Grand Mal Economics

BERKELEY – Across the North Atlantic region, central bankers and governments seem, for the most part, helpless in restoring full employment to their economies. Europe has slipped back into recession without ever really recovering from the financial/sovereign-debt crisis that began in 2008. The United States’ economy is currently growing at 1.5% per year (about a full percentage point less than potential), and growth may slow, owing to a small fiscal contraction this year.

Industrial market economies have been suffering from periodic financial crises, followed by high unemployment, at least since the Panic of 1825 nearly caused the Bank of England to collapse. Such episodes are bad for everybody – workers who lose their jobs, entrepreneurs and equity holders who lose their profits, governments that lose their tax revenue, and bondholders who suffer the consequences of bankruptcy – and we have had nearly two centuries to figure out how to deal with them. So why have governments and central banks failed?

There are three reasons why the authorities might fail to restore full employment rapidly after a downturn. For starters, unanchored inflation expectations and structural difficulties might mean that efforts to boost demand show up almost entirely in faster price growth and only minimally in higher employment. That was the problem in the 1970’s, but it is not the problem now.

The second reason might be that even with anchored inflation expectations (and thus price stability), policymakers do not know how to keep them anchored while boosting the flow of spending in the economy.