Heterodoxy on central bank independence and monetary policy

In the wake of Donald Trump’s call for lower US interest rates in the midst of solid economic growth and low unemployment, The Economist magazine ran a couple of articles on the threat of populist leaders to central bank independence (CBI) and low inflation.

It is more than 40 years since the publication of the intellectual justification for CBI of Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott, propounding the idea of time inconsistency. Based on the concept of the natural rate of unemployment (NRU), political control of interest rates will give rise to the temptation for politicians to boost aggregate demand and lower unemployment in the short run, below the NRU. This will prove unsustainable over the longer run, merely producing higher inflation, with inevitable costs to economic efficiency and growth.

This was apparently what caused the stagflation of the 1970s, when unemployment and inflation rose together, undermining the putatively Keynesian Phillips curve. The upshot is that politicians and voters are better off with CBI, with the central bank given a fixed mandate of low inflation and autonomy in how it achieves this.

But what is the reality of CBI and monetary policy? Here are some quotes from heterodox economists critiquing the mainstream consensus. Continue reading

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The policy that shall not be named

Production_LineThe IMF recently published a refreshing paper on the principles of industrial policy. The paper is quite lengthy, so I will summarise and discuss some of the main points here. The authors do not speak for the IMF of course, and it merely reflects their current research, but it remains important.

The paper is important because it unambiguously makes the case for an active industrial policy in developing countries to enable them to catch up with the richest countries.

They argue that successful examples of such a development strategy have been extremely rare in recent decades, but that it is vital to learn from them. They use the case studies of the ‘Asian miracle’ economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, which were relatively poor some decades ago, but managed to industrialise and grow rapidly, enabling them to catch up and graduate into the club of advanced economies.

They also note that most if not all of today’s rich countries, including the US, Japan and Germany, followed such a strategy during their catch-up phases of growth, and continue to employ industrial and technology policies, albeit in different forms.

The paper is also refreshing because the IMF, and the World Bank, are not known for supporting the principles of industrial policy as a viable development strategy. In their dealings with financial crises and developing countries in recent decades, they have tended to promote and enforce an anti-developmental state neoliberal policy agenda, known as the Washington Consensus, with often dire results for levels of poverty and inequality and the ability of governments to encourage successful development. Continue reading

The UK’s pay squeeze – no end in sight?

workersSince the Great Recession, and among the world’s richest economies, pay growth in the UK has been historically weak. The Economist magazine reported on 20th April that the pay squeeze in the UK has eased during the last year or two, but is by no means over.

Nominal wages are now growing at around 3.5% year, while real wages (adjusted for inflation) are growing at 1.5%. In a way, this slight improvement is to be expected, with employment at a high level and unemployment relatively low, creating a tightening labour market, and shifting bargaining power from employers towards workers.

Another piece of good news is that more of the jobs now being created have higher pay. To put it another way, the composition of the workforce is changing. As The Economist put it, “strawberry-pickers have made way for stock-pickers”. Continue reading

Modern Monetary Theory and disguised unemployment

Thomas Palley, a post-Keynesian economist, here provides a critique of recent policy proposals by US Democratic politicians employing some ideas from Modern Monetary Theory. They variously want to fund programmes such as universal healthcare and a ‘Green New Deal’, financed to a large degree by increased government borrowing.

MMT, as a set of ideas, is an offshoot of post-Keynesianism, but is perhaps more straightforward to grasp when it comes to budget deficits and its opposition to austerity; hence its current popular appeal. Continue reading

Structure, agency and the micro-macro divide

Chris Dillow, Marxist economics writer for the Investors Chronicle, blogs regularly on all sorts of topics at Stumbling and Mumbling. A recent post of his discusses structure versus agency and the neglect of systemic analysis in economics.

Structures and structural forces tend to be left to macroeconomic analysis. In modern microeconomics, individual agency, or the ability to act in order to influence some outcome given a particular environmental context, dominates theory. But structure shapes the environment, enabling or constraining agency. Individuals may therefore act in good faith but be unable to achieve the best economic outcome for themselves in the absence of a favourable context.

Given the limits of human agency in a particular structural context, an understanding of that structure, whether it is an institution such as the state, or macroeconomic in nature, such as the force of competition throughout the economy, can enable a response from policy-makers to try to improve social welfare, or not as the case may be! Continue reading

On individual human behaviour

9780199390632“There is a great difference between studying how people actually behave and positing how they should behave. When we wish to know how and why people behave as they do, we turn to behavioral economics, anthropology, sociology, political science, neurobiology, business studies and evolutionary theory. We discover that evolutionary roots, cultural heritages, hierarchical structures, and personal histories all influence our behavior: we are socially constructed beings, within the limits of our evolutionary heritage. There is a large body of evidence which shows that we do not consistently order preferences, we are poor judges of probabilities, we do not address risk in a “rational” manner, we regularly commit a wide variety of reasoning errors, and we generally base our behavior on habits and rules of thumb. In the end, we are not “noble in reason, not infinite in faculty.” On the contrary,  we are “rather weak in apprehension…[and subject to] forces we largely fail to comprehend”. And as any advertiser could tell us, our preferences are easily manipulated, our responses quite predictable.

Despite all of this evidence, neoclassical economics stubbornly insists on portraying individuals as egoistic calculating machines, noble in reason, infinite in faculty, and largely immune to outside influences. The introduction of risk, uncertainty and information costs changes the constraints faced but not the basic model of behavior. I will call this the doctrine of “hyper-rationality” so as to distinguish it from a more general notion of “rationality”, which refers to the belief or principle that actions or opinions should be based on reason. The point here is to avoid the neoclassical habit of portraying hyper-rationality as perfect and actual behavior as imperfect. It is a topsy-turvy world indeed when all that is real is deemed irrational.

The question is not whether economic incentives matter, but rather how they matter.”

Anwar Shaikh (2016), Capitalism – Competition, Conflict, Crises, Oxford University Press, p.78-9.

Why US debt must continue to rise – Michael Pettis

Donald Trump’s signature policy of 2017, the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, cut taxes sharply for the richest earners and corporations. As so often in recent decades, many Republicans claimed that this would pay for itself via the increased revenue generated by faster economic growth, which would incorporate higher investment and higher wages for ordinary Americans. There would therefore be little need to cut spending to prevent the deficit from rising.

Such supply-side policies are part of the essence of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which boils down to the argument that making the richest members of society richer will make everyone richer, including those at the bottom. As with previous such policies, this remains to be seen, but the signs are not good.

On the other hand the US budget deficit is rising and is set to rise further. The national debt is also now growing faster than previously. While growth has been stimulated for a while, perhaps more from the demand-side than the supply-side, it seems that it is now slowing once more. This is a long way from the vaunted economic miracle from the President’s State of the Union address. Continue reading