Two Policy Prescriptions for the Global Crisis

WASHINGTON, DC – One thing that experts know, and that non-experts do not, is that they know less than non-experts think they do. This much was evident at the just-completed Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group – three intense days of talks that brought together finance ministers, central bankers, and other policymakers.

Our economic expertise is limited in fundamental ways. Consider monetary and fiscal policies. Despite decades of careful data collection and mathematical and statistical research, on many large questions we have little more than rules of thumb. For example, we know that we should lower interest rates and inject liquidity to fight stagnation, and that we should raise policy rates and banks’ cash-reserve ratios to stifle inflation. Sometimes we rely on our judgment in combining interest-rate action with open-market operations. But the fact remains that our understanding of these policies’ mechanics is rudimentary.

These rules of thumb work (at least tolerably so) as a result of evolution. Over time, the wrong moves are penalized, and their users either learn by watching others or disappear. We get our monetary and fiscal policies right the same way that birds build their nests right.

As with all behaviors shaped by evolution, when the environment changes, there is a risk that existing adaptations become dysfunctional. This has been the fate of some of our standard macroeconomic policies. The formation of the eurozone and a half-century of relentless globalization have altered the global economic landscape, rendering once-proven policies ineffective.