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Two Roberts Lucas: March 2009 & August 2009
The London Economist is promoting my piece from 2009 about Robert Lucas's shifting rhetoric and unstable views of the GFC; here it is, not quite as published
A change in tune: Robert Lucas' views have shifted in recent months
Aug 6th 2009
By Brad DeLong | University of California, Berkeley
TODAY in The Economist Robert Lucas is an enthusiastic supporter of the economics of Ben Bernanke. He sets the stage as the world economy stood late last September:
After Lehman failed and the potential for crisis had became a reality, the situation was completely altered. The interest on Treasury bills was close to zero, and those who viewed interest-rate reductions as the only stimulus available to the Fed thought that monetary policy was now exhausted...
And then Bernanke swung into action:
Bernanke immediately switched gears, began pumping cash into the banking system, and convinced the Treasury to do the same. Commercial-bank reserves grew from $50 billion at the time of the Lehman failure to something like $800 billion by the end of the year. The injection of Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP) funds added more money to the financial system...The recession is now under control and no responsible forecasters see anything remotely like the 1929-1933 contraction in America on the horizon. This outcome did not have to happen, but it did...
There follows Mr Lucas’s praise of Mr Bernanke (and his Federal Reserve colleague Ric Mishkin), and Mr Lucas’s excoriation of the critics of economics:
Mr Bernanke and Mr Mishkin are in the mainstream of what critics [i.e., Paul Krugman] cited in The Economist’s briefing call a “Dark Age of Macroeconomics.” They are exponents and creative builders of dynamic models and have taught these “spectacularly useless” tools, directly and through textbooks that have become industry standards, to generations of students. Over the past two years they (and many other accomplished macroeconomists) have been centrally involved in responding to the most difficult American economic crisis since the 1930s.... They have drawn on the ideas and research of Keynes from the 1930s, of Friedman and Schwartz in the 1960s, and of many others. I simply see no connection between the reality of the macroeconomics that these people represent and the caricature provided by the critics whose views dominated The Economist’s briefing...
I approve of Robert Lucas's praise of Ben Bernanke.
I agree with it.
I am and have long been an enthusiastic fan of and supporter of Mr Bernanke (and Mr Mishkin too). I think he is one of the very best we have, and I do not see any better candidates (I do see some as-good candidates however) for the high-office seat he occupies.
If Mr Lucas now says that Ben Bernanke and company know what they are doing—as I think that they do—and that their judgments are to be respected (which include judgments that banking-sector recapitalisations, loan guarantees, and other credit-channel policies on the one hand and expansionary short-run fiscal policy on the other have their proper place in dealing with the recession), then we can all agree and go home.
But I would like everybody to note that Robert Lucas thought very differently, or at least appeared to think very differently, only four months ago.
Ben Bernanke’s principal theoretical contribution to economics has been his investigation of the “credit channel”–how, independent of the supply of money, the health of the banking system and the configuration of interest rates affect the level of spending. Ben Bernanke’s principal empirical contribution to economics has been documenting that the “credit channel” has in fact mattered. And Bernanke’s chief policy innovation has been to expand the Federal Reserve’s role from standard expansionary monetary policy open-market operations into a host of innovative financial policies aimed at this “credit channel”.
Last March at the Council on Foreign Relations Mr Lucas commented on Mr Bernanke’s “credit channel” policies—bank bailouts, etc. Mr Lucas said he “didn’t really get it”:
I avoided this bank bailout issue in my 15 minutes and there's a reason for it. I don't really get it. Some of the problems you're talking about about deciding who gets paid and who doesn't, that's the whole function of bankruptcy law is to deal with that in an effective way. Now, it may be that the kind of neighborhood effects of the bankrupt banks are sufficiently different from the neighborhood effects of a bankrupt auto company—that they need some kind of special treatment. But then it seems like the right public policy is something that—maybe some kind of accelerated bankruptcy proceedings. Just to say make them well on all the money they've lost over this thing, I just—I do not get it...
And last March Mr Lucas had nothing but contempt for judgments like Mr Bernanke's that a fiscal stimulus program—temporary increases in government spending and temporary tax cuts—would boost spending. Mr Bernanke endorses the Congressional Budget Office and its:
...estimates of the effects of the stimulus package on real GDP and employment that appropriately reflect... uncertainties.... [B]y the end of 2010, the stimulus package could boost the level of real GDP between about 1 percent and a little more than 3 percent and the level of employment by between roughly 1 million and 3-1/2 million jobs...
But Mr Lucas says—or rather said last March:
Would a fiscal stimulus somehow get us out of this bind, or add another weapon that would help in this problem?... I just don't see this at all.... [T]he only part of the stimulus package that's stimulating is the monetary part.... But, if we do build the bridge by taking tax money away from somebody else, and using that to pay the bridge builder... then it's just a wash... there's nothing to apply a multiplier to. (Laughs.)... And then [running a budget deficit now and] taxing them later isn't going to help, we know that...
He went on to explain why he (falsely And incorectly) thought Mr Bernanke and his colleagues like Christina Romer were testifying before Congress that he believed the stimulus would be effective:
Christina Romer... here's what I think happened. It's her first day on the job and somebody says, you've got to come up with a solution to this—in defense of this fiscal stimulus, which no one told her what it was going to be, and have it by Monday morning. So she scrambled and came up with these multipliers and now they're kind of—I don't know. So I don't think anyone really believes. These models have never been discussed or debated in a way.... These are kind of schlock economics. Maybe there is some multiplier out there that we could measure well but that's not what that paper does. I think it's a very naked rationalization for policies that were already, you know, decided on for other reasons...
No. Romer and Bernanke were not were not going along and providing false and “very naked rationalization for policies that were already, you know, decided on for other reasons”. Romer (and Bernanke) had played a prominent role in designing those policies, and genuinely thought they were our best shot.
When Paul Krugman calls today a “Dark Age of Macroeconomics” he is not referring to Ben Bernanke and Ric Mishkin, with their keen awareness of the potential and the limits of both fiscal policies and credit-channel policies to affect the level of spending alongside monetary policy. He is referring to people like Robert Lucas as he was last March—when the only reason Mr Lucas could think of for why Mrs Romer and Mr Bernanke were saying that the stimulus was likely to be effective was that they were corrupt, and when he just “really didn’t get” any piece of Mr Bernanke’s major contribution to economics.
Mr Krugman does call this a "Dark Age", and I think he is right: until this year I taught that the empirical and theoretical issues about whether credit channel and fiscal policies could affect the economy were settled for economists in the 1930s with, in each case, a “yes”.
Don’t get me wrong: it is, I think, a very good thing that Robert Lucas has much more respect for Ben Bernanke and for his judgments on the importance and efficacy of credit and fiscal policies now than Mr Lucas did last March.
But I am curious: Why? Why does he think Mr Bernanke's work on the credit channel shows that he is an "exponent and creative builder of dynamic models" now, when he "didn't really get it" last March? Why are the models in which fiscal policy matters that Mr Bernanke presents in his textbooks "[economic] industry standards" right now when they were "schlock economics" last March?