Depression is a Choice

July 17th, 2014
in Op Ed

by Steve Randy Waldman,

I enjoyed Matt Yglesias' suggestion that depressions are merely a technical problem that will go away once the obsolescence of cash eliminates the zero lower bound on interest rates, and Ryan Avent's rejoinder. Although I've toyed with Yglesias' view myself, I think that Avent has the better of the argument when he characterizes our current policy impotence as reflecting behavioral rather than technical constraints.

Follow up:

We don't lack for technical means to counter people's self-defeating impulse to hoard cash and safe financial assets. On the contrary, we have a whole cornucopia of options! The squabbling that has preoccupied me lately, between market monetarists and post-Keynesians and mainstream saltwater economists, is an argument over which of many not-necessarily-mutually-exclusive options would most perfectly address address this not-really-challenging problem.

We are in a depression, but not because we don't know how to remedy the problem. We are in a depression because it is our revealed preference, as a polity, not to remedy the problem. We are choosing continued depression because we prefer it to the alternatives.

Usually, economists are admirably catholic about the preferences of the objects they study. They infer desire by observing behavior, listening to what people do more than to what they say. But with respect to national polities, macroeconomists presume the existence of an overwhelming preference for GDP growth and full employment that simply does not exist. They act as though any other set of preferences would be unreasonable, unthinkable.

But the preferences of developed, aging polities - first Japan, now the United States and Europe - are obvious to a dispassionate observer. Their overwhelming priority is to protect the purchasing power of incumbent creditors. That's it. That's everything. All other considerations are secondary. These preferences are reflected in what the polities do, how they behave. They swoop in with incredible speed and force to bail out the financial sectors in which creditors are invested, trampling over prior norms and laws as necessary. The same preferences are reflected in what the polities omit to do. They do not pursue monetary policy with sufficient force to ensure expenditure growth even at risk of inflation. They do not purse fiscal policy with sufficient force to ensure employment even at risk of inflation. They remain forever vigilant that neither monetary ease nor fiscal profligacy engender inflation. The tepid policy experiments that are occasionally embarked upon they sabotage at the very first hint of inflation. The purchasing power of holders of nominal debt must not be put at risk. That is the overriding preference, in context of which observed behavior is rational.

I am often told that this is absurd because, after all, wouldn't creditors be better off in a booming economy than in a depressed one? In a depression, creditors may not face unexpected inflation, sure. But they also earn next to nothing on their money, sometimes even a bit less than nothing in real terms. "Financial repression! Savers are being squeezed!" In a boom, they would enjoy positive interest rates.

That's true. But the revealed preference of the polity is not balanced. It is not some cartoonish capitalist-class conspiracy story, where the goal is to maximize the wealth of exploiters. The revealed preference of the polity is to resist losses for incumbent creditors much more than it is to seek gains. In a world of perfect certainty, given a choice between recession and boom, the polity would choose boom. But in the real world, the polity faces great uncertainty. The policies that might engender a boom are not guaranteed to succeed. They carry with them a short-to-medium-term risk of inflation, perhaps even a significant inflation if things don't go as planned. The polity prefers inaction to bearing this risk.

This preference is not at all difficult to understand. The ailing developed economies are plutocratic democracies. "The people" do have power, but influence is weighted in a manner correlated with wealth. The median influencer in these economies is not a billionaire, but an older citizen of some affluence who has mostly endowed her own future consumption. She would like to be richer, of course. But she is content with her present wealth, and is panicked by the prospect of becoming poorer. For such a person, the depression status quo is unfortunate but tolerable. The risks associated with expansionary policy, on the other hand, are absolutely terrifying.

The revealed preference of my polity is not my personal preference. Perhaps that is because I'm an idealist, and I actually care about the misery provoked by precarity and unemployment. Perhaps it's simply because I've not yet endowed my own future consumption, and I'm scared. Regardless, I object. Although I understand where it comes from, I detest the preference for depression revealed by my polity. Perhaps you do too.

But if we want to change the behavior of the polity, it's not enough to argue over clever policies that, if implemented, might do the trick. We've got to change its preferences, which means either buying off the median influencer, or changing her identity via political struggle. Alternatively, we can wait until what are now problems of aggregate demand morph into supply problems (after people become unemployable and capital decays), or into threats of political and social unrest. The median influencer may change her views if tight supply makes goods costly despite fiscomonetary conservatism. Or if her neighborhood is on fire. But I'd prefer we avoid all that, and take a more proactive route.

In the meantime, we have to recognize that what we are experiencing is not a technical failure. It is not "magneto trouble". We, collectively, are making a choice. The task before us is to change our mind.

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