The complacency of salt-water economists

In his recent book on economics (reviewed by me here), George Cooper presented the discipline as being an irretrievably fracture, in need of a radical step change. There is an alternative view. This is that in fact the profession is split between two orthodoxies, with a diverse bunch of heterodox economists on the fringe, unable to get serious traction. The two orthodoxies are often given the names “salt-water” and “fresh-water”, because the former are popular in U.S. universities on the east and west coasts, and the latter with those in the Midwest – especially Chicago. This is worth picking apart.

Followers of each of the orthodoxies assume that criticism of economics is directed mainly at the other orthodoxy, and not at them. The heterodox say that the whole lot is in a mess. The fresh-water school do seem be in eclipse. This school, often termed “neoliberals” outside the US, believe that free markets are the fairest way of allocating economic resources, and that government interference almost always makes things worse. Many assume that they were cheerleaders for the rampant excesses of the financial sector before the crash, and hence have had their come-uppance. This criticism is wide of the mark, however. The banking boom arose at least as much from lop-sided government intervention as it did from “light-touch” deregulation. Fresh-water economists can plausibly blame the crisis on government intervention, not its absence – and in particular the crazy desire of politicians to boost property lending to all and sundry.

In fact there are other fatal problems for fresh water economists. First is that they opposed serious government intervention once the bubble blew. This was self-evident nonsense, ignored to a greater or lesser degree by practically everybody – except where government borrowing presented a practical problems. There have been loud arguments over austerity that have been so loud, but these have been on degree of intervention (big or massive?) and on completely different territory to that advocated by non-interventionists. A second problem is posed by what is usually called “inequality” – whereby it appears that the benefits of growth in developed economies go predominantly to the rich – and that most people in the US have seen little or no benefit from decades of economic growth. It is a central facet of fresh-water thinking that distribution of wealth and income is not an important concern for economists and policymakers. They have almost nothing to say here. And people are starting to notice that in countries with minimal governments (Somalia, say), the economy tends to be in pretty bad shape. Of course fresh-water economists remain well funded, as their views provide convenient support to many vested interests, and they are not about to go extinct. But you don’t hear very much from them these days.

Unlike the salt-water types. These are popularly referred to as “Keynesians”, and are now very well entrenched right across the political establishment. Their most visible cheerleader is Nobel Laureate and columnist Paul Krugman. They were as wrong-footed by the crisis as any of them, but quickly found the groove again. They provided the intellectual heft required to support government intervention after the crisis, though they usually complain that this intervention was inadequate.

Salt-water types do not consider that the crisis showed that their thinking was seriously flawed. Consider this piece a few weeks ago by Mr Krugman. He simply suggests that salt-water economists were a bit misinformed – because they underestimated the practice of shadow banking. Shadow banking, in this context, refers to the practice of banks hiding their dodgier lending by creating off-balance sheet entities to take them. To be fair on Mr Krugman, in the run up to crisis his writing was hardly cheerleading for the supposed economic miracle – though that seemed to derive from his hatred of the then Republican establishment, and their attachment to fresh-water thinking.

I can understand some of Mr Krugman’s frustration with the so-called heterodox economists. They tend to be pretty unconstructive – picking at the orthodox modelling assumptions (incidentally, largely shared across both orthodoxies), without suggesting much that could replace them in a useful way, to give the discipline a better predictive power. The beauty of the salt-water orthodoxy is that it finds it easy to tack on new ideas and integrate them – they have done this quite spectacularly with many of Milton Friedman’s ideas (on money, inflation and unemployment), even though he is one of the spiritual fathers of fresh-water thinking. They are now trying to do so with ideas on inequality, an issue that they acknowledge. Thomas Piketty, the French economist who is making a splash on inequality, looks more like somebody extending the salt-water orthodoxy, rather than challenging it.

For me this is much too complacent. Regular followers of this blog will not be surprised to read that Exhibit A for the prosecution is thinking on monetary policy. Salt-water economists inhabit a world where the ideas of money supply, demand, interest rates and inflation interact in a relatively predictably way, to form an important way of regulating economic growth. Thus there is talk of raising inflation a bit, so that negative real interest rates can be implemented, which in turn will boost demand and get the economy growing. It is not that I think this line of reasoning is entirely mistaken, it is that it is an oversimplification that is more likely to lead to policy mistakes than insights.

Take Japan. This country is probably further down the path of accepting salt-water economics than any other. It has drastically loosened monetary policy (through a process of quantitative easing) with the aim of raising inflation, which in turn will help the process of managing interest rates and boosting sagging demand. But there is a snag: while prices are rising to a degree, wages are not keeping pace. Employers will consider giving employees a temporary bonus, but not raising basic pay. Without raising pay, all the nice things that are supposed to arise from inflation – like making debt easier to bear – will not happen. Economists simply assume that if inflation gets going in consumer prices, wages are bound to follow. But this does not seem to be true of a modern, globally integrated developed economy. There are plenty of other pitfalls in Japan’s strategy too.

The people at the heart of the salt-water school, like Mr Krugman, are a clever bunch. Heterodox economists do not seem to be unsettling their intellectual grip. Perhaps they are right that the orthodoxy must evolve rather than make a step-change. But if so it surely needs to evolve a lot faster.