The longer interest rates stay at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB), the stronger the case (pdf) for raising the inflation target becomes. (No, that is not a good reason to raise interest rates today, but perhaps it helps explain why some are so keen to do so!) However there seem to be two political barriers to this happening. Central banks seem to live in mortal fear that any move to raise inflation targets will shatter their ‘hard won credibility’ and inevitably lead to inflation ‘taking off’ and inflation expectations becoming ‘unhinged’. Where politicians have control (as in the UK), they worry the public will interpret any increase in the inflation target as a further erosion of their living standards. Yes, I know Abe raised the target rate in Japan, but only to the 2% that has become the consensus for the major developed economies.
Tony Yates suggests a very British solution to this problem. In the past, a standard way that UK politicians have handled such tricky questions has been to establish an independent commission to examine the question. (One famous example in the past was the Macmillan committee, set up after 1929 to establish the causes of the UK depression. Keynes’s role on that committee is vividly described by Peter Temin & David Vines in their recent book.) Tony calls it the Inflation Remit Review Commission. This commission could take evidence (from the central bank and others) on issues such as what the medium term natural real interest rate is likely to be, and compute the costs and benefits of any change. This sounds like a good way of trying (as far as possible) to depoliticise the issue, and putting the central bank’s inflation paranoia in context.
I have just one suggestion to add. This commission, at the same time, should examine whether it remains appropriate that the inflation target should just involve the consumer price index (and in particular, whether the rate of change of wages should also be targeted), and whether the target should involve the inflation rate or a path for prices (a price level target), or indeed national income. These questions naturally go together with the choice of the level of any inflation target. If there is a target for the path of prices rather than its rate of change, then the consequences of hitting the ZLB are less severe, for example. In addition, the possibility of ending the tyranny of the consumer price index, or changing to a level target, suffer from much the same conservative bias from politicians and/or central banks as the value of the target itself.
Whether the idea of a commission would work in the US I do not know. In the Eurozone there are strong grounds for setting up a similar body, not only to review the questions set out above, but also to permanently oversee the performance of the ECB. At present the ECB has minimal accountability. Appearing every three months before the European Parliament just does not count, I’m afraid. (For further discussion, see this Bruegel paper by Claeys, Hallerberg and Tschekassin.) This in itself is a strange state of affairs for an institution with such power. In addition its performance since 2011 (at least) has been very poor relative to the Fed and Bank of England. (See for example this post written over a year ago which I think reflected the clear consensus among macroeconomists at the time.)
Tony does not suggest who might sit on this commission, except to say that they should not be part of the government, or the central bank. My own view is that it is vital that at least some are academic macroeconomists, because academic macroeconomists do understand these questions better. For the UK obvious candidates are ex-external members of the Monetary Policy Committee, unless you think they have become (or were perhaps selected because they were) too indoctrinated with the central bank view. Suggestions on who might comprise an oversight commission for the ECB would be very welcome.