Posts filed under ‘Myths and Realities’
| Peter Klein |
As a behavioral economics skeptic I was intrigued by a recent NBER paper on worker responses to a change in the employment contract. Rajshri Jayaraman, Debraj Ray, and Francis de Vericourt studied an Indian tea plantation that changed its employment contract to weaken pay-for-performance incentives and found, initially, a substantial increase in output, suggesting a “happy-is-productive” effect that would make the pop psychologists proud. “This large and contrarian response to a flattening of marginal incentives is at odds with the standard model, including one that incorporates dynamic incentives, and it can only be partly accounted for by higher supervisory effort. We conclude that the increase is a ‘behavioral’ response.”
Alas, the effect was only temporary, becoming entirely reversed within a few months:
In fact, an entirely standard model with no behavioral or dynamic features that we estimate off the pre-change data, fits the observations four months after the contract change remarkably well. While not an unequivocal indictment of the recent emphasis on “behavioral economics,” the findings suggest that non-standard responses may be ephemeral, especially in employment contexts in which the baseline relationship is delineated by financial considerations in the first place. From an empirical perspective, therefore, it is ideal to examine responses to a contract change over an substantial period of time.
This looks to me like a Hawthorne effect. Given that much of the empirical literature in behavioral social science uses relatively short time horizons, I wonder how many of the findings can be explained this way? How many key “behavioral” results are short-term responses to changing management practices, workplace conditions, the employment contract, etc., rather than indicators of something more substantial about human behavior and motivation?
| Dick Langlois |
Everyone knows that people who want to go into government jobs have high pro-social preferences and impeccable honesty. Well, not so in India, according to Rema Hanna from the Kennedy School at Harvard, who spoke in our department seminar series Friday. Here is the abstract:
In this paper, we demonstrate that university students who cheat on a simple task in a laboratory setting are more likely to state a preference for entering public service. Importantly, we also show that cheating on this task is predictive of corrupt behavior by real government workers, implying that this measure captures a meaningful propensity towards corruption. Students who demonstrate lower levels of prosocial preferences in the laboratory games are also more likely to prefer to enter the government, while outcomes on explicit, two-player games to measure cheating and attitudinal measures of corruption do not systematically predict job preferences. We find that a screening process that chooses the highest ability applicants would not alter the average propensity for corruption among the applicant pool. Our findings imply that differential selection into government may contribute, in part, to corruption. They also emphasize that screening characteristics other than ability may be useful in reducing corruption, but caution that more explicit measures may offer little predictive power.
I wonder what her colleagues at the Kennedy School think of this. Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what your country can do for you.
| Nicolai Foss |
The shifting fortunes in the international automobile industry over the last four decades have, for obvious reasons, been endlessly commented upon. Usually, the two leading protagonists in the various accounts of the dynamics of the industry are General Motors and Toyota, the former because of its conspicuous decline (GM’s share of the US market dropped from about 60 to about 20% over a 30 years period), the latter because it has been steadily growing and is now the world’s largest automaker.
Discussions of the relative performance of these two industrial giants sometimes focus on vacuous categories like “culture” and “capabilities.” More detailed accounts stress the short-termism of General Motor’s investment decisions, its arms-length supplier relations, and its obsession with narrowly defined, easily-measurable jobs. Toyota’s relative success is often explained in terms of the Toyota Management Model with its emphasis on broadly defined jobs, intensive lateral and vertical information flows, and emphasis on problem-solving on the shop floor. However, it is not immediately clear that GM did something very badly that Toyota did very well. The liabilities that led to the decline of GM were apparently were different from the assets that brought Toyota success.
In a new NBER paper, “Management Practices, Relational Contracts, and the Decline of General Motors“, Susan Helper and Rebecca Henderson argue, however, that GM and Toyota are directly comparable in terms of the relational contracts existing inside their corporate hieararchies and across the boundaries of these two companies, and that their differential performance is explainable in terms of the differences between the contracts. Relying on recent contract theory research on relational contracts (rather than the older, but neglected work of Harvey Leibenstein), Helper and Henderson reject a number of conventional explanations (e.g., that GM’s investment policy was oriented towards the short term), and convincingly argue that GM had difficulties understanding the nature and important role of relational contracts behind Toyota’s success and therefores truggled to implement similar relational contracts. They point to a number of reasons why relational contracts may be difficult to build, centering on problems of creating credible commitments and communicating clearly and suggest that these problems were rampant in GM. In all, a very nice read that can be used in a number of different classes (org theory, economics of the firm, strategic management). Highly recommended!
