to be a benefit.

Third, the danger of more expansionary policy is that it will lead to a rise in the wage share. You don’t hear this one as much. I’ve suggested elsewhere that something like this may often motivate actual central bank decisions to tighten. Presumably it’s not what someone like Krugman is thinking about. But regardless of what’s in people’s heads, there’s a serious problem here for the crowding-out position. Let’s say that we believe, as both common sense and the textbooks tells us, that the rate of wage growth depends on the level of unemployment. Suppose  we define full employment in the conventional way as the level of unemployment that leads to nominal wage growth just equal to productivity growth plus the central bank’s inflation target. Then by definition, any increase in the wage share requires a period of overfull employment — of unemployment below the full employment level. This holds even if you think the labor share in the long run is entirely technologically determined. A forteori it holds if you think that the wage share is in some sense political, the result of the balance of forces between labor and capital.

Again, I’m simply baffled how someone can believe at the same time that the rising share of capital in national income is a problem, and that there is no space for expansionary policy once full employment is reached. [4] Especially since the unemployment target is missed so often from the other side. If you have periods of excessively high unemployment but no periods of excessively low unemployment, you get a kind of ratchet effect where the labor share can only go down, never up. I think this sort of cognitive dissonance happens because economics training puts aggregate demand in one box and income distribution in another. But this sort of hermetic separation isn’t really sustainable. The wage share can only be higher in the long run if there is some short-run period in which it rises.

Finally, the external constraint. It is probably true that more expansionary fiscal policy will lead to bigger trade deficits. But this only counts as crowding out if those deficits are in some sense unsustainable. Is this the case for the US? There are a lot of complexities here but the key point is that almost all our foreign liabilities (and all of the government’s) are denominated in dollars, and almost all our imports are invoiced in dollars. Personally, I think the world is still more likely to encounter a scarcity of dollar liquidity than a surfeit, so the problem of an external constraint doesn’t even arise. But let’s say I’m wrong and we get the worst-case scenario where the world is no longer willing to hold more dollar liabilities. What happens? Well, the value of the dollar falls. At a stroke, US foreign liabilities decline relative to foreign assets (which are almost all denominated in their home currencies), improving the US net international investment position; and US exports get cheaper for the rest of the world, improving US competitiveness. The problem solves itself.

Imagine a corporation with no liabilities except its stock, and that also paid all its employers and supplies in its own stock and sold its goods for its own stock. How could this business go bankrupt? Any bad news would instantly mean its debts were reduced and its goods became cheaper relative to its competitors’. The US is in a similar position internationally. And if you think that over the medium term the US should be improving its trade balance then, again, this cost of over-expansionary policy looks like a benefit — by driving down the value of the dollar, “irresponsible” policy will set the stage for a more sustainable recovery. The funny thing is that in other contexts Krugman understands this perfectly.

So as far as I can tell, even if we accept that the US economy has reached potential output/full employment, none of the costs for crossing this line are really costs today. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m missing something. but it really is incumbent on anyone who argues there’s no space for further expansionary policy to explain what concretely would be the results of overshooting.

In short: When we ask how close the economy is to potential output, full employment or supply constraints, this is not just a factual question. We have to think carefully about what these terms mean, and whether they have the significance we’re used to in today’s conditions. This post has been more about Krugman than I intended, or than he deserves. A very large swathe of established opinion shares the view that the economy is close to potential in some sense, and that this is a serious objection to any policy that raises demand. What I’d like to ask anyone who thinks this is: Do you think higher inflation, a higher “natural” interest rate, a higher wage share or a weaker dollar would be bad things right now? And if not, what exactly is the supply constraint you are worried about?


[1] The LM in ISLM stands for liquidity-money. It’s supposed to be the combination of interest rates and output levels at which the demand for liquidity is satisfied by a given stock of money.

[2] OK, some people might say the Fed could bring about higher inflation just by announcing a different target. But they’re not who I’m arguing with here.

[3] Krugman himself says he’d “be a lot more comfortable … if interest rates were well clear of the ZLB.” How is that supposed to happen unless something else pushes demand above the full employment level at current rates?

[4] It would of course be defensible to say that the downward redistribution from lower unemployment would be outweighed by the upward redistribution from the package of tax cuts and featherbedding that delivered it. But that’s different from saying that a more expansionary stance is wrong in principle.

Thoughts and Links for December 21, 2016

Aviation in the 21st century. I’m typing this sitting on a plane, en route to LA. The plane is a Boeing 737-800. The 737 is the best-selling commercial airliner on earth; reading its Wikipedia page should raise some serious doubts about the idea that we live in an era of accelerating technological change. I’m not sure how old the plane I’m sitting on is, but it could be 15 years; the 800-series was introduced in its present form in the late 1990s. With airplanes, unlike smartphones, a 20-year old machine is not dramatically — is not even noticeably — different from the latest version. The basic 737 model was first introduced in 1967. There have been upgrades since then, but to my far from expert eyes it’s striking how little changed tin 50 years. The original 737 carried 120 passengers, at speeds of 800 km/h on trips of up to 3,000 km, using 6 liters of fuel per kilometer; this model carries 160 passengers (it’s longer) at speeds of 840 km/h on trips of 5,500 km, using 5 liters of fuel per kilometer. Better, sure, but probably the main difference you’d actually notice from a flight 50 years ago is purely social: no smoking. In any case it’s pretty meager compared that with the change from 50 years earlier, when commercial air travel didn’t exist. The singularity is over; it happened on or about December 1910.


Unnatural rates. Here’s an interesting post on the New York Fed’s Liberty Street blog challenging the ideas of “natural rates” of interest and unemployment. good: These ideas, it seems to me, are among the biggest obstacles to thinking constructively about macroeconomic policy. Obviously it’s example of, well, naturalizing economic outcomes, and in particular it’s the key ideological element in presenting the planning by the central bank as simply reproducing the natural state of the economy. But more specifically, it’s one of the most important ways that economists paper over the disconnect between the the economic-theory world of rational exchange, and the real world of monetary production. Without the natural rate, it would be much hard to  pretend that the sort of models academic economists develop at their day jobs, have any connection to the real-world problems the rest of the world expects economists to solve. Good to see, then, some economists at the Fed acknowledging that the natural rate concepts (and its relatives like the natural rate of unemployment) is vacuous, for two related reasons. First, the interest rate that will bring output to potential depends on a whole range of contingent factors, including other policy choices and the current level of output; and second, that potential output itself depends on the path of demand. Neither potential output nor the natural rate reflects some deep, structural parameters. They conclude:

the risks associated with monetary easing are asymmetric. That is, excessive easing can be reversed, but excessive tightening may cause irreversible damage to the economy’s potential output.

In the research described in this blog, we focus on the effect of recessions on human capital. Recessions may affect potential output through other channels as well, such as lower capital accumulation, lower labor force participation, slow productivity growth, and so forth. Our research would suggest that to the extent that these mechanisms are operative, a monetary policy that seeks to track measured natural rates—of unemployment, interest rates, and so forth—might be insufficiently accommodative to engineer a full and quick recovery after a large recession. Such policies fall short because in a world with hysteresis, “natural” rates are endogenous. Policy should set these rates, not track them.

Also on a personal level, it’s nice to see that the phrases “potential output,” “other channels,” “lower labor force particiaption,” and “slow productivity growth” all link back to posts on this very blog. Maybe someone is listening.


More me being listened to: Here is a short interview I did with KCBS radio in the Bay area, on what’s wrong with economics. And here is a nice writeup by Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing of “Disgorge the Cash,” my Roosevelt paper on shareholder payouts and investment.


Still disgorging. Speaking of that: There were two new working papers out from the NBER last week on corporate finance, governance and investment. I’ve only glanced at them (end of semester crunch) but they both look like important steps forward for the larger disgorge the cash/short-termism argument. Here are the abstracts:

Lee, Shin and Stultz – Why Does Capital No Longer Flow More to the Industries with the Best Growth Opportunities?

With functionally efficient capital markets, we expect capital to flow more to the industries with the best growth opportunities. As a result, these industries should invest more and see their assets grow more relative to industries with the worst growth opportunities. We find that industries that receive more funds have a higher industry Tobin’s q until the mid-1990s, but not since then. Since industries with a higher funding rate grow more, there is a negative correlation not only between an industry’s funding rate and industry q but also between capital expenditures and industry q since the mid-1990s. We show that capital no longer flows more to the industries with the best growth opportunities because, since the middle of the 1990s, firms in high q industries increasingly repurchase shares rather than raise more funding from the capital markets.


