Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. Andre Gide

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Reply by George Selgin

Note: George intially replied in a series of comments to my earlier post. Not all of his comments appear to have made it, even though my email alerted me that they were indeed posted. (Prof J, this appears to have happened with one of your comments too -- there might be a bug in this system). In any case, I have pieced together George's reply in a separate post here (hopefully, I haven't missed anything). Enjoy! DA


David has kindly alerted me to his critique and invited me to reply. So here goes.

A 40-minute public lecture is, first of all, not the best means in which to cover all the issues related to such a sweeping proposition as one holding that we can do better than we have with the fed. In fact my lecture is just the barest-bone summary of a much more complete argument contained in my, Bill Lastrapes, and Larry White's working paper, "Has the Fed Been a Failure?" which is available online through both Cato and SSRN links. I urge David and his readers to have a look at that paper which addresses several of the issues he takes up in his comments here.

With particular respect to those comments, a few points. First, of course the Fed answers to Congress, and has its goals set by that body. But note: my paper isn't a critique of the goals themselves (though there are indeed cogent criticisms to be made of the dual mandate in particular). It merely asks whether the Fed has been successful in achieving these goals. I claim that it hasn't been.

Regarding the Fed's powers, it is a very serious mistake to assume, as David seems to do, that these are properly gauged by noting that it supplies but a small component of the total money stock, most of which consists of various sorts of bank deposits. In fact, by controlling the monetary base (which consists not only of the stock of paper currency, as David indicates, but also of the stock of bank reserves in the form of credits with the various Federal Reserve banks), the Fed operates a lever by which is is capable of regulating the total stock of money and the total flow of credit. Think of a government monopoly of shoes for left feet and consider the degree to which that monopoly would influence the total availability of shoes and you will begin to get the right picture.
Concerning the fact that the Fed adjusts the available stock of base money through open-market operations and discount window (or other kinds of) lending rather than by dropping stuff from helicopters, I'm sure I've never suggested otherwise and that none of my critical observations concerning the Fed's performance hinges on the helicopter-money assumption.

David asks whether the "political reality," consisting of the abuse of the Fed as a tool of inflationary finance and such, could possibly be altered by replacing the Fed with another institutional arrangements. The answer is that is can, if the alternative is a decentralized one in which no very large degree of influence is concentrated in a body over which the executive or Congress exercise considerable influence. Of course, even such an arrangement can be abused, but only through its being altered again. Whether that happens depends to a considerable degree on the state of professional economic opinion. For any economist to apologize for the Fed on the grounds that Congress is bound to saddle us with something at least as bad is for that economist to forget, first, that is is economists' responsibility to plead for better institutions and not to spare politicians the necessity of having to explain why they aren't following the economists advice.

David suggests that I have "truncated" the sample period used in comparing pre-Fed and Fed performance in a manner calculated to make the pre-Fed period look especially good, by leaving out the Civil War and earlier disturbances. But the sample periods I used were chosen not for such a strategic reason but (1) because the comparisons are meant to be between the Fed and the "National Currency" regime that preceded it, which was set up during the Civil War and (2) because consistent statistics for the comparisons I'm concerned with simply don't exit for earlier periods or even, in many cases, for the full National Currency period. Without such statistics comparisons become arbitrary. For the CPI, statistics David cites from before the 1780s are especially doubtful, though no-one denies that prices rose considerably during the revolutionary, 1812, and Civil Wars. That we can have inflation without the Fed is of course not a revelation. Nor does it contradict the claim that the inflation record, and the peacetime inflation record especially, has been worse under the Fed than under previous U.S. monetary regimes.

Concerning Canada's experience during the Great Depression, readers will find a very different take on this in our paper. Briefly, David sees it as proof that bad regulations rather than the Fed were to blame for the banking crisis. We see it as proof that the Fed was a poor solution to the problem of crises, that is, that there was a better, deregulatory solution. These claims aren't exactly inconsistent. But to suggest that Canada's experience should be viewed as undermining the case against the Fed is a stretch.

As for the Fed mimicking what private clearinghouses used to do: Wicker and Timberlake, the foremost authorities on that matter, both think the clearinghouse solution was better. This, too, is treated in the paper.

Once again, I'm grateful to David for inviting me to reply to his criticisms.


  1. David,

    Awesome that you got Prof. Selgin to respond. It seems you have one of the few truly academic blogs out there.

    George and David,

    Is there any possibility that free banking could ever be instituted in the West? It seems the political ideology right now is tuned towards top-down regulation, rather than innovative structure that would self-regulate better than the current enterprises.

  2. pretty amazing blog back and forth. -- Morris Davis

  3. Prof J: I suppose it depends on how you define "free" banking. I'm not sure that we've ever had anything resembling unfettered banking anytime in history. Even the so-called "free banking" era in the U.S. (1836-93) was heavily regulated. In my view, the state will always have its hand in the business of money creation. And if the state is prohibited from issuing money directly (inflation tax), it will simply resort to other forms of implicit and explicit taxation on the private business of banking. But perhaps George is more optimistic.

  4. David,

    So if I may be so bold - we won't get free banking until we have competitive government. In other words, the day after pornice aeronautics becomes relevant.

  5. Prof J: Pornice aeronautics? Not even Google yielded a result.

    Btw, US free-banking era is 1836-63 (not 93). Sorry for the typo.

  6. Porcine, should have been. You know - flying pigs.