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J. Bradford DeLong: The Triumph of Monetarism?

The Triumph of Monetarism?

The story of twentieth-century macroeconomics begins with Irving Fisher (1896, 1907, 1911). Appreciation and Interest, The Rate of Interest, and The Purchasing Power of Money fueled the intellectual fire that became known as monetarism. To understand the determination of prices and interest rates and the course of the business cycle, monetarism holds, look first (and often last) at the stock of money--at the quantities in the economy of those assets that constitute readily-spendable purchasing power.

Twentieth century macroeconomics ends with the community of macroeconomists split across two groups, and pursuing two research programs. The New Classical research program walks in the footprints of Joseph Schumpeter's (1939) Business Cycles, holding that the key to the business cycle is the stochastic character of economic growth. It argues that the "cycle" should be analyzed with the same models used to understand the "trend" (see Kydland and Prescott (1982), McCallum (1989), Campbell (1994)).

The competing New Keynesian research program is harder to summarize quickly. But surely its key ideas include the five propositions that:

  1. The frictions that prevent rapid and instantaneous price adjustment to nominal shocks are the key cause of business-cycle fluctuations in employment and output.
  2. Under normal circumstances, monetary policy is a more potent and useful tool for stabilization than is fiscal policy.
  3. Business cycle fluctuations in production are best analyzed from a starting point that sees them as fluctuations around the sustainable long-run trend (rather than as declines below some level of potential output).
  4. The right way to analyze macroeconomic policy is to consider the implications for the economy of a policy rule, not to analyze each one- or two-year episode in isolation as requiring a unique and idiosyncratic policy response.
  5. Any sound approach to stabilization policy must recognize the limits of stabilization policy--the long lags and low multipliers associated with fiscal policy; the long and variable lags and uncertain magnitude of the effects of monetary policy.

Many of today's New Keynesian economists will dissent from at least one of these five planks. (I, for example, still cling to the belief--albeit without much supporting empirical evidence--that policy is as much gap-closing as stabilization policy.) But few will deny that these five planks structure how the New Keynesian wing of macroeconomics thinks about important macroeconomic issues. And few will deny that today the New Classical and New Keynesian research programs dominate the available space.

But what has happened to monetarism at the end of the twentieth century? Monetarism achieved its moment of apogee with both intellectual and policy triumph in the late-1970s. Its intellectual triumph came as the NAIRU grew very large and the multiplier grew very small in both journals and textbooks. Its policy triumph came as both the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve declared that henceforth monetary policy would be made not by targeting interest rates but by targeting quantitative measures of the aggregate money stock. But today Monetarism seems reduced from a broad current to a few eddies.

So what has happened to the ideas and the current of thought that developed out of the original insights of Irving Fisher and his peers?

The short answer is that much of this current of thought is still there, but its insights are there under another name. All five of the planks of the New Keynesian research program listed above had much of their development inside the twentieth-century monetarist tradition, and all are associated with the name of Milton Friedman. It is hard to find prominent Keynesian analysts in the 1950s, 1960s, or early 1970s who gave these five planks as much prominence in their work as Milton Friedman did in his.

The importance of analyzing policy in an explicit, stochastic context and the limits on stabilization policy that result comes from Friedman (1953a). The importance of thinking not just about what policy would be best in response to this particular shock but what policy rule would be best in general--and would be robust to economists' errors in understanding the structure of the economy and policy makers' errors in implementing policy--comes from Friedman (1960). The proposition that the most policy can aim for is stabilization rather than gap-closing was the principal message of Friedman (1968). We recognize the power of monetary policy as a result of the lines of research that developed from Friedman and Schwartz (1963) and Friedman and Meiselman (1963). And a large chunk of the way that New Keynesians think about aggregate supply saw its development in Friedman's discussions of the "missing equation" in Gordon (1974).

Thus a look back at the intellectual battle lines between "Keynesians" and "Monetarists" in the 1960s cannot help but be followed by the recognition that perhaps New Keynesian economics is misnamed. We may not all be Keynesians now, but the influence of Monetarism on how we all think about macroeconomics today has been deep, pervasive, and subtle.

Why then do we today talk much more about the "New Keynesian economists" than about the "New Monetarists economists"? I believe that to answer this question we need to look at the history of Monetarism over the twentieth century. And I believe that the most fruitful way to look at the history of Monetarism is to distinguish between four different variants or subspecies of Monetarism that emerged and for a time flourished in the century just past: First Monetarism, Old Chicago Monetarism, High Monetarism, and Political Monetarism.

First Monetarism

The First Monetarism is Irving Fisher's Monetarism. The ideas of Fisher, his peers, and their pupils make up the first subspecies. It is true that the ideas that we see as necessarily producing the quantity theory of money go back to David Hume, if not before. But the equation-of-exchange and the transformation of the quantity theory of money into a tool for making quantitative analyses and predictions of the price level, inflation, and interest rates was the creation of Irving Fisher.

