Home > Federal Reserve, Fiscal Policy, Inflation, Monetary Policy > The Socratic Method and Right-Wing Talking Points

The Socratic Method and Right-Wing Talking Points

Whenever evaluating policies, I find it useful to form a logical model in my mind of how different scenarios should plausibly work out. Doing so requires I walk through various alternatives through their logical steps. I hope some Socratic questioning can be illuminating for us.

Questions for inflationists:

Do you think inflation, currently at historical lows, would be higher, lower, or the same had we not used fiscal stimulus and the first round of quantitative easing?

The Fed has already loosened monetary policy and previously tried the first round of quantitative easing which expanded the money supply in the economy. The Bush and Obama administrations expanded the money supply through fiscal stimulus. Presumably we’d have lower inflation had those policies not happened. At 0.6% annual increase in CPI, wouldn’t deflation have been a likely possibility?

Given all their rhetoric about soaring inflation and the dangers of flooding the economy with cheap money, you’d think they’d answer it’d be lower. But if it was any lower it’d be outright deflation.

Finally for all those worried about the dangers of printing money to fight off potential deflation, what would the inflation picture have to look like for you to argue that the government or the Fed should add more money into the economy?

Questioning uncertainty:

There is no doubt that there is uncertainty in our markets. Advocates of fiscal and monetary stimulus are under no obligation to deny that uncertainty can negatively affect the economy. In their popular Keynesian book, Animal Spirits, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller approvingly quote Washington Post writer Anna Youngman from the Great Depression:

At present, Mr. Dupont [president of the chemical company] notes, there is uncertainty about the future burden of taxation, the cost of labor, the spending policies of the Government, the legal restrictions applicable to industry-all matters affecting computations of profit and loss. It is this uncertainty rather than any deep-seated antagonism to governmental policies that explains the momentary paralysis of industry…

If it actually exists to the level some conservatives now say it does (I’m still waiting on the evidence: here and here), how far does this etherial “uncertainty” go?  And to what extent should it affect our policy decisions?

This is how I come at the question. Currently aggregate demand is very low. Small businesses are reporting in greater numbers that “poor sales” is a major problem. Personal consumption and retail sales remain low.

Graph: Retail Sales: Total (Excluding Food Services)

Earlier last year government consumption was offsetting some of the drop in private consumption, but as fiscal stimulus fades that has also dropped off.

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So imagine you own a company that produces shoes. You’re uncertain how different legislation will affect your future costs – you may believe your taxes could go up, so maybe you shouldn’t hire another worker despite receiving lots of applications. You’re making decent money now and your workers are producing more than enough shoes to satisfy their current customers. You have plenty of excess capacity to make more shoes but, since labor costs a lot (healthcare, taxes, salary, training, etc) you may even be keeping your workers’ hours fairly limited and may even cut back. I think that largely encapsulates the uncertainty picture for a business.

Now let’s assume that all of a sudden there is a big spike in demand for your product (which is what stimulus advocates want to create). You’re selling your supply out. There is NO CHANGE in healthcare legislation, tax rates, labor costs, and shoe material costs, although you’re still uncertain about the future of those costs. If you were the shop owner, can you imagine yourself still not hiring new workers if doing so would be the only short-term way you could satisfy the increased demand for your product?

I submit that businesses aren’t going to forgo making more money now to sell customers more of what they want because they are “uncertain” about various potential future problems. This scenario doesn’t suggest that uncertainty doesn’t matter at all; it just suggests that when looking at the policy prescriptions it seems to have little value for our short-term unemployment crisis.

Now consider another scenario. You’re a business owner that has poor sales, but the congress decides to repeal the healthcare bill, permanently continue all the Bush tax cuts currently in place, cut unemployment benefits, cancel any unspent stimulus money, downsize the federal employment roles, and will promise not to add any new regulations on business. Furthermore, the Fed decides not to add any more money into the economy.

I can’t prove that businesses wouldn’t upon hearing this news and rush out and hire lots of new workers, but let’s just say I’m skeptical of how strong that changes the incentive of businesses to hire new workers.

In our economy we have poor sales and, according to many, policy uncertainty created by the Obama administration and the Fed. In scenario 1, there are poor sales and uncertainty. If poor sales change to strong sales while uncertainty continues, it seems businesses will still hire new workers. In scenario 2, there are poor sales and uncertainty. Nothing was done to directly shift demand rightward by increasing consumption, but some supply side and other right-wing wishes were granted. So we supposedly tackled “uncertainty” but not sales. I personally don’t see how that clearly answers the unemployment problems in our economy. Yet this is the position of some on the political right (via Kevin Drum).

What am I missing? What’s Phase 2?

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