Thursday, July 30, 2015 9.05AM / Paul Krugman / NYT
There’s a paradox about economic policy since the Great Recession, one that is often acknowledged implicitly but rarely stated directly. On one side, the economic problems facing both the United States and Europe have been quite straightforward and comprehensible. On the other side, the debate over actual policy has been tortured and confused, with a general sense even among aficionados that the tools being deployed are inadequate and come with troubling side effects.
Specifically, the whole western world has spent years suffering from a severe shortfall of aggregate demand; in Europe a severe misalignment of national costs and prices has been overlaid on this aggregate problem. These aren’t hard problems to diagnose, and simple macroeconomic models — which have worked very well, although nobody believes it — tell us how to solve them. Conventional monetary policy is unavailable thanks to the zero lower bound, but fiscal policy is still on tap, as is the possibility of raising the inflation target. As for misaligned costs, that’s where exchange rate adjustments come in. So no worries: just hit the big macroeconomic That Was Easy button, and soon the troubles will be over.
Except that all the natural answers to our problems have been ruled out politically. Austerians not only block the use of fiscal policy, they drive it in the wrong direction; a rise in the inflation target is impossible given both central-banker prejudices and the power of the goldbug right. Exchange rate adjustment is blocked by the disappearance of European national currencies, plus extreme fear over technical difficulties in reintroducing them.
As a result, we’re stuck with highly problematic second-best policies like quantitative easing and internal devaluation.
In case you don’t know, “second best” is an economic term of art. It comes from a classic 1956 paper by Lipsey and Lancaster, which showed that policies which might seem to distort markets may nonetheless help the economy if markets are already distorted by other factors. For example, suppose that a developing country’s poorly functioning capital markets are failing to channel savings into manufacturing, even though it’s a highly profitable sector. Then tariffs that protect manufacturing from foreign competition, raise profits, and therefore make more investment possible can improve economic welfare.
The problems with second best as a policy rationale are familiar. For one thing, it’s always better to address existing distortions directly, if you can — second best policies generally have undesirable side effects (e.g., protecting manufacturing from foreign competition discourages consumption of industrial goods, may reduce effective domestic competition, and so on). There’s also a political economy concern, which is that in a complicated world you can come up with a second best rationale for practically anything. Somewhere the Chicago economist Harry Johnson wrote (this is from memory) that in practice “second best policies are always devised by third-best economists working for fourth-best politicians” — harsh, but you can see his point.
But here we are, with anything resembling first-best macroeconomic policy ruled out by political prejudice, and the distortions we’re trying to correct are huge — one global depression can ruin your whole day. So we have quantitative easing, which is of uncertain effectiveness, probably distorts financial markets at least a bit, and gets trashed all the time by people stressing its real or presumed faults; someone like me is then put in the position of having to defend a policy I would never have chosen if there seemed to be a viable alternative.
In a deep sense, I think the same thing is involved in trying to come up with less terrible policies in the euro area. The deal that Greece and its creditors should have reached — large-scale debt relief, primary surpluses kept small and not ramped up over time — is a far cry from what Greece should and probably would have done if it still had the drachma: big devaluation now. The only way to defend the kind of thing that was actually on the table was as the least-worst option given that the right response was ruled out.
Which makes me ask myself the question: Do people like me spend too much time being limited by what is presumed to be politically practical? Should we devote more time to trying to widen the range of options, to pointing out that we really would be much better off if we threw off the fetters of conventional deficit fears, the 2 percent inflation target, and the extremely ill-advised euro project?
This story is included with an NYT Opinion subscription. Learn more »