Krugman Ignores His Own Theory and Misses An Important Piece of European History

This whole “what danger is there for a country issuing its own currency?” argument is really slippery. First of all, what these people really mean is, “What danger is there for a country issuing its own currency and in which most of its debts are denominated in this currency?” I.e., even on their own terms, it’s not enough for a country to issue its own currency. I believe this extra hoop is how they rule out things like Russia defaulting on its bonds and causing a bit of a ruckus, as you may recall.

When you think about it, there are only a handful of countries for which this concept even applies, and even then it only really works from 1971 onward. But anyway, let’s put aside that objection and consider Krugman’s latest:

What [a critic of the fiscal scaremongers] doesn’t note, however, is that the problem with bond vigilante scare tactics runs even deeper than that — because it’s actually quite hard to tell a story in which a loss of confidence in U.S. bonds hurts the real economy. Why wouldn’t it just drive down the dollar, and thereby have an expansionaryeffect?

Yes, I know, Greece — but Greece doesn’t have its own currency. What’s the model under which a country that does have its own currency and borrows in that currency can experience a slump due to an attack by bond vigilantes? Or failing that, where are the historical examples?

This is really amazing. Krugman is acting like it’s not even theoretically possible to imagine this kind of thing. But sure it is. Here’s a theory of it:

So suppose that we eventually go back to a situation in which interest rates are positive….with the government still running deficits of more than $1 trillion a year, say around $100 billion a month. And now suppose that for whatever reason, we’re suddenly faced with a strike of bond buyers — nobody is willing to buy U.S. debt except at exorbitant rates.

So then what? The Fed could directly finance the government by buying debt, or it could launder the process by having banks buy debt and then sell that debt via open-market operations; either way, the government would in effect be financing itself through creation of base money. So? …

Does this mean 400 percent inflation? No, it means more — because people would find ways to avoid holding green pieces of paper, raising prices still further.

I could go on, but you get the point: once we’re no longer in a liquidity trap, running large deficits without access to bond markets is a recipe for very high inflation, perhaps even hyperinflation…

At this point I have to say that I DON’T EXPECT THIS TO HAPPEN — America is a very long way from losing access to bond markets, and in any case we’re still in liquidity trap territory and likely to stay there for a while. But the idea that deficits can never matter, that our possession of an independent national currency makes the whole issue go away, is something I just don’t understand.

So there you have Paul Krugman himself, explaining how a bond strike on Treasuries would either force the government to balance its budget, or risk hyperinflation itself. If Krugman is now admitting that he can’t even come up for a theoretical basis for his objections to the MMT guys (that was the context of the above quotation), then he should send an apology to James Galbraith.

But let’s go back to Krugman’s recent post. It gets better:

The closest I can come to anything resembling the danger supposedly lurking for America is the tale of France in the 1920s, which emerged from World War I burdened by large debt, and which did in fact face an attack by speculators as a result. Yet the French story does not, if you look at it closely, offer any support to the deficit scare talk we keep hearing.

So Krugman walks through, and shows how France followed Krugmanian advice and let the franc depreciate, inflating away the real value of its post-war debt. Krugman claims that everything was great, and points to a table showing French unemployment. Only thing is, in 1927 it jumps up to 11 percent. Yikes! That’s pretty bad. So does it prove that running up a humongous debt can lead to bad consequences? Of course not! Krugman explains:

But what about the brief but nasty slump in 1927? That wasn’t caused by spiking interest rates; it was, instead, caused by fiscal austerity, by the measures taken to stabilize the franc.

So even when we look at the closest thing I can find to the scenario the deficit scolds want us to fear, it doesn’t play out at all as described.

Everyone see what’s going on here? Krugman points to France as the only example of a bond vigilante attack he can think of, on a nation issuing its own currency. (I guess he’s not counting the gold standard as being binding here; I’m not sure when France went back on. Remember in those 1930s charts of industrial output that the Keynesians like to point to the idiot French as hurting their economy by clinging to gold far longer than other countries.)

