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Pleasantries

April 8, 2010

It is not often that I agree with the the way Paul Krugman envisions the world, at least superficially — or through the lens of politics. However, once in a while (whether intended or not), he allows the old, economist Paul Krugman to shine through, and writes something that I agree whole-heartedly with. Today, he did just that. And it always makes me feel accomplished to agree with Paul Krugman!

Anyway, in today’s NYT op-ed, Krugman implicates tight money as the main problem facing Greece (and, de facto, the rest of the EMU):

Yes, Greece is paying the price for past fiscal irresponsibility. Yet that’s by no means the whole story. The Greek tragedy also illustrates the extreme danger posed by a deflationary monetary policy. And that’s a lesson one hopes American policy makers will take to heart.

It’s a really odd situation Krugman has found himself in throughout this recession. On one hand, he’s a giant in macroeconomics, who sometimes recognizes that liquidity traps aren’t ever actually binding…and on the other hand has to continually make up rationale for his advocacy of fiscal policy based upon vintage Keynesianism. However, it’s hard to hide the fact that tight money is a major problem in the Eurozone, and will continue to be for quite some time it would seem.

This is a not a good situation, as European growth levels are already low, a lower NGDP trajectory going forward from the recession — combined with Europe’s lower productivity level, sets the stage for a lot of other problems down the road. And not just in Greece, but every other member of the EMU. You may think this would be a time to score a rhetorical “point”, but alas, it is not. The people of Europe are seem very easily excitable, and the backlash caused by low growth and stagnant productivity could spell a more forceful call for socialist reforms, reversing the trend toward markets that the EU has been fostering even more formidably than the “free market” US. Not only that, but trade is a positive sum game — it is in everyone’s best interest that everyone else does well going forward.

Secondly, Krugman schools those who have a fairly myopic view of public debt:

So how did the U.S. government manage to pay off its wartime debt? Actually, it didn’t. At the end of 1946, the federal government owed $271 billion; by the end of 1956 that figure had risen slightly, to $274 billion. The ratio of debt to G.D.P. fell not because debt went down, but because G.D.P. went up, roughly doubling in dollar terms over the course of a decade. The rise in G.D.P. in dollar terms was almost equally the result of economic growth and inflation, with both real G.D.P. and the overall level of prices rising about 40 percent from 1946 to 1956.

I’m always trying to explain to people how public debt works, and the overarching point that I try to instill in people is that; while debt may matter, it is growth levels that matter much more. I’m not sure off the top of my head what the trend growth rate for the Greek economy has been, or what their productivity levels look like — but if they track the EU, then I’d be skeptical that Greece can grow its way out from under its debt burden, especially given the grinding deflation that it will likely need to endure.

Third, I’m a Euroskeptic…so any news of the Euro’s implementation not following the tenets laid out in macroeconomic theory plays to my bias, and I might as well mention that Krugman serves up some:

Until recently, being a member of the euro zone seemed like a good thing for Greece, bringing with it cheap loans and large inflows of capital. But those capital inflows also led to inflation — and when the music stopped, Greece found itself with costs and prices way out of line with Europe’s big economies.

This is exactly at odds with the “law” of one price. The theory suggests price convergence in the absence of transaction costs — the EU and EMU was created to reduce transaction costs…and the standard deviation in prices should have fallen. Not so in Greece, nor many other countries in the Eurozone (though not surprising, the ECB is overrepresented by the interests of Frankfurt and Brussels).

To conclude, here is Krugman’s worries, which I share to some extent:

What worries me most about the U.S. situation right now is the rising clamor from inflation hawks, who want the Fed to raise rates (and the federal government to pull back from stimulus) even though employment has barely started to recover. If they get their way, they’ll perpetuate mass unemployment. But that’s not all. America’s public debt will be manageable if we eventually return to vigorous growth and moderate inflation. But if the tight-money people prevail, that won’t happen — and all bets will be off.

No doubt Krugman is referring to Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig. It seems to me that Krugman buys in to Oliver Blanchard’s call for a higher inflation target. I’ll get of the train there, please.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2010 5:33 am

    Calling for a higher inflation target isn’t a million miles away from Scott’s NGDP goal…Even if NGDP level targeting is better, at least both would probably be an improvement on the status quo.

    On the law of one price, the key issue is not transaction costs but the fact that “one price” applies to “one good”. In fact, hardly any goods are the same between Germany and Greece – labour is not as productive in Greece, local tastes are for different products, and many services are of course non-tradable. An important example of this is that retailing is a service, whose cost affects the price of goods sold in shops, as does the demand for it (which in Greece is strongly derived from tourism). So the existence of the euro doesn’t by itself imply that wages and prices should equalise quickly.

    I am not sure of the basis for Krugman’s statement that costs and wages are out of line. In fact (http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/eiro/country/greece_5.htm) Greek unit labour costs last year were the lowest in the EU-15, and have increased less than productivity for the last decade. The issue therefore may be that prices have been kept above the cost of production by consumer and government borrowing. Inflation was 3% from 2004-07, which is only 1% higher than the EU as a whole.

    Having looked all this stuff up while writing this comment, I am coming to the conclusion that lots of the criticism of Greece is based on myth. It seems that the only real macroeconomic problem they have is the public deficit.

  2. April 12, 2010 6:40 am

    Greece uses somebody else’s curency wheareas the US & Japan use their own currency so Greece’s problems don’t apply to the US nor Japan(Japan is at 220% debt (more than TWICE the debt of US which is only about 80% debt) for the past 20 yrs, has mostly deflation (inflation was negative -0.3% to 1.3% inflation (usually about 0% inflation) for the past 20 yrs.), almost 0% interest rates, GDP growth of about 3%) which shows that inflation is not caused by gov deficits as long as production increases more than the money supply. It’s the difference between borrowing from someone else(Greece) vs. borrowing from yourself (US & Japan)

    Mosler agrees with much of what you’re posting, CheapSeats (check out his economics blog at http://www.MoslerEconomics.com if you want to link to what he agrees w/ u on)

    • April 12, 2010 7:16 am

      Jason,

      Sorry your comment didn’t show up, it got caught in my spam filter due to you having a web link. Now that I’ve approved it, you shouldn’t have that problem.

      Thank you for reading!

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