This first subspecies of Monetarism, however, fell down on the question of understanding business-cycle fluctuations in employment and output. The business cycle analysis of some of the practitioners of this first subspecies of monetarism was subtle and sophisticated. Irving Fisher's (1933) "The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions" can still be read with profit. But the business cycle theory of this first subspecies of monetarism was by and large not as subtle, and not as sophisticated.

Other economists became exasperated with monetarist analyses of events made by their colleagues in the immediate aftermath of World War I. This exasperation led one of the very best of this first subspecies of monetarists--John Maynard Keynes, Mark I--to declare in his Tract on Monetary Reform (1923) that the standard quantity-theoretic analyses were completely useless:

Now 'in the long run' this [way of summarizing the quantity theory: that a doubling of the money stock doubles the price level] is probably true.... But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.

John Maynard Keynes's exasperation with the way that the First Monetarism was used by economists in works like, say, Lionel Robbins's (1934) The Great Depression led him on the intellectual journey that ended with the non-Monetarist John Maynard Keynes, Mark II, and The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

Most economists would agree with Keynes. Milton Friedman certainly does. In his 1956 "The Quantity Theory of Money--A Restatement," Friedman sets out that one of his principal goals is to rescue monetarism from the "atrophied and rigid caricature" of an economic theory that it had become in the interwar period at the hands of economists such as Robbins and Joseph Schumpeter (1934), who argued that monetary and fiscal policies were bound to be ineffective--counterproductive in fact--in fighting recessions and depressions because they could not create true prosperity, but only a false prosperity that would contain the seeds of a still longer and deeper future depression.

According to Friedman, it was the inadequacies of this framework that opened the way for the original Keynesian Revolution. The atrophied and rigid caricature of the quantity theory painted a "dismal picture." By contrast, "Keynes's interpretation of the depression and of the right policy to cure it must have come like a flash of light on a dark night" (Friedman (1974)). Keynes's General Theory may not have had a correct theory of business-cycle fluctuations in employment and output, but it least it had a theory, and a theory that did not dismiss all macroeconomic policies as pointless to affect business cycles.

Old Chicago Monetarism

Slightly later but somewhat alongside this first subspecies of First Monetarism came what Friedman always called the Chicago School oral tradition: the Old Chicago Monetarism of Viner, Simons, and Knight. In economic theory they stressed the variability of velocity and its potential correlation with the rate of inflation. In economic policy they blamed monetary forces that caused deflation as the source of depression. It was monetary and fiscal policies that had "permitt[ed] banks to fail and the quantity of deposits to decline" that were at the root of America's macroeconomic policies in the Great Depression. To cure the depression they called for massive stimulative monetary expansion and large government deficits, or at least for policies to make sure that any deflation that took place was balanced (Viner (1933)).

The debate over whether Old Chicago Monetarism was properly a theory has gone on intermittently for thirty years. Don Patinkin (1969, 1972) and Harry Johnson (1971) denied that this Chicago School oral tradition existed. They saw a set of macroeconomic policies advocated by Simons, Knight, Viner, and company that made sense, but that were ad hoc, free-floating, and at best tenuously connected with their underlying monetary theory. In Patinkin and Johnson's view, Old Chicago Monetarism was a retrospective construction by Milton Friedman (1956). In their view, Friedman used "Keynesian" tools and insights to provide a retrospective post-hoc theoretical justification for policy recommendations that had little explicit theoretical base at the time, and to construct for himself some intellectual antecedents.

You can side with Patinkin and Johnson and dismiss Old Chicago Monetarism as too amorphous and vague to be called a theory or a school. You can side with Friedman and supporters like Tavlas (1997), and call Old Chicago Monetarism a theory--even if only an implicit theory, a theory never written down anywhere, an "oral tradition." You can then go on to say, with Friedman (1974), that it was this oral tradition that made possible the kind of macroeconomic analysis found in Viner (1933): a "subtle and relevant version... of the quantity theory... a flexible and sensitive tool for interpreting movements in aggregate economic activity and for developing relevant policy prescriptions."

You can note that Friedman does not disagree with Patinkin that Old Chicago Monetarism needed further development. Friedman did write that: "after all, I am not unwilling to accept some credit for the theoretical analysis" found in "The Quantity Theory--A Restatement" and used by all the others who contributed to the landmark Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money. Or you can recognize that it all depends on what you mean by a "theory" or a "tradition," and what you understand to be the dividing line between theoretically-based and ad-hoc policy recommendations.

In my view there is nothing of substance at stake in such debates.

