A Dilemma for Conservatives

Milton Friedman helped revive capitalism when he showed that the Great Depression didn’t show capitalism was unstable, but rather that monetary policy had been unstable.  Some critics argue he actually was a closet interventionist, as he thought capitalism required active stabilization policy.  Perhaps, but one could also argue that he was saying “as long as the government runs our monetary regime, they need to do it well.”  Sort of like a libertarian arguing that if governments build our bridges, they should build them so that they don’t collapse.

In any case, conservatives later started to drift away from the Friedman/Schwartz view of the Great Depression, and became increasingly disdainful of “demand shock” explanations of the business cycle.  This created a huge problem in 2008, as conservatives had great difficulty defending the free market, which seemed to have once again failed us.

To be sure, they did find some important policy failures; from the GSEs to deposit insurance to the regulation of the ratings agencies to the moral hazard created by “Too-Big-to-Fail.”  Nevertheless, given all the bad loans that were made without government pressure, by private banks, to middle class borrowers, it was pretty hard to completely absolve the private sector.

I believe that abandoning the Friedman/Schwartz view of the business cycle was a big mistake.  It’s not that this view would have magically absolved the private sector from any role in the sub-prime fiasco, I’m somewhere in the middle on this issue, believing both regulators and private actors made huge mistakes.  Rather the F/S view would have absolved the financial crash from being the primary cause of the Great Recession.  It would be much easier to live with the occasional financial fiasco if it didn’t lead to a Great Recession.  Remember 1987?

If RGDP hadn’t fallen sharply in 2009 then the banking crisis would have been resolved much more easily, with far less public money.  For that to have happened we would have needed to prevent NGDP growth from turning negative.  And that would have required that conservatives accept the F/S view of the Great Depression, instead of drifting toward “real” theories of business cycles.

Why focus on conservatives, weren’t liberals also clueless about monetary stimulus?  If people like Fisher, Plosser, and Hoenig had warned that aggressive monetary stimulus was needed to prevent a severe slump; does anyone really believe the doves at the Fed would have stood in the way?

In 1930-33 the policies advocated by Friedman and Schwartz would have been viewed as being highly progressive.  Later Friedman moved away from steady monetary growth toward policies that would offset velocity shocks—even more progressive.  It’s a pity that so few liberal and conservative economists picked up the torch when Friedman died in 2006.  What is “the torch?”

1.  Demand shocks drive the business cycle.

2.  Monetary policy is the best tool for demand stabilization.

3.  Monetary policy is very powerful at the zero bound.

How many economists believed all three in October 2008?

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About Scott Sumner 492 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

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