UPDATE: My colleague Henrik Lando draws my attention to Ben-Shahar and White’s 2005 paper on manufacturing contracts in the auto industry which tells a story that is consistent with the Helper and Henderson story. Here.
| Peter Klein |
A common myth is that successful technology companies are founded by people in their 20s (Scott Shane reports a median age of 39). Entrepreneurial creativity, in this particular sense, may peak at middle age.
We’ve previously noted interesting links between the literatures on artistic, scientific, and entrepreneurial creativity, organization, and success, with particular reference to recent work by David Galenson. A new survey paper by Benjamin Jones, E.J. Reedy, and Bruce Weinberg on age and scientific creativity is also relevant to this discussion. They discuss the widely accepted empirical finding that scientific creativity — measured by high-profile scientific contributions such as Nobel Prizes — tends to peak in middle age. They also review more recent research on variation in creativity life cycles across fields and over time. Jones, for example, has observed that the median age of Nobel laureates has increased over the 20th century, which he attributes to the rapid growth in the body of accumulated knowledge one must master before making a breakthrough scientific contribution (the “burden of knowledge” thesis). Could the same hold through for founders of technology companies?
| Peter Klein |
A renewed interest in conglomerates has brought forth a HBR blog post from Herman Vantrappen and Daniel Deneffe, “Don’t Write Off the (Western) Focused Firm Yet.” As they rightly point out, the choice between a focus and diversity “depends on the context in which the business operates. Specifically, focused firms fare better in countries where society expects and gets public accountability of both firms and governments, while conglomerates succeed in nations with high public accountability deficits.” I would put it slightly differently: the choice between focused, single-business firms and diversified, multi-business enterprises depends on the relative performance of internal and external capital and labor markets. The institutional environment — the legal system, regulatory practices, accounting rules — plays a huge rule here, but social norms, technology, and the competitive environment also affect the efficient margin between between intra-firm and inter-firm resource allocation.
The point is that all forms of organization have costs and benefits. There is no uniquely “optimal” degree of diversification or hierarchy or vertical integration or any other aspect of firm structure; the choice depends on the circumstances. Instead of favoring one particular organizational form we should be promoting an environment in which entrepreneurs can experiment with different approaches, with competition determining the right choice in each context. Let a thousand flowers bloom!
Update: From Joe Mahoney I learn that not only was Chairman Mao’s actual exhortation “Let a hundred flowers blossom,” but also he may have meant it sarcastically: “It is sometimes suggested that the initiative was a deliberate attempt to flush out dissidents by encouraging them to show themselves as critical of the regime.” My usage was of course sincere. :)
| Peter Klein |
Here’s Craig’s initial (and hopefully not final!) response to David Kocieniewski’s “farrago of dishonesty, insinuations, innuendo, and ad hominem.” As expected, Craig pulls no punches. Kocieniewski’s failure to point out that most of Craig’s professional work argues against the interests of his alleged paymasters “betrays his utter unprofessionalism and bias, and is particularly emblematic of the shockingly shoddy excuse for journalism that his piece represents.” The insinuation that Craig’s paid work deals with speculation, when none of it does, is “misleading, deceptive, and plainly libelous.” The Times piece is riddled with factual and chronological errors, deliberately inserted to score political points: “dishonest to its very core because of its egregiously biased omission of some essential material facts and deceptive presentation of others.” I can’t say I’m surprised; this is mainstream journalism, after all.
Craig also provides this roundup of posts defending him and Scott Irwin, including ours.
| Peter Klein |
The NYT runs a hatchet-job on the brilliant financial economist (and former O&M guest blogger) Craig Pirrong. Apparently Craig not only does academic research on commodity markets and participates in public policy debates about commodity-market regulation but also — gasp! — is a paid consultant for commodity-trading firms. Without detailing any specific impropriety, the Times implies that Craig is little more than a shill for big evil corporations, or something. “Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Reward,” screams the Times headline.
Thousands of economists are paid consultants for the Federal Reserve System, World Bank, IMF, USDA, and virtually every government agency around the world, but you will never hear the Times suggest that their research or public advocacy could in the slightest way be compromised by these ties. As Larry White and E. C. Pasour have pointed out, the academic work funded by government agencies nearly always — surprise! — comes out in defense of those agencies, their missions, and their generous contributions to the public good. Did the prospect of heading the world’s most powerful economic planing agency influence Janet Yellen’s public testimony, her research, or her leadership at the San Francisco Fed? Can you imagine a Times headline, “Academics Who Defend Fed Reap Reward”?
