David Beckworth interviews Steve Horwitz
By Scott Sumner
David Beckworth’s podcast series continues to produce fascinating interviews. Today I’ll discuss a recent interview with Steve Horwitz. Many of Steve’s views coincide with market monetarism, although in a few areas his views lean more in the Austrian direction. Here are some things I noticed:
1. Steve and David talked about how “money touches everything”, which means it is involved in almost all transactions. That’s what makes money special. This is a point Nick Rowe also emphasizes. I think that’s right, although I focus more on the fact that goods and services are priced in money terms, and a bit less on the role of money as a medium of exchange. (The two approaches are hard to disentangle.)
2. There was a lot of discussion about the problem of monetary disequilibrium. A root cause of this is short run price stickiness, which prevents the economic system from smoothly adapting to a sudden change in money supply, or (equally important) money demand. Steve rightly emphasized that this is a “coordination problem”. Again, I think this is basically right, but one word of caution. Monetary disequilibrium is a slippery concept, very different from disequilibrium in the housing market when there are rent controls. When there is a sudden increase in the money supply, you might say that people hold more money than they wish to. Then they try to get rid of these excess balances through spending, which drives up aggregate demand.
That’s a story I also use. But how do you identify monetary disequilibrium? At times, Steve talked in terms of the price level being the right indicator. But then later he suggested (correctly in my view) that deflation might not be a problem if driven by strong productivity growth that lowers the cost of production. That leads to NGDP perhaps being the right metric. Steve switched over to the NGDP approach when he started using the equation of exchange as a framework, and M*V as the monetary indicator. So what is the right indictor of monetary disequilibrium? An unstable price level, an unstable NGDP, or something else?
I look at the disequilibrium process somewhat differently. I see the labor market as being the area most strongly impacted by monetary shocks. Thus a decline in the money supply doesn’t make it hard for people to get the cash holdings they prefer (interest rates will rise until there is enough cash in ATMs for anyone who wants it) but it will make it hard for the unemployed to find the jobs they want, and indeed could find in times when monetary policy is more stable. That’s the real disequilibrium problem.
3. Steve complained that the Keynesian tendency to draw money S&D diagrams with interest rates on the vertical axis (instead of 1/P) obscures the role of money as a medium of exchange. That’s my view as well. Unfortunately our textbooks increasingly emphasize interest rates and de-emphasize the money supply.
4. There was a discussion regarding the question of what is the correct money supply. Steve suggested that, at a minimum, it ought to include assets that are media of exchange, such as demand deposits. He also discussed recent ideas such as divisia indices, which are weighted averages of each type of money.
I don’t think debates over the question, “What is money?” are very useful. (That which has no practical implications, has no theoretical implications.) What matters are very specific questions, such as what sort of monetary policy provides macroeconomic stability. The answer to this policy question in no way hinges on whether the base or M1 or M2 or MZM are closer to the platonic ideal of “money”. The Fed directly controls the base, and indirectly influences M1, M2 and NGDP. The relevant question is what sort of policy for controlling the base results in the best macroeconomic outcome. The answer is not at all likely to include “transactions money”, such as M1 or M2.
5. I probably put less weight on Cantillon effects than Steve does, but let me agree on a few points. I do think that monetary shocks have relative price effects, if only because they have cyclical effects (impacting RGDP). That’s true regardless of how the money is introduced into the economy. Second, there may be monetary regimes where Cantillon effects matter a lot, especially where the central banks goes far beyond the traditional bounds of purchasing Treasuries.
6. I am less worried than Steve about bad monetary policy fooling people into malinvestment. In my view the public knows much more than the Fed. They saw the Fed was off course in 2008 well before the Fed itself understood the problem. So we don’t live in a world where central banks fool the public. Yes, the public does occasionally make bad investments, but these cannot be predicted by outsiders, even outsiders who notice that monetary policy is off course. The public knows that too!
In other words, any sensible economist or investor knew that monetary policy in 1968-69 was too expansionary, but this knowledge was useless when contemplating which stocks to short of Wall Street. Malinvestment is really hard to spot, because markets are very, very efficient. I suppose this is one area where I disagree with many Austrians.
7. Steve also discussed “endogenous busts”, which means something like “the boom creates the bust.” I have more sympathy for this view than many Keynesians, but in the end my position is probably better described as intermediate between the Keynesian and Austrian positions. Keynesians see the economy as a vast featureless plain with occasional canyons created by spending shortfalls. Austrians focus on how the preceding boom created the recession, at least in many cases—like mountains rising above a plain. I worry when I see things like the following (from a recent edition of The Economist):
The only way to know if America can manage a repeat performance is to test the economy’s limits. The transition from a 2% target to a higher one would offer a chance for such an experiment. As it is, a central bank hell-bent on keeping inflation low and stable risks cutting short a boom with room to run.
Yes, money was too tight in 2008, and for a long period afterwards. But let’s not forget the lessons of the 1960s and 1970s. This sort of experiment is not without risk. If we overshoot we should not expect a smooth landing on a higher upland plateau, rather a sharp correction into recession. If we are going to do this type of experiment, I’d rather start from a position of more than 4.4% unemployment. Given where we are today, steady as you go seems the most prudent course.
At the risk of being unfair to both groups, I sometimes feel that the Keynesians think recessions are caused by valleys, and Austrians think recessions are caused by mountains. I think recessions are caused by uneven ground. If NGDP is more than expected at one point in time, then there will be other times when it is less than expected. And those will be periods of high unemployment. Thus a sudden increase in NGDP can be just as destabilizing to an economy as a sudden decease. Sometimes an Austrian economist will go too far with this—blaming too much of the Great Depression or Great Recession on the preceding boom, but it’s a valid concern.
Keynesian view: We were doing fine, until we fell into a deep canyon:
Austrian View: Because we walked up the left side of Kilimanjaro, we then had to slide down the right side:
My view? Avoid mountains and valleys. Bonneville Salt Flats is your goal.
PS. I’ve relied on my memory and a few notes–apologies if I misrepresented Steve’s views.