Book review: The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 by Paul Krugman.
Large parts of this book accurately describe some processes which contribute to financial crises, but he fails to describe enough of what happened in crises such as in 2008 to reach sensible policy advice.
He presents a simple example of a baby-sitting co-op that experienced a recession via a Keynesian liquidity trap, and he is right to believe that is part of what causes recessions, but he doesn’t have much of an argument that other causes are unimportant.
His neglect of malinvestment problems contributes to his delusion that central banks reach limits to their power in crises where interest rates approach zero. The presence or absence of deflation seems to provide a fairly good estimate of whether liquidity trap type problems exist. If you recognize that malinvestments are part of the problem that caused crises such as that of 2008, the natural conclusion is that the Fed solved most of the liquidity trap type problem within a few months of noticing the severity of the downturn. There is ample reason to suspect that the economy is suffering from a misallocation of resources, such as workers who developed skills as construction workers when perfect foresight would have told them to develop skill in careers where demand is expanding (nurses?). Nobody knows how to instantly convert those workers into appropriate careers, so we shouldn’t expect a quick fix to the problems associated with that malinvestment. It appears possible for he Fed to make that malinvestment have been successful investment by dropping enough dollars from helicopters to create an inflation rate that will make home buying attractive again. Krugman’s suggested fiscal stimulus looks almost as poor a solution as that to anyone who sees malinvestment as the main remaining problem.
His claim that central bank policy is ineffective is misleading because he pretends that controlling interest rates is all that central banks do to “stimulate” the economy. If instead you focus on changes in the money supply (which central banks can sometimes cause with little effect on interest rates), you’ll see they have plenty of power to inflate.
He dismisses the problem of sticky wages as if it were minor or inevitable. But if you understand the role that plays in unemployment, and analyze Singapore’s policy of automatically altering payroll taxes to stabilize jobs, you should see that’s more cost-effective than the fiscal stimulus Krugman wants.
I’m not satisfied with his phrasing of lack of “effective demand” being caused by people “trying to accumulate cash”. If we apply standard financial terminology to changes the value of a currency (e.g. saying that there’s a speculative bubble driving up the value of the currency, or that there’s a short squeeze – highly leveraged firms have what amounts to a big short position in dollars), then it seems more natural to use the intuitions we’ve developed for the stock market to fluctuations in currency values.
He doesn’t adequately explain why most economists don’t want a global currency. He says labor mobility within the area that standardizes on a currency is important for it to work well. I’m unconvinced that much mobility is needed for a global currency to work better than the mediocre alternatives, but even if it is, I’d expect economists to advocate a combination of a global currency and reducing the barriers to mobility. How much of economists dislike for a global currency is due to real harm from regional fluctuations and how much is it due to politicians rewarding people like Krugman for biasing their arguments in ways that empower the politicians? Or do they not give it much thought because they’ve decided it’s politically infeasible even if desirable?
His description of the shadow banking system clarifies quite well how regulatory efforts to avoid crises failed. His solution of regulating like a bank anything that acts like a bank would work well if implemented by an altruistic government. But his “simple rule” is too vague for his intent to survive in a system where politicians want to bend the rules to help their friends.