Scott Irwin, a distinguished agricultural economist at the University of Illinois is also targeted. Again, the message is clear. If you oppose the Times’s editorial position on regulation (or any other issue), you are compromised by financial or other ties. If you support the Times’s position, you are a scholar or public figure of great integrity.
Update: See also Felix Salmon’s excellent summary of the “non-scandal.”
| Peter Klein |
Gladwell has more in common with his academic critics than either he or they realize, or care to admit. Academic writing is rarely a pursuit of unpopular truths; much of the time it is an attempt to bolster prevailing orthodoxies and shore up widely felt but ill-founded hopes.
The subject here is Malcolm Gladwell, a favorite punching-bag here at O&M, but the general point is worth pondering. Despite the myth of the brave academic, wielding his tenured position as a shield against the powerful interests trying to bring him down, academics typically crave influence, acceptance, and security and are attracted to power — in particular, political power — like moths to flame. There are exceptions, of course.
| Peter Klein |
Central to the “Austrian” understanding of business cycles is the idea that monetary expansion — in Wicksellian terms, money printing that pushes interest rates below their “natural” levels — leads to overinvestment in long-term, capital-intensive projects and long-lived, durable assets (and underinvestment in other types of projects, hence the more general term “malinvestment”). As one example, Austrians interpret asset price bubbles — such as the US housing price bubble of the 1990s and 2000s, the tech bubble of the 1990s, the farmland bubble that may now be going on — as the result, at least partly, of loose monetary policy coming from the central bank. In contrast, some financial economists, such as Laureate Fama, deny that bubbles exist (or can even be defined), while others, such as Laureate Shiller, see bubbles as endemic but unrelated to government policy, resulting simply from irrationality on the part of market participants.
Michael Bordo and John Landon-Lane have released two new working papers on monetary policy and asset price bubbles, “Does Expansionary Monetary Policy Cause Asset Price Booms; Some Historical and Empirical Evidence,” and “What Explains House Price Booms?: History and Empirical Evidence.” (Both are gated by NBER, unfortunately, but there may be ungated copies floating around.) These are technical, time-series econometrics papers, but in both cases, the conclusions are straightforward: easy money is a main cause of asset price bubbles. Other factors are also important, particularly regarding the recent US housing bubble (I suspect that housing regulation shows up in their residual terms), but the link between monetary policy and bubbles is very clear. To be sure, Bordo and Landon-Lane don’t define easy money in exactly the Austrian-Wicksellian way, which references natural rates (the rates that reflect the time preferences of borrowers and savers), but as interest rates below (or money growth rates above) the targets set by policymakers. Still, the general recognition that bubbles are not random, or endogenous to financial markets, but connected to specific government policies designed to stimulate the economy, is a very important result that will hopefully influence current economic policy debates.
| Peter Klein |
Come to the CSIG Teaching Workshop this Saturday in Atlanta and find out!
| Peter Klein |
One doesn’t have to be a strict methodological individualist to appreciate that collectives don’t think, act, and choose. Yet one of the standard tropes of financial journalism is the idea that the stock market, like your broker or your Aunt Sally, “reacts” to this or that bit of economic news. “Stocks Soar on Summers Withdrawal,” screams this morning’s Reuters headline. This reporter has some serious powers of discernment: trading Friday “was subdued ahead of the Federal Reserve’s expected reduction of stimulus measures next week.” “In reaction to the withdrawal of Mr. Summers, the dollar slipped to a near four-week low against a basket of currencies.” And: “Further whetting risk appetite were signs of progress in Syria following a Russian-brokered deal aimed at averting United States military action.”
Of course, this is all pure invention on the part of the reporter. Nobody knows for certain why a stock-price average goes up or down. Think about it. The prices of individual stocks reflect expectations of future dividends and future price movements, and they go up and down as new information is revealed about the firm and its competitors. We can never know for certain what makes people buy and sell particular shares but, in the case of an individual firm, we can reasonably infer that shareholders as a group are reacting to new information about the firm. The firm announces quarterly earnings below analysts’ expectations, the share price tends to fall. A competitor announces bankruptcy, the share price tends to rise. Event studies are a popular technique for quantifying investor reactions to news and events related to particular firms.
