Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy

October 13, 2017
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I had the pleasure of attending “Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy IV” at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. I highly recommend viewing the panels and materials online.

The two-day conference left me wondering what it actually means to “rethink” macro. The conference title refers to rethinking macroeconomic policy, not macroeconomic research or analysis, but of course these are related. Adam Posen’s opening remarks expressed dissatisfaction with DSGE models, VARs, and the like, and these sentiments were occasionally echoed in the other panels in the context of the potentially large role of nonlinearities in economic dynamics. Then, in the opening session, Olivier Blanchard talked about whether we need a “revolution” or “evolution” in macroeconomic thought. He leans toward the latter, while his coauthor Larry Summers leans toward the former. But what could either of these look like? How could we replace or transform the existing modes of analysis?

I looked back on the materials from Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy of 2010. Many of the policy challenges discussed at that conference are still among the biggest challenges today. For example, low inflation and low nominal interest rates limit the scope of monetary policy in recessions. In 2010, raising the inflation target and strengthening automatic fiscal stabilizers were both suggested as possible policy solutions meriting further research and discussion. Inflation and nominal rates are still very low seven years later, and higher inflation targets and stronger automatic stabilizers are still discussed, but what I don’t see is a serious proposal for change in the way we evaluate these policy proposals.

Plenty of papers use basically standard macro models and simulations to quantify the costs and benefits of raising the inflation target. Should we care? Should we discard them and rely solely on intuition? I’d say: probably yes, and probably no. Will we (academics and think tankers) ever feel confident enough in these results to make a real policy change? Maybe, but then it might not be up to us.

Ben Bernanke raised probably the most specific and novel policy idea of the conference, a monetary policy framework that would resemble a hybrid of inflation targeting and price level targeting. In normal times, the central bank would have a 2% inflation target. At the zero lower bound, the central bank would allow inflation to rise above the 2% target until inflation over the duration of the ZLB episode averaged 2%. He suggested that this framework would have some of the benefits of a higher inflation target and of price level targeting without some of the associated costs. Inflation would average 2%, so distortions from higher inflation associated with a 4% target would be avoided. The possibly adverse credibility costs of switching to a higher target would also be minimized. The policy would provide the usual benefits of history-dependence associated with price level targeting, without the problems that this poses when there are oil shocks.

It’s an exciting idea, and intuitively really appealing to me. But how should the Fed ever decide whether or not to implement it? Bernanke mentioned that economists at the Board are working on simulations of this policy. I would guess that these simulations involve many of the assumptions and linearizations that rethinking types love to demonize. So again: Should we care? Should we rely solely on intuition and verbal reasoning? What else is there?

Later, Jason Furman presented a paper titled, “Should policymakers care whether inequality is helpful or harmful for growth?” He discussed some examples of evaluating tradeoffs between output and distribution in toy models of tax reform. He begins with the Mankiw and Weinzierl (2006) example of a 10 percent reduction in labor taxes paid for by a lump-sum tax. In a Ramsey model with a representative agent, this policy change would raise output by 1 percent. Replacing the representative agent with agents with the actual 2010 distribution of U.S. incomes, only 46 percent of households would see their after-tax income increase and 41 percent would see their welfare increase. More generally, he claims that “the growth effects of tax changes are about an order of magnitude smaller than the distributional effects of tax changes—and the disparity between the welfare and distribution effects is even larger” (14). He concludes:

“a welfarist analyzing tax policies that entail tradeoffs between efficiency and equity would not be far off in just looking at static distribution tables and ignoring any dynamic effects altogether. This is true for just about any social welfare function that places a greater weight on absolute gains for households at the bottom than at the top. Under such an approach policymaking could still be done under a lexicographic process—so two tax plans with the same distribution would be evaluated on the basis of whichever had higher growth rates…but in this case growth would be the last consideration, not the first” (16).

As Posen then pointed out, Furman’s paper and his discussants largely ignored the discussions of macroeconomic stabilization and business cycles that dominated the previous sessions on monetary and fiscal policy. The panelists acceded that recessions, and hysteresis in unemployment, can exacerbate economic disparities. But the fact that stabilization policy was so disconnected from the initial discussion of inequality and growth shows just how much rethinking still has not occurred.

In 1987, Robert Lucas calculated that the welfare costs of business cycles are minimal. In some sense, we have “rethought” this finding. We know that it is built on assumptions of a representative agent and no hysteresis, among other things. And given the emphasis in the fiscal and monetary policy sessions on avoiding or minimizing business cycle fluctuations, clearly we believe that the costs of business cycle fluctuations are in fact quite large. I doubt many economists would agree with the statement that “the welfare costs of business cycles are minimal.” Yet, the public finance literature, even as presented at a conference on rethinking macroeconomic policy, still evaluates welfare effects of policy using models that totally omit business cycle fluctuations, because, within those models, such fluctuations hardly matter for welfare. If we believe that the models are “wrong” in their implications for the welfare effects of fluctuations, why are we willing to take their implications for the welfare effects of tax policies at face value?

I don’t have a good alternative—but if there is a Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy V, I hope some will be suggested. The fact that the conference speakers are so distinguished is both an upside and a downside. They have the greatest understanding of our current models and policies, and in many cases were central to developing them. They can rethink, because they have already thought, and moreover, they have large influence and loud platforms. But they are also quite invested in the status quo, for all they might criticize it, in a way that may prevent really radical rethinking (if it is really needed, which I’m not yet convinced of). (A more minor personal downside is that I was asked multiple times whether I was an intern.)

If there is a Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy V, I also hope that there will be a session on teaching and training. The real rethinking is going to come from the next generations of economists. How do we help them learn and benefit from the current state of economic knowledge without being constrained by it? This session could also touch on continuing education for current economists. What kinds of skills should we be trying to develop now? What interdisciplinary overtures should we be making?

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