Here F could stand for folk. The story that is often told by economists to their students goes as follows. After Phillips discovered his curve, which relates inflation to unemployment, Samuelson and Solow in 1960 suggested this implied a trade-off that policymakers could use. They could permanently have a bit less unemployment at the cost of a bit more inflation. Policymakers took up that option, but then could not understand why inflation didn’t just go up a bit, but kept on going up and up. Along came Milton Friedman to the rescue, who in a 1968 presidential address argued that inflation also depended on inflation expectations, which meant the long run Phillips curve was vertical and there was no permanent inflation unemployment trade-off. Policymakers then saw the light, and the steady rise in inflation seen in the 1960s and 1970s came to an end.
This is a neat little story, particularly if you like the idea that all great macroeconomic disasters stem from errors in mainstream macroeconomics. However even a half awake student should spot one small difficulty with this tale. Why did it take over 10 years for Friedman’s wisdom to be adopted by policymakers, while Samuelson and Solow’s alleged mistake seems to have been adopted quickly? Even if you think that the inflation problem only really started in the 1970s that imparts a 10 year lag into the knowledge transmission mechanism, which is a little strange.
However none of that matters, because this folk story is simply untrue. There has been some discussion of this in blogs (by Robert Waldmann in particular - see Mark Thoma here), and the best source on this is another F: James Forder. There are papers (e.g. here), but the most comprehensive source is now his book, which presents an exhaustive study of this folk story. It is, he argues, untrue in every respect. Not only did Samuelson and Solow not argue that there was a permanent inflation unemployment trade-off that policymakers could exploit, policymakers never believed there was such a trade-off. So how did this folk story arise? Quite simply from another F: Friedman himself, in his Nobel Prize lecture in 1977.
Forder discusses much else in his book, including the extent to which Friedman’s 1968 emphasis on the importance of expectations was particularly original (it wasn’t). He also describes how and why he thinks Friedman’s story became so embedded that it became folklore. The reason I write about this now is that I’m in the process of finishing a paper on the knowledge transmission mechanism and the 2010 switch to austerity, and I wanted to look back at previous macroeconomic crises.
If it wasn’t a belief in a long run inflation unemployment trade-off, what was it that allowed inflation to gradually rise during those two decades? Forder has a lot to say on this, but the following is my own take. I think two things were critical: the idea that demand management was primarily designed to achieve full employment, and that full employment had primacy over the objective of price stability. Although more and more economists over that period began to see the policy problem within a Phillips curve framework, many still hoped that other measures like prices and incomes policies (in the UK in particular but also in the US) could override the Phillips curve logic. The primacy of the full employment objective meant the problem was often described as ‘cost-push inflation’ rather than a rise in the natural rate of unemployment.
If you find this hard to imagine, think about historians discussing the current period in a possible future in 2050. By then nonlinearities in the Phillips curve and the power the inflation target had in anchoring inflation expectations were firmly entrenched in mainstream thinking. Imagine that partly as a result in 2050 the inflation target has been replaced by a level of nominal income target. With the benefit of hindsight these historians were amazed to calculate the extent to which resources were lost decades earlier because policy had become fixated by a 2% inflation target and budget deficits. They will recount with amusement at the number of economists and policymakers who thought that the way to deal with deficient demand was by ‘structural reform’. Rather than construct folk tales, they will observe that even when most economists realised what was required to avoid being misled again policymakers were extremely reluctant to change the inflation target.