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Monday, June 15, 2009

Paul Krugman: Stay the Course

It's too soon to ease up on monetary and fiscal policy:

Stay the Course, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The debate over economic policy has taken a predictable yet ominous turn: the crisis seems to be easing, and a chorus of critics is already demanding that the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration abandon their rescue efforts.

For those who know their history,... this is the third time ... that a major economy has found itself in a liquidity trap, a situation in which interest-rate cuts ... have reached their limit. ...

The first example of policy in a liquidity trap comes from the 1930s. The U.S. economy grew rapidly from 1933 to 1937, helped along by New Deal policies. America, however, remained well short of full employment.

Yet policy makers stopped worrying about depression and started worrying about inflation. The Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy, while F.D.R. tried to balance the federal budget. Sure enough, the economy slumped again, and full recovery had to wait for World War II.

The second example is Japan in the 1990s. After slumping early in the decade, Japan experienced a partial recovery... Policy makers responded by shifting their focus to the budget deficit, raising taxes and cutting spending. Japan proceeded to slide back into recession.

And here we go again.

On one side, the inflation worriers are harassing the Fed. The latest example: Arthur Laffer... Meanwhile, there are demands from several directions that President Obama’s fiscal stimulus plan be canceled. Some ... argue ... the economy is already turning around. Others claim that government borrowing is driving up interest rates, and that this will derail recovery.

And Republicans, providing a bit of comic relief, are saying that the stimulus has failed, because the enabling legislation was passed four months ago — wow, four whole months! — yet unemployment is still rising. This suggests an interesting comparison with ... Ronald Reagan, whose 1981 tax cut was followed by no less than 16 months of rising unemployment.

O.K., time for some reality checks.

First of all,... unemployment is very high and still rising. That is, we’re not even experiencing the kind of growth that led to the big mistakes of 1937 and 1997. It’s way too soon to declare victory.

What about the claim that the Fed is risking inflation? It isn’t. Mr. Laffer seems panicked by a rapid rise in the monetary base... But a rising monetary base isn’t inflationary when you’re in a liquidity trap. America’s monetary base doubled between 1929 and 1939; prices fell 19 percent. Japan’s monetary base rose 85 percent between 1997 and 2003; deflation continued apace.

Well then, what about all that government borrowing? All it’s doing is offsetting a plunge in private borrowing — total borrowing is down, not up. Indeed, if the government weren’t running a big deficit right now, the economy would probably be well on its way to a full-fledged depression.

Oh, and investors’ growing confidence that we’ll manage to avoid a full-fledged depression — not the pressure of government borrowing — explains the recent rise in long-term interest rates. These rates, by the way, are still low by historical standards.

To sum up: A few months ago the U.S. economy was in danger of falling into depression. Aggressive monetary policy and deficit spending have, for the time being, averted that danger. And suddenly critics are demanding that we call the whole thing off, and revert to business as usual.

Those demands should be ignored. It’s much too soon to give up on policies that have, at most, pulled us a few inches back from the edge of the abyss.

    Posted by on Monday, June 15, 2009 at 01:32 AM in Economics, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (104)

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