So here’s the progression:

(1) The French emerge from World War I with a debt of about 240% of GDP. (That was its value in 1921, which was a big jump from 1920. I’m not sure what was going on there.) Of course the reason the French government has such a massive debt, is that it ran massive budget deficits during the war years (and went off gold).

(2) What did the French do in the early and mid-1920s to deal with the problem? Did they run massive budget surpluses? Nope, Krugman himself says, “How did France achieve that big drop in debt after 1925? Basically by inflating it away.”

(3) Krugman admits that the bond vigilantes saw this depreciation coming, and so interest rates spiked.

(4) The French authorities eventually reversed course to stop the plunge of the franc. Krugman acknowledges that this led to 11% unemployment in 1927.

(5) Krugman says this pain was avoidable, because the French authorities shouldn’t have tightened in 1927.

So, it seems to me we need to think of an historical example of a country that did just what Krugman suggests, in order to test out his recommendations. So let’s see: Can anybody think of a major industrial power that emerged from World War I with a huge debt, but that issued its own national currency the way the French issue francs, and that turned to the printing press but without looking back? In other words, can anybody think of a European power that followed the French pattern, except stuck to Krugman’s advice by continually depreciating rather than a foolish move to stabilize its currency?

(Don’t worry Keynesians, there’s no danger here. Even when an Austrian in the crowd thinks of the answer, Krugman will just point out, “Ah, but they ate a lot of sauerkraut. Hardly relevant for the US today.”)


==> Nick Rowe agrees with me that Steve Landsburg’s analysis of paying down government debt is only true if we assume perfect certainty. (Steve I think would totally agree, and that’s why I said in my original post that this was an argument over specifying assumptions for the reader, not about the implications of those assumptions.) Incidentally, if you have never seen Rowe in action, just skim the comments section, only reading his posts. You literally could learn a lot of economics just reading him patiently arguing with people. (In contrast, I am so sarcastic in my comments section that even my allies aren’t quite sure what my point is.) The other good thing about Nick is, he’s pretty humble. So you walk away thinking, “It’s not that this Canadian guy is all that smart, it’s just he’s been studying this stuff longer than I’ve been alive.”

==> Speaking of debt, I’m pleased to announce that for once, I agree with Daniel Kuehn on the government debt stuff! I don’t think Arnold Kling’s response to Krugman’s “we owe it to ourselves” position really got at the fundamental problem. To be clear, it’s not that Kling said anything wrong, and in fact he is highlighting one of the serious, real-world problems with deficit finance. But Krugman really did handle this type of thing by admitting upfront that government debt could have distributional implications for future generations. The stuff Kling is talking about doesn’t really show that Krugman is just flat out wrong for focusing on “we owe it to ourselves,” the way Buchanan/Boudreaux/Rowe did.

==> Poor Ron Paul gets ambushed at 13:30 by this host asking about the Murphy-Krugman Debate.

==> It’s kind of interesting: Someone in the comments of my post about Keynesians and consumption pointed to this Krugman article, where he definitely talks about the limitations of the “paradox of thrift” etc. But if I wanted to be a jerk, I would say, “So you prove to me that Keynesians don’t focus much on consumption, by pointing to Paul Krugman chiding Keynesians for focusing too much on consumption?” Anyway in the interest of holiday charity let me say that actual Keynesian economists are not quite the mindless champions of “consume consume consume!” that their critics sometimes attack, but there is no doubt that the caricature is based on a germ of truth: Even Krugman admits as much in the opening paragraphs of that linked article. So it’s not this right-wing myth the way Gene Callahan and Daniel Kuehn are suggesting.

Yes Gene, Keynesians *Do* Focus on Consumption More Than Investment

Gene Callahan is mystified:

So, I’m teaching Keynesian economics for the second time. And once again, I’m telling my students that, per Keynesians, recessions occur when intended investment falls short of savings. And the best way to fix this, per Keynesians, is for the government to invest in roads, bridges, parks, education, etc.

I’m fine with explaining all that. What I can’t figure out how to explain is why there are people saying Keynesianism is all about consumption and takes no account of investment.