Gutierrez and Philippon – Investment-less Growth: An Empirical Investigation

We analyze private fixed investment in the U.S. over the past 30 years. We show that investment is weak relative to measures of profitability and valuation… We use industry-level and firm-level data to test whether under-investment relative to Q is driven by (i) financial frictions, (ii) measurement error (due to the rise of intangibles, globalization, etc), (iii) decreased competition (due to technology or regulation), or (iv) tightened governance and/or increased short-termism. We do not find support for theories based on risk premia, financial constraints, or safe asset scarcity, and only weak support for regulatory constraints. Globalization and intangibles explain some of the trends at the industry level, but their explanatory power is quantitatively limited. On the other hand, we find fairly strong support for the competition and short-termism/governance hypotheses. Industries with less entry and more concentration invest less, even after controlling for current market conditions. Within each industry-year, the investment gap is driven by firms that are owned by quasi-indexers and located in industries with less entry/more concentration. These firms spend a disproportionate amount of free cash flows buying back their shares.

I’m especially glad to see Philippon taking this question up. His Has Finance Become Less Efficient is kind of a classic, and in general he somehow seems to manages to be both a big-time mainstream finance guy and closely attuned to observable reality.  A full post on the two NBER papers soon, hopefully, once I’ve had time to read them properly.



“Sets” how, exactly? Here’s a super helpful piece  from the Bank of France on the changing mechanisms through which central banks — the Fed in particular — conduct monetary policy. It’s the first one in this collection — “Exiting low interest rates in a situation of excess liquidity: the experience of the Fed.” Textbooks tell us blandly that “the central bank sets the interest rate.” This ignores the fact that there are many interest rates in the economy, not all of which move with the central bank’s policy rate. It also ignores the concrete tools the central bank uses to set the policy rate, which are not trivial or transparent, and which periodically have to adapt to changes in the financial system. Post-2008 we’ve seen another of these adaptations. The BoF piece is one of the clearest guides I’ve seen to the new dispensation; I found it especially clarifying on the role of reverse repos. You could probably use it with advanced undergraduates.

Zoltan Pozsar’s discussion of the same issues is also very good — it adds more context but is a bit harder to follow than the BdF piece.


When he’s right, he’s right. I have my disagreements with Brad DeLong (doesn’t everyone?), but a lot of his recent stuff has been very good. Here are a couple of his recent posts that I’ve particularly liked. First, on “structural reform”:

The worst possible “structural reform” program is one that moves a worker from a low productivity job into unemployment, where they then lose their weak tie social network that allows them to get new jobs. … “Structural reforms” are extremely dangerous unless you have a high-pressure economy to pull resources out of low productivity into high productivity sectors.

The view in the high councils of Europe is that, when there is a high-pressure economy, politicians will not press for “structural reform”: there is no obvious need, and so why rock the boat? Politicians kick every can they can down the road, and you can only try “structural reform” when unemployment is high–and thus when it is likely to be ineffective if not destructive.

This gets both the substance and the politics right, I think. Although one might add that structural reform also often means reducing wages and worker power in high productivity sectors as well.

Second, criticizing Yellen’s opposition to more expansionary policy,which she says is no longer needed to get the economy back to full employment.

If the Federal Reserve wants to have the ammunition to fight the next recession when it happens, it needs the short-term safe nominal interest rate to be 5% or more when the recession hits. I believe that is very unlikely to happen without substantial fiscal expansion. … In the world that Janet Yellen sees, “fiscal policy is not needed to provide stimulus to get us back to full employment.” But fiscal stimulus is needed to create a situation in which full employment can be maintained…. if we do not shift to a more expansionary fiscal policy–and the higher neutral rate of interest that it brings–now, what do we envision will happen when the next recession arrives?

This is the central point of my WCEG working paper — that output is jointly determined by the interest rate and the fiscal balance, so the “natural rate” depends on the current stance of fiscal policy.  Plus the argument that, in a world where the zero lower bound is a potential constraint — or more broadly, where the expansionary effects of monetary policy are limited — what is sometimes called “crowding out” is a feature, not a bug. Totally right, but there’s one more step I wish DeLong would take. He writes a lot, and it’s quite possible I’ve missed it, but has he ever followed this argument to its next logical step and concluded that the fiscal surpluses of the 1990s were, in retrospect, a bad idea?


Farmer on government debt. Also on government budgets, here are some sensible observations on the UK’s, from Roger Farmer. First, the British public deficit is not especially high by historical standards; second, past reductions in debt-GDP ratios were achieved by growth raising the denominator, not surpluses reducing the numerator; and third, there is nothing particularly desirable about balanced budgets or lower debt ratios in principle. Anyone reading this blog has probably heard these arguments a thousand times, but it’s nice to get them from someone other than the usual suspects.


Deviation and trend. I was struck by this slide from the BIS. The content is familiar;  what’s interesting is that they take the deviation of GDP from the pre-criss trend as straightforward evidence of the costs of the crisis, and not a demographic-technological inevitability.


Cap and dividend. In Jacobin, James Boyce and Mark Paul make the case for carbon permits. I used to take the conventional view on carbon pricing — that taxes and permits were equivalent in principle, and that taxes were likely to work better in practice. But Boyce’s work on this has convinced me that there’s a strong case for preferring dividends. A critical part of his argument is that the permits don’t have to be tradable — short-term, non transferrable permits avoid a lot of the problems with “cap and trade” schemes.



Why teach the worst? In a post at Developing Economics, New School grad student Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven forthrightly makes the case for teaching “the worst of mainstream economics” to non-economists. As it happens, I don’t agree with her arguments here. I don’t think there’s a hard tradeoff between teaching heterodox material we think is true, and teaching orthodox material students will need in future classes or work. I think that with some effort, it is possible to teach material that is both genuinely useful and meaningful, and that will serve students well in future economics class. And except for students getting a PhD in economics themselves — and maybe not even them — I don’t think “learning to critique mainstream theories” is a very pressing need. But I like the post anyway. The important thing is that all of us — especially on the heterodox side — need to think more of teaching not as an unfortunate distraction, but as a core part of our work as economists. She takes teaching seriously, that’s the important thing.



Apple in the balance of payments. From Brad Setser, here’s a very nice example of critical reading of the national accounts. Perhaps even more than in other areas of accounts, the classification of different payments in the balance of payments is more or less arbitrary, contested, and frequently changed. It’s also shaped more directly by private interests — capital flight, tax avoidance and so on often involve moving cross-border payments from one part of the BoP to another. So we need to be even more scrupulously attentive with BoP statistics than with others to how concrete social reality gets reflected in the official numbers. The particular reality Setser is interested in is Apple’s research and development spending in the US, which ought to show up in the BoP as US service exports. But hardly any of it does, because — as he shows — Apple arranges for almost all its IP income to show up in low-tax Ireland instead. To me, the fundamental lesson here is about the relation between statistical map and economic territory. But as Setser notes, there’s also a more immediate policy implication:

Trade theory says that if the winners from globalization compensate the losers from globalization, everyone is better off. But I am not quite sure how that is supposed to happen if the winners are in some significant part able to structure their affairs so that a large share of their income is globally (almost) untaxed.


Lost in Fiscal Space

Arjun and Jayadev and I have a working paper up at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth on the conflict between conventional macroeconomic policy and Lerner-style functional finance. Here’s the accompanying blogpost, cross-posted from the WCEG blog.


One pole of current debates about U.S. fiscal policy is occupied by the “functional finance” position—the view usually traced back to the late economist Abba Lerner—that a government’s budget balance can be set at whatever level is needed to stabilize aggregate demand, without worrying about the level of government debt. At the other pole is the conventional view that a government’s budget balance must be set to keep debt on a sustainable trajectory while leaving the management of aggregate demand to the central bank. Both sides tend to assume that these different policy views come from fundamentally different ideas about how the economy works.

A new working paper, “Lost in Fiscal Space,” coauthored by myself and Arjun Jayadev, suggests that, on the contrary, the functional finance and the conventional approaches can be understood in terms of the same analytic framework. The claim that fiscal policy can be used to stabilize the economy without ever worrying about debt sustainability sounds radical. But we argue that it follows directly from the standard macroeconomic models that are taught to undergraduates and used by policymakers.

Here’s the idea. There are two instruments: first, the interest rate set by the central bank; and second, the fiscal balance—the budget surplus or deficit. And there are two targets: the level of aggregate demand consistent with acceptable levels of inflation and unemployment; and a stable debt-to-GDP ratio. Each instrument affects both targets—output depends on both the interest rate set by monetary authorities and on the fiscal balance (as well as a host of other factors) while the change in the debt depends on both new borrowing and the interest paid on existing debt. Conventional policy and functional finance represent two different choices about which instrument to assign to which target. The former says the interest rate instrument should focus on demand and the fiscal-balance instrument should focus on the debt-ratio target, the latter has them the other way around.

Does it matter? Not necessarily. There is always one unique combination of interest rate and budget balance that delivers both stable debt and price stability. If policy is carried out perfectly then that’s where you will end up, regardless of which instrument is assigned to which target. In this sense, the functional finance position is less radical than either its supporters or its opponents believe.

