Was Murphy Foolish to Take Caplan’s Bet?

A few days ago, Bryan Caplan posted on his bet with Robert Murphy regarding inflation. Murphy predicted 10% inflation. He lost … big time. However, was he crazy to make that bet?  In other words, what could explain Caplan’s victory?

Murphy was not alone in predicting this, I distinctly remember a podcast between Russ Roberts and Joshua Angrist on this where Roberts tells Angrist he expected high inflation back in 2008. Their claims were not indefensible. Central banks were engaging in quantitative easing and there was an important increase of the state money supply. There was a case to be made that inflation could surge.

It did not. Why?

In a tweet, Caplan tells me that monetary transmission channels are much more complex than they used to be and that the TIPS market knew this. Although I agree with both these points, it does not really explain why it did not materialize. I am going to propose two possibilities of which I am not fully convinced myself but whose possibility I cannot dismiss out of hand.

Imagine an AS-AD graph. If Murphy had been right, we should have seen aggregate demand stimulated to a point well above that of long-run equilibrium. Yet, its hard to see how quantitative easing did not somehow stimulate aggregate demand.  Now, if aggregate demand was falling and that quantitative easing merely prevented it from falling, this is what would prove Murphy wrong. However, all of this assumes no movement of supply curves.

While AD falls and before monetary policy kicks in, imagine that policies are adopted that reduce the potential for growth and productivity improvement. In a way, this would be the argument brought forward by people like Casey Mulligan in work on labor supply and the “redistribution recession” and Edward Prescott and Ellen McGrattan who argue that, once you account for intangible capital, the real business cycle model is still in play (there was a TFP shock somehow). This case would mean that as AD fell, AS fell with it. I would find it hard to imagine that AS shifted left faster than AD. However, a relatively smaller fall of AS would lead to a strong recession without much deflation (which is what we have seen in this recession). Personally, I think there is some evidence for that. After all, we keep reducing the estimate for potential GDP everywhere while the policy uncertainty index proposed by Baker, Bloom and Davids shows a level change around 2008.  Furthermore, there has been a wave – in my opinion of very harmful regulations – which would have created a maze of administrative costs to deal with (and whose burden is heavy according to Dawson and Seater in the Journal of Economic Growth). That could be one possibility that would explain why Murphy lost.

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There is a second possibility worth considering (and one which I find more appealing): the role of financial regulations. Now, I may have been trained mostly by Real Business Cycle guys, but I do have a strong monetarist bent. I have always been convinced by the arguments of Steve Hanke and Tim Congdon (I especially link Congdon) and others that what you should care about is not M1 or M2, but “broad money”. As Hanke keeps pointing out, only a share of everything that we could qualify broadly as “money” is actually “state money”. The rest is “private money”. If a wave of financial regulations discourages banks to lend or incite them to keep greater reserves, this would be the equivalent of a drop of the money multiplier. If those regulations are enacted at the same time as monetary authorities are trying to offset a fall in aggregate demand, then the result depends on the relative impact of the regulations. The data for “broad money” (Hanke defines it as M4) shows convincingly that this is a potent contender. In that case, Murphy’s only error would have been to assume that the Federal Reserve’s policy took place with everything else being equal (which was not the case since everything seemed to be moving in confusing directions).

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In the end, I think all of these explanations have value (a real shock, a banking regulation shock, an aggregate demand shock). In 25 years when economic historians such as myself will study the “Great Recession”, they will be forced to do like they do with Great Depression: tell a multifaceted story of intermingled causes and counter-effects for which no single statistical test can be designed. When cases like these emerge, it’s hard to tell what is happening and those who are willing to bet are daredevils.

P.S. I have seen the blog posts by Scott Sumner and Marcus Nunes regarding my NGO /NGDP claims. They make very valid points and I want to take decent time to address them, especially since I am using the blogging conversation as a tool to shape a working paper.

The Problem with Modern Monetary Theory

“Modern Monetary Theory,” a doctrine about fiat money, has captured the attention of some reformers and progressives. This doctrine – a set of propositions contrary to logic and evidence – purports to explain why the US and other economies are ailing, but is beset by contradictions with the historic facts and within the doctrine.

For example, The New Inquiry on 11 April 2014 featured an article by Rebecca Rojer on “The World According to Modern Monetary Theory.” The author regards it as a revelation of MMT that the “rules of money are not immutable laws of nature.” Since the science of economics explains the effects of incentives and decisions, evidently these money “rules” are the outcomes of private and governmental decisions, and since the effects are not immutable laws, people can arbitrarily create whatever outcomes they wish. That would indeed be wonderful, to just print money are thereby eliminate unemployment, depressions, and poverty, all without creating price inflation, because the rules of money creation are not immutable, so we can have whatever outcome we wish!

