Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Solow on Greenspan's new book and the misrepresentation of the mainstream

Solow's review was published in the New Republic here (h/t Robert Vienneau). Solow has lost nothing of his ironic and acerbic style of criticism. As noted by Vienneau there is a great line at the end about Greenspan's mentor Ayn Rand:
"It is sometimes claimed that Alan Greenspan is a closet follower of Ayn Rand; he certainly had an early association with her circle. I got through maybe half of one of those fat paperbacks when I was young, the one about the architect. Since then I have found it impossible to take Ayn Rand seriously as a novelist or a thinker. In the past I have gone on the assumption that Greenspan’s ideas about economic life are his own, just what is contained in his writings, and the Ayn Rand question does not arise. But now there is this book, with its particular misinterpretation of mainstream economics, which might be thought to reopen the question if anyone is interested."
So basically he says Greenspan might be a crank after all. Yet, Solow has actually a couple of nice things to say about the old 'maestro.' For him, the injection of liquidity after the 1987 crash, and allowing the unemployment rate to fall below 6% or so (what most considered the natural rate) suggest that "it is only fair to say that he was a very good chairman of the Fed."

This in spite of his "two big mistakes." One mistake was allowing (I would say almost promoting) the housing bubble. The other, the relevant one for Solow, was his:
"deep-seated conviction that the unregulated financial system was self-stabilizing, that the self-interest of all those clever and experienced participants with a lot of their wealth at stake would keep the accumulation of risk within tolerable bounds. So he promoted deregulation and financial consolidation (as did others, of course) and, when this simple faith proved wrong, allowed disaster to strike."
If  being a monetary crank that shares responsibility for the deregulation of the financial sector and the current global crisis (let alone his role in the Bush tax cuts, or his promotion of cutting Social Security benefits) does not make him a terrible Fed chairman, I don't know what would.

Also, I think Solow is right, Greenspan does not represent well the more moderate New Keynesian mainstream. Yet, in many respects his sort of fringe radical right wing Ayn Rand version of the mainstream, like supply side and Austrian economics, is also part of the mainstream and shares several crucial elements. I would argue that the problem with Greenspan is NOT that he misrepresents the mainstream, but that his deregulation mantra is perfectly compatible with the mainstream. Lets not forget that Larry Summers (a New Keynesian that favors fiscal expansion and is concerned about the possibility of secular stagnation now) was during the Clinton era presiding over deregulation.

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