But the stock market as a whole doesn’t work this way. Stock prices go up and down, and indexes like the S&P 500 and DJIA go up and down according to the performance of their member stocks. Sometimes the average rises, sometimes it falls. Duh. The idea that movements in the index necessarily embody the reaction of the market as a whole to some piece of aggregate economic news reflects a failure to grasp the concept of an average. Of course, it’s always possible that investors’ beliefs about the prospects for particular stocks reflect shared concerns about the economy as a whole. If the government announces an increase in the corporate income tax rate, the prices of many stocks will likely fall. But this applies only to the most obvious cases. Did lots of investors care about Larry Summers’s withdrawal from the Fed race, enough to make them start buying stocks? Who knows? Clearly financial journalists — who are paid to write about such things — care a lot about the next Fed chair. But we have absolutely no idea how much investors care, and no way at all to attribute this morning’s rise in US equity prices to the Summers announcement or any other piece of economic news.
So please, can we stop taking such pronouncements seriously? The stock market is a social institution, an aggregate of individual trades and traders. Let’s stop anthropomorphizing it.
| Peter Klein |
Looks like we need a new subject category for the demise of the journalism sector. As discussed frequently on this blog, most journalists are little more than press agents for government officials (1, 2, 3). US news outlets typically take the perspective of the Washington insider, repeating solemn pronouncements from their confidential sources as if these were verifiable facts without questioning, challenging, even investigating. It’s a simple bargain: report what the official sources say in exchange for access to those sources, without which you lose status.
Conor Friedersdorf, writing in the Atlantic, provides this week’s illustration. [See also the Addendum below.] While the US public and the US Congress overwhelmingly oppose US military intervention in Syria, the mainstream news outlets write only about the “pressure” on President Obama to act — never bothering to describe this pressure or explore its source:
The citizenry wants us to stay out of this conflict. And there is no legislative majority pushing for intervention. A declaration of war against Syria would almost certainly fail in Congress. Yet the consensus in the press is that President Obama faces tremendous pressure to intervene. . . .
Where is this pressure coming from? Strangely, that question doesn’t even occur to a lot of news organizations. Take this CBS story. The very first sentence says, “The Obama administration faced new pressure Thursday to take action on Syria.” New pressure from whom? The story proceeds as if it doesn’t matter. How can readers judge how much weight the pressure should carry? Pressure from hundreds of thousands of citizens in the streets confers a certain degree of legitimacy. So does pressure from a just-passed House bill urging a certain course of action, or even unanimous pressure from all of the experts on a given subject.
What I’d like is if news accounts on pressure to intervene in Syria made it clear that the “growing calls … for forceful action” aren’t coming from the people, or Congressional majorities, or an expert consensus. The pressure is being applied by a tiny, insular elite that mostly lives in Washington, D.C., and isn’t bothered by the idea of committing America to military action that most Americans oppose.
Some reporters suffer from what Thomas Sowell called the vision of the anointed, and most live in a bubble surrounded by insiders and elites who share their outlook. But I suspect the main reason for this style of writing is the quid pro quo described above.
I can’t resist quoting a little more: (more…)
| Peter Klein |
Further to my previous post on misplaced confidence, here is Robert Pindyck on one of the critical tools used by climate scientists.
Climate Change Policy: What Do the Models Tell Us?
Robert S. Pindyck
NBER Working Paper No. 19244, July 2013
Very little. A plethora of integrated assessment models (IAMs) have been constructed and used to estimate the social cost of carbon (SCC) and evaluate alternative abatement policies. These models have crucial flaws that make them close to useless as tools for policy analysis: certain inputs (e.g. the discount rate) are arbitrary, but have huge effects on the SCC estimates the models produce; the models’ descriptions of the impact of climate change are completely ad hoc, with no theoretical or empirical foundation; and the models can tell us nothing about the most important driver of the SCC, the possibility of a catastrophic climate outcome. IAM-based analyses of climate policy create a perception of knowledge and precision, but that perception is illusory and misleading.
Thanks to Bob Murphy for the pointer.
| Peter Klein |
In today’s feature on the US housing market, an NPR correspondent sadly notes that foreclosure victims are “trapped” in rentals. Why, those poor, unlevered souls, choosing to purchase a flow of housing services over time, rather than buying a huge, illiquid housing asset outright, using borrowed funds. Tragic!
