Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The big picture

I have wasted far too much of my time killing zombies. This is what Paul Krugman calls ideas or alleged facts that, despite being shown to be wrong countless times, keep coming back to life. In terms of anti-Keynesian mythology, the zombie I have spent too much time on is that 2013 UK growth showed austerity works, but I’ve also done a bit on the mistaken idea that US growth in 2013 shows that Keynesian multipliers are zero. (I’ve been told that what I have done in the US case is deficient for a couple of reasons - neither of which I accept - but those saying this have never shown that doing it their way makes any difference. Instead they prefer to stick to gotcha economics. You can draw your own conclusions from that.) But these are particular episodes for particular countries - what about the big picture?

I happened to be using the IMF’s datamapper recently, and it contains the following for GDP growth in the advanced economies.


There was slow growth in the early 80s, but that was followed by years of around 4% growth. Another slow growth period in the early 90s, followed by years of around 3% growth. The same again for the 2000s. We then had the massive recession of 2009, followed by 3% growth in 2010. Then four years of growth below 2%, which would have been classed as a downturn based on previous experience.

Why has there been such a pathetic recovery? There is a simple, entirely conventional answer, which perfectly fits the timing: fiscal austerity. As I set out here, growth from 2010 in the US, UK and Eurozone would have been closer to previous recoveries without cuts in government consumption and investment.

Now of course there are other explanations. The most obvious is that recoveries from financial crises have been weaker and more prolonged in the past. However a point that is not made often enough is that the austerity explanation and the weak finance explanation are quite compatible with each other. In a recession private spending and public spending on goods and services do not compete, so even if private spending has been weak because of difficulties in obtaining finance, austerity in the form of public spending cuts will still reduce GDP. Furthermore, an inability by consumers to borrow can magnify the impact of cuts in transfers or increases in taxes on consumption.

The only theoretically plausible explanation for why austerity in the form of cuts to government consumption and investment will not reduce output in a demand deficient recession is if monetary policy eases to offset the cuts. That explanation suggests weak growth since the recession is a deliberate choice by monetary policy makers, and it gets more implausible as each day passes. Here is consumer price inflation from the same source. Whereas inflation wobbled around 2% during the Great Moderation, in 2013 and 2014 it was below 1.5%, and this year is heading towards zero.





44 comments:

  1. "there are other explanations."

    I would have thought the most obvious was that advanced economies now make up a smaller slice of world output? In previous recessions commodity prices, especially oil, fell because of the fall in demand, enabling the recovery. This time they rose, the primary reason being demand from elsewhere, primarily China.

    As commodity prices fell in 2013, so recovery happened.

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    1. "As commodity prices fell in 2013, so recovery happened."
      Except they didn't fall in 2013...they started to fall mid-2014, well after the recovery had begun in most advanced economies.
      http://www.imf.org/external/np/res/commod/images/chart_lg.jpg

      All of the evidence appears to suggest that the major reason for the pathetic recovery was because of imposing the wrong economic policy - fiscal austerity.

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    2. Hi SpinningHugo, Simon is not talking about the contribution of advanced economies to world real GDP growth, so their share in world output is not relevant here. The question is what is impeding a recovery to growth rates comparable with past higher average growth rates.
      Patrick VB

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    3. "what is impeding a recovery to growth rates comparable with past higher average growth rates."

      And the answer I am providing is that in past recoveries the recession caused commodity prices to fall, and that enabled the subsequent recovery. That didn't happen this time because of increases in demand from the developing world.

      If you look at Simon's graph, you'll see how commodity prices spiked in the second half of 2010, killing off the nascent recovery.

      You'll also see, looking at Simon's graph, how commodity prices fell in the second half of 2014, triggering the rather better outlook globally, particularly in the eurozone.

      It is quite wrong to claim, as Simon does, that the recovery in most advanced economies started in 2013 (although it did of course in the UK). The recovery in France, Germany and the rest of the eurozone only really got going at all this year, and in Japan it is still weak.

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    4. "As commodity prices fell in 2013, so recovery happened." What about this previous claim?

