Monday, November 29, 2010

The Inflation Prisoner

About 30 years ago, I read a book by Irwin Schiff (yes, THAT Irwin Schiff) called The Biggest Con in which he exposed Keynesian economics and declaring that the only "arrow in the quiver" of Keynesianism was inflation. As I read Paul Krugman's column today on Spain and its problems, I can see that if Krugman is the most public spokesman today for Keynesian thinking, then Schiff was correct. Let me begin.

In The General Theory, John Maynard Keynes argues that the standard supply-demand wage theory holds only if there is full employment of labor. However, if there is widespread unemployment, the way to get labor back to full-employment levels is to sneak in a general wage cut via inflation. Keynes writes: is fortunate that the workers, though unconsciously, are instinctively more reasonable economists than the classical school, inasmuch as they resist reductions of money-wages, which are seldom or never of an all-round character, even though the existing real equivalent of these wages exceeds the marginal disutility of the existing employment; whereas they do not resist reductions of real wages, which are associated with increases in aggregate employment and leave relative money-wages unchanged, unless the reduction proceeds so far as to threaten a reduction of the real wage below the marginal disutility of the existing volume of employment. Every trade union will put up some resistance to a cut in money-wages, however small. But since no trade union would dream of striking on every occasion of a rise in the cost of living, they do not raise the obstacle to any increase in aggregate employment which is attributed to them by the classical school. (Emphasis mine)
I believe that the concepts shown in this paragraph really are at the heart of Krugman's column today in which he says that Spain easily could get out of its present situation if it had its own currency and could engage in a devaluation which, in his view, would establish something close to full employment and boost Spanish exports. He writes:
Now what? If Spain still had its own currency, like the United States — or like Britain, which shares some of the same characteristics — it could have let that currency fall, making its industry competitive again. But with Spain on the euro, that option isn’t available. Instead, Spain must achieve “internal devaluation”: it must cut wages and prices until its costs are back in line with its neighbors.

And internal devaluation is an ugly affair. For one thing, it’s slow: it normally take years of high unemployment to push wages down. Beyond that, falling wages mean falling incomes, while debt stays the same. So internal devaluation worsens the private sector’s debt problems.

What all this means for Spain is very poor economic prospects over the next few years. America’s recovery has been disappointing, especially in terms of jobs — but at least we’ve seen some growth, with real G.D.P. more or less back to its pre-crisis peak, and we can reasonably expect future growth to help bring our deficit under control. Spain, on the other hand, hasn’t recovered at all. And the lack of recovery translates into fears about Spain’s fiscal future.

Should Spain try to break out of this trap by leaving the euro, and re-establishing its own currency? Will it? The answer to both questions is, probably not. Spain would be better off now if it had never adopted the euro — but trying to leave would create a huge banking crisis, as depositors raced to move their money elsewhere. Unless there’s a catastrophic bank crisis anyway — which seems plausible for Greece and increasingly possible in Ireland, but unlikely though not impossible for Spain — it’s hard to see any Spanish government taking the risk of “de-euroizing.”
The concept is strikingly similar to what Keynes wrote, although Krugman also exposes his own biases of aggregation in this column. After all, what happens when a government devaluates the currency? There is a cut in real wages, and while the goods denominated in that currency become cheaper relative to goods made elsewhere, nonetheless people at home do suffer a fall in their standard of living.

Like Keynes, Krugman argues that what he calls an "internal devaluation" is bad because real wages are cut and people can see firsthand that they are making less, and in countries like Spain that are dominated by labor unions, that spells trouble. However, an inflation-led "wage cut" tends to be less visible or less clear, even if the same thing, relatively speaking, is accomplished.

However, all of this assumes that the effects of inflation are exactly the same as a cut in wages and government spending. (Actually, Krugman believes that inflation is superior because, in his view, people spend more in the short term, which he claims gives an economy "traction," enabling it to move forward on its own.) According to Krugman, or at least what I ascertain through his columns, inflation does not distort the structures of production nor cause any internal dislocations.

This last point is important, because one can have such a view ONLY if factors of production are homogeneous. However, if there are malinvestments that come about through inflation, and these malinvestments over time become unsustainable, then there is a problem.

In a nutshell, that is a huge difference between Austrians and Keynesians. While the devaluation of which Krugman speaks might have some "good effects" at first, nonetheless, this "solution" only exacerbates the long-term problem. For example, within an economy, the wages that tend to be out-of-kilter with the rest of the economy often are centered in unionized industries, and when inflation hits, those sectors tend to be able to force employers (and the government, since these countries have powerful public sector unions) to give raises that better keep up with inflation than workers who either are not unionized or have weak or non-existent political connections.

Thus, the internal distortions are likely to grow. In countries like Spain, Greece, and Portugal, the very sectors that are bloated and are gobbling up resources are the government sectors. A bout of inflation in the long run then would further empower those very employment groups that are most responsible for the current trouble.

To a Keynesian like Krugman, none of this matters, as all sectors are homogeneous and there is no such thing as economic distortion. The only thing that matters are aggregate numbers, as economics to him is nothing more than charts, numbers, and aggregations. To "cure" an economy, give it a bout of inflation, and when the inevitable problem arise, deal with them via another bout of inflation.

When things deteriorate -- as they surely will -- then one blames the "greedy" corporations which, in the view of someone like Krugman, need to be reined in by activist government. All that is needed is to find the "Goldstein," demonize, rage on, and then inflate some more. In the end, THAT is the "Krugman solution."


Anonymous said...

Well, here's a billion dollar question.

What happens when everybody is working in the government sector?

And what happens when a country, with a diminished private sector, has a government sector which can keep outvoting it in elections everytime the government runs out of money?

Mike Cheel said...

@Anonymous Well you would be living in the US in about 5 years or so from now.

Anonymous said...

Krugman is partly right, but for the wrong reasons. Leaving the EMU would be good for Spain but not because they could then happily devalue their own currency and get "full employment". The main accomplishment would be to remove Spain from the EU welfare teat and make it much harder for Spain to borrow money to pay for welfare and pork spending.

Anonymous said...

I really like your post. I like that you read Keynes in order to debunk it as opposed to the normal course of talking about something without first trying to understand it. I will book bookmarking your site and look forward to reading more of your posts.

I linked here through and have only heard the term "austrian economics" within the last day. I look forward to learning more about it but like everything else I'm suspect.

I'm an Adam Smith guy. I've never read Keynes or Mises, but I look forward to reading both before sketching my composite.

Thanks for writing your thoughts!

Anonymous said...

@The last Anonymous...

You might enjoy What Obama Does Not Know as it highlights what makes the Austrian School different.

Anonymous said...

Looks like Krugman is following the lead of none other than Frederick Hayek to me.

Hayek: "Let me say, first, that there are two circumstances in which changes in aggregate demand are indeed the dominating factor in determining the level of unemploymet... "In 1925, Great Britain had made a laudable attempt to return to Great Britain had made a laudable attempt to return to gold but mistakenly to do so at the former parity. This policy created a situation where real wages were generally too high because they had been artificially raised by the revaluation of the pound. In consequence, British industry, largely dependent on exports, had become unable to compete in the world market. In this situation, the restoration of employment required a reduction of real wages which could be achieved by a achieved by a general rise of prices"

Count to 10 said...

Trying to use inflation to lower wages is basically just another way of treating a symptom rather than the underlying problem.
In this case, the laws and practices surrounding our employment system have calcified the labor market, particularly by allowing the existence of unions.