It made me think of similar tragedies:
- Mercedes and BMW drivers trapped in lease contracts, rather than buying their cars with cash or credit
- Individuals trapped in wage and salary contracts, rather than raising the capital, arranging the inputs, and bearing the uncertainties to be sole proprietors
- Companies trapped in outsourcing agreements, rather than owning all upstream and downstream production processes directly, as vertically integrated firms
- Vacationers trapped in resort hotels, rather than owning their own vacation condos or timeshares
- Readers trapped by downloading and reading books on their Kindles, essentially “renting” them from Amazon, rather than buying physical books
- Movie fans trapped in DVD rental agreements with Netflix, rather than owning massive DVD libraries
Don’t these suckers know that goods and services should always be purchased outright, rather than rented or borrowed?
| Peter Klein |
When I testified last year before Congress on the Federal Reserve System I focused not on monetary theory and policy, but on organization theory, pointing out that an independent, largely unaccountable organization lacking any systematic oversight or governance procedures cannot possibly perform well. O&M readers have heard these complaints before. Not surprisingly, the same issues are key to understanding the debate over the NSA’s domestic surveillance procedures. The NSA’s defenders say its actions are lawful and appropriate and that there is effective oversight and governance, because Congress is briefed on the programs and an independent (albeit secret) court approves specific policies and data requests. “The government does not know,” wrote Richard Epstein and Roger Pilon, “whether you’ve called your psychiatrist, lawyer or lover. The names linked to the phone numbers are not available to the government before a court grants a warrant on proof of probable cause, just as the Fourth Amendment requires.”
Thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations, we know the first part of this claim is nonsense: a low-level contractor can request names and the content of actual calls with a few mouse clicks. (Even the collection of metadata is itself a gross violation of privacy.) More disturbing, the NSA now admits it has “three-hop” authority, meaning that it can access the calls not only of alleged terrorists, but those in contact with alleged terrorists, and those in contact with those in contact with alleged terrorists. (Watch out, Kevin Bacon!) More interesting is the claim about alleged judicial oversight. We’ve long known that the secret FISA court, which approves surveillance requests, gives the spy agencies what they want 99% of the time. To call the FISA court procedure a rubber stamp is an insult to rubber stamps. And what of the alleged Congressional participation and oversight? We heard this yesterday:
Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren revealed that an annual report provided to Congress by the government about the phone-records collection, something cited by intelligence officials as an example of their disclosures to Congress, is “less than a single page and not more than eight sentences.”
So much for transparency and detailed disclosure. (By comparison, my last annual report to my supervisor, reporting on such issues vital to national security as my academic publications, conference participation, teaching activities, etc., was 14 pages and 2,700 words.)
The bottom line is that, whatever one thinks is the appropriate scope for these surveillance programs, the US intelligence agencies operate without any de facto oversight and governance. Small groups of unelected officials and bureaucrats decide, at their sole discretion, what is and isn’t appropriate for “protecting national security.” You don’t need a course in organization theory to predict how such groups will behave.
| Dick Langlois |
Speaking of Robert Putnam: Although I think the idea of social capital has its uses, Putnam’s claim that civic engagement in the US has been declining was long ago demolished by my late UConn colleague Everett Ladd. But I have also thought that social capital – and the Romantic “communitarian” movement in general – has been blind to the authoritarian side of community. The always-interesting Hans-Joachim Voth and his co-authors have illustrated this in a dramatic way in a new working paper. Here is the abtract.
Social capital – a dense network of associations facilitating cooperation within a community – typically leads to positive political and economic outcomes, as demonstrated by a large literature following Putnam. A growing literature emphasizes the potentially “dark side” of social capital. This paper examines the role of social capital in the downfall of democracy in interwar Germany by analyzing Nazi party entry rates in a cross-section of towns and cities. Before the Nazi Party’s triumphs at the ballot box, it built an extensive organizational structure, becoming a mass movement with nearly a million members by early 1933. We show that dense networks of civic associations such as bowling clubs, animal breeder associations, or choirs facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party. The effects are large: Towns with one standard deviation higher association density saw at least one-third faster growth in the strength of the Nazi Party. IV results based on 19th century measures of social capital reinforce our conclusions. In addition, all types of associations – veteran associations and non-military clubs, “bridging” and “bonding” associations – positively predict NS party entry. These results suggest that social capital in Weimar Germany aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.
| Peter Klein |
Microfinance and microenterprise have been touted as a new model for economic development, a way to encourage investment, innovation, and business creation and raise living standards without having to go through large-scale industrialization. We’ve tended to be skeptical, however, particularly about the most touted microfinance providers such as the Grameen Bank. Theoretically, the kinds of repayment plays that make microfinance feasible (high interest rates, strong peer monitoring) seem to limit its scope; besides, not everyone wants to be a business owner. The empirical evidence has not been encouraging — microfinance may achieve some social goals, like a sense of empowerment among microenterprise owners, but does not seem to have much impact on overall economic activity. It may not be possible to jump from a largely rural, agrarian society to an entrepreneurial capitalist one without going through a period of large-scale industrial development.
