Confidence as a political device: This is a contribution to the discussion about models started by Krugman, DeLong and Summers, and in particular to the use of confidence. (Martin Sandbu has an excellent summary, although as you will see I think he is missing something.) The idea that confidence can on occasion be important, and that it can be modeled, is not (in my view) in dispute. For example the very existence of banks depends on confidence (that depositors can withdraw their money when they wish), and when that confidence disappears you get a bank run.
But the leap from the statement that ‘in some circumstances confidence matters’ to ‘we should worry about bond market confidence in an economy with its own central bank in the middle of a depression’ is a huge one...
When people invoke the idea of confidence, other people (particularly economists) should be automatically suspicious. The reason is that it frequently allows those who represent the group whose confidence is being invoked to further their own self interest. The financial markets are represented by City or Wall Street economists, and you invariably see market confidence being invoked to support a policy position they have some economic or political interest in. Bond market economists never saw a fiscal consolidation they did not like, so the saying goes, so of course market confidence is used to argue against fiscal expansion. Employers drum up the importance of maintaining their confidence whenever taxes on profits (or high incomes) are involved. As I argue in this paper, there is a generic reason why financial market economists play up the importance of market confidence, so they can act as high priests. (Did these same economists go on about the dangers of rising leverage when confidence really mattered, before the global financial crisis?)
The general lesson I would draw is this. If the economics point towards a conclusion, and people argue against it based on ‘confidence’, you should be very, very suspicious. You should ask where is the model (or at least a mutually consistent set of arguments), and where is the evidence that this model or set of arguments is applicable to this case? Policy makers who go with confidence based arguments that fail these tests because it accords with their instincts are, perhaps knowingly, following the political agenda of someone else.