      "If you look at Simon's graph, you'll see how commodity prices spiked in the second half of 2010, killing off the nascent recovery."
      No doubt this spike did have an impact on growth and the recovery, but there is a glaring inconsistency still...this 2010 did not kill off the recovery in many countries (especially Germany and USA, and even France to a lesser degree) whose upward trend in gdp growth continued.
      Furthermore, total commodity prices (black line) remains very high (not far off peak) in early 2012, and even into Spring 2013, which would still have had a massive drag on growth and recovery (if your claim was right) well into 2013. Yet for the UK as you note, this is when recovery really began, despite no significant decline in commodity prices at this point. What did happen sometime in 2012 and thereafter was an easing up on the severity of austerity policies in the UK.
      You really only need to take one look at the graph provided by SWL above to see that the upward swing in growth for advanced economies did indeed occur in 2013.
      Is there an issue with admitting that uk austerity killed the nascent recovery, far more so than the impact of high commodity prices? If so, why, when all of the evidence clearly indicates it to be so?

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    5. "far more so than the impact of high commodity prices"

      I have no problem admitting that tightening fiscal policy leads to lower growth. Of course.

      As to the relative impact of these different factors, no I don't accept that the (pretty mild) fiscal tightening had demonstrably 'far more' impact and so explaining why the recovery for all advanced economies is so slow on this occasion. Fiscal policy can bring forward (or postpone) a recovery, but over a longer timeframe (and this is what this post is about) we need another kind of explanation as to why this time has been different from other recoveries. Something structural has changed.

      Now one explanation might be that all advanced economies have adopted different policies from those they have ever adopted before. But that looks doubtful. We had far more (indeed actual) austerity in the interwar period, but far shorter recessions. A more plausible story is that the world has changed.

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    6. Well, as quickly demonstrated above referring to the data, we know the high commodity prices wasn't a significant reason for the slow recovery, and we know from the evidence and many empirical studies that the severe fiscal tightening in the UK and especially the ez had a huge effect on gdp, and growth rates. Of course there are other factors, but all of the evidence suggests that the smoking gun here is fiscal austerity. You need to counter or show why the wealth of evidence which demonstrates this is wrong, rather than go on blind hunches of what may or may not be the cause.

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    7. "as quickly demonstrated above referring to the data, we know the high commodity prices wasn't a significant reason for the slow recovery"

      Sorry Simon, but we know no such thing. The 2010 rise in commodity prices correlates with the slowdown everywhere. There was a (small) change in fiscal policy in the UK that year, but not everywhere else. In the eurozone the correlation is even stronger than in the UK, with no recovery at all until 2014, and only gaining any traction in the second half of that year.

      In any event, you seem to be falling into the trap, recently deprecated on these pages, of thinking that unless and until austerity is reversed recovery cannot happen. We are now 8 years out from the crash. In previous recessions the recovery was much quicker, and we cannot point to a marked difference in the policy mix of all advanced economies this time compared to previous recessions to explain this (you seem obsessed with the UK, when this is not about the UK specifically.)

      To explain that we need to point to a structural change (ageing population? rise of developing countries?)

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    8. "In the eurozone the correlation is even stronger than in the UK, with no recovery at all until 2014, and only gaining any traction in the second half of that year. "
      The EZ problem is definitely austerity!

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    9. Try to engage with the data and evidence, otherwise no meaningful/accurate discussion can take place and we'll all end up making erroneous claims which come from…where...your hunches and (mis)understanding?

      "Sorry Simon, but we know no such thing. The 2010 rise in commodity prices correlates with the slowdown everywhere. "
      - Completely untrue. We do know as it can be very easily checked - as I already explained referring to the gdp growth post 2010 data for Germany, USA, Canada and even France (to a lesser degree) whose upward trend in gdp growth continued unchanged despite the very high commodity prices - check the data/graphs for yourself. If you had already you wouldn't have written this nonsense in the first place.

