02 April 2013

The Price Is Wrong

Paul Krugman:

But which price — that is the question.

It’s a slow morning on the economic news front, as we wait for various euro shoes to drop, so I thought I’d share a meditation I’ve been having on the diagnosis and misdiagnosis of the Lesser Depression. It’s not really different from what I’ve been saying all along, but maybe coming at it from a different angle is somewhat enlightening.

So, start with our big problem, which is mass unemployment. Basic supply and demand analysis says that things like that aren’t supposed to happen: prices are supposed to rise or fall to clear markets. So what’s with this apparent massive and persistent excess supply of labor?

In general, market disequilibrium is a sign of prices out of whack; and most people commenting on our mess accept the notion that one or more prices are for some reason not adjusting. The big divide comes over the question of which price is wrong.

As I see it, the whole structural/classical/Austrian/supply-side/whatever side of this debate basically believes that the problem lies in the labor market. (I know, the Austrians will deny it — but it doesn’t matter what you say about their position, any comprehensible statement leads to angry claims that you don’t understand their depths). For some reason, they would argue, wages are too high given the demand for labor. Some of them accept the notion that it’s because of downward nominal wage rigidity; more, I think, believe that workers are being encouraged to hold out for unsustainable wages by moocher-friendly programs like food stamps, unemployment benefits, disability insurance, and whatever.

As regular readers know, I find this prima facie absurd — it’s essentially the claim that soup kitchens caused the Great Depression. But let’s stick with the economic logic for now.

So what’s the alternative view? It’s basically the notion that the interest rate is wrong — that given the overhang of debt and other factors depressing private demand, real interest rates would have to be deeply negative to match desired saving with desired investment at full employment. And real rates can’t go that negative because expected inflation is low and nominal rates can’t go below zero: we’re in a liquidity trap.

There are strong policy implications of these two views. If you think the problem is that wages are too high, your solution is that we need to meaner to workers — cut off their unemployment insurance, make them hungry by cutting off food stamps, so they have no alternative to do whatever it takes to get jobs, and wages fall. If you think the problem is the zero lower bound on interest rates, you think that this kind of solution wouldn’t just be cruel, it would make the economy worse, both because cutting workers’ incomes would reduce demand and because deflation would increase the burden of debt.

What my side of the debate would call for, instead, is a reduction in the real interest rate, if possible, by raising expected inflation; and failing that, more government spending to increase demand and put idle resources to work.

So how can you tell which side is right? Well, these differing views make differing predictions. If you believe that the problem is excessive wages, you believe that the economy is fundamentally suffering from a supply-side constraint. In that case government borrowing is competing with the private sector for a limited quantity of resources, so big budget deficits should lead to soaring interest rates; meanwhile, because the supply of goods is limited, large increases in the money supply should lead to soaring inflation. Oh, and cuts in government spending should, if anything, be expansionary, because they both release resources to the private sector and make life tougher for workers who try to live on public benefits.

If, on the other hand, you believe that the problem lies in a shortfall of demand due to the zero lower bound, you believe that government borrowing needn’t drive up rates, because it puts unemployed resources to work; that monetary expansion won’t be inflationary, because the money will just sit there; and that fiscal austerity will be strongly contractionary.

I leave the adjudication of these competing claims as an exercise for readers.

Oh, and one more thing: no, you can’t say “Well, there may be truth to both views”. Either the economy is supply-constrained or it’s demand-constrained. Of course even the most ardent demand-siders will admit that there are supply constraints in there somewhere, that if we had an economic boom we would, after some period of time, enter a regime where printing money is inflationary and government borrowing drive up interest rates. But not here, not now.

So yes, the price is wrong — but it’s a terrible, disastrous mistake to focus on the wrong wrong price.

And more from Mark Thoma:

Why should workers bear the burden of a recession they had nothing to do with causing? We should do our best to protect vulnerable workers and their families, and if it comes at the expense of those who were responsible for the boom and bust, I can live with that (and no, the cause wasn't poor people trying to buy houses -- people on the right who are afraid they will be asked to pay for their poor choices, or who want to pursue an anti-government, do not help the unfortunate with my hard-earned investment income agenda have tried to make this claim, and they are still at it, but it is "prima facie absurd").