Jonathan Finegold has some gentle remarks at his blog. Let me point out that Keynesians do stress the “paradox of thrift”–meaning it screws things up in a depression if people try to “be responsible” by consuming less and saving more–and of course there’s the “Marginal Propensity to Consume.”

If you’ll permit me, I suggest this article is relevant:

When Consumers Capitulate
Published: October 31, 2008

The long-feared capitulation of American consumers has arrived. According to Thursday’s G.D.P. report, real consumer spending fell at an annual rate of 3.1 percent in the third quarter; real spending on durable goods (stuff like cars and TVs) fell at an annual rate of 14 percent.

To appreciate the significance of these numbers, you need to know that American consumers almost never cut spending. Consumer demand kept rising right through the 2001 recession; the last time it fell even for a single quarter was in 1991, and there hasn’t been a decline this steep since 1980, when the economy was suffering from a severe recession combined with double-digit inflation.

So this looks like the beginning of a very big change in consumer behavior. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

It’s true that American consumers have long been living beyond their means. In the mid-1980s Americans saved about 10 percent of their income. Lately, however, the savings rate has generally been below 2 percent — sometimes it has even been negative — and consumer debt has risen to 98 percent of G.D.P., twice its level a quarter-century ago.

Some economists told us not to worry because Americans were offsetting their growing debt with the ever-rising values of their homes and stock portfolios. Somehow, though, we’re not hearing that argument much lately.

Sooner or later, then, consumers were going to have to pull in their belts. But the timing of the new sobriety is deeply unfortunate. One is tempted to echo St. Augustine’s plea: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For consumers are cutting back just as the U.S. economy has fallen into a liquidity trap — a situation in which the Federal Reserve has lost its grip on the economy.

Some background: one of the high points of the semester, if you’re a teacher of introductory macroeconomics, comes when you explain how individual virtue can be public vice, how attempts by consumers to do the right thing by saving more can leave everyone worse off. The point is that if consumers cut their spending, and nothing else takes the place of that spending, the economy will slide into a recession, reducing everyone’s income.

In fact, consumers’ income may actually fall more than their spending, so that their attempt to save more backfires — a possibility known as the paradox of thrift.

At this point, however, the instructor hastens to explain that virtue isn’t really vice: in practice, if consumers were to cut back, the Fed would respond by slashing interest rates, which would help the economy avoid recession and lead to a rise in investment. So virtue is virtue after all, unless for some reason the Fed can’t offset the fall in consumer spending.

I’ll bet you can guess what’s coming next.

For the fact is that we are in a liquidity trap right now…

The capitulation of the American consumer, then, is coming at a particularly bad time. But it’s no use whining. What we need is a policy response.

The ongoing efforts to bail out the financial system, even if they work, won’t do more than slightly mitigate the problem. Maybe some consumers will be able to keep their credit cards, but as we’ve seen, Americans were overextended even before banks started cutting them off.

No, what the economy needs now is something to take the place of retrenching consumers. That means a major fiscal stimulus. And this time the stimulus should take the form of actual government spending rather than rebate checks that consumers probably wouldn’t spend.

Let’s hope, then, that Congress gets to work on a package to rescue the economy as soon as the election is behind us. And let’s also hope that the lame-duck Bush administration doesn’t get in the way.

If you put that article under a microscope, you get the faintest whiff of Krugman focusing on consumption as being really important for the US economy to not sputter.

Did Milton Friedman Win Two Nobel Prizes?

I was googling some stuff to prepare for my second lecture in my Mises Academy class on the Great Depression, and I was skimming Princeton University Press’ blurb on the famous Friedman/Schwartz monetary history of the US. I was surprised to see this: “Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2000 for work related to A Monetary History as well as to his other Princeton University Press book, A Theory of the Consumption Function (1957).”

Noah Pinion Shows Yet Again That Economists Will Be Strung Up Right After Investment Bankers

[UPDATE below.]

