President Barack Obama’s economic team is now calling for an unprecedented stimulus of large budget deficits and zero interest rates to counteract the recession. These policies may work in the short term but they threaten to produce still greater crises within a few years.
Looking back to the late 1990s, there is little doubt that unduly large swings in macroeconomic policies have been a major contributor to our current crisis.
We need to avoid reckless short-term swings in policy. Massive deficits and zero interest rates might temporarily perk up spending but at the risk of a collapsing currency, loss of confidence in the government and growing anxieties about the government’s ability to pay its debts. That outcome could frustrate rather than speed the recovery of private consumption and investment.
Most important, we should stop panicking. One of the reasons we got into this mess was the Fed’s exaggerated fear in 2002 and 2003 that the U.S. was following Japan into a decade of stagnation caused by deflation (falling prices). To avoid a deflation the Fed created a bubble. Now the bubble has burst, and we’ve ended up with the deflation we feared!
There is little reason to fear a decade of stagnation, much less a depression. The U.S. economy is technologically dynamic and highly flexible. The world economy has tremendous growth potential if we don’t end up in financial and trade conflict, and if the central banks ensure adequate liquidity to avoid panicky runs on banks, businesses and sovereign borrowers. We should understand that the Great Depression itself resulted from a horrendous run on the U.S. banking system in an era without deposit insurance, and when the Fed and Congress did not understand the critical role of a lender of last resort.
Prescott’s general point is pretty much the same as Sachs’s here: discretionary macroeconomic policy is very likely to be self-defeating and we’d do better to concetrate on setting in place a sound structure of stable rules. When I asked what he would have advised, Prescott said he wished Obama had used his considerable political capital to form some kind of task force to very deliberatively restructure the tax system, the entitlement system, the financial system, etc., instead of pushing for a stimulus. But when the President instead uses his political capital telling people to panic, you just get more of the kind of mess Sachs describes. The government under both Bush and Obama has been giving us ridiculous fool-in-the-shower macro policy, and it really needs to stop.