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Monday, August 30, 2010

"This is Pretty Weak Evidence"

Karl Whelan identifies the questionable assumptions used by Jean Claude Trichet to support his calls for austerity:

Trichet on Ricardian Equivalence, by Karl Whelan: Jean Claude Trichet’s Jackson Hole speech is here. This bit caught my eye:

The economy, it is sometimes argued, is at present too fragile and thus consolidation efforts should be postponed or even new fiscal stimulus measures added. As I pointed out recently, I am sceptical about this line of argument. Indeed, the strict Ricardian view may provide a more reasonable central estimate of the likely effects of consolidation. For a given expenditure, a shift from borrowing to taxation should have no real demand effects as it simply replaces future tax burden with current one.

The written version of the speech cites two papers by Robert Barro as supporting evidence for this position.

I think it’s worth noting that the Ricardian equivalence idea put forward by Barro—that consumers see deficits and taxes as basically the same thing—has been tested many many times. And the general consensus on this, as I understand it, is that there is very little evidence to support the idea.

Moreover, though the idea works in one very simplified model set up, there are lots of reasons why the proposition does not hold in reality (liquidity constraints, people having finite lives, people not having rational expectations, uncertainty about the path of government spending—see this extract from David Romer’s textbook.)  Very few economists emerge from graduate schools believing in the Ricardian equivalence idea.

There are, of course, lots of arguments in favour of European governments setting out their long-term plans for the restoration of fiscal stability. However, it is a pity to see economic theories that are known to have little support regularly rolled out as arguments for fiscal austerity.

Trichet follows up on his Ricardian equivalence comments by arguing that expansionary fiscal contractions “are not just a theoretical curiosity” with the footnotes citing the old Giavazzi and Pagno paper with its two examples: Denmark in the mid-1980s and, of course, Ireland in the late 1980s. I’ve already said my bit about this, so I won’t repeat it. Suffice to say, this is pretty weak evidence that Trichet is serving up.

Trichet must know that the evidence for Ricardian equivalence is pretty shaky, and he must know that one or two papers with questionable results hardly offsets the build of the evidence pointing in the other direction. Yet the best case he can build revolves around those points. That tells you what you need to know about the strength of his argument.

Let me also add this from the "said my bit" link above:

The Enduring Influence of Ireland’s 1987 Adjustment, by Karl Whelan: When I was a junior economist in short trousers, the first research I ever did was inspired by Ireland’s successful 1987-89 fiscal adjustment.  Many international researchers looked at Ireland and decided that our successful adjustment stemmed from consumers stepping into the breach filled by the government spending cuts. The story was that increased consumer confidence, fueled by expectations of lower future taxes, was the key to the recovery.
From the research I did on this topic (both on my own and with John Bradley) I came away fairly convinced that this was not what had happened. Rather, the 1987 boom seemed to be fueled more by strong exports to the UK thanks to Nigel Lawson’s tax cutting exercise.
However, Ireland’s 1987 experience continues to pop up in discussions of fiscal austerity. I have to admit that I’ve not been too impressed by Alberto Alesina’s work (here and here) on how fiscal adjustment can be expansionary—work that has had a lot of influence this year. Well, sure enough, Paul Krugman now cites work from Arjun Jayadev and Mike Konczal showing that the only country that ever cut its way to growth in a slump was, you guessed it, Ireland in 1987. The power of this datapoint endures.

    Posted by on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 10:05 AM in Economics, Fiscal Policy | Permalink  Comments (24)


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