I knew right off the bat that Noahpinion was doing something wrong in this patronizing post on inflation, but it took me a minute to figure out where the error was creeping in. But don’t worry, I finally got it. Here’s Noah:

Inflation is one of those things that almost nobody who isn’t an economist seems to understand…

Or the other day, someone on Twitter asked me: “How is it possible for inflation to help debtors when wages are going down? If wages are going down, doesn’t inflation just make it harder for people to pay off their debts?”

The answer is no. Here’s why. Suppose you make $50,000 a year and you have $50,000 in debt. Your debt-to-income ratio is 1. Also, just for convenience, let’s say the general price level starts out at “1″.

Situation A: -50% real wage growth, 100% inflation.
In this case, the new price level is 2. Your new real wage is $25,000. Your new nominal wage is $25,000 x 2 = $50,000. Your debt is still $50,000. Your debt/income ratio is still 1.

Situation B: -50% real wage growth, 0% inflation.
In this case, the new price level is 1. Your new real wage is $25,000. Your new nominal wage is $25,000 x 1 = $25,000. Your debt is still $50,000. Your debt/income ratio is now 2.

Situation C: -50% real wage growth, 50% deflation.
In this case, the new price level is 1/2. Your new real wage is $25,000. Your new nominal wage is $25,000 x 1/2 = $12,500. Your debt is still $50,000. Your debt/income ratio is now 4.

So as you can see, even if your real wage is going down by 50%, it’s better to have inflation than no inflation if you are a net debtor. Inflation erodes the value of your debt no matter what is happening to your real wages.

So what’s going on here? Why do so many people misunderstand inflation? Maybe it’s a form of “Stockholm Syndrome”. Inflation-hawkish economists have been bellowing, so loudly and so vehemently, that inflation is Satan – this goes back at least a hundred years – that non-economists just can’t help believing it. People end up trying to think up reasons why inflation must be bad after all. When you offer them freedom – when you tell them that sometimes inflation can erode debt, relieve balance sheet recessions, and help stimulate the economy – they don’t want to take it. , and they come up with more brilliant ways to identify with their captors. Or something like that.

My reply in the comments:

Mr. Pinion, in my humble opinion you have totally overanalyzed the Twitter question and ended up speaking nonsense. The guy wasn’t asking you about real wages, he was asking about actual nominal wages.

So his point was something like this:

“Hey Noah, I get how if all prices double, including my hourly nominal wage rate, then it becomes easier for me to pay off my fixed debt. But if I’m having trouble making ends meet and keeping up with my loan repayment plan, then my employer actually cuts my nominal paycheck, and then on top of that the price of food and health insurance goes up, how in the world does that make me better off?!”

It doesn’t. By interpreting your Twitter guy to be speaking of real wages, you completely dodged his simple question.

Why is it that so many economists can’t understand simple questions about inflation? Must be political.

UPDATE: So in the comments, it turns out that not 1, not 2, but 3 of my clever critics think I’m missing Noah’s “point.” OK watch this. I’m going to paste Noah’s 3 scenarios, and then add one more that is done in exactly the same style, but with a 200% 300% (price) inflation rate. Watch what happens:

Suppose you make $50,000 a year and you have $50,000 in debt. Your debt-to-income ratio is 1. Also, just for convenience, let’s say the general price level starts out at “1″.

Situation A: -50% real wage growth, 100% inflation.
In this case, the new price level is 2. Your new real wage is $25,000. Your new nominal wage is $25,000 x 2 = $50,000. Your debt is still $50,000. Your debt/income ratio is still 1.

Situation B: -50% real wage growth, 0% inflation.
In this case, the new price level is 1. Your new real wage is $25,000. Your new nominal wage is $25,000 x 1 = $25,000. Your debt is still $50,000. Your debt/income ratio is now 2.

Situation C: -50% real wage growth, 50% deflation.
In this case, the new price level is 1/2. Your new real wage is $25,000. Your new nominal wage is $25,000 x 1/2 = $12,500. Your debt is still $50,000. Your debt/income ratio is now 4.

[Added by RPM:] Situation D: -50% real wage growth, 200% 300% inflation.
In this case, the new price level is 4. Your new real wage is $25,000. Your new nominal wage is $25,000 x 4 = $100,000. Your debt is still $50,000. Your debt/income ratio is now 1/2.