      "There was a (small) change in fiscal policy in the UK that year," (2010)
      Again completely untrue, demonstrating a complete ignorance of the change in fiscal stance between 2008/09 and 2010-11, from stimulus to consolidation.
      As the OBR explains “a stimulus through policies such as the temporary VAT cut and bringing forward capital spending. This net giveaway amounted to slightly under 1.5 per cent of GDP by 2009-10…This stimulus was withdrawn in 2010-11, with the main rate of VAT returned to 17½ per cent and public investment reduced sharply” (implying a consolidation of slightly under 0.5 per cent of GDP).”
      A switch from 1.5% of GDP stimulus, to a 0.5% consolidation is “a (small) change in fiscal policy in the UK that year”???
      No, of course not.
      You really ought to stick to the more political analysis and comments, rather than the more economic based analysis where reference to data and evidence are paramount.

      There is no ‘trap’ on these pages Hugo, just sound economic analysis backed up (unlike your inaccurate assertions) with data. You argue without reference to any evidence and data, which is the big problem here.

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    10. "Completely untrue. We do know as it can be very easily checked - as I already explained referring to the gdp growth post 2010 data for Germany, USA, Canada and even France (to a lesser degree) whose upward trend in gdp growth continued unchanged despite the very high commodity prices - check the data/graphs for yourself. If you had already you wouldn't have written this nonsense in the first place"

      You see the first graph above? What you are looking for is the line above the year 2010. Do we see a nice "upward trend in GDP growth" post-2010 (as you claim) or does the line go down?

      Or try here at p 2, where you can see the numbers.

      http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2012/01/pdf/text.pdf

      what happens to the post-2010 GDP growth in the USA, Canada, Japan, Euro Area and the UK at the same time?

      You keep on focusing on austerity in the UK, without seemingly noticing what happens everywhere in advanced economies at the same time, nor seemingly providing any thesis as to why the slowdown in all advanced economies is so much longer this time. That is what we are trying to address, not the localised issue of fiscal policy in the UK.

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    12. OK, even though I've addressed this already, I'll do it again because as I say, your grasp of the more economic based analysis with reference to data and evidence is beyond poor, so this time I'll include the necessary graph.
      Now, you said:
      "The 2010 rise in commodity prices correlates with the slowdown *everywhere*. "
      Please look at the graph here, which unlike the limited figures you provided includes gdp growth from 2007-2014, illustrated graphically and very clearly, so allowing for scrutiny of any significant changes in the direction or pace of growth over the period:
      http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/resources/cht2gdpgrowthing7countries_tcm77-365700.png
      Focus on early 2009, notice the turning point upwards in GDP growth. Notice the slope of the lines. Then, moving through into 2010, and referring to the gdp growth post 2010 data for Germany, USA, Canada and even France (to a lesser degree), notice how their upward trend in gdp growth continued unchanged despite the very high commodity prices of 2010. Even the UK's continues on its very modest rise, and only Italy's gradually declines, and Japan's takes a tumble before climbing quite sharply in 2011-12 (and that even with commodity prices remaining very high until 2014).
      So, with reference to the graph and my concise analysis of it, will you kindly answer your own question: "what happens to the post-2010 GDP growth in the USA, Canada, Japan, Euro Area and the UK at the same time?"
      Clearly, the USA and Canada show no change (and Germany, France and even the UK show little or no change in post-2010 GDP growth trend). Italy’s is the only one which one could say changed notably following the peak of commodity prices in 2010. What do you think?
      So, does "The 2010 rise in commodity prices correlates with the slowdown everywhere."?
      Now that you have access to the more appropriate, accurate data, be honest and tell me if you still believe that, or if you’ve made a mistake…don't go quiet about it as you have with: "As commodity prices fell in 2013, so recovery happened." Or "There was a (small) change in fiscal policy in the UK that year," (2010).
      What are you talking about "You keep on focusing on austerity in the UK, without seemingly noticing what happens everywhere in advanced economies at the same time". Re-read my comments, and whilst I do mention UK, equally I focus on EZ countries and US, Japan, Canada.
      Finally, to answer your question “what happens to the post-2010 GDP growth in the USA, Canada, Japan, Euro Area and the UK at the same time? "?
      For many, a continuation of their trend GDP growth which began in early 2009, with some notable exceptions (Italy, Japan etc), and not a slowdown in all advanced economies caused by the high commodity prices of 2010.

