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Friday, June 19, 2009

Samuelson: Fiscal Policy Must be Sustained

A few excerpts from the second part of Conor Clarke's interview with Paul Samuelson:

I have a couple of questions about the current debate.  Do you think large fiscal stimulus should be controversial? ... Would you like to see a second or third stimulus, depending on where you start counting?

Well, in the first place, the E. Carey Brown analysis stressed that one shot spending gives you only one-shot response. It's gotta be sustained. The way we got out of the 1929 Great Depression in the US -- and this happened not only in the US but also in Germany... --- was heavy deficit spending. ...

For really depressed situations, unorthodox central banking is [also] needed. We're almost getting there. In one of Greg Mankiw's articles, he said that maybe when the interest rate gets down to zero and it's threatening to be negative, you should give a subsidy with it. Well, that's what fiscal policy is!

By the way, I don't want you to think that I think that everything for the next 15 years will be cozy. I think it's almost inevitable that, with a billion people in China wide awake for the first time, and a billion people in India, there's going to be some kind of a terrible run against the dollar. And I doubt it can stay orderly, because all of our own hedge funds will be right in the vanguard of the operation. And it will be hard to imagine that that wouldn't create different kind of meltdown.

Last thing. Mea culpa, mea culpa. MIT and Wharton and University of Chicago created the financial engineering instruments, which, like Samson and Delilah, blinded every CEO -- they didn't realize the kind of leverage they were doing and they didn't understand when they were really creating a real profit or a fictitious one. ...

Back to some middle-term and long-term policy questions..., do you worry about the rising deficit and the potential risk of inflation? There's been a lot of articles on this in the past two weeks -- Paul Krugman and Niall Ferguson and others.

I think it would be surprising if, down the road -- not in the long long run but in the somewhat short run -- we don't have some return of inflation. On the other hand, I'm of the view that if we come out of this with some kind of temporary stabilization at least, and the price level is let's say 10-12% above what it was before we got into the meltdown, I think that's a price I would be willing to pay! ...

Very last thing. What would you say to someone starting graduate study in economics? Where do you think the big developments in modern macro are going to be, or in the micro foundations of modern macro? Where does it go from here and how does the current crisis change it?

Well, I'd say, and this is probably a change from what I would have said when I was younger: Have a very healthy respect for the study of economic history, because that's the raw material out of which any of your conjectures or testings will come. And I think the recent period has illustrated that. ...

But history doesn't tell its own story. You've got to bring to it all the statistical testings that are possible. And we have a lot more information now than we used to.

Are you happy with the way economics is being taught now? You've mentioned Greg Mankiw's textbooks.

Well to say that I've read them would be an exaggeration. I looked into them, and I was disappointed that they were so bland. [Laughs] No, he's a gifted writer. But an economist with a facile pen isn't necessarily an overnight expert on the likelihoods in our inexact science.

    Posted by on Friday, June 19, 2009 at 01:18 PM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (13)

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