Paul Krugman: Stay the Course





The debate over economic policy has taken a predictable yet ominous turn: the crisis seems to be easing, and a chorus of critics is already demanding that the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration abandon their rescue efforts. For those who know their history, it’s déjà vu all over again — literally.

For this is the third time in history that a major economy has found itself in a liquidity trap, a situation in which interest-rate cuts, the conventional way to perk up the economy, have reached their limit. When this happens, unconventional measures are the only way to fight recession.

Yet such unconventional measures make the conventionally minded uncomfortable, and they keep pushing for a return to normalcy. In previous liquidity-trap episodes, policy makers gave in to these pressures far too soon, plunging the economy back into crisis. And if the critics have their way, we’ll do the same thing this time.

The first example of policy in a liquidity trap comes from the 1930s. The U.S. economy grew rapidly from 1933 to 1937, helped along by New Deal policies. America, however, remained well short of full employment.

Yet policy makers stopped worrying about depression and started worrying about inflation. The Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy, while F.D.R. tried to balance the federal budget. Sure enough, the economy slumped again, and full recovery had to wait for World War II.

The second example is Japan in the 1990s. After slumping early in the decade, Japan experienced a partial recovery, with the economy growing almost 3 percent in 1996. Policy makers responded by shifting their focus to the budget deficit, raising taxes and cutting spending. Japan proceeded to slide back into recession.

And here we go again.

On one side, the inflation worriers are harassing the Fed. The latest example: Arthur Laffer, he of the curve, warns that the Fed’s policies will cause devastating inflation. He recommends, among other things, possibly raising banks’ reserve requirements, which happens to be exactly what the Fed did in 1936 and 1937 — a move that none other than Milton Friedman condemned as helping to strangle economic recovery....


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