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    14. "Now that you have access to the more appropriate, accurate data, be honest and tell me if you still believe that, or if you’ve made a mistake"

      no.

      "For many, a continuation of their trend GDP growth which began in early 2009, with some notable exceptions (Italy, Japan etc), and not a slowdown in all advanced economies caused by the high commodity prices of 2010."

      No.

      Your graph

      http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/resources/cht2gdpgrowthing7countries_tcm77-365700.png

      is about GDP size, not rates of growth. It is quite different from the first graph produced above by S W-L. That is why you can't see the nice big fall you see in his graph..

      the RATE of growth fell in the USA, Canada, Japan. Euro Area and UK.

      http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2012/01/pdf/text.pdf

      see page 2

      to say it just continued upward is just untrue.

      You are of course right that these economies did not actually contract (save for Japan) as your graph shows, but that is to miss the point more than somewhat.

      You have confused velocity and acceleration.





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    15. The graph I provided is about rates of growth...real gdp growth indexed to a given base year, and is often used to illustrate the overall slowness of the recovery since 2010. However, I do agree with you that it does in fact mask the actual measured ups and downs in the data, particularly for 2011. To try to keep it brief, and focussing on the original point - fiscal consolidation rather than high commodity prices explain the slow recovery - your emphasis on high commodity prices simply doesn't stand up to any scrutiny. Reading any of the WEO reports (such as the one you linked, or later ones) they summarise the reasons for the slowdown, and to take your linked WEO as an example, according to them fiscal consolidation played a much more prominent role in the slower growth, with high commodity prices a long way down the list. In fact, on another WEO, they estimate that high oil prices impacted on GDP by approx 0.25 to 0.5% gdp, whilst for example numerous studies, including SWLs in his Vox article linked above, calculate conservatively that fiscal consolidation knocked at least 1% off GDP in each year.
      Again, the timing of the high commodity prices, slowdown and subsequent pick-up again doesn't fit, whereas the the imposition of austerity and the subsequent easing of it and the associated pick-up in gdp growth fts very well indeed. Of course, many other factors, including high commodity prices, did all play a role.

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  2. Enjoy and learn from your comments. I recently came across a website called www.shadowstats.com which produces some thought provoking statistics re perceived as opposed to actual GDP growth etc .Can much of the information there be dismissed or does it indeed stand up to scrutiny and should therefore have a wider audience

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    1. This is worth a read:

      http://www.economonitor.com/dolanecon/2015/03/31/deconstructing-shadowstats-why-is-it-so-loved-by-its-followers-but-scorned-by-economists/

      To summarise, Shadowstats is mostly bunk.

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  3. http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2015/06/mark-sadowskis-correlations-deserve-a-response.html

    Nick Rowe posted an interesting post, and I wonder if you have any response to this.

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    1. Most economists would regress the change in the primary balance on real GDP. The results are rather different.

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  4. SW-L
    I am glad that you included inability to borrow as a contributing reason for slow recovery.
    It took me a while to argue such a point with you and Ben Bernanke even tough he does not ever allow my comments to publish. It might be that i never understood your terminology when talking about it, but i am well versed in proffesional economic lingue and would have cought it.
    Now, why is there an inability to borrow as in good times? Why banks do not offer borrowers close to official interest rate as in good times?

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  5. Hello Simon, another part of the answer might be that output growth has indeed rebounded to more or less close the "output gap", but that trend output growth is now noticeably lower than at the end of the 1990s. Trend hourly productivity growth has been on a trend decline (as measured by a HP-filter) since the early 1990s for the Euro Area, since the late 1990s for the US, and since the late 1980s for Japan.
    Patrick VB, Brussels

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  6. "However a point that is not made often enough is that the austerity explanation and the weak finance explanation are quite compatible with each other..."

    This is true, but only if "weak finance" is a demand-side phenomenon, as you imply in the next part of the paragraph.

    However, it is equally plausible that "weak finance" is a supply-side problem: it could lead to misallocation of capital across firms/sectors which reduces TFP. In this case, the flexible-price and sticky-price equilibrium would coincide (I think) and there would be no role for demand side policy (either fiscal or monetary) to correct it (assuming that fiscal/monetary policy couldn't correct "weak finance" directly).