In reality, of course, policies are not followed perfectly. One common source of problems is when decisions about each instrument are made looking only at the effects on its assigned target, ignoring the effects on the other one. A government, for example, may adopt fiscal austerity to bring down the debt ratio, ignoring the effects this will have on aggregate demand. Or a central bank may raise the interest rate to curb inflation, ignoring the effects this will have on the sustainability of the public debt. (The rise in the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio in the 1980s owes more to Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s interest rate hikes than to President Reagan’s budget deficits.) One natural approach, then, is to assign each target to the instrument that affects it more powerfully, so that these cross-effects are minimized.

So far this is just common sense; but when you apply it more systematically, as we do in our working paper, it has some surprising implications. In particular, it means that the metaphor of “fiscal space” is backward. When government debt is large, it makes more sense, not less, to use active fiscal policy to stabilize demand—and leave the management of the public debt ratio to the central bank. The reason is simple: The larger the debt-to-GDP ratio, the more that changes in the ratio depend on the difference in between the interest rate and the growth rate of GDP, and the less those changes depend on current spending and revenue (a point that has been forcefully made by Council of Economic Advisers Chair Jason Furman). This is what we see historically: When the public debt is very large, as in the United States during and immediately after the Second World War, the central bank focused on stabilizing the public debt rather than on stabilizing demand, which means responsibility for aggregate demand fell to the budget authorities.

We hope this paper will help clarify what’s at stake in current debates about U.S. fiscal policy. The question is not whether it’s economically feasible to use fiscal policy as our primary instrument to manage aggregate demand. Any central bank that is able to achieve its price stability and full employment mandates is equally able to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio constant while the budget authorities manage demand. The latter task may even be easier, especially when debt is already high. The real question is who we, as a democratic society, trust to make decisions about the direction of the economy as a whole.

UPDATE: Nick Rowe has an interesting response here. (And an older one here, with a great comments thread following it.)

Links for October 14

Now we are making progress. This piece by CEA chair Jason Furman on “the new view” of fiscal policy seems like a big step forward for mainstream policy debate. He goes further than anyone comparably prominent in rejecting the conventional macro-policy wisdom of the past 30 years. From where I’m sitting, the piece advances beyond the left edge of the current mainstream discussion in at least three ways.

First, it abandons the idea of zero interest rates as a special state of exception and accepts the idea of fiscal policy as a routine tool of macroeconomic stabilization. Reading stuff like this, or like SF Fed President John Williams saying that fiscal policy should be “a first responder to recessions,” one suspects that the post-1980s consensus that stabilization should be left to the central banks may be gone for good. Second, it directly takes on the idea that elected governments are inherently biased toward stimulus and have to be institutionally restrained from overexpansionary policy. This idea — back up with some arguments about  the“time-inconsistency” of policy that don’t really make sense — has remained a commonplace no matter how much real-world policy seems to lean the other way. It’s striking, for instance, to see someone like Simon Wren-Lewis rail against “the austerity con” in his public writing, and yet in his academic work take it as an unquestioned premise that elected governments suffer from “deficit bias.” So it’s good to see Furman challenge this assumption head-on.

The third step forward is the recognition that the long-run evolution of the debt ratio depends on GDP growth and interest rates as well as on the fiscal balance. Some on the left will criticize his assumption that the debt ratio is something policy should be worried about at all — here the new view has not yet broken decisively with the old view; I might have some criticisms of him on this point myself. But it’s very important to point out, as he does, that “changes in the debt ratio depend on two factors: the difference between the interest rate and the growth rate… and the primary balance… The larger the debt is, the more changes in r – g dwarf the primary balance in the determination of debt dynamics.” (Emphasis added.) The implication here is that the “fiscal space” metaphor is backward — if the debt ratio is a target for policy, then a higher current ratio means you should focus more on growth, and that responsibility for the “sustainability” of the debt rests more with the monetary authority than the fiscal authority. Admittedly Furman doesn’t follow this logic as far as Arjun and I do in our paper, but it’s significant progress to foreground the fact the debt ratio has both a numerator and a denominator.

If you’re doubting whether there’s anything really new here, just compare this piece with what his CEA chair predecessor Christina Romer was saying a decade ago — you couldn’t ask for a clearer statement of what Furman now rejects as “the old view.” It’s also, incidentally, a sign of how far policy discussions — both new view and old view — are from academic macro. DSGE models and their associated analytic apparatus don’t have even a walk-on part here. I think left critics of economics are too quick to assume that there is a tight link — a link at all, really — between orthodox theory and orthodox policy.


Why do stock exchanges exist? I really enjoyed this John Cochrane post on volume and information in financial markets. The puzzle, as he says, is why there is so much trading — indeed, why there is any trading at all. Life cycle and risk preference motivations could support, at best, a minute fraction of the trading we see; but information trading — the overwhelming bulk of actual trading — has winners and losers. As Cochrane puts it:

all trading — any deviation of portfolios from the value-weighted market index — is zero sum. Informed traders do not make money from us passive investors, they make money from other traders. It is not a puzzle that informed traders trade and make money. The deep puzzle is why the uninformed trade, when they could do better by indexing. …

Stock exchanges exist to support information trading. The theory of finance predicts that stock exchanges, the central institution it studies, the central source of our data, should not exist. The tiny amounts of trading you can generate for life cycle or other reasons could all easily be handled at a bank. All of the smart students I sent to Wall Street for 20 years went to participate in something that my theory said should not exist.

At first glance this might seem like one of those “puzzles” beloved of economists, where you describe some real-world phenomena in terms of a toy model of someone maximizing something, and then treat the fact that it doesn’t work very well as a surprising fact about the world rather than an unsurprising fact about your description. But in this case, the puzzle seems real; the relevant assumptions apply in financial markets in a way they don’t elsewhere.

I like that Cochrane makes no claim to have a solution to the puzzle — the choice to accept ignorance rather than grab onto the first plausible answer is, arguably, the starting point for scientific thought and certainly something economists could use more of. (One doesn’t have to accept the suggestion that if we have no idea what social needs, if any, are met by financial markets, or if there is too much trading or too little, that that’s an argument against regulation.) And I like the attention to what actual traders do (and say they do), which is quite different from what’s in the models.


Yes, we know it’s not a “real” Nobel. So the Nobel went to Hart and Holmstrom. Useful introductions to their work are here and here. Their work is on contract theory: Why do people make complex ongoing agreements with each other, instead of just buying the things they want? This might seem like one of those pseudo-puzzles — as Sanjay Reddy notes on Twitter, the question only makes sense if you take economists’ ideal world as your starting point. There’s a whole genre of this stuff: Take some phenomenon we are familiar with from everyday life, or that has been described by other social scientists, and show that it can also exist in a world of exchange between rational monads. Even at its best, this can come across like a guy who learns to, I don’t know, play Stairway to Heaven with a set of spoons. Yes, getting the notes out takes real skill, and it doesn’t sound bad, but it’s not clear why you would play it that way if you weren’t for some reason already committed to the gimmick. Or in this case, it’s not clear what we learn from translating a description of actual employment contracts into the language of intertemporal optimization; the process requires as an input all the relevant facts about the phenomenon it claims to explain. What’s the point, unless you are for some already committed to ignoring any facts about the world not expressed in the formalism of economics? This work — I admit I don’t know it well — also makes me uncomfortable with the way it seems to veer opportunistically between descriptive and prescriptive. Is this about how actual contracts really are optimal given information constraints and so on, or is it about how optimal contracts should be written? Anyway, here’s a more positive assessment from Mark Thoma.


Still far from full employment. Heres’ a helpful report from the Center for Economics and Policy Research on the state of the labor market. They look at a bunch of alternatives to the conventional unemployment rate and find that all of them show a weaker labor market than in 2006-2007. Hopefully the Clinton administration and/or some Democrats in the Senate will  put some sharp questions to FOMC appointees over the next few years about whether they think the Fed as fulfilled its employmnet mandate, and on what basis. They’ll find some useful ammunition here.


Saving, investment and the natural rate. Here’s a new paper from Lance Taylor taking another swipe at the pinata of the “natural rate”. Taylor points out that if the “natural” interest rate simply means the interest rate at which aggregate demand equals potential output (even setting aside questions about how we measure potential), the concept doesn’t make much sense. If we look at the various flows of spending on goods and services by sector and purpose, we can certainly identify flows that are more or less responsive to interest rates; but there is no reason to think that interest rate changes are the main driver of changes in spending, or that “the” interest rate that balances spending and potential at a given moment is particularly stable or represents any kind of fundamental parameters of the economy. Even less can we think of the “natural” rate as balancing saving and investment, because, among other reasons, “saving” is dwarfed by the financial flows between and within sectors. Taylor also takes Keynes to task (rightly, in my view) for setting us on the wrong track with assumption that households save and “entrepreneurs” invest, when in fact most of the saving in the national accounts takes place within the corporate sector.


On other blogs, other wonders:

At Vox, another reminder that the rise in wealth relative to income that Piketty documents is mainly about the rising value of existing assets, not the savings-and-accumulation process he talks about in his formal models.

Also at Vox: How much did Germany benefit from debt forgiveness after World War II? (A lot.) EDIT: Also here.

