Good monetary policies produce good non-monetary policies

Keynesians like Paul Krugman have complained that the US didn’t really do any fiscal stimulus; partly because of “50 little Hoovers,” and partly because Congress got cold feet after the first stimulus package ballooned the deficit.  At times it seemed like he thought America was just too unenlightened to see the wisdom of Keynesian stimulus.  Too much Fox News and too many Republicans.

That got me thinking about a line in the Swedish monetary report that I discussed in my previous post:

Denmark’s GDP increased by about 4 per cent during the third quarter compared with the previous quarter on an annual rate (see Figure 3:13). This was slightly more than expected for December. The recovery of consumption and strong exports contributed to the high growth. However, growth is expected to be dampened this year, among other reasons as a consequence of the fiscal policy austerity package adopted in May last year.

Denmark’s recovery has certainly been much more sluggish than Sweden’s.  I attributed the difference to monetary policy, but I suppose fiscal policy might also have played a role.  Yet that just leads to a deeper question, why would a civic-minded social welfare state like Denmark have pursued fiscal austerity in 2010, a period when output was still quite depressed?  Maybe Alex Tabarrok is right, fiscal policy is much more endogenous than we assume.

In recent versions of the Keynesian model discussed by Eggertsson and Krugman, austerity during a recession can be self-defeating, leading to deflationary expectations that worsen the downturn.  But unless I am mistaken, that result assumes a large closed economy.  Because Denmark chose to fix its currency to the euro, it has little control over its price level, which is set by the ECB in Frankfort.  In that case an internal devaluation might just work, or at least might be worth a shot.  In other words, Denmark behaves more like an American state than an autonomous country.  (Of course that begs the question of why didn’t Denmark devalue.  Does anyone know why Denmark joined the ERM II, but Sweden didn’t?)

In contrast, Sweden has its own monetary policy, and was able to engineer more rapid GDP growth than Denmark.  Their public finances were in better shape because faster NGDP growth means more revenue and less unemployment compensation:

Strong public finances

General government net lending has shown a remarkable degree of strengthening over the first three quarters of 2010. This can primarily be explained by the rapid turnaround of the labour market. Expenditure on unemployment benefit is decreasing, as is expenditure related to sickness and ill-health. Preliminary tax payments also indicate that corporate taxes increased during 2010. For the full year 2010, general government net lending is expected to become positive and to amount to 0.6 per cent of GDP.

I probably shouldn’t spin such an intricate theory based on a few scraps of information.  Perhaps some Nordic readers can tell me whether I have my facts right.

I also found some pretty shrewd observations about the US recovery:

Developments on the US housing market may have led to structural problems on the US labour market. Many unemployed workers need to turn to new industries and regions. At the same time, many of the unemployed are reluctant to move due to the risk of making a loss on the sale of their
homes. .  .  .

In addition, the period during which unemployment benefit may be received has been extended, which may have decreased willingness among the unemployed to seek work. This may have had a negative effect on matching. If these extended benefit periods are seen as a temporary element of a cyclical policy, this effect will be transitory. All in all, it is too early to reach any clear conclusions regarding matching efficiency over the longer term, although an abnormal deterioration of matching cannot be ruled out during the current cycle.

The first point relates to Arnold Kling’s recalculation argument.  The second argument has been made by RBC-types like Casey Mulligan.  I’ve always agreed that there is some truth to these two arguments, but have also insisted that our problems are mostly demand-side.  And I’ve made another argument that I think people have overlooked—that supply and demand shocks get “entangled.”  Both of the problems cited above occurred partly because America’s NGDP fell 8% below trend between mid-2008 and mid-2009.  If that doesn’t happen, there is little chance that Congress extends UI to 99 weeks, and the housing market would have been somewhat stronger.  The Riksbank is exactly right in assuming that the 99 week UI is transitory, and (by implication) that a faster economic recovery would help improve the “supply-side” of the US economy.

Supply and demand shocks are often treated separately in our textbooks.  In practice they are entangled in all sorts of ways.  The mid-2008 energy price bubble hurt energy-intensive capital goods makers, such as car companies.  That reduced the Walrasian equilibrium real rate, and made monetary policy effectively tighter.  Even worse, the high headline inflation rates frightened the Fed away from cutting rates after Lehman failed in mid-September, even though all the forward-looking indicators suggested a weakening economy and falling inflation.   BTW, the Riksbank seems to have been influenced by the “target the forecast” approach of Lars Svensson–not as much as he or I would have liked, but more so than the Fed.