Science is based on logic and evidence rather than “revelations.” It is possible that there have been revelations, but these create religion rather than science, since if an experience or experiment cannot be duplicated, the revelations are not sufficient for scientific warrants. Various religions have had different revelations, and the members do not believe the revelations of the others.

The author provides an example of the MMT doctrine. Suppose there is an island that has minerals. The owner of the mines hires workers and pays them with fiat money, like the paper and bank-account money we have today, i.e. money created out of nothing. But the owner also imposes a tax on the wages of the miners. So evidently this mine owner is a government, and we are not dealing with private enterprise, but a coercive socialist state. The miners work enough to both pay the wage tax and be able to survive.

But a premise of this MMT island example is that prior to the mining, the people were able to hunt and farm without working too hard. So why would anyone work in the mines? The historical explanation is the “enclosures” movement, in which land that was held by small-scale farmers or by villages was forcibly taken by the aristocracy or by the state or by foreign invaders. This is not a money story, but a land-grab story. Another way to get forced labor, other than chattel slavery, is to require the payment of taxes in money, which forces subsistence farmers to work on plantations at least long enough to pay the taxes. That is more a tax story than a money story, since if the government insists on being paid in coconuts, and a farmer does not grow coconuts, he must work on the coconut plantation, get paid in coconuts, and then pay the tax. Therefore the forced labor is based on the government’s restrictions on alternative employment opportunities.

MMT is correct in stating that one way that the government gets people to accept its fiat money is what economists call the “fiscal theory of money,” that the government reinforces its money as a medium of exchange by requiring the use of that money for paying taxes. However, if the government currency is being hyper-inflated, taxpayers would keep their savings in, say, gold, or a stable foreign currency, and then convert it to the fiat money only when a tax payment is due. The fiscal effect only works if the government is not creating too much inflation.

Therefore MMT is incorrect as stating, as a “core building block,” that forcing people to pay taxes with fiat money “gives it its value.” That was not the case, for example, in Zimbabwe, which suffered hyperinflation. One “immutable” economic law of money is that the creation of money, beyond what is needed for transactions, results in price inflation, and the payment of taxes becomes tied to that inflation, via the nominal rise of prices and wages, rather than preventing inflation.

A related fallacy of MMT is that “sovereigns” in general create money by “spending it into existence.” That can indeed happen, as for example in the Zimbabwe hyperinflation, but in the US and most countries today, government spending comes from taxes and borrowing, not money creation. The central bank, such as the Federal Reserve, does not create money by spending it for goods, but rather by buying bonds and then increasing the banks’ reserves or funds to pay for the bonds.

Since the “core” proposition of MMT, that price inflation can be controlled by government’s taxing and spending, is incorrect, the whole superstructure of the MMT doctrine built on it collapses. Actually, MMT does accept the proposition that monetary inflation creates price inflation, but that true proposition contradicts the core MMT premise that tax-paying gives money its value.

A worse MMT fallacy is that the taxes paid to the government destroys money. MMT tells us that governments create money when they spend, and then the money disappears when taxes are paid. But a tax no more destroys money than the dollars used to buy bread. The seller of bread now has the money, and the government now has the dollars paid in taxes, and they then spend that money.

There have been various theories and doctrines on money and banking in the history of economic thought, and in my judgment, the explanations that best fit the facts are a combination of the monetarist and the Austrian schools of thought. The monetarist core is the equation MV=PT, which explains that the quantity of money (M) multiplied by its annual velocity or turnover (V) equals the price level (P) multiplied by the amount of transactions (T) measured in money. Thus high price inflation, a rise in P, is usually caused by monetary inflation, an on-going increase in M.

The Austrian school explains how excessive monetary inflation not only cause price inflation, but distorts relative prices, such as when house purchase prices rise faster than rentals. Austrian theory shows how governmental central planning fails because the knowledge to do so well is always lacking, and that applies to money as well. Hence the Austrians propose free-market money and banking, so that the market sets interest rates and the money supply.

Indeed the Fed failed to prevent the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008, and its policies generated high inflation during the 1970s and the cheap credit that has fueled land-value bubbles. MMT cannot do any better, because, as the Austrian theory explains, the optimal money supply is not only not known, but not knowable. The pure free market provides the optimal money supply just as it provides the optimal amount of bread and the optimal amount of shoes.