Does Anybody Understand What John Cochrane Thinks He Is Doing Here? Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?: Tuesday Crickets Weblogging
Tonight a correspondent who, I think, does not wish me well sends me this from last January:
john Cochrane: The Grumpy Economist: More new-Keynesian paradoxes: These are just the beginning of the strange predictions new-Keynesian models (or modelers) make. "Fiscal stimulus" is the prediction that even completely wasted government spending is good for the economy. Paul Krugman recommended, with refreshing clarity, that the US government fake an alien invasion so we could spend trillions of dollars building useless defenses. (I'm not exactly sure why he does not call for real defense spending. After all, if building aircraft carriers saved the economy in 1941, and defenses against imaginary aliens would save the economy in 2013, it's not clear why real aircraft carriers have the opposite effect. But I'm still working on the nuances of new-Keynesianism, so I'll let him explain the difference. I'm not a big fan of huge defense spending anyway.)
The remarkable thing right now is this:
- I do not know if Cochrane doesn't understand that Krugman's point is that, right now, under these special conditions, expanding government purchases to buy even useless things passes the benefit-cost test so expanding government purchases to buy useful things really is a no brainer.
- I do not know if Cochrane understands this point that considering the consequences of a useless government expenditure is intended to put a lower bound on the benefit-cost ratio, and yet hopes to mislead his readers into not understanding this point.
- I do not know whether Cochrane has thought about the issues at all.
Could somebody please tell me which of (1), (2), or (3) applies here?
Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?
Myself, I think the most likely possibility is that we simply need to classify this--along with so much else on the internet--as: "hayters gotta hate; bullshitters gotta bullshit." It's what they do. It's who they are.
Krugman, with more bonus intellectual garbage collection by Daniel Kuehn, below the fold...
If you actually look at what took us out of the Great Depression," the Princeton University professor said in an interview with Chris Hayes of MSNBC. "It was Europe's entry into World War II and the U.S. buildup that began in advance."
"So if we could get something that could cause the government to say, ‘Oh, never mind those budget things; let’s just spend and do a bunch of stuff.' So my fake threat from space aliens is the other route,” Krugman said before a laughing crowd. “I’ve been proposing that.
Bonus related intellectual garbage collection from Daniel Kuehn: Facts & other stubborn things: An older post on Sumner:
Bob Murphy... writes
Whoa hang on there, Scott [Sumner]. I have been your staunchest ally on that front, particularly vis-a-vis Brad “monetary policy has shot its bolt” DeLong. You’re also right that Krugman himself lately has been squeamish about embracing the current Japanese situation, so I understand why you think I’m being “bizarre” in saying it vindicates Krugman, when he himself doesn’t seem to think so. Probably the explanation to all of this, is that Krugman is (famously) all over the map in his views. I imagine if a Republican wins in 2016, and then scientists warn of an impending alien invasion, Krugman would criticize the massive military spending at the time, saying we need monetary policy not fiscal."
I think the being nice to Krugman was getting to Bob or something, because this is all wrong - and not only is it wrong but we've been over this ground before. And what's worse Bob is slinging mud and citing politics now. The whole "monetary policy has shot its bolt" argument about the liquidity trap was abundantly clear - until Scott Sumner and various others started selectively quoting to sell their brand. Here is a post from a couple months back on the subject.
Scott Sumner Really Needs to Stop This
I've said in the past that Scott Sumner is probably starting to do more harm than good in getting solid monetary stimulus, because he tries to make it look like the advocates of monetary stimulus are a small group of rebels that everybody else disagrees with. This is good for Sumner's image, I guess. The problem is that the public and policymakers (probably for good reason) don't usually like following a small embattled group of rebels when it comes to rational policy grounded in good science.
But Sumner sure does like to look embattled and alone.
Recently this came up with respect to Brad DeLong's record on monetary policy, and predictably Sumner ends up promoting a nonsense history of it all. He selectively quotes Brad twice to make him sound like he was saying something he wasn't.
The first is this post by Brad criticizing Gary Becker - not for supporting monetary policy but for criticizing fiscal stimulus. Brad alleges that "monetary policy has shot it's bolt". Pretty damning huh? Except the part that Sumner fails to quote is Brad saying this directly before the "shot it's bolt" sentence:
The difference between now and 1982 was that back in 1982 the interest rate on Treasury bills was 13.68%--there was a lot of room for the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates and so reduce unemployment via monetary policy. Today the interest rate on Treasury bills is 0.03%--there is no room for the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates, and so monetary policy is reduced to untried "quantitative easing" experiments.
In other words, not that monetary policy broadly speaking is useless but that what you might call the interest rate mechanism is no longer in play. He is clearly using "monetary policy" to refer to traditional monetary policy. This is the old Krugman argument about monetary expansion in a liquidity trap: not that it's no good. Monetary policy is very desirable in a liquidity trap. But a major mechanism through which monetary policy usually works (the interest rate) is unavailable, so it is weaker, less predictable, and lots of credibility issues are introduced. This and the zero lower bound make fiscal policy much more viable. That's very different from Sumner's claim that Brad was discounting monetary policy. Very different. And all Sumner had to do was not selectively quote.