These musings are inspired by a new NBER working paper from the J-PAL group which uses a randomized controlled trial to study the effects of microfinance in an urban Indian setting. The results confirm the suspicions above: access to microfinance brings about some changes in behavior, but has no noticeable effect on standards of living or overall economic performance. Here’s the info:
The Miracle of Microfinance? Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation
Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, Rachel Glennerster, Cynthia G. Kinnan
NBER Working Paper No. 18950, May 2013
This paper reports on the first randomized evaluation of the impact of introducing the standard microcredit group-based lending product in a new market. In 2005, half of 104 slums in Hyderabad, India were randomly selected for opening of a branch of a particular microfinance institution (Spandana) while the remainder were not, although other MFIs were free to enter those slums. Fifteen to 18 months after Spandana began lending in treated areas, households were 8.8 percentage points more likely to have a microcredit loan. They were no more likely to start any new business, although they were more likely to start several at once, and they invested more in their existing businesses. There was no effect on average monthly expenditure per capita. Expenditure on durable goods increased in treated areas, while expenditures on “temptation goods” declined. Three to four years after the initial expansion (after many of the control slums had started getting credit from Spandana and other MFIs ), the probability of borrowing from an MFI in treatment and comparison slums was the same, but on average households in treatment slums had been borrowing for longer and in larger amounts. Consumption was still no different in treatment areas, and the average business was still no more profitable, although we find an increase in profits at the top end. We found no changes in any of the development outcomes that are often believed to be affected by microfinance, including health, education, and women’s empowerment. The results of this study are largely consistent with those of four other evaluations of similar programs in different contexts.
| Peter Klein |
As the Niall Ferguson kerfuffle begins fading from memory it’s worth revisiting the underlying issue: What kind of person was John Maynard Keynes, and (how) did his social, cultural, moral, and aesthetic views affect his scientific work?
Here are a few recommended readings:
- Ralph Raico, “Was Keynes a Liberal?” (Independent Review, 2008)
- Schumpeter’s obituary of Keynes (AER, 1946)
- Murray Rothbard, “Keynes the Man” (in Dissent on Keynes, 1992)
These works are not kind to ole’ John Maynard (I’m posting them, what did you expect?). Rothbard, for example, emphasizes Keynes’s “overweening egotism, which assured him that he could handle all intellectual problems quickly and accurately and led him to scorn any general principles that might curb his unbridled ego,” also referring to Keynes’s “deep hatred and contempt for the values and virtues of the bourgeoisie,” including savings and thrift. It’s hard to imagine that Keynes’s personal views on thrift could be unrelated to the now-ubiquitous, über-Keynesian idea that spending, not savings and capital accumulation, is the driver of economic growth.
On time preference, and its social and cultural causes and consequences, I recommend Time and Public Policy by T. Alexander Smith (University of Tennessee Press, 1988), which unfortunately appears to be out of print. Here is a brief review by Israel Kirzner.
| Peter Klein |
I’ve argued before (1, 2) that the usual arguments for central bank independence aren’t very strong, particularly in the current environment where Bernanke has interpreted the “unusual and exigent circumstances” provision to mean “I will do whatever I want.” (This was a major point in my Congressional testimony about the Fed.) So it was nice to see Olivier Blanchard express similar reservations in an interview published in today’s WSJ (I assume it’s not an April Fool’s Day prank):
One of the major achievements of the last 20 years is that most central banks have become independent of elected governments. Independence was given because the mandate and the tools were very clear. The mandate was primarily inflation, which can be observed over time. The tool was some short-term interest rate that could be used by the central bank to try to achieve the inflation target. In this case, you can give some independence to the institution in charge of this because the objective is perfectly well defined, and everybody can basically observe how well the central bank does..
If you think now of central banks as having a much larger set of responsibilities and a much larger set of tools, then the issue of central bank independence becomes much more difficult. Do you actually want to give the central bank the independence to choose loan-to-value ratios without any supervision from the political process. Isn’t this going to lead to a democratic deficit in a way in which the central bank becomes too powerful? I’m sure there are ways out. Perhaps there could be independence with respect to some dimensions of monetary policy - the traditional ones — and some supervision for the rest or some interaction with a political process.