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Aug 31 2010

It’s only a Nobel Prize…

in Economics.

This is one of the untold tales of the mess we’re in. Contrary to what you may have heard, there’s very little that’s baffling about our problems – at least not if you knew basic, old-fashioned macroeconomics. In fact, someone who learned economics from the original 1948 edition of Samuelson’s textbook would feel pretty much at home in today’s world. If economists seem totally at sea, it’s because they have carefully unlearned the old wisdom. If policy has failed, it’s because policy makers chose not to believe their own models.

On the analytical front: many economists these days reject out of hand the Keynesian model, preferring to believe that a fall in supply rather than a fall in demand is what causes recessions. But there are clear implications of these rival approaches. If the slump reflects some kind of supply shock, the monetary and fiscal policies followed since the beginning of 2008 would have the effects predicted in a supply-constrained world: large expansion of the monetary base should have led to high inflation, large budget deficits should have driven interest rates way up. And as you may recall, a lot of people did make exactly that prediction. A Keynesian approach, on the other hand, said that inflation would fall and interest rates stay low as long as the economy remained depressed. Guess what happened?

On the policy front: there’s certainly a real debate over whether Obama could have gotten a bigger stimulus. What we do know, however, is that his top advisers did not frame the argument for a small stimulus compared with the projected slump purely in political terms. Instead, they argued that too big a plan would alarm the bond markets, and that anyway fiscal stimulus was only needed as an insurance policy. Neither of these arguments came from macroeconomic theory; they were doctrines invented on the fly. Samuelson 1948 would have said to provide a stimulus big enough to restore full employment – full stop.

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