Category Archives: Posts NEC

Is the Road to Fiscal Hell Still Paved with Good Intentions?

As a New York Times subscriber (and former officemate of Paul Krugman), I admit some liberal leanings. I also confess a preference for a Clinton-style of fiscal policy rather than the Bush 43 style, that is: (1) decide government missions consistent with social pressures and voter tolerances, and (2) pay for them with tax revenue. The Bush policies of financing wars with tax cutting during prosperous times, to my mind, is irresponsible policymaking. John Keynes warned us that the time for governments to save via reducing public-sector indebtedness is during good times, not bad times. That said, I also have little sympathy for the “spend now and kick the can down the road” school of fiscal stimulus because it seems unlikely in the current political climate that the Congress ever will retrieve the can and refill it with gold. More likely it will be kicked until unrecognizable and a new can will be found, perhaps after a default.

In this spirit, I find Martin Feldstein’s recent analysis impossible to embrace (“Saving The Fed From Itself,” NYT, December 9, 2013, page A27). Certainly, popular macroeconomic models suggest it wise for policymakers to shift from a reliance on monetary policy to more intense use of fiscal policy whenever short-term interest rates reach zero. And, economic analyses have been hard-pressed to demonstrate sustained increases in aggregate demand due to the Fed’s QE policies. But suggestions that fiscal policy should be greatly expanded in the near-term — with a price-tag of $1 trillion over five years — and then believe that the Congress can agree on a scheme for long-term deficit reduction, in my mind, is naive. But perhaps that is the purpose of Op-Ed pages: to propose blue-sky ideas.

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When will analysts cease believing that higher inflation stimulates growth?

It is an old saw among ill-trained economic analysts that inflation aids growth. An oft-repeated corrolary flows from this mistaken idea: that being “anti-inflation” is the same as being “anti-growth.” Well-trained macroeconomists, following a path blazed by Edmund Phelps and Milton Friedman (among others), ceased saying long ago that higher inflation speeds growth. Rising inflation most-often is well-advertised and, hence, well-anticipated. When the higher inflation is fully anticipated, and when contracts and institutions have incorporated mechanisms to adjust, then the higher inflation lacks, itself, a mechanism to stimulate growth. Indeed, in the current economy, higher inflation has been anticipated for so long that it seems like waiting for Godot — or perhaps The Great Pumpkin.

The most recent restatement of the false argument that higher inflation stimulates growth came yesterday, by Binyamin Appelbaum in the New York Times. Writing on page B2, he says: “Rising prices can help stimulate the economy, making it easier for companies to increase profits and for borrowers to repay debts. Inflation also encourages people and businesses to borrow more money and to spend it more quickly. Low inflation reduces those incentives.”

Such nonsense.  A NYT reporter should know better — and so should its editors.

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