In recent days the world’s been hit by an adverse supply shock, as worries about Libya drive up oil prices.  Less obvious is the effect on AD.  Although one might assume that high oil prices lead to high inflation, and high inflation leads to high nominal interest rates, nominal bond yields have actually plunged sharply, indicating an expected slowdown in NGDP growth (as compared to the strong growth expected just a week ago.)  Let’s hope the Fed reacts appropriately, and doesn’t repeat its tragic error of September 2008.

In Sweden, labor market flexibility seems to be moving in exactly the opposite direction as the US:

In recent years, the government has implemented a series of measures aimed at getting more people into work. Among other objectives, these measures are aimed at increasing incentives to seek work, which is contributing towards the increase of the labour force.

Whereas the US labor force is growing more slowly than our population, in Sweden it is expected to grow more rapidly for every single year from 2009-13.  Any conservative who favors neoliberal policy reforms should pray for faster NGDP growth—it will speed up the day when we can start to put some flexibility back into the US economy.

So you say you want Nordic-style socialism?

Be careful what you wish for.  Tim Worstall sent me this interesting post about the Nordic countries:

The UK’s centre left just doesn’t seem capable of understanding what it is that makes what they claim to want work: imagine the horror there would be if I suggested that Group 4S took over the majority of fire and ambulance services in the UK? Yet that is what Denmark does (really: it’s actually Group 4S that runs them). We can hear the screams already as Gove tries to bring the Swedish school system with its funding following the pupil, essentially a market, to the UK. Can you imagine the piteous wails if someone suggested importing the Finnish schools system (often ranked as the world number 1)? With its division at 15 into academic sheep and vocational goats?

Compare and contrast the the Swedish health care system with the NHS: taxes are raised in county and spent in county (on average, 400,000 people, it’s as if a PCT raised and spent its own money), there are copayments to see the doctor…no, we couldn’t imagine the British centre left allowing such a system to exist, could we? Nor the localism of Denmark: the national income tax rate is 3.76%: the top national one 15%. The vast bulk of the money is raised by the communes which can be as small as 10,000 people. You and I would think that money so raised will be better spent when any and every taxpayer knows exactly who is spending it and where they have a snifter on a Friday night.

This reminded me of a post I did a while back, which discussed an interesting article in the New Yorker on health care in McAllen, Texas:

In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns.

. . .

I was impressed. The place had virtually all the technology that you’d find at Harvard and Stanford and the Mayo Clinic, and, as I walked through that hospital on a dusty road in South Texas, this struck me as a remarkable thing. Rich towns get the new school buildings, fire trucks, and roads, not to mention the better teachers and police officers and civil engineers. Poor towns don’t. But that rule doesn’t hold for health care.

I had this to say about the New Yorker quotation:

Suppose McAllen was an independent country with universal health care.  How much would it cost the government to insure the entire population?  If independent, McAllen would be poor relative to the US, but it certainly wouldn’t be poor in any absolute sense.  My guess is that it would come in somewhere around Portugal or Slovenia.  And I would also guess that it would spend less insuring the entire population than we now spend insuring the relatively small share of the population covered by Medicare.

Many on the left say we should adopt the European health care system.  A good place to start would be federalism.  The EU is roughly the size of the US, but has 27 members, each with their own health care system.  If we are to copy Europe, the first thing to do is to delegate health care to the 50 states.  No more Medicare and Medicaid.  Any public health care should be fully funded at the state level, just as in Europe.  My guess is that the good citizens of Houston and Dallas are not going to be enthusiastic about spending $15,000 per enrollee in McAllen, when the prestigious Mayo Clinic spends $6688 per enrollee.  If those on the left aren’t enthused about this idea, then let’s not hear any more talk about copying Europe’s health care system.  (After completing this post I noticed that Robin Hanson had an even better idea.)