Is there really a “global pivot” toward more expansionary fiscal policy? The IMF and Morgan Stanley both say no.

Another one for the short-termism file: Here’s an empirical paper suggesting that when banks become publicly traded, their management starts responding to short-run movements in their stock, taking on more risk as a result.

Matias Vernengo has a new paper on Raul Prebisch’s thought on business cycles and growth. Prebisch would be near the top of my list of twentieth century economists who deserve more attention than they get.

I was just at Verso for the release party for Peter Frase’s new book Four Futures, based on his widely-read Jacobin piece. I don’t really agree with Peter’s views on this — I don’t see the full replacement of human labor by machines as the logical endpoint of either the historical development of capitalism or a socialist political project — but he makes a strong case. If the robot future is something you’re thinking about, you should definitely buy the book.


EDIT: Two I meant to include, and forgot:

David Glasner has a follow-up post on the inconsistency of rational expectations with the “shocks” and comparative statics they usually share models with. It’s probably not worth beating this particular dead horse too much more, but one more inconsistency. As I can testify first-hand, at most macroeconomic journals, “lacks microfoundations” is sufficient reason to reject a paper. But this requirement is suspended as soon as you call something a “shock,” even though technology, the markup, etc. are forms of behavior just as much as economic quantities or prices are. (This is also one of Paul Romer’s points.)

And speaking of people named Romer, David and and Christina Romer have a new working paper on US monetary policy in the 1950s. It’s a helpful paper — it’s always worthwhile to reframe abstract, universal questions as concrete historical ones — but also very orthodox in its conclusions. The Fed did a good job in the 1950s, in their view, because it focused single-mindedly on price stability, and was willing to raise rates in response to low unemployment even before inflation started rising. This is a good example of the disconnect between the academic mainstream and the policy mainstream that I mentioned above. It’s perfectly possible to defend orthodoxy macroeconomic policy without any commitment to, or use of, orthodox macroeconomic theory.


EDIT: Edited to remove embarrassing confusion of Romers.

How Should We Count Debt Owed to the Fed?

How big is US government debt? If you google this question looking for a number, your first hit is likely to be a site like this, giving a figure (as of June 2016) around $19.5 trillion, or a bit over 100 percent of GDP. That’s the total public debt as reported by the US Treasury.

If you are reading this blog, you probably don’t take that number at face value. You probably know the preferred number is federal debt held by the public. As of June 2016, that’s $14 trillion, or a bit over 70 percent of GDP. That’s the number more likely to be used in academic papers or by official bodies. (Wikipedia seems to mix the two numbers at random.)

Debt held by the public is meant to exclude debt the federal government owes to itself.  For the US, that means subtracting the $2.8 trillion in debt held by the Social Security trust fund, the $1.7 trillion held by by federal employee retirement funds, and $1 trillion various other federal trust funds. It leaves in, however, the debt held by the Federal Reserve.

I wonder how many people, the sort of people who read this blog, know that. I wonder how many people know that today, one fifth of the federal debt “held by the public” is actually held by the Fed. I certainly didn’t, until recently.

Here’s a breakdown of federal debt by who owns it. Total public debt is the whole thing. Debt held by the public is the heavy black line. Debt held by the Fed is the blue area just below that line. (Source is various series from the Financial Accounts.)

debt-holdingsAs you can see, the Fed accounts for quite a bit of federal debt holdings — $2.5 trillion, 16 percent of GDP, or 19 percent of debt “held by the public”.

There’s some other interesting stuff in there. Most obviously, the dramatic fall in the share of debt held by households and nonfinancial businesses (the orange area), and rise of the foreign share (yellow). In the 1950s Abba Lerner could talk with some plausibility about the demand-boosting effects of federal interest payments to households; but it’s silly to suggest — as some modern Lernerians do — that higher rates might boost demand through this channel today. The declining share of the financial sector (red) is also interesting. I’ve suggested that this was a factor in rising liquidity premiums and financial fragility. If, as Zoltan Pozsar argues, we’re seeing a lasting shift from “market liquidity” to “base liquidity” this may include a permanently larger share of federal debt on bank balance sheets.

But what about the Fed share? Should it be counted in debt held by the public, or not? I can’t find the reference at the moment, but I believe there is no consistent rule on this between countries. (As I recall, the UK excludes it.) In any case, the phenomenon of large central bank holdings of government debt is not unique to the US. Here, from the OECD (p. 41), are the shares of government debt held by central banks in various countries:

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 9.33.51 AM

If you want to say that debt held by the Fed definitely shouldn’t be counted, I won’t object. After all, any interest earnings on the debt are simply returned to the Treasury at the end of the year, so this debt literally represents payments the government is making to itself. But that’s not what I want to say. To be honest, I can see valid arguments on both sides — yes, the Fed is a part of government just as much as the Social Security Administration; but on the other hand, the Fed’s holdings were acquired in market purchases from the private sector, while the holdings of the various trust funds are nonmarketable securities that exist only as bookkeeping devices for future payments to beneficiaries. And if you think the Fed will reduce its holdings in the near future, then it makes sense to count them for any target you might have for holdings by the private sector. But of course, in that case how much you count them will depend on whether, when and how much you think the Fed will unwind its 2009-2013 balance sheet expansions. And this is my point: There is no true level of the federal debt. The “debt” is not an object out in the world. It is a way of talking about some set of the payment commitments by some set of economic units, sets whose boundaries are inherently arbitrary.

Again, debt “held by the public” does not include the notional debt in the Social Security Trust Fund, or in the various retirement funds for  federal employees. But what about the debt (currently about 5 percent of GDP) held by state and local governments in similar trust funds? Fundamentally, these represent commitments by the federal government to help with pension payments to retired state and local government employees. But this is the same commitment embodied in the Social Security Trust Fund. And on the other hand, the federal government has a vast number of payment commitments to state and local governments — transfers from the federal government make up more than a quarter of total state government revenue. Why count the commitments that happen to be recorded as debt holding in retirement funds as federal debt but not the rest of them?

For that matter, what about the future claims of Social Security recipients? They certainly represent payment commitments by the federal government. Lawrence Kotlikoff thinks there is no difference between the commitment to make future Social Security payments and the commitment to make payments on the debt, so we should add them up and say debt held by the public is over 200 percent of GDP. Other people want to add in public pensions of all kinds. Why not throw in Medicare, too? True, retirement benefits are not marketable, but checking your expected benefits at https://www.ssa.gov/myaccount is not much harder than checking your bank balance online. And for the MMT-inclined, don’t future Social Security benefits have as good a claim to be “net wealth” for the private sector as federal debt, maybe better?

One takeaway from all this is the point eloquently made by Merijn Knibbe, that one of the big problems in the economics profession today is the complete disconnect between theory and measurement. Most public discussions and economic models — and a lot of empirical work for that matter — treat “debt”  as an object that simply exists in the world. (It’s worth noting that the question of how exactly debt is defined, and who it is owed to, does get some attention in undergraduate econ textbooks, but none at all in graduate ones.) It seems to me that the large share of debt held by central banks is a case in point of how we have to make a conscious choice about which commitments we classify as “debt”, and recognize that the best place to draw the line is going to depend on the question we’re asking. We need to treat economic categories like debt not as primitives but as provisional shorthand, and we need to be constantly walking back and forth between our abstractions and the concrete phenomena they are trying to describe. You can’t, it seems to me, do useful scholarship on something like government debt, except on the basis of a deep engagement with the concrete practices and public debates that the term is part of.

More concretely: Whenever you take a functional finance line, someone is going to stand up and start demanding in a prosecutorial tone whether you really think government debt could rise to 10 times or 100 times GDP. How about 1,000 times? a million times? — until you say something noncommittal and move on to the next question (or mute them on Twitter). But of course the answer is, it depends. It depends, first, on the concrete institutional arrangements under which debt is held, which determine both economic impacts and financial constraints, if any.  (For example, whether the debt held by central banks should be counted as held by the public depends on when or if those positions will be unwound.) And it depends, second, on how we are counting debt.

Consider a trust fund holding federal debt. What the federal government has actually committed to is a stream of payments in the future which in turn will allow the fund to fulfill its own payment commitments. Converting that flow of future payments to a liability stock in the present depends on the discount rate we assign to them. But we can follow that same procedure for any future spending, whether or not it is officially recognized as someone’s asset. As Dean Baker likes to say, given that we don’t prefund education, the military, etc., pretty much all government spending could be called an unfunded liability for the federal government. How big a liability depends on the discount rate. If the discount rate is less than the nominal growth rate, then the present value of future spending grows without limit as we consider longer periods.

Here’s an exercise. Let’s go full Kotlikoff and call all future government spending a liability of taxpayers today. Say that federal spending is a constant 20 percent of GDP and nominal growth is 5 percent per year.  If we use the current 10-year Treasury rate of around 2 percent as our discount rate, then the present value of federal spending over the next 20 years works out to, let’s see, $10 quadrillion, or 55,000 percent of GDP. That’s $30 million per person. Whoa. Can I have a Time magazine cover story now? [No I cannot, because I am bad at math. See below.]