The next instance of selective quotation is this post by Brad on Cochrane. This one is really outrageous on Sumner's part. He quotes Brad saying we "can't do any more of it", and tells us that Brad is talking about monetary stimulus, which he is - but only of certain sort. Again let's look at what Sumner decided not to quote Brad saying:
I distinguish between policies of:
1.Pure inflation--the government prints up a lot of money and spends it to expand the outside monetary base and the total nominal value of outstanding assets to drive the price level up and induce a flight from nominal assets to real commodities.
2.Monetary stimulus--the central bank buys short-term safe government bonds for cash. 3.Credit stimulus--the central bank or the finance ministry do other things to increase the capitalization or otherwise improve the functioning of financial intermediaries or to reduce the amount or improve the characteristics of the credit-market assets that the private sector must hold.
4.Fiscal policy--the government borrows and spends.
I think I know how to analyze (1), (2), and (4). I think we shouldn't do (1) (at least not yet). I think we have done (2) and can't do any more of it and expect it to have any effect. I think we should do (3) and (4) in some linear combination--but I have a hard time thinking about (3) because I am Bear of Little Brain."
Gee! Number one looks an awful lot like what Sumner wants, doesn't it? And it looks an awful lot what we would call "monetary stimulus". Once again "monetary stimulus" is used to refer to traditional monetary policy working through the interest rate. If Sumner actually quoted all of what Brad said, it would have been clear that once again Brad is saying the typical interest rate mechanism of open market operations isn't working like it usually does. But he still has other monetary policies on his list - specifically his first policy! Now, he does say we shouldn't do "pure inflation" just yet, because as before it's highly uncertain and there are important credibility problems for central bankers in doing this. But Brad doesn't rule the first suggestion out nor does he say that we "can't" do that one (the way we can't do traditional monetary stimlus). It is the same argument as before. It is the Krugman argument for Japan. Credible commitment to inflation by the Fed would be fantastic but it's going to be tough and would be a lot easier if we did fiscal stimulus as well.
Once again - that's very different from what Sumner is claiming Brad and other Keynesians think. And once again, if Sumner didn't quote selectively, this would be blatantly obvious.
Brad keeps it brief in his statements in the other two links Scott provides (here and here), but he specifically cites the zero lower bound in the first one (suggesting that he is once again only refering to traditional manipulation of the interest rate). In the second one he quotes Jacob Viner, and I find it interesting - and a cautionary tale about what to expect from less traditional policies out of the Fed. He's quoting Viner pointing out that the Fed couldn't keep up with private credit contraction, which suggests that the Fed was running into the same credible commitment problems that Krugman has warned against repeatedly.
It's one thing to say "we need to target NGDP". Yes, that would be lovely, Scott. Nobody is disputing that. I could just as easily say "we need to target 3% percent unemployment". No arguments there! But a particular NGDP level is a goal. It is not an instrument and it is not a policy lever. Because of credibility problems or other obstacles it's quite reasonable to say that your policy lever (open market operations, for example) or your instrument (short term rates or reserve requirements) might not achieve the policy goal. This was Viner's concern and it's the Keynesian concern now.
We have tried it. We are afraid it's not going to be as successful as Sumner hopes. And we are stressing this point because there is the option of fiscal policy which can help monetary policy get traction and actually assist in pulling us out of this.
Now Sumner may dispute that argument. He may choose to remain the monetary Pollyanna. That's fine - we need enthusiastic boosters. And that gives him something to legitimately argue about with the monetary Cassandras out there. It's true, Brad is not as sanguine about the Fed as Sumner. But it's really not helpful for Sumner to be promoting this idea that Keynesians are somehow anti-monetary-expansion. If you tell the public and policymakers that a major, mainstream faction of economists thinks expansionary monetary policy is bad or useless you are going to reduce the likelihood of expansionary monetary policy. I fear that's what Sumner is doing right now.
brad: January 19, 2013 at 7:04 PM
Sometimes I think that if only I had added the word "standard" and written:
"The difference between now and 1982 was that back in 1982 the interest rate on Treasury bills was 13.68%--there was a lot of room for the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates and so reduce unemployment via monetary policy. Today the interest rate on Treasury bills is 0.03%--there is no room for the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates, and so monetary policy is reduced to untried 'quantitative easing' experiments. The fact that standard monetary policy has shot its bolt and has no more room for action is what has driven a lot of people like me who think that monetary policy is a much better stabilization policy tool to endorse the Obama fiscal boost plan."
Then people like Murphy and Sumner wouldn't misread me so much.
Most of the time, though, I have swung around to think that hayters gotta hate, and that if I had done that they would be ignoring my post on Becker and ranting about something else...