The economic crash of 2008 took most economists by surprise. As a result many thought tha the discipline was discredited and that it would, or should undergo a rethink. Alas though we underestimated the resilience of conventional thinking. For example, commentary about Britain’s recent low inflation figures, and about inflation in other countries, is straight out of a pre-2008 text book. That’s worrying because the world faces huge economic challenges – while professional economists are looking in the wrong direction.
This week Britain’s lowest annual inflation figures on record – though I’m not clear exactly which set of records this refers to. Overall prices were calculated to have risen by just 0.5% in 12 months of 2014. There was a lot of talk about whether this was good or bad news. On the bad news front the commentators suggested that these figures might presage deflation – negative inflation – which is a Bad Thing. Bad they explained because it undermines demand because people defer purchases, Bad because it makes debts more difficult to repay, or Bad because it makes raises the floor for real interest rates, so making money supply tighter than it should be. Japan since the 1990s is then quoted as the spectre. Some economists will point out that some deflation is not bad – if it is a sign of increased productivity making things cheaper, rather than a spiral of decreasing demand.
What’s wrong with all of that? It is based on a logical fallacy that is so commonplace that most macroeconomists don’t seem to realise they are making it. In order to understand a complex thing like a modern economy they have developed a series of aggregated statistics, of which GDP and its cousin economic growth, is one, and inflation is another. Fair enough – but for them these aggregates take on the properties of single, uniform phenomena. They then go further by inventing theoretical concepts such as “capacity” and “the natural rate of unemployment” which are unmeasurable and unreal, and pretend that they are real physical things. They then create a world rather anecdotal stories around this fictional world of statistical measures to convince themselves and others that this world is real. This fictional world is populated by people and businesses that are all essentially the same.
But reality is meanwhile diverging ever further from the fictional world. Let’s go back to that commentary on inflation. Will people put off purchases if prices are falling? The prices in question are largely fuel and food; deferral seems unlikely. And remember when the prices of electronic goods and imported manufactures was falling in the 2000s? Where people putting off purchases? It all depends on the precise circumstances – getting underneath the detail. Debts becoming easier to pay off if there is inflation? This depends on two things. Firstly that inflation must apply to your household income, so that it rises faster than the principal of the debt. Second that interest rates are less than the rate at which your income is rising. Neither is true for most people, or even close to being true. Inflation is not making debts easier to repay; deflation should not make repaying debts more difficult. And as for the business about money supply, this opens up a whole new parallel world that economists inhabit – that of monetary policy.
To work out what is really happening in the economy, you need to get behind the aggregated figures and ask what is actually happening and why. Most macroeconomists are unwilling to do this. They play with their aggregated statistics and focus on a fairly short to medium term policy options known as “fiscal policy” and “monetary policy” as if these were the only things that really matter. They remind me of Russian Tsars sending directives to distant provinces . We’re too busy and important to bother with the details; Just do what you are told and it will all work out on average. And the world goes somewhere else, perhaps disastrously as was the case in 2007/08.
We have another case study in this muddled thinking: Japan. Macroeconomists are quite excited about Japan at the moment, because the current government is adopting a highly aggressive economic policies, following decades of stagnation. This includes an aggressive monetary policy that is straight out of the pre-2008 textbook – increasing the money supply and raising inflation expectations. This is not going particularly well, but the macroeconomists have a ready culprit – the Japanese have wrecked things through bad fiscal policy, since they raised the rate of VAT. Actually the fundamental problem with Japanese economic policy was that while prices were rising, pay (other than a few temporary bonuses) was not. In other words inflation has not proved the uniform phenomenon that economists assume. And that simply highlights that the main issue with the Japanese economy is the functioning of its labour market, not the conduct of macroeconomic policy (see this perceptive article in the FT from Bill Emmott). That and some severe secular trends that afflict all developed economies (demographic change, the evolution of the global economy, excess debt, accumulation of stagnant wealth, and changes to technological progress).
To be fair, the Japanese government, under its Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, has always been aware of this wider and more complex picture, and has been attempting to tackle the many roadblocks to change. For that prominent economists, like Joseph Stiglitz, call them “stupid”.
The world economy, and our individual nations, face huge challenges. We need new thinking. The laissez-fair (or “neoliberal” in leftist parlance) approach adopted in the 1980s has run its course. But the aggregate demand-management polices that preceded them are not the answer (I will not call them “Keynesian” out respect for the highly intelligent and flexible mind that Maynard Keynes possessed). Politicians and central bankers are grappling a range of practical problems that most macroeconomic commentators brush aside. and yet these commentators dominate the airwaves and newspaper columns.
Some of the outlines of this new thinking are quite clear. More focus on redistribution and public investment. Moving away from an obsession with economic growth. Tackling excessive debt. But these leave huge questions. For example: how do you tackle excessive debt without economic growth? I wish economists would turn their attention to these vital questions rather than rehash yesterday’s textbooks.