So yeah. 20 percent of debt “held by the public” is actually owed to the Fed. An interesting fact which perhaps you did not know.


UPDATE: As commenter Matt points out below, the math in the next-to-last paragraph is wrong. The calculation as given yields $110  trillion, a measly 600 percent of GDP. On the other hand, if we stretch it out to the next 30 years, we get nearly $200 trillion, which is 1,000 percent of GDP or more than $600,000 per person. I guess that will do.

Links for June 15, 2016

“Huge foreign demand for Treasuries”. Via Across the Curve, here’s the Wall Street Journal:

The global hunger for U.S. government debt is intensifying as investors seek better returns from the negative yields and record-low rates found in Japan and Europe. On Thursday, an auction of 30-year Treasury debt attracted some of the highest demand ever from overseas buyers…

Thirty-year bonds typically attract a specialized audience, largely pension funds and other investors trying to buy assets to match long-term liabilities. There are few viable alternatives for such buyers around the world. The frenzy of buying has sparked warnings about the potential of large losses if interest rates rise. …

One auction is hardly dispositive, but that huge foreign demand is worth keeping in mind when we think about the US fiscal and external deficits. A point that Ryan Cooper also makes well.


You get the debt, I get the cash. When I pointed out Minsky’s take on Trump on this blog a few months ago, there were some doubts. How exactly, did Trump extract equity from his businesses? Why didn’t the other investors sue?  In its fascinating long piece on Trump’s adventures in Atlantic City, the Times answers these questions in great detail. Rread the whole thing. But if you don’t, Trump himself has the tl;dr:

“Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,” he said in a recent interview. “Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.”



Unto the tenth generation. If you are going to make an argument for Britain leaving the euro, it seems to me that Steve Keen has the right one. The fundamental issue is not the direct economic effects of membership in the EU (which are probably exaggerated in any case.) The issue is the political economy. First, the EU lacks democratic legitimacy, it effectively shifts power away from elected national governments, while Europe-wide democracy remains an empty shell. And second, European institutions are committed to an agenda of liberalization and austerity.

From the other side, we get this:

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 9.52.44 PM

I wish I knew where this sort of thing came from. Maybe Brexit would reduce employment in the UK, maybe it wouldn’t — this is not the sort of thing that can be asserted as an unambiguous matter of fact. Whether it’s EU membership or taxes or trade or the minimum wage, everyone claims their preferred policy will lead to higher living standards than the alternatives. Chris Bertram seems like a reasonable person, I doubt that, in general, he wishes suffering on the children of people who see policy questions differently than he does. But on this one, disagreement is impermissible. Why?


I like hanging out in coffeehouses. Over at Bloomberg, Noah Smith offers a typology of macroeconomics:

The first is what I call “coffee-house macro,” and it’s what you hear in a lot of casual discussions. It often revolves around the ideas of dead sages — Friedrich Hayek, Hyman Minsky and John Maynard Keynes.

The second is finance macro. This consists of private-sector economists and consultants who try to read the tea leaves on interest rates, unemployment, inflation and other indicators in order to predict the future of asset prices (usually bond prices). It mostly uses simple math, … always includes a hefty dose of personal guesswork.

The third is academic macro. This traditionally involves professors making toy models of the economy — since the early ’80s, these have almost exclusively been DSGE models … most people outside the discipline who take one look at these models immediately think they’re kind of a joke.

The fourth type I call Fed macro…

It’s fair to say a lot of us here in the coffeehouses were pleased by this piece. Obviously, you can quibble with the details of his list. But it gets a couple of big things right. First, the fundamental problem with academic macroeconomics is not that it’s a  study of the concrete phenomena of “the economy” that has gone wrong in some way, but a self-contained activity. The purpose of models isn’t to explain anything, it’s just to satisfy the aesthetic standards of the profession. As my friend Suresh put it once, the best way to think about economics is a kind of haiku with Euler equations. I think a lot of people on the left miss this — they think that you can criticize economic by pointing out some discrepancy with the real world. But that’s like saying that chess is flawed because in medieval Europe there were many more knights than bishops.

The other thing I think Noah’s piece gets right is there is no such thing as “economic orthodoxy.” There are various different orthodoxies — the orthodoxy of the academy, the orthodoxy of business and finance, the orthodoxy of policymakers — and they don’t agree with each other. On some important dimensions they hardly even make contact.

Merijn Knibbe also likes the Bloomberg piece. (He’s doing very good work exploring these same cleavages.) Noah follows up on his blog. Justin Wolfers rejects basically everything taught as macroeconomics in grad school. DeLong makes a distinction between good and bad academic economics which to me, frankly, looks like wishful thinking. Brian Romanchuk has some interesting thoughts on this conversation.


Are there really excess reserves? I’ve just been reading Zoltan Pozsar’s Global Money Notes for Credit Suisse. Man they are good. If you’re interested in money, finance, central banks, monetary policy, any of that, you should be reading this guy. Anyway, in this one he makes a provocative argument that I think is right:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are no excess reserves – not one penny. Labelling the trillions of reserves created as a byproduct of QE as “excess” was appropriate only until the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) went live, but not after. …

Before the LCR, banks were required to hold reserves only against demand deposits issued in the U.S. … As banks went about their usual business of making loans and creating deposits, they routinely fell short of reserve requirements. To top up their reserve balances, banks with a shortfall of reserves … borrowed fed funds from banks with a surplus of reserves… These transactions comprised the fed funds market.

Under the LCR, banks are required to hold reserves (and more broadly, high-quality liquid assets) not only against overnight deposits, but all short-term liabilities that mature in less than 30 days, regardless of whether those liabilities were issued by a bank subsidiary, a broker-dealer subsidiary or a holding company onshore or offshore …

The idea is this: Under the new Basel III rules, which the US has adopted, banks are required to hold liquid assets equal to their total liabilities due in 30 days or less. This calculation is supposed to include liabilities of all kinds, across all the bank’s affiliates and subsidiaries, inside and outside the US. Most of this requirement must be satisfied with a short list of “Tier I” assets, which includes central bank reserves. So reserves that are excess with respect to the old (effectively moot) reserve requirements, will not be to the extent that they are held to satisfy these new rules.

Pozsar’s discussion of these issues is extremely informative. But his “no one penny” language may be a bit exaggerated. While the exact rules are still being finalized, it looks like current reserve holdings could still be excessive under LCR. Whie banks have to hold unencumbered liquid assets equal to thier short-term liabilities, the fraction that has to be reserves specifically is still being determined — Pozsar suggests the most likely fraction is 15 percent. He gives data for six big banks, four of which hold more reserves than required by that standard — though on the other hand, five of the six hold less total Tier I liquid assets than they will need. (That’s the “max” line in the figure — the “min” line is 15 percent.) But even if current reserve holdings turn out to be more than is required by LCR, it’s clear that there are far less excess reserves than one would think using the old requirements.

Liquid assets as a share of short-term liabilities. Source: Credit Suisse
Liquid assets as a share of short-term liabilities, selected banks. Source: Credit Suisse

Pozsar draws several interesting conclusions from these facts. First, the Federal Funds rate is dead for good as a tool of policy. (I wonder how long it will take textbook writers to catch up.) Second, central bank balance sheets are not going to shrink back to “normal” any time in the foreseeable future. Third, this is a step along the way to the Fed becoming the world’s central bank, de facto in even in a sense de jure. (Especially in conjunction with the permanent swap lines with other central banks, another insitutional evolution that has not gotten the attention it deserves.) A conclusion that he does not draw, but perhaps should have, is that this is another reason not to worry about demand for Treasury debt. There are good prudential reasons for requiring banks to hold government liabilities, but in effect it is also a form of financial repression.

This is also a good illustration of Noah’s point about the disconnect between academic economics and policy/finance economics. Academic economists are obsessed with “the” interest rate, which they map to the entirely unrelated intertemporal price called “interest rate” in the Walrasian system. Fundamentally what central banks do is determine the pace of credit expansion, which historically has involved a great variety of policy tools. Yes, for a while the tool of choice was an overnight interbank rate. But not anymore. And whatever the mix of immediate targets and instruments will be going forward, it’s a safe bet it won’t return to what it was in the past.

Links for April 12

Maybe I should aspire to do a links post like this once a week. Today is Tuesday; is Tuesday a good day? Or would it be better to break a post like this into half a dozen short ones, and put them up one at a time?

Anyway, some links and thoughts:


Public debt in the 21st century. Here is a very nice piece by DeLong, arguing that over the next 50 years, rich countries should see a higher level of public expenditure, and a higher level of public debt, and that even much higher debt ratios don’t have any important economic costs. There’s no shortage of people making this general case, but this is one of the better versions I’ve seen.