Wow, I just proved Noah’s point even more so, right? Look at that, the guy’s debt/income ratio dropped from 1 down to 1/2. So clearly 200% 300% inflation is even better than 100% inflation. Noahpinion FTW!

Oh wait a minute. By using Noah’s technique, and picking an inflation rate of 200% 300% rather than Noah’s (completely arbitrary) 100%, now I’m making the guy get a pay increase from his employer. This is clearly NOT what the Twitter guy had in mind, proving that Noah is answering a different question.

This is really simple, everyone: If I am struggling to pay my bills, including fixed-rate debt payments, and then you’ll tell me prices are going to go up by 10% next year, I don’t care what happens to this particular fraction called “debt/income.” What I want to know is, will my nominal paycheck go up by 10% as well? If so, then I’m golden. If it goes up, but by less than 10%, I conceivably could still be better off–it depends how big a fraction my fixed-rate debt payments originally are of my total budget.

But under NO CIRCUMSTANCES would I want to see prices go up, if at the same time you tell my wages are going to go down too. Instead of that outcome, I would rather see prices stay the same.

Putting it another way: For a given nominal wage and nominal debt payment, I am better off if prices go down. Duh. I don’t care if that raises the “real burden of my debt.”

If you want to say this guy’s question doesn’t understand basic price theory, and that it’s kind of goofy to assume prices could rise while leaving blue collar workers in the dust, OK…but that’s the narrative progressives have been telling about Ronald Reagan-George W. Bush’s America. I actually think that’s what prompted the Twitter guy’s question. He was having cognitive dissonance on why the Keynesian heroes were simultaneously championing inflation to help debtors, but also worrying about income gains accruing largely to the fat cats.


==> Over at Laissez-Faire I explain my Chevy Chase moment.

==> On carbon taxes, I report you decide.

==> My podcast with “Gadsen Rising.”

==> My podcast on “Patriot’s Lament.”

==> Markets in Everything: An insurance policy for libertarian activists.

Steve Landsburg Thinks the Current Debt Level Is Juuuuust Right

Steve Landsburg and I can have a perfectly civil discussion on theology. He agrees not to mock me (to my face) for thinking a guy can walk on water, and I don’t make fun of him for worshipping irrational numbers. But when it comes to government debt, I think Steve and I might just have to agree never to talk about the subject. Today he writes:

How high should taxes be? High enough to cover expected outlays going forward — but no higher.

That’s because any additional revenue would be used to pay down the federal debt, which is a bad idea. It was almost surely a mistake to run up this much debt in the first place, but now that we’ve got it, the best thing to do is to keep it forever.

Here’s why:

Every $100 in outstanding debt commits the government to making payments with a present value of $100, and hence to collecting tax revenues with a present value of $100. In a world where the interest rate is 3%, the options include collecting (and paying off) $100 immediately, or $50 this year and $51.50 next year, or $11.38 a year for ten years running, or $3 a year forever. Because deadweight loss (i.e. the economic damage due to the disincentive effects of taxes) is roughly proportional to the square of the tax rate, it turns out that the latter — the policy of paying interest forever without ever making a principal payment — is (at least roughly) the policy that minimizes the present value of deadweight loss.

In other words, as far as the existing debt goes, we’re hosed no matter what we do — it’s painful to pay it off, and painful to keep paying interest forever. But at least if we pay interest forever, we’re minimizing the deadweight losses associated with raising taxes.

As usual with Steve, I think he is probably correct as far as the strict mathematics of the argument. However, I have the opposite intuition. Now the ground rules of this game (even though Steve didn’t say so) are presumably that we rule out government default on its debt as cheating, and we don’t worry about the ethics of taxation per se. In that framework, I would certainly recommend that the US government start paying down its debt, both in terms of outstanding Treasury securities but also in terms of paying people lump sums to renounce their future Social Security and Medicare claims.

Now the tricky thing is, I suspect if we spelled out our assumptions a little more, Steve and I would end up agreeing. I could even imagine after 5 emails, Steve saying, “Yeah, we’re basically saying the same thing.” And yet, it sure doesn’t seem like that, does it?

