Tuesday, May 7, 2013

There Is No Technocracy: Stop Worrying About Aggregate Demand

. Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Is "aggregate demand" really what anyone cares about? I don't think so. We care about the quality of peoples' lives. And new research is starting to look at what sorts of fiscal policies matter for improving well-being whatever the macroeconomic aggregates say. Evan Soltas describes some of this work and interviews the authors:

Tax revenues fall automatically in recessions, and governments back that up with lower tax rates and/ or new credits and deductions. On the spending side, extra outlays on unemployment benefits and other transfers greatly exceed extra outlays on infrastructure and other purchases. This modern kind of fiscal stimulus is supposed to work by stabilizing disposable income. Stabilize that, the thinking goes, and you stabilize output and employment. 
But is that right? In a new working paper, Ricardo Reis of Columbia University and Alisdair McKay of Boston University say no. They find that stabilizing aggregate disposable income plays a “negligible role” in stabilizing the economy as a whole. Transfer payments can indeed stabilize output, they find, but mainly through a different channel -- not by changing disposable income in the aggregate, but by changing its distribution. Fiscal policy, in other words, is all about inequality.

“It’s the redistribution that has a lot of kick,” Reis said in an interview. “The usual argument for transfers is basically Keynesian. We find that has very low impact in our model.”
More on the fiscal side here. What about the monetary side? Marc Chandler, a Wall Street manager writing in the Jacobin, describes the relationship between monetary policy and distribution.
Central bank independence was never what it was cracked up to be. During “normal” times, central banks protected the interests of the owners of capital. Paul Volcker is often cited as the epitome of the independent central banker, but surely his tight monetary policy, justified in terms of some technocratic money supply target created winners and losers. The owners of capital were among the winners, while those who did not own capital were losers (through such things as higher unemployment and downward pressure on real wages). ... 
The setting of monetary policy was never simply a technocratic exercise as the [central bank independence theory] pretends. There were always those interests that benefited and those who did less well. Few cried of a loss of central bank independence, for example, when the Bundesbank would threaten tighter monetary policy in reaction to unions seeking a sharp increase in wages.
Much more here. Both the commentariat and academia have focused too long on the supposed technocratic features of policy: whether unemployment is at its "natural" rate, whether output is at "potential", whether central banks are "independent", whether inflation is "low and stable". None of these concepts exist in nature. None of them are even definable quantitatively, although they may be described quantitatively. Hence, they are not scientific concepts but terms of art with important distributional ramifications.
 
I have a paper forthcoming which looks at how banks respond to monetary arrangements. It turns out that monetary politics goes well beyond central bank independence. I'll post a link when it's available.

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There Is No Technocracy: Stop Worrying About Aggregate Demand
 
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