The point that the “sustainability” of a given deficit depends on the relation between interest rates and growth rates has of course been made plenty of times, by people like Jamie Galbraith and Scott Fullwiler. But there’s another important point in the DeLong piece, which is that technological developments — the prevalence of increasing returns, the importance of information and other non-rival goods, and in general the development of what Marx called the “cooperative form of the labour process” — makes the commodity form  less and less suitable for organizing productive activity. DeLong sees this as an argument for a secular shift toward government as opposed to markets as our central “societal coordinating mechanism” (and he says “Smithian market” rather than commodity form). But fundamentally this is the same argument that Marx makes for the ultimate supercession of capitalism in the penultimate chapter of Capital.


Short-termism at the BIS. Via Enno Schroeder, here’s a speech by Hyun Song Shin of the BIS, on the importance of bank capital. The most interesting thing for my purposes is how he describes the short-termism problem for banks:

Let me now come back to the question as to why banks have been so reluctant to plough back their profits into their own funds. … we may ask whether there are possible tensions between the private interests of some bank stakeholders versus the wider public interest of maintaining a soundly functioning banking system… shareholders may feel they can unlock some value from their shareholding by paying themselves a cash dividend, even at the expense of eroding the bank’s lending base.

As many of the shareholders are asset managers who place great weight on short-term relative performance in competition against their peers, the temptation to raid the bank’s seed corn may become too strong to resist. … These private motives are reasonable and readily understandable, but if the outcome is to erode capital that serves as the bank’s foundation for lending for the real economy, then a gap may open up between the private interests of some bank stakeholders and the broader public interest.

Obviously, this is very similar to the argument I’ve been making for the corporate sector in general. I especially like the focus on asset managers — this is an aspect of the short-termism story that hasn’t gotten enough attention so far. People talk about principal-agent problems here in terms of management as agents and shareholders as principals; but only a trivial fraction of shares are directly controlled by the ultimate owners, so there are plenty of principal-agent problems in the financial sector itself. When asset managers’ performance is evaluated every year or two — not to mention the performance of the individual employees — the effective investment horizon is going to be short, and the discount rate correspondingly high, regardless of the preferences of the ultimate owners.

I also like his diplomatic rejection of a loanable-funds framework as a useful way of thinking about bank lending, and his suggestion that the monetary-policy and supervisory functions of a central bank are not really distinct in practice. (I touched on this idea here.) The obligatory editorializing against negative rates not so much, but I guess it comes with the territory.


Market failure and government failure in the euro crisis. This piece by Peter Bofinger gets at some of the contradictions in mainstream debates around the euro crisis, and in particular in the idea that financial markets can or should “discipline” national governments. My favorite bit is this quote from the German Council of Economic Experts:

Since flows of capital as well as goods and services are market outcomes, we would not implicate the ‘intra-Eurozone capital flows that emerged in the decade before the crisis’ as the ‘real culprits’ …Hence, it is the government failures and the failures in regulation … that should take centre-stage in the Crisis narrative.

Well ok then!


Visualizing the yield curve. This is a very nice visualization of the yield curve for Treasury bonds since 1999. Two key Keynesian points come through clearly: First, that the short-term rate set by policy has quite limited purchase on the longer term market rates. This is especially striking in the 2000s as the 20- and 30-year rates barely budget from 5% even as the short end swings wildly. But second, that if policy rates are held low enough long enough, they can eventually pull down market rates. The key Keynes texts are here and here; I have some thoughts here, developed further here.


Trade myths. Jim Tankersley has a useful rundown in the Washington Post on myths about trade and tariffs. I’m basically on board with it: You don’t have to buy into the idolatry of “free trade” to think that the economic benefits of tariffs for the US today would be minimal, especially compared with the costs they would impose elsewhere. But I wish he had not bought into another myth, that China is “manipulating” its exchange rate. Pegged exchange rates are in general accepted by orthodoxy; for much of modern history they were the norm. And even where exchange rates are not officially pegged or targeted, they are still influenced by all kinds of macroeconomic policy choices. It’s not controversial, for instance, to say that low interest rates in the US tend to reduce the value of the dollar, and thereby boost US net exports. Why isn’t that a form of currency manipulation? (To be fair, people occasionally suggest that it is.) I heard Joe Stiglitz put it well, at an event a year or two ago: There is no such thing as a free-market exchange rate, it’s just a question of whether our central bank sets it, or theirs does. And in any case, the Bank of China’s purchase of dollars has to be considered alongside China’s capital controls, which — given the demand of wealthy Chinese for dollar assets — tend to raise the value of the renminbi. On net, the effect of Chinese government interventions has probably been to keep the renminbi “artificially” high, not low. (As I’ve been saying for years.)


The politics of the minimum wage. Here is a nice piece by Stephanie Luce on the significance of New York’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15. Also in Jacobin, here’s Ted Fertik on why our horrible governor signed onto this and the arguably even more radical paid family leave bill.

It would be a great project for some journalist — I don’t think it’s been done — to explore how, concretely, this was won — the way the target was decided, what the strategy was, who was mobilized, and how. In mainstream press accounts these kinds of reforms seem to spring fully formed from the desks of executives and legislators, midwifed by some suitably credentialed experts. But when you dig beneath the surface there’s almost always been years of grassroots organizing before something like this bears fruit. The groups that do that work tend to avoid the press, I think for good reasons; but at some point it’s important to share with a wider public how the sausage got made. My impression in this case is that the key organizing work was done by Make the Road, but I’d love to see the story told properly. I haven’t yet read my friend Mark Engler’s new book, This Is an Uprising, but I think it has some good analysis of other similar campaigns.

The Myth of Reagan’s Debt

… or at least don’t blame him for increased federal debt.


Arjun and I have been working lately on a paper on monetary and fiscal policy. (You can find the current version here.) The idea, which began with some posts on my blog last year, is that you have to think of the output gap and the change in the debt-GDP ratio as jointly determined by the fiscal balance and the policy interest rate. It makes no sense to talk about the “natural” (i.e. full-employment) rate of interest, or “sustainable” (i.e. constant debt ratio) levels of government spending and taxes. Both outcomes depend equally on both policy instruments. This helps, I think, to clarify some of the debates between orthodoxy and proponents of functional finance. Functional finance and sound finance aren’t different theories about how the economy works, they’re different preferred instrument assignments.

We started working on the paper with the idea of clarifying these issues in a general way. But it turns out that this framework is also useful for thinking about macroeconomic history. One interesting thing I discovered working on it is that, despite what we all think we know,  the increase in federal borrowing during the 1980s was mostly due to higher interest rate, not tax and spending decisions. Add to the Volcker rate hikes the deep recession of the early 1980s and the disinflation later in the decade, and you’ve explained the entire rise in the debt-GDP ratio under Reagan. What’s funny is that this is a straightforward matter of historical fact and yet nobody seems to be aware of it.

Here, first, are the overall and primary budget balances for the federal government since 1960.  The primary budget balance is simply the balance excluding interest payments — that is, current revenue minus . non-interest expenditure. The balances are shown in percent of GDP, with surpluses as positive values and deficits as negative. The vertical black lines are drawn at calendar years 1981 and 1990, marking the last pre-Reagan and first post-Reagan budgets.


The black line shows the familiar story. The federal government ran small budget deficits through the 1960s and 1970s, averaging a bit more than 0.5 percent of GDP. Then during the 1980s the deficits ballooned, to close to 5 percent of GDP during Reagan’s eight years — comparable to the highest value ever reached in the previous decades. After a brief period of renewed deficits under Bush in the early 1990s, the budget moved to surplus under Clinton in the later 1990s, back to moderate deficits under George W. Bush in the 2000s, and then to very large deficits in the Great Recession.

The red line, showing the primary deficit, mostly behaves similarly to the black one — but not in the 1980s. True, the primary balance shows a large deficit in 1984, but there is no sustained movement toward deficit. While the overall deficit was about 4.5 points higher under Reagan compared with the average of the 1960s and 1970s, the primary deficit was only 1.4 points higher. So over two-thirds of the increase in deficits was higher interest spending. For that, we can blame Paul Volcker (a Carter appointee), not Ronald Reagan.

Volcker’s interest rate hikes were, of course, justified by the need to reduce inflation, which was eventually achieved. Without debating the legitimacy of this as a policy goal, it’s important to keep in mind that lower inflation (plus the reduced growth that brings it about) mechanically raises the debt-GDP ratio, by reducing its denominator. The federal debt ratio rose faster in the 1980s than in the 1970s, in part, because inflation was no longer eroding it to the same extent.

To see the relative importance of higher interest rates, slower inflation and growth, and tax and spending decisions, the next figure presents three counterfactual debt-GDP trajectories, along with the actual historical trajectory. In the first counterfactual, shown in blue, we assume that nominal interest rates were fixed at their 1961-1981 average level. In the second counterfactual, in green, we assume that nominal GDP growth was fixed at its 1961-1981 average. And in the third, red, we assume both are fixed. In all three scenarios, current taxes and spending (the primary balance) follow their actual historical path.