To see what I mean–that I think Steve and I are actually closer than it first appears–consider that of course I would NOT [added!–RPM] recommend raising taxes, to start paying down the debt. Rather, I would recommend slashing spending tremendously. Then the other subtlety is that you would want to allow for emergency situations where deficits occurred temporarily in the future. So by paying the debt down today (and as a general rule), you were actually just giving yourself breathing room so that the debt down the road didn’t end up higher than where you’re starting today.

In other words, Steve is saying that if the debt is 85% of GDP today, then in a century he wants it to still be 85% of GDP. (For sure that’s what he’s saying if GDP is constant; in the comments of his post it wasn’t clear if he actually wants to maintain constant dollar amount of debt, or constant debt/GDP ratio.)

Suppose I too want the debt/GDP ratio to be the same in 100 years. But, I predict that there will be periods between now and then when the deficits will be so large that the debt/GDP ratio will grow during those years. In order then to reach my target, there must be periods when debt/GDP shrinks. And unless I happen to think the present is a time that requires growing debt/GDP, why wouldn’t I start paying it down right now?

(This is a little awkward because presumably right now–coming out of the financial crisis–is an “emergency” time when tax revenues are depressed and you could expect the government to run a budget deficit. But, that’s not really important for Steve’s argument. He would have written the same post in 1984 I believe.)

Anyway, the above is just to get your wheels turning. The real problem with Steve’s analysis–by which I mean, the assumption that makes his conclusion right, but which is a bad assumption to make–is this:

Note: The above assumes that spending policies and tax policies can be set separately (subject to the constraint that tax revenues are at least high enough to cover interest payments). Things of course get more complicated if you believe that debt levels and/or tax rates constrain future spending through some political mechanism. I’ve often heard this alleged, but I’m unaware of any strong evidence for this assertion.

How about this Steve?

(The footage is from a riot in Greece earlier this month.)


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C’mon, Mitt. Quit allowing Barack to pretend outsourcing is evil.

So, Mitt is upset with Barack because Barack claims Mitt was still involved with making management decisions at Bain Capital after 1999. What happened after 1999 that is so damaging to Mitt?

Bain “outsourced” jobs to foreign countries. You know, where businesses can hire people for less money and pay fewer taxes? HORRORS.

Mitt is way too uptight about this. He should mock Barack for getting his facts wrong and not understanding that owning shares in a company does not equal making decisions for a company. But no, Mitt has to act like outsourcing jobs is some horrible sin  that makes him a criminal. Even if he did it, it just means he understands how things actually work. He should own that. He should explain.

Companies exist to create products or provide services to customers. This should not be controversial, but apparently it is. The cheaper the company can do this, the more product it sells or services it provides. This makes consumers happy, because saving money on one purchase means that have money left over for other things.

(Little known fact ignored by the media: You, me and everyone we know are consumers. Yep. It’s true! WE benefit, all of us, from lower prices. Blacks, whites, Native Americans, blue bloods and mutts; Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and atheists; homosexuals, asexuals, transexuals and even heterosexuals! We all benefit. Let that soak in for a bit. It could change your entire world view. It would certainly change Obama’s.)

Mitt, thankfully, is pointing out that Barack’s policies promote outsourcing by raising taxes on people in corporations. When people making decisions for corporations can operate more cheaply somewhere else, they will. Again, this should not be surprising, but apparently it is: “What:?! They are moving facilities where they can pay fewer taxes!!!! How could they?!!! That is just unbelievable!! Who EVER would have thought of such a thing?! How can we make policy when people CHANGE behavior based on how much we make them pay in taxes?!!”

Outsourcing allows companies to stay in business. It allows them to stay competitive. It allows them to produce things so poor people can afford them. (What? Low prices help poor people…..? This … is… so… radical…..Can not… process…..)

If Mitt would just quit pretending he doesn’t understand this, we’d all be better off. By pretending outsourcing is evil, he is allowing Barack to sell his message that higher prices are awesome. They are not. Not for anyone.