But it is important to note, as George Tavlas (1997) points out, that Old Chicago Monetarism (a) did not believe that the velocity of money was stable, and (b) did not believe that control of the money supply was straightforward and easy. It did not believe that the velocity of money was stable because inflation lowered and deflation raised the opportunity cost of holding real balances. The phase of the business cycle and the concomitant general price level movements powerfully affected incentives: economic actors had strong incentives to economize on money holdings during times of boom and inflation, and to hoard money balances during times of recession and deflation. These swings in velocity amplified the effects of monetary shocks on total nominal spending.

It did not believe that controlling the money supply was easy because fractional-reserve banking in the absence of deposit insurance created the instability-generating possibility of bank runs. The fear by banks that they might be caught illiquid could cause substantial swings in the deposit-reserves ratio. The fear by deposit holders that their bank might be caught illiquid could cause substantial swings in the deposit-currency ratio. And together these two ratios determined the money multiplier.

Thus the overall level of the money supply was determined as much by these two unstable ratios as by the stock of high-powered money itself. And the stock of high-powered money was the only thing that the central bank could quickly and reliably control.

Classic Monetarism

Monetarism-subspecies-three, Classic Monetarism, either emerged as a natural evolution of Old Chicago Monetarism or springing full-grown like Athena from the brains of the Chicago School after World War II. Classic Monetarism as laid out in Friedman's classic Essays in Positive Economics, Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money, A Program for Monetary Stability (see Friedman, 1953b, 1956, 1960, 1968)., and works by many others (like Brunner (1968), or Brunner and Meltzer (1972)) contained strands of thought that have proven remarkably durable

Classic Monetarism contained empirical demonstrations that money demand functions could retain remarkable amounts of stability under the most extreme hyperinflationary conditions (chief among them Cagan (1956)), analyses of the limits imposed on stabilization policy by the uncertain strength and lags of policy instruments (see Friedman (1953a)), the stress on the importance of policy rules and of rules that would be robust (see Friedman (1960), the belief that the natural rate of unemployment is inevitably close to the average rate of unemployment (Friedman (1968)), Friedman and Schwartz's (1963) long narrative of the potency of monetary policy, econometric demonstrations of the short-run power of monetary policy (see Brunner and Meltzer (1963), Anderson and Jordan (1970), Goodhart (1970)), and the start of the process that has cut the multiplier down from the value of four or five that it possessed in economists' minds in 1947 to the value of maybe one that it possesses in economists' minds today (see Friedman (1957)).

These elements and conclusions of the Classic Monetarist research program have endured. They make up much of what the New Keynesian wing of macroeconomics believes very strongly today.

But these strands of Classic Monetarism were not the whole. There were two other strands as well.

The first such strand has not fared very well. It is best seen as an attempt to eliminate the sources of macroeconomic instability identified by Old Chicago Monetarism. The worry that control of the monetary base was insufficient to control the money stock was to be dealt with, in Friedman's (1960) Program for Monetary Stability, by reforming the banking system to eliminate every possibility of fluctuations in the money multiplier. Shifts in the deposit-reserve and deposit-currency ratios would be eliminated by requiring 100% reserve banking. Shifts in the deposit-reserve ratio then become illegal. Banks can never be caught illiquid. And in the absence of any possibility that banks will be caught illiquid, there is no reason for there to be any shifts in the deposit-currency ratio either.

Shifts in the velocity of money in response to cyclical bursts of inflation and deflation that amplified fluctuations in the rate of growth of the money stock would be eliminated by the constant-nominal-money-growth rule. Without cyclical fluctuations in the money stock and in inflation, there would be no cause of cyclical fluctuations in the velocity of money. Thus banking system reform and Federal Reserve reform would eliminate the monetary causes of the business cycle.

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This component of Classic Monetarism--the program for monetary stability--has not flourished over the past half century. The tide, instead, has flowed in the direction of the deregulation of the financial sector, not in the more intensive regulation that would be required to enforce 100% reserve banking and a strict separation between investments and transactions deposits. The sharp swings in the velocity of money in the 1980s led not to a renewed commitment to stable inflation and money growth to eliminate such swings, but instead to a distrust by central bankers of monetary aggregates as indicators. There are few live remnants of the program to control the sources of monetary instability identified by Old Chicago Monetarism.

The second such strand has fared better within the intellectual ecology. For at some point in the first post-World War II generation, the Chicago School developed a strong fear and distaste for the state. The monetarist policy recommendations of a stable growth rate for nominal money and a constrained, automatic central bank were then seen as having an added bonus: they were tools to advance the libertarian goal of the shrinkage of the state.

A central bank not constrained by the constant nominal money growth rate rule can get itself into all kinds of mischief. It could use the inflation tax to gain command over goods and services. It could try to stimulate aggregate demand and manipulate the business cycle in order to create a favorable economic climate at election time.