In the real world, the debt ratio rose from 24.5 percent in the last pre-Reagan year to 39 percent in the first post-Reagan year. In counterfactual 1, with nominal interest rates held constant, the increase is from 24.5 percent to 28 percent. So again, the large majority of the Reagan-era increase in the debt-GDP ratio is the result of higher interest rates. In counterfactual 2, with nominal growth held constant, the increase is to 34.5 percent — closer to the historical level (inflation was still quite high in the early ’80s) but still noticeably less. In counterfactual 3, with interest rates, inflation and real growth rates fixed at their 1960s-1970s average, federal debt at the end of the Reagan era is 24.5 percent — exactly the same as when he entered office. High interest rates and disinflation explain the entire increase in the federal debt-GDP ratio in the 1980s; military spending and tax cuts played no role.

After 1989, the counterfactual trajectories continue to drift downward relative to the actual one. Interest on federal debt has been somewhat higher, and nominal growth rates somewhat lower, than in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the tax and spending policies actually followed would have resulted in the complete elimination of the federal debt by 2001 if the previous i < g regime had persisted. But after the 1980s, the medium-term changes in the debt ratio were largely driven by shifts in the primary balance. Only in the 1980s was a large change in the debt ratio driven entirely by changes in interest and nominal growth rates.

So why do we care? (A question you should always ask.) Three reasons:

First, the facts themselves are interesting. If something everyone thinks they know — Reagan’s budgets blew up the federal debt in the 1980s — turns out not be true, it’s worth pointing out. Especially if you thought you knew it too.

Second is a theoretical concern which may not seem urgent to most readers of this blog but is very important to me. The particular flybottle I want to find the way out of is the idea that money is neutral,  veil —  that monetary quantities are necessarily, or anyway in practice, just reflections of “real” quantities, of the production, exchange and consumption of tangible goods and services. I am convinced that to understand our monetary production economy, we have to first understand the system of money incomes and payments, of assets and liabilities, as logically self-contained. Only then we can see how that system articulates with the concrete activity of social production. [1] This is a perfect example of why this “money view” is necessary. It’s tempting, it’s natural, to think of a money value like the federal debt in terms of the “real” activities of the federal government, spending and taxing; but it just doesn’t fit the facts.

Third, and perhaps most urgent: If high interest rates and disinflation drove the rise in the federal debt ratio in the 1980s, it could happen again. In the current debates about when the Fed will achieve liftoff, one of the arguments for higher rates is the danger that low rates lead to excessive debt growth. It’s important to understand that, historically, the relationship is just the opposite. By increasing the debt service burden of existing debt (and perhaps also by decreasing nominal incomes), high interest rates have been among the main drivers of rising debt, both public and private. A concern about rising debt burdens is an argument for hiking later, not sooner. People like Dean Baker and Jamie Galbraith have pointed out — correctly — that projections of rising federal debt in the future hinge critically on projections of rising interest rates. But they haven’t, as far as I know, said that it’s not just hypothetical. There’s a precedent.


[1] Or in other words, I want to pick up from the closing sentence of Doug Henwood’s Wall Street, which describes the book as part of “a project aiming to end the rule of money, whose tyranny is sometimes a little hard to see.” We can’t end the rule of money until we see it, and we can’t see it until we understand it as something distinct from productive activity or social life in general.

What It’s About

I’m as thrilled as anyone by Syriza’s first week in government. The European bourgeoisie has declared war on social democracy, with the euro as its weapon to re-subordinate society to the logic of the market. And now — shades of Polanyi’s double movement — society is pushing back. It’s amazing to see Varoufakis declare that the “troika” has no legitimacy and that Greece is done negotiating. (As my friend Harry says, maybe what’s amazing that Dijsselbloem and the rest thought that Syriza would roll over. But I suppose that’s what’s happened before.)

Here’s what I think is the most important point in all this: The debate now is not about claims on real resources, but about power — who decides, and on what basis.

Daniel Davies:

Don’t think of the Greek debt burden, either in cash € terms or as a ratio to GDP, as an economic quantity. It basically isn’t an economically meaningful number any more. The purpose of its existence is as a political quantity; it’s part of the means by which control is exercised over the Greek budget by the Eurosystem. The regular rituals of renegotiation of the bailout package, financing of debt maturity peaks and so on, are the way in which the solvent Euroland nations exercise the kind of political control that they feel they need to have… 

It is, therefore, totally inimical to the Eurosystem to hold out any hope of the kind of debt writedown that Syriza wants, as opposed to some smaller, cosmetic face value reduction or maturity extension. The entire reason why Syriza wants to get a major up-front reduction in the debt number is to create political space to execute the rest of their program. The debt issue and the political issue are the same issue. Syriza understands this, and so does the Eurosystem. The people who don’t understand it are the ones writing editorials in the business press which support the debt reduction but don’t think that Syriza should be given carte blanche to do everything it wants.

One man’s “carte blanche to do everything it wants” is another man’s “freedom to make decisions as a sovereign, democratically elected government.” But this gets the stakes of the negotiations just right.

Krugman is also very good, especially here.

at this point Greek debt, measured as a stock, is not a very meaningful number. After all, the great bulk of the debt is now officially held, the interest rate bears little relationship to market prices, and the interest payments come in part out of funds lent by the creditors. In a sense the debt is an accounting fiction; it’s whatever the governments trying to dictate terms to Greece decide to say it is

… the aspect of the situation that isn’t a matter of definitions: Greece’s primary surplus, the difference between what it takes in via taxes and what it spends on things other than interest. This surplus … represents the amount Greece is actually paying, in the form of real resources, to its creditors… Greece has been running a primary surplus since 2013, and according to its agreements with the troika it’s supposed to run a surplus of 4.5 percent of GDP for many years to come. What would it mean to relax that target? 

… let’s think of a maximalist case, in which Greece stopped running a primary surplus at all (this is not a proposal). You might think that this would let the Greeks spend an additional 4.5 percent of GDP — but the benefits to Greece would actually be much bigger than that. Remember, the main reason austerity has been so harsh is that cutting spending leads to economic contraction, which leads to lower revenues, which forces further cuts to hit the budget target. A relaxation of austerity would run this process in reverse; the extra spending would mean a stronger economy

This makes three important points. First, Greece now has a primary surplus, meaning that the public budget is no longer dependent on foreign borrowing to maintain its current operations; default would allow for a higher level of public spending with no increase in taxes. [1] Second, the size of these transfers is a political decision, no less than the scale of the transfers under, say, the Common Agricultural Program. Third, while these flows are — unlike the notional stock of debt — objective economic facts, they are not the most important thing about the debt payments. The most important thing is the policies the Greek government has to adopt to keep generating those flows. It’s a problem that Greece is making payments to the richer parts of Europe, and will do so indefinitely if the troika gets its way. But the bigger problem is that the overriding need to generate those payments prevents the Greek state from taking any positive action either to end the current depression or to foster longer-term economic development.

One issue where Krugman and Davies disagree is if a default on the Greek debt would automatically lead to a collapse of the Greek banking system (in which case exit from the euro would uncontroversially follow) or if this would require a positive decision of the ECB to withdraw support from Greek banks. [2] I don’t claim any expertise here, but Krugman’s position seems more plausible. And in general, one of the welcome effects of the crisis is that supposedly natural economic constraints are forced to take form as explicit political choices.

Maybe the best short overview I’ve seen is this piece by Mark Weisbrot. The key point he makes is that the big fear of the current of Euroland’s rulers is not that economic catastrophe will follow Greek exit from the euro. It’s that it won’t.

And yes, it’s published in VICE. These are strange days.

[1] There’s a certain slippage in these conversations between “Greece” meaning the country as a whole and “Greece” meaning the government. It is true that the Greek government budget is in primary surplus (if the official numbers can be trusted, which probably shouldn’t be taken for granted — leaving aside questions of fraud, there are non-recurring revenues from privatization.) But if we are talking about Greece the country, the relevant number for real resource flows is the trade balance, which is close to zero. But it’s still true that there is no net flow of real resources into Greece to be financed, which is important in thinking about the consequences of default.

[2] As far as I can understand, the Greek banking system could collapse in two ways. First, if it loses access to the interbank payment system, and second, if it faces a run because it becomes clear that the ECB is no longer willing to offer Greek banks liquidity support. Both of these events can happen just as easily if Greece is current on its debt as if it defaults.

Four Questions about Fiscal Policy

Earlier this fall, I spent a pleasant few days at the 12th Post Keynesian Conference in Kansas City, including a long chat over beers with Robert Skidelsky. In addition to presenting some of my current work, I took part in an interesting roundtable discussion of functional finance with Steve Fazzari, Peter Skott, Marc Lavoie and Mario Seccarechia. Here is an edited version of what I said.

* * *

We all agree that fiscal policy is effective. If output is too low, by whatever standard, higher public spending or lower taxes will cause it to rise. And we all agree that the current level of public debt has no implications for the feasibility or desirability of fiscal policy, at least in a country like the United States. In the wider world that might be a controversial statement but in this room it is not.

