As reported by Tyler Cowen.
Name the period or event in economic history where we looked backed and said “hmm, money was less important than we thought at the time
Of course, the trend over the past fifty years has been to assign a large role to money in economic history. I believe that this trend in thinking is wrong-headed.
Let me digress for a moment. A few days ago, I watched “Money for Nothing,” a documentary about the Fed that was sent to me to review. On the positive side, I would say that
1. It includes excerpts of interviews with an outstanding and diverse set of experts, including Allan Meltzer, Alan Blinder, and Janet Yellen.
2. Its rendition of the history of the Fed is well done.
On the negative side, I would say that I have never walked away from a documentary feeling satisfied. That is an understatement. Every documentary, regardless of whether I am sympathetic to its point of view, leaves me feeling swindled. I think the format is suited to leaving people with impressions and illusions, not with genuine understanding.
For example, “Money for Nothing” devotes about 15 seconds each to Brooksley Born and Ned Gramlich. If all you knew about them came from this documentary, then you would have not sense of the ambiguity that surrounds their alleged farsighted desire to increase regulation.
Born was fighting an unlikely turf war, attempting to get the dealer markets in financial derivatives to be overseen by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has expertise in a very different area–standardized contracts traded on organized exchanges. Now, if you abolished the dealer market in derivatives and forced them onto an exchange, then you could place derivatives under the CFTC’s jurisiction. First, there has to be a debate over whether or not this is a good idea (in the wake of the crisis, many people think it would be a good idea. I do not.) But if we take as given the existing dealer market, Born’s claim of turf was untenable.
Gramlich was worried about consumer protection issues in mortgage lending. There were a lot of mortgage brokers behaving like old-time car salesmen, always trying to make customers pay more than necessary. As the housing boom accelerated, more and more borrowers were on the lower end of the scale in terms of income and sophistication, and the abuses and exploitation by lenders tended to increase. (Keep in mind, however, that down payments were so low that the bulk of the losses from the crash were born by investors, not borrowers. The phrase “predatory borrowing” is not unjustified.) To the best of my knowledge, what Gramlich was not doing was warning that the whole financial system was vulnerable because of what was going on in mortgage markets.
Also, the issue of how money affects the economy is too deep and controversial to be captured in a documentary. “Money for Nothing” appears to claim that both high interest rates and low interest rates are bad for investment. High interest rates choke off investment, while today’s low interest rates choke off saving–which is supposedly hurting investment. Maybe they do not mean to make the latter claim, but, again, it is a format that lends itself to leaving you with impressions, rather than helping you think through an issue. The documentary does not raise the issue of the distinction between short-term inter-bank interest rates (which the Fed can affect) from other interest rates (where the effect of the Fed is in doubt among many economists). It does not bring up the issue of the “zero bound,” which some economists (not me) make a big deal out of.
Finally, and this gets back to Karl Smith’s question, I think that “Money for Nothing” vastly overstates the Fed’s role in the economy. Going forward, the big issue is fiscal policy. Remember the ad from Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President where she played the role of Santa Claus, handing out gifts to various constituency groups? Well, going forward, given the excess of the government’s promises relative to its ability to pay, politicians are going to be playing a lot less Santa and a lot more Scrooge. That is going to cause a fraying of our politics, which is already taking place.
In the coming drama, the Fed is a bit player. If we end up with hyperinflation, it will be the result of a total breakdown on the fiscal side, in which the monetary authorities are given no choice but to try to meet the government’s revenue needs by collecting the inflation tax. Not the most likely outcome, and even if it were to take place, the fault would not lie with the Fed.
More broadly, my inclination in macroeconomics is to get away from aggregate supply and demand. I think that the obsession with money and the Fed is one huge attribution error. It is human nature to look for simple causes and scapegoats. I think we should lean against that.
So I would like to see us place less blame on the Fed for the Great Depression. I would like to see us assign less blame to Arthur Burns for the inflation of the 1970s and assign less credit to Paul Volcker for ending it. I think that we may be over-emphasizing the role of money in all of these cases.
Karl Smith is correct to imply that over time we have come to assign a greater role to money than contemporaries did at the time. That does not necessarily mean that we are wiser.