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Kevin Drum highlights a piece in an interview by Ezra Klein regarding “car czar” Steve Rattner. The quote is about Rattner’s experience dealing with Congress, which is predictably frustrating…most likely actively infuriating. However, I’m disappointed in Drum’s reaction:

I recommend we replace them all with a randomly selected bunch of sixth graders. They might not get any more done, but at least they’d be better behaved.

This kind of thing is not something that is unique to Congress. I gather from Drum’s comments (and cursory knowledge of his political inclinations) that he regards the bailout of the automakers as The Right Thing to DoTM. I, perhaps rather predictably, have a differing opinion regarding that issue, but that isn’t what I want to highlight — although it is inextricably linked to the issue. What is happening between Rattner and Congress is degrees of possibility conflicting with degrees of freedom…and the predictable result is that the actor with a high degree of freedom becomes incredibly frustrated with the walls created by network interconnectedness when confronting his or her actual degrees of possibility.

This is a timeless story that is at the heart of tribulations of entrepreneurship (and particularly visible in the entertainment industry). You don’t need to invoke the inadequacies of Congress to view this spectacle…just go down to the Human Resources department at your company (or really any other department), and listen to the complaints. I’m willing to bet that they will sound suspiciously similar to Rattner’s.

Such is the nature of the dynamics of network interaction. Replace Congress with whomever you deem fit, and ten-to-one odds says that within a rather short period, you will end up with the same sort of frustratingly difficult situation.

I want to raise awareness that even given strong will, and good ideas; large, densely-interconnected networks routinely fall into complexity catastrophe. It is a friction which is literally the basis of what Shumpeter famously termed creative destruction. While it is easy to score rhetorical points by highlighting the proximate cause, it’s really the network that is to blame.


P.S. Modeled Behavior just reached the 1,000th post mark! Congrats to both Karl and Adam for building such a great blog! I’m happy to be a (albeit small) part of the team!

Scott Sumner routinely forgets my name when listing people who thought money was tight, and favored unconventional monetary responses to the recession…but that’s okay. I wasn’t blogging that much in late 2008. In any case, I would like to provide a concise answer to a question Scott raises on his blog today:

The very fact that Congress and the President are ignoring this issue (confirming FRB nominations), pretty much tells me that they are clueless on monetary policy. On the other hand, both groups do favor more AD, so their “heart” is in the right place. And of course I’m a big believer in democracy. So who do I favor making the decisions; the clueless or the heartless? I’m tempted to say “Whoever agrees with me; first tell me the target Congress would set.” But of course that’s cheating. The honest answer is that I don’t know. But it is becoming increasingly clear that we won’t get good policy until this dilemma is resolved.

In my mind, the myth of an independent central bank has pretty much been shattered (Karl’s as well). Every time the theory of why we have an independent central bank has been put to the test in a big way, the Fed has failed miserably.

But maybe the answer is more nuanced than that. Perhaps the Federal Reserve itself is simply a proximate cause. If you take the view that the actions of the Fed represent the consensus of the economics profession, then perhaps it is the economics profession who are the underlying cause.

In either case, it is clear that there should be hard rules in place that the Fed must abide by. At the same time, I think that the Fed should have maximum room to act independent of politics when it really needs to. Our current “dual mandate” provides nothing but an excuse for the Fed to shirk its duties. Thus, I believe that the Federal Reserve Charter should be rewritten to state that it is the Fed’s contractual duty to set an explicit nominal target, level targeting, and do everything in their power to hit that target. If you ask me I favor NGDP, but some people favor price level, and some favor inflation…if you really want to pin the Fed down, write which nominal target the Fed needs to hit into the charter. NGDP will still be here 100 years from now.

However, and this is important, that is the end of Congress’ power. Once they have arbitrated as to what the Fed needs to do, Congress gets out of the way and lets the Fed act. The only point at which Congress should have the authority to intervene is if the Fed is off-target, in which case Congress should have the power to remove the current board (or specific members) and appoint a new one. But, and this should be written into the charter as well, the only circumstances in which Congress can do so is if the Fed is missing its target (or criminal behavior, or other things that don’t have to do with monetary policymaking).

Separating politics from policymaking is definitely a good thing (I even came around on TARP), especially in monetary policymaking. However, having a monetary authority that is gallivanting around, allowing NGDP expectations to plummet 8% with zero recourse is unacceptable.

In a blog post today, Paul Krugman outlines a hypothetical situation that we could find ourselves in:

And this raises the specter what I think of as the price stability trap: suppose that it’s early 2012, the US unemployment rate is around 10 percent, and core inflation is running at 0.3 percent. The Fed should be moving heaven and earth to do something about the economy — but what you see instead is many people at the Fed, especially at the regional banks, saying “Look, we don’t have actual deflation, or anyway not much, so we’re achieving price stability. What’s the problem?”

I wonder if, on a particularly lazy day when Paul Krugman finds it difficult walk upstairs, he claims that he is in the “main floor trap”? But I digress. There is only one culprit in this situation: the dual mandate.

I’m not an expert on the history of the dual mandate, but I would venture a guess that it was the result of a grand bargain in which “price stability” came from the “hawkish” right, and “unemployment” came from the “dovish” left. The nature of the Fed’s dual mandate is such that it allows the central bank to wiggle out of nearly any situation if finds itself in with little consequence. Since the Fed is aiming at two diametrically opposed targets at once (price stability and full employment), it has large discretion upon which it can draw to justify its policy actions.

Is unemployment 9.5% with core CPI inflation falling below 1% and future expected inflation well below target as well? Well, that’s price stability!

How about persistent inflation rates bordering on double-digits while employment booms? Pat yourselves on the back guys!

In reality, and much to the chagrin of leftists everywhere, the modern Fed (1980’s+) has mostly erred on the side of price stability, which in the recent context has meant 5% NGDP growth with a rough average of 3% real growth and 2% inflation. This has allowed for a NAIRU of around 4-5% for the United States as a whole. Of course, that is a rate…and as long as the unemployed are continually in flux — that is, as long as hires outpaces quits and fires — that rate isn’t much of a problem. What is a problem is that the same dual mandate that was praised by some economists during the Great Moderation is now enabling the Fed to shirk its duties (and perhaps even worse, providing cover for “leveling down” with an implicit policy of opportunistic deflation…which is what Krugman implies above).

The Federal Reserve’s mandate is unique in the world. Most other central banks operate under a “hierarchical mandate” which generally stipulates an inflation target. It is hierarchical, because the central bank can set any target other targets it wants, and pursue them in order as long as they have hit their mandated target. The results of this kind of target vary from country to country.

In my opinion, Congress should scrap the Fed’s dual mandate, and instead mandate that the Federal Reserve set an explicit nominal target, and do everything in their power to hit that target (level targeting). If they’re feeling generous, they can give the Fed discretion as to which target they would like to set. If not, I would specify NGDP. I don’t think that the monetary policymaking body of the Federal Reserve should even look at a single unemployment number. They should focus like a laser on their keeping their nominal target in a very narrow range and leave the question of unemployment (which is a real variable) to other policymakers.

Stabilize monetary policy around a nominal aggregate, and I would wager that unemployment would find a way to work itself out with minimal intervention.


P.S. I kind of smile when I think about the Fed “moving heaven and earth to do something about the economy”. I suppose that is because 1) I think that monetary policy can do so and 2) I’m a huge nerd.

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