It’s not productive to repeat points on which we all agree. So instead, I want to pose four questions about functional finance on which there is not a consensus. These aren’t questions I necessarily have (or expect to hear) good answers to at the moment, but ones that I hope will be the focus of future work. First, the political economy question. Why does the idea of a government financial constraint have such a tenacious hold on both the policy conversation and the economics profession? What function, what interest, does this idea serve? Second, how confident are we about the level of aggregate expenditure that policy should target? Is there a well-defined level of potential output that corresponds to both full employment and price stability? Third, what is the problem that we imagine fiscal policy to be solving? Is it stabilizing of output in the face of “shocks” of some kind, or is it adjusting the long term trend? And what are the sources for the variation in private demand to which policy must respond? Finally, if functional finance means that fiscal policy replaces monetary policy as the main tool for managing aggregate expenditure, what role does that leave for the interest rate?

1. The political economy question.  We all agree that in a country like the modern United States (or the EU as a whole), public budgets are never constrained by the willingness of the private sector to hold the government’s liabilities. There are a number of routes, both logical and empirical, to reach this conclusion, which I won’t repeat here. And yet both policymakers and academic economists are, with few exceptions, committed to the idea that government does face a financial constraint. I don’t think it’s a sufficient explanation that people are just stupid. I was on an earlier panel with Randy Wray, where he quoted Paul Samuelson describing the idea of a government financial constraint as “religion” that has no rational basis but is nonetheless “scares people … into behaving the way that civilized life requires.” [1] Randy focused, understandably, on the first half of that quote, the acknowledgement that a balanced budget is desirable only on ritual or aesthetic criteria. But what about the second part? What is the civilized life that benefits from this taboo?

The political salience of the balanced-budegt myth has been particularly clear in the debt-ceiling fights of the past few years.  You read John Cassidy in New Yorker: “Every country needs to pay its creditors or face ruin.” [2] This is framed as a statement of fact, but it really describes a political project. Creditors need to threaten countries with ruin if they are going to be obeyed. The threat doesn’t have to be real, but it does have to be believed.

The most important political use of the government budget constraint today is undoubtedly in the Euro area, where it seems clear that a central part of the elite motivation for the single currency was precisely to reimpose financial constraints on national governments. This view of the euro project was forcefully expressed by Massimo Pivetti in a 2013 article in Contributions to Political Economy. As he puts it, the ultimate effect of European countries’ renunciation of monetary sovereignty has been the dismantling of the social democratic order.

What is being liquidated is but one of the most advanced experiences of civil coexistence the world has ever known—in fact, the greatest ever achievement of the bourgeois civilization. … 

Surrender of national sovereignty in the monetary and fiscal fields subscribed by European governments produced a situation of political ‘irresponsibility’, which greatly facilitated their declining commitment to high employment and the redistribution of income, as well as the priority given to reducing inflation, the gradual dismantling of the welfare state, and the privatization drive. …  [The euro] is an infernal machine: a machine born out of a deliberate continental project to undermine wage earners’ bargaining powers.

Wolfgang Streeck similarly argues that policies that result in rising debt are not the result of rising demands for redistribution and public services, but rather have been supported by the wealthy, precisely because “rising public debt can be utilized politically to argue for cutbacks in state spending and for privati­zation of public services.” You can find similar arguments by Perry Anderson (in The New Old World), Gindin and Panitch, and others. Financial constraint “disciplines” “irresponsible” policymakers — in other words, it makes them responsive to the interests of owners of financial assets. And I would stress the same fundamental point emphasized by Gindin and Panitch — the interest that counts here is not a direct pecuniary interest, defined within the economic system. It is the interest of wealthowners as a class in the perpetuation of a social order based on the accumulation of private wealth.

2. Next, I think we need to interrogate the notion of potential output more critically. The assumption of almost the entire functional finance literature — including my own work — is that there is a well-defined level of aggregate expenditure that policy should be targeting, which corresponds to full employment and full utilization of society’s resources. In the standard formula, once we see rising inflation, we know that this target has been reached and there should be no further expansionary policy. In this respect, there is no difference between functional finance and mainstream policy thought. The difference is about the tools used, not about the goal. Most importantly, both policy orthodoxy and functional finance assume that neither inflation nor employment is affected directly by macroeconomic policy, but only via the level of output. So output, inflation and employment can be treated as three indicators for a single target. [3]

It is not obvious, though, why the goals of full employment, price stability and steady output growth should always coincide. Now, in practice it may be that they generally do, or at least are close enough that this is not a big problem. One thing Arjun and I do in our paper is examine this question directly. We compute a number of different measures of the output gap from 1953 to the present. We compare output gaps based on the deviation of current output from trend, the level of unemployment, the level of inflation, and the change in inflation, as well as a measure combining unemployment and the change in inflation that corresponds to the Taylor rule. The interesting thing is that these different measures perform very similarly. The output and unemployment measures fit especially closely, with a simple correlation coefficient of 0.94.  In other words, the Okun relationship between output and unemployment is very stable, and the Phillips curve relationship between output or employment and inflation is also fairly stable. So the statement “When output is above trend, you will see rising inflation; when output is below trend, you will see high unemployment” does in fact seem to be a reliable generalization. (See figure below.)

The figure shows measures of the difference between current output and potential based on (1) trend GDP, as computed by the BEA; (2) the deviation of unemployment from its long-term average; (3) the average of the deviations of unemployment and inflation from their long-term averages; (4) the average of the deviation of unemployment from average and the year-over-year change in inflation; and (5) the year-over-year change in inflation. 

But even if these measures agree with each other for the US over the past 60 years, that doesn’t mean they will agree in other times and places. And in fact, we see that the inflation-change measure does not agree with the others for the post-2007 period, suggesting a much smaller negative output gap. (This is because inflation has stabilized at a low level, rather than continuing to fall.) And even if these measures do generally agree with each other, that doesn’t mean they are right, or that interpreting them is straightforward. In particular, we should ask if hysteresis might not be a more general phenomenon, and that the inflation that comes with output above potential isn’t better thought of as an adjustment cost. This brings me to the next question.

3. Is aggregate demand only an issue in the short run, or does it matter in the long run as well? In other words, is the problem to be solved by policy deviations of output around a trend that is determined on the supply side, or is the trend itself the object of policy?

If the former, shouldn’t we have a more positive theory about what these “shocks” are that policy is responding to. This has always struck me as one of the weirdest lacunae in mainstream macro. The entire problem of policy in this framework is responding to these shocks, so you would think that a central question would be where they come from, how large they are, whether there are identifiable factors that affect their distribution. But instead the existence of these vaguely defined “shocks” is just the unquestioned starting point of analysis. Now obviously there are reasons for this. Shocks, by definition, are changes in the state of the world that are not due to rational optimization, so if that’s your methodology, then “shocks” just means “things I have nothing to say about.” (And I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a logical inconsistency between the existence of unanticipated shocks and the idea of intertemporal equilibrium. But maybe not.) But on our side we don’t have that excuse. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to showing that changes in the government budget position can offset changes in desired private spending. We should try to explain why desired private spending varies so dramatically.

And what if demand matters in the long run, thanks to hysteresis (and what I call anti-hysteresis) in the laborforce, and Verdoorn-Kaldor changes in productivity growth? [4] In that case these questions are even more urgent. And we also have to face the political question that was banished from respectable macro in the 1980s: What is the desirable tradeoff between output and inflation? More broadly, if we can’t take a given path of potential output as given, how do we define the goals of macro policy?

4. What is the role of interest rate policy in a functional finance framework, given that it is no longer the primary tool for adjusting aggregate expenditure? On Thursday’s panel, we had three different answers to this question. Arjun and I say that if for whatever reason the public debt to GDP ratio is a concern for policymakers, adjusting the policy interest rate is in general sufficient to stabilize that ratio at some desired level. Peter Skott says that if we have some idea of the optimal long-run capital-output ratio (or perhaps more precisely, the optimal choice of technique), the interest rate can be set to achieve that. And Randy says that we shouldn’t worry about the debt-GDP ratio and that business investment decisions are not very responsive to the interest rate, so its main consequences are distributional. Since there is no social interest in providing a passive, risk-free income to rentiers, the nominal interest rate should be set to zero permanently.

[1] The quote is from an interview with Mark Blaug:  “I think there is an element of truth in the view that the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times [is necessary]. Once it is debunked [that] takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that the long-run civilized life requires.”

[2] The title of the piece is “Why America Needs a Stock Market Crash.”

[3] This isn’t strictly correct, since an important component of functional finance in its modern UMKC form is a job guarantee or employer of last resort (ELR) policy. But given the stability of the Okun relationship, employment and output can safely be treated as a single target in practice. The problem is the relationship of employment and output, on the one hand, with inflation, on the other.

[4] As late as the 1980s, people like Tobin took it for granted that the reason that inflationary or deflationary gaps would not continue indefinitely, was that aggregate supply would adjust.