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  7. In the U.S., the Fed is forecasting inflation target misses through 2017, while discussing the path of rate rises beginning this year. At least for this country, it doesn't seem implausible that our monetary authorities are satisfied with what they see.

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    1. Yes, this is a key point. I think central banks could have offset austerity in theory, but in practice struggle to do so. At the zero lower bound, central banks face a lot of criticism about causing bubbles, anxious questions over when they will normalise policy, the sustainability of their balance sheets... this prevents them from sufficiently easing policy.

      Good examples are provided by the ECB, Riksbank and Swiss central bank all tightening policy prematurely (in 2010-11 for the first two, and the Swiss central bank abandoning the peg more recently) - clear mistakes.

      I think this reinforces the need for fiscal stimulus at the zero lower bound. I have a lot of sympathy for the Market Monetarist position, but for a host of reasons, relying on CBs to overcome austerity and get the economy operating at capacity has not worked in practice.

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    2. I have sympathy for that position too. Especially the bit about criticism for causing bubbles etc., and the Riksbank example.

      First best would be a sensible NGDP level path target, to avoid those criticisms. But given the world as it is....

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    3. One could add that central banks have become increasingly focused on macroprudential regulation and the idea that they can and should control "bubbles". There is also external pressure in this direction: politicians increasingly seem to want central banking to be about banking, not macroeconomics. Also, most of them think of low interest rates as indicative of easy money, so they see current conditions as very "accomodative", if not bubble-blowing.

      Also, I don't think it's at all helpful to aggregate over different countries in the analysis. In the UK, for example, a shock to the SRAS curve in 2011-2012 made it difficult for an inflation targeting central bank to keep NGDP up, when they would have entailed headline inflation rates of > 5%. In the ECB, a different analysis is needed, and I don't know Brussels politics well enough to say which theory is right. However, a general deficiency in the Kreminology of central banks that I see on the blogosphere is a lack of focus on cental bankers' thinking regarding the relationship between monetary policy and financial stability, when this seems to be a HUGE chunk of what central bankers are really thinking about on a day-to-day basis.

      The problem is the target, not the ZLB.

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  8. Simon: you lost me on the last two sentences of your post. We could either use Real GDP growth or use inflation (or some combination of the two like NGDP) as our measure of the combined effects of monetary+fiscal policy. The decomposition of NGDP growth into RGDP growth and inflation tells us something about the Phillips Curve, but I don't see what it tells us about the decomposition of AD into monetary and fiscal policy.

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    1. NGDP is just the central bank buying stuff off rich people. Because "small government" folks want a large undemocratic govt with their mates at the central bank and a small democratically elected govt.
      It's an extremely poor economic stabiliser, but one nevertheless.

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  9. Speaking as one who prefers fiscal policy to monetary policy, I was confused by this sentence:

    "That explanation suggests weak growth since the recession is a deliberate choice by monetary policy makers, and it gets more implausible as each day passes."

    To me it does seem like the weak recovery is a deliberate choice by monetary policy makers. It's analogous to Sweden and the ECB prematurely raising rates: a bad choice but a choice nonetheless.

    The Fed could do more but *conventional* monetary policy is spent at the ZLB. They might not want to do what's necessary and risk the wrath of the rightwing who was already stirred up by unconventional monetary policy. Or a swift recovery just wasn't a priority.

    The Fed could have held off tapering or hold of raising rates for the rest of year. It could have done a helicopter drop.

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    1. QE is similar to a tax on interest income. Why anyone thinks it is expansionary is beyond me. It removes interest income from the economy.
      Just set rates permanently at 0% (ZIRP/base money) and use fiscal policy.
      "It could have done a helicopter drop."
      Just use fiscal policy. Helicopter drop is basic income via the backdoor - forced through by Simon's progressibe mates at the central bank. People have to be seen as doing something of value as quid pro pro for getting paid. This is really easy for non-economists to see.

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  10. Mr Wren-Lewis, I know we are a long way away in Australia and for that I can forgive Krugman for forgetting us when he does his Austerity graphs, but with our sporting and Commonwealth history I am shocked you forget the Aussies.

