Monday, May 8, 2017

Larry Summers Admits That Murray Rothbard Was Right

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers commented yesterday in The Financial Times  on the failure of the Phillips Curve to be an accurate policy tool:
Moreover, economists should now have great humility regarding the inflation process. The Phillips curve relation on which they have relied has largely broken down over the past several decades and so relying on it to take pre-emptive action with respect to inflation seems problematic. 
Good for Summers, but Murray Rothbard made this point more than 30 years ago in 1984:

 Every time someone calls for the government to abandon its inflationary policies, Establishment economists and politicians warn that the result can only be severe unemployment. We are trapped, therefore, into playing off inflation against high unemployment, and become persuaded that we must therefore accept some of both.

This doctrine is the fallback position for Keynesians. Originally, the Keynesians promised us that by manipulating and fine-tuning deficits and government spending, they could and would bring us permanent prosperity and full employment without inflation. Then, when inflation became chronic and ever-greater, they changed their tune to warn of the alleged tradeoff, so as to weaken any possible pressure upon the government to stop its inflationary creation of new money.

The tradeoff doctrine is based on the alleged "Phillips curve," a curve invented many years ago by the British economist A. W. Phillips. Phillips correlated wage rate increases with unemployment, and claimed that the two move inversely: the higher the increases in wage rates, the lower the unemployment. On its face, this is a peculiar doctrine, since it flies in the face of logical, commonsense theory. Theory tells us that the higher the wage rates, the greater the unemployment, and vice versa. If everyone went to their employer tomorrow and insisted on double or triple the wage rate, many of us would be promptly out of a job. Yet this bizarre finding was accepted as gospel by the Keynesian economic establishment.

By now, it should be clear that this statistical finding violates the facts as well as logical theory. For during the 1950s, inflation was only about one to two percent per year, and unemployment hovered around three or four percent, whereas nowadays unemployment ranges between eight and 11 percent, and inflation between five and 13 percent. In the last two or three decades, in short, both inflation and unemployment have increased sharply and severely. If anything, we have had a reverse Phillips curve. There has been anything but an inflation-unemployment tradeoff.

But ideologues seldom give way to the facts, even as they continually claim to "test" their theories by facts. To save the concept, they have simply concluded that the Phillips curve still remains as an inflation-unemployment tradeoff, except that the curve has unaccountably "shifted" to a new set of alleged tradeoffs. On this sort of mind-set, of course, no one could ever refute any theory.

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