In general there were two reasons to fear unconstrained policy formulated by politically-chosen central bankers: it could fail, or it could succeed. It could fail in the sense that central bankers appointed by politicians without concern for their competence could advance destructive economic policies. It could succeed in the sense that it could pursue policies that were in the government's, the bureaucrats', or the political party's own but not in the public interest. A large chunk of this strand of monetarism shapes macroeconomists' thoughts today, mostly as transmitted through Kydland and Prescott (1977).

Classic Monetarism--shorn of its program for monetary stability--became intellectually very powerful in the 1970s. Increased awareness of the difficulties of passing legislation in the U.S. and the leakages that diminished the multiplier shifted the balance of opinion in the direction of attributing relatively greater force to monetary policy. The Volcker disinflation left few in doubt that central banks had and could rapidly use their powerful levers to control nominal spending. And Classic Monetarism rose to its peak of intellectual influence as Milton Friedman's and Edward Phelps 's prediction that the stable short-run Phillips curve would break down was made just in time to be proven spectacularly correct by the economic history of the 1970s.

Political Monetarism

But the multi-stranded complex of doctrines and ideas that was Classic Monetarism--with its institutional reform side, its analytical side, and its political-economy side--was not the Monetarism that became a powerful political doctrine in the 1970s. Political Monetarism was something different.

Political Monetarism argued not that velocity could be made stable if monetary shocks were avoided, but that velocity was stable. Thus the money stock became a sufficient statistic for forecasting nominal demand, and central bankers could close their eyes to all economic statistics save monetary aggregates alone. Political Monetarism argued not that institutional reforms were needed to give the central bank the power to tightly control the money supply, but that the central bank did control shifts in the money supply. The central bank was the source in its actions or in its failure to neutralize private actions of all monetary forces. Everything that went wrong in the macroeconomy had a single, simple cause: the central bank had failed to make the money supply grow at the appropriate rate.

Political Monetarism expresses skepticism about the potential for non-monetary shocks to spending to affect output significantly: the major effect of a fiscal stimulus is "to make interest rates higher than they would otherwise be" not to boost nominal demand--unless the fiscal stimulus is "financed by printing money." Political Monetarism is at least somewhat skeptical of the dependence of the velocity of money on interest rates: lower interest rates "make it less expensive for people to hold cash. Hence, some of the funds may be added to idle cash balances rather than spent or loaned." And Political Monetarism concludes that any policy that does not affect "the quantity of money and its rate of growth" simply cannot "have a significant impact on the economy."

All theories and doctrines are stripped down to a core that includes substantial proportions of misrepresentation and overstatement when the doctrines become political and policy weapons. And from today's perspective it is clear that the stripping-down that created Political Monetarism was unfortunate. For what we now believe to be truly valuable about the work done by the Monetarist tradition was deemphasized. While the elements that were emphasized--the sufficiency of money growth as an indicator of demand, the stability of velocity, the assumption that it was easy and straightforward for the central bank to find and control the most relevant measure of the money stock--are elements that turned out to be empirically false in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps they would have proven true had the Classic Monetarist program for monetary stability been implemented. But that world of no slippage between the monetary base and nominal income--no slippage between the monetary base and the money stock, and no slippage in velocity--was not the world that we turned out to live in.

Hence Political Monetarism crashed and burned in the 1980s. The elision of the difficulties in controlling the money stock from the monetary base created a great hostage to fortune. Charles Goodhart's law made itself felt: whatever monetary aggregate was being targeted by a central bank turned out to be the one with the lowest correlation with nominal income. Controlling the money supply that was relevant for total spending turned out to be very difficult indeed.

The claim that only policies that affected the money stock could affect nominal demand proved even more unfortunate, for the velocity of money turned unstable in the 1980s, as indeed Old Chicago Monetarists would have expected that it would: a steep reduction in the rate of inflation does greatly alter the opportunity cost of holding real balances.

But even as Monetarism subspecies four was failing its empirical test, large elements of Monetarism subspecies three--Classic Monetarism--were achieving their intellectual hegemony. For under normal circumstances monetary policy is a more potent and useful tool for stabilization than it fiscal policy. The frictions that give slope to the expectational aggregate supply curve are key causes of business cycle fluctuations. The natural rate hypothesis has strong empirical support, and does mean that fluctuations are best analyzed as being about trend rather than being beneath potential. It is better to analyze macroeconomic policy by considering the long-run implications of rules. And any sound view of stabilization policy must recognize how limited are its possibilities for success.

These insights survive, albeit under a different name than "Monetarism." Perhaps the extent to which they are simply part of the air that modern macroeconomists today believe is a good index of their intellectual hegemony.


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