Liberals often tell me that Swedish vouchers wouldn’t work here, our population isn’t as homogeneous and civic-minded.  I’d think that’s a much better argument against the more socialist aspects of the Nordic system, like generous unemployment benefits.  Reading this stuff I can’t help but think back to posts by people like Paul Krugman, praising our Medicare system for its low administrative costs.  He’s right; they spend very little preventing the health care industry in places like Texas and Florida from systematically looting the taxpayers.  By all means, let’s let each county run and pay for its own health care system.  If not, then stop talking about how the Swedes are superior to us.

A few weeks back I complained that Obama was trying to force me to divorce my wife.  According to The Economist, the Swedish government doesn’t do that:

In Sweden 88% of women aged between 25 and 54 take part in the labour market. It helps that the country’s extensive day-care facilities for children are largely reserved for workers, and that couples file their tax returns separately so that households do not get hit by higher marginal tax rates on their second incomes.

A larger share of Sweden’s older people, too, remain in the labour force than anywhere else on the continent, not least because they accrue higher retirement benefits for each year they work after the age of 61. If other Europeans aged between 55 and 64 were as industrious as older Swedes, the continent could reduce the gap in hours with America by almost a quarter, according to the MGI.

The rest of Europe could also learn from Denmark’s efforts to beat unemployment and from the Netherlands’ success in getting youngsters into work. To echo an old joke, heaven is where women and older people work like the Swedes, the young work like the Dutch and the unemployed find jobs like the Danes. Hell is where workers get into unemployment like the Americans and out of it like the Italians.

And we are falling behind them in neoliberal reforms.  Again, from The Economist:

Sweden offers a more encouraging lesson. In the aftermath of its banking bust in the early 1990s it not only cleaned up its banks quickly but also embarked on a radical programme of microeconomic deregulation. The government reformed its tax and pension systems and freed up whole swaths of the economy, from aviation, telecommunications and electricity to banking and retailing. Thanks to these reforms, Swedish productivity growth, which had averaged 1.2% a year from 1980 to 1990, accelerated to a remarkable 2.2% a year from 1991 to 1998 and 2.5% from 1999 to 2005, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

Sweden’s retailers put in a particularly impressive performance. In 1990, McKinsey found, they were 5% less productive than America’s, mainly because a thicket of regulations ensured that stores were much smaller and competition less intense. Local laws restricted access to land for large stores, existing retailers colluded on prices and incumbent chains pressed suppliers to boycott cheaper competitors. But in 1992 the laws were changed to weaken municipal land-use restrictions, and Swedish entry into the EU and the creation of a new competition authority raised competitive pressures. Large stores and vertically integrated chains rapidly gained market share. By 2005 Sweden’s retail productivity was 14% higher than America’s.

The restructuring of retail banking services was another success story. Consolidation driven by the financial crisis and by EU entry increased competition. New niche players introduced innovative products like telephone and internet banking that later spread to larger banks. Many branches were closed, and by 2006 Sweden had one of the lowest branch densities in Europe. Between 1995 and 2002 banking productivity grew by 4.6% a year, much faster than in other European countries. Swedish banks’ productivity went from slightly behind to slightly ahead of American levels.

.   .   .

Even in America there would be benefits. But, alas, the regulatory pendulum is moving in the opposite direction as the Obama administration pushes through new rules on industries from health care to finance. So far the damage may be limited. Many of Mr Obama’s regulatory changes, from tougher fuel-efficiency requirements to curbs on deep-water drilling, were meant to benefit consumers and the environment, not to curb competition and protect incumbents. Some of the White House’s ideas, such as the overhaul of broadband internet access, would in fact increase competition. The biggest risk lies in finance, where America’s new rules could easily hold back innovation.

I didn’t always agree with President Clinton, but at least he did deregulation, welfare reform, NAFTA and cut the capital gains tax.  I can’t recall a single thing that Obama has done that a classical liberal would approve of.  Even where his private views may be libertarian (free trade with Cuba, gays in the military, ending the abuses of the national security state, medical marijuana, a smaller military, etc) he seems to lack the courage of his convictions.  No wonder he generates so little enthusiasm.

Tea Partiers complain that Obama wants to make us like Sweden.  If only that were true.  I fear we are headed toward Brazilian-style “big government.”  Lots of spending and lots of poverty.