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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The 'Strong Case' Against Central Bank Independence Critically Examined

Simon Wren-Lewis has a follow-up to his recent post on central bank independence:

The 'strong case' critically examined: Perhaps it was too unconventional setting out an argument (against independent central banks, ICBs) that I did not agree with, even though I made it abundantly clear that was what I was doing. It was too much for one blogger, who reacted by deciding that I did agree with the argument, and sent a series of tweets that are best forgotten. But my reason for doing it was also clear enough from the final paragraph. The problem it addresses is real enough, and the problem appears to be linked to the creation of ICBs.

The deficit obsession that governments have shown since 2010 has helped produce a recovery that has been far too slow, even in the US. It would be nice if we could treat that obsession as some kind of aberration, never to be repeated, but unfortunately that looks way too optimistic. The Zero Lower Bound (ZLB) raises an acute problem for what I call the consensus assignment (leaving macroeconomic stabilisation to an independent, inflation targeting central bank), but add in austerity and you get major macroeconomic costs. ICBs appear to rule out the one policy (money financed fiscal expansion) that could combat both the ZLB and deficit obsession. I wanted to put that point as strongly as I could. Miles Kimball does something similar here, although without the fiscal policy perspective ...

Skipping ahead (and omitting quite a bit of the argument):

... The basic flaw with my strong argument against ICBs is that the ultimate problem (in terms of not ending recessions quickly) lies with governments. There would be no problem if governments could only wait until the recession was over (and interest rates were safely above the ZLB) before tackling their deficit, but the recession was not over in 2010. Given this failure by governments, it seems odd to then suggest that the solution to this problem is to give governments back some of the power they have lost. Or to put the same point another way, imagine the Republican Congress in charge of US monetary policy.

But if abolishing ICBs is not the answer to the very real problem I set out, does that mean we have to be satisfied with the workarounds? One possibility that a few economists like Miles Kimball have argued for is to effectively abolish paper money as we know it, so central banks can set negative interest rates. Another possibility is that the government (in its saner moments) gives ICBs the power to undertake helicopter money. Both are complete solutions to the ZLB problem rather than workarounds. Both can be accused of endangering the value of money. But note also that both proposals gain strength from the existence of ICBs: governments are highly unlikely to ever have the courage to set negative rates, and ICBs stop the flight times of helicopters being linked to elections.       
These are big (important and complex) issues. There should be no taboos that mean certain issues cannot be raised in polite company. I still think blog posts are the best medium we have to discuss these issues, hopefully free from distractions like partisan politics.

    Posted by on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy, Politics | Permalink  Comments (28)


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