    We had a Labor government when the GFC hit and we were the first government to go for Stimulus, in the words of our Treasury Secretary (The Civil Servant not the minister) we went hard and we went early with pre-christmas $900 cash handouts. Then after Xmas we did a $42 Billion Dollar Stimulus program around Shovel Ready projects at schools and the like. Australia not only didnt have a long recession, we didnt even have a technical recession, our growth figure in the first quarter of 2009 was 2.8% this was right in the shadow of the GFC, just months after Lehmann.

    The conservative opposition screeched about Debt and Deficits and thanks to a Media Landscape that is basically all Murdoch managed to use Debt and Deficit fear campaigns to win an election in 2013 (aided by ludicrous Labor leadership infighting) even though Australia was without doubt the best performing economy in the developed world and maintained strong growth, low unemployment and reasonable wage increases through the whole period.

    We did stimulus right and it worked, why don't you use us as an example instead of some of the much weaker performing country's that you do?

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    1. I shouldn't nit pick... but Krugman actually borrowed the term 'zomie economics' from a terrific book written by Australian economist John Quiggin.

      Forgetting the Aussies, indeed :-)

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  11. I'm a simple guy, so putting it simply

    1. You have a housing bubble in mostly warm weather markets like Florida, Spain.

    2. Bad lending piggybacks a financial crisis on that.

    3. So it's a ._._. Sandwich and we all gotta take a bite. That is, deleverage.

    4. Aggregate demand plummets, interest rates are zlb and US inflation is below target for 6 years.

    5. The US can borrow at real negative rates to increase demand.

    6. Austerity is proved ruinous for various Eu economies.

    7. Monetary policy was hurt by zlb and fiscal policy by zombie politicians.

    I don't know about the rest but there is litlle hope for the for 5 years due to gerrymandering.

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  12. During recessions aggregate income falls. At the same time the saving rate goes up. This means that while both income and consumption are falling, consumption is falling faster than income. So the marginal propensity to consume is greater than 1. Therefore the Keynesian multiplier during recessions is negative.

    The post http://www.philipji.com/item/2015-06-20/the-keynesian-multiplier-is-negative-during-recessions has more details.

    The first graph on http://www.philipji.com/item/2015-06-24/the-history-of-the-US-economy-in-one-graph also shows that the Keynesian multiplier has never been greater than 1 from 2001 to 2015 except during the period of the recession when it was negative. I shall be writing about it in greater detail in a few days.

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    1. Yep.
      http://www.3spoken.co.uk/2013/05/the-misuse-of-fiscal-multiplier.html?m=0

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  13. Simon,

    I was hoping to test your patience some more. This recent post at moneyillusion, citing Sadowski http://www.themoneyillusion.com/?p=29692 , has plenty of data and does not look like gotcha economics to me. Nick Rowe says the following about it:

    "It's 6 days now, which is a long time in the blogosphere. I have seen posts about who said what about who said what. What I want to see are posts that interpret those correlations. And other interpretations/explanations are always possible (though econometricians bravely try to minimise the number of plausible interpretations). How would you explain them?"

    A friend had a crack at explaining here, http://dcomerf.blogspot.ch/2015/06/is-fiscal-austerity-contractionary.html

    Are there better explanations? Will you be posting about it?

    Thanks


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    1. Do the regression using real GDP growth, which is what most economists would do. The results are rather different.

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  14. (On topic) Simon, you might be interested in this critique of this post by one of your favorite macro bloggers. Any comment?

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  15. "This is what Paul Krugman calls ideas or alleged facts that, despite being shown to be wrong countless times, keep coming back to life."

    John Quiggen's use of 'zombie' in this sense predates Krugman's by several years.

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  16. "There is a simple, entirely conventional answer, which perfectly fits the timing: fiscal austerity."

    Well yes, the idea that private sector fund raising does not compete with government sector fund raising during a recession is very old (although people often forget the real reasons - deflation pyschology and risk aversion to lending, inventory management). The problem is modern macro-economics with its dubious links to micro obscures a lot of sound economics and important lessons then have to be relearned.

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