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Real Fiscal Responsibility 2: Carter, Stagnation and Unemployment

11:30 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The economy during the Carter period never operated at full capacity or near full capacity. Deficit and inflation reduction were emphasized above all other domestic concerns, and substantial output gaps were simply accepted as something that it was very difficult for Government to do anything about.

This post continues my series evaluating the fiscal responsibility/irresponsibility of the Governments of the United States (mostly the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Federal Reserve) by Administration periods beginning in 1977 with the Jimmy Carter period. My first post explained why I chose to start my evaluation with the Carter period, and also laid out my related definitions of fiscal sustainability, and fiscal responsibility.

It explained why fiscal responsibility is closely connected to the idea of public purpose, which I’ve laid out here. I also claimed that the Government of the United States has been fiscally irresponsible in every Administration period since 1977. The remaining posts in this series, and they will be many, will document that claim with analysis.

In this second post, I begin my evaluation of the extent of fiscal responsibility or irresponsibility of the Federal Government during the Carter Administration by covering two of the primary problems reflecting public purpose, and what the Federal Government did or did not do about them with its fiscal and monetary policies. The two are: ending economic stagnation, and creating full employment at a living wage.

Replacing a stagnating economy with one operating at its full potential; closing the current output gap

The economy during the Carter period never operated at full capacity or near full capacity. Deficit and inflation reduction were emphasized above all other domestic concerns, and substantial output gaps were simply accepted as something that it was very difficult for Government to do anything about. This was true during a period in which the presidency and the Congress were both in Democratic hands with substantial majorities.

In addition, the President was able to appoint his choice to head the Federal Reserve on two occasions. During the early part of his Administration he was dealing with a Republican appointee, Arthur F. Burns, who was far from a fiscal hawk on inflation. When Burns resigned, Carter appointed G. William Miller to head the Federal Reserve. Miller was, if anything, more dovish on interest rates than Burns. But later when he moved Miller to Treasury, he appointed the fiscal hawk Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve Chairman, and in doing this shot both himself and the United States economy in the foot; condemning himself to defeat in 1980; and the economy to a multi-year recession with high levels of unemployment from 1980 – 1986.

In spite of his favorable political situation (at least until he appointed Volcker) for active deficit spending-based fiscal policy, President Carter and leaders in the other branches of Government chose to emphasize inflation moderation, rather than facilitating an economy that used its full productive capacity for the public purpose. The outcome of this orientation was characterized as “stagflation” in the popular press, and the term came to stigmatize the Carter period in Government and his Administration, in particular.

Why did the leaders of the Congress, the Executive and the Federal Reserve choose inflation moderation above other goals during the period 1977-1981? Partly because President Carter was very serious about attempting to reduce the Government’s deficit, and eventually balance the Federal budget by 1981, and he implemented a variety of Executive Branch cost-cutting measures across the Federal Government to try to reach his goal, while using the power and bully pulpit of the presidency to bring others along the path of “sacrificing for the public good.”.

Congress both collaborated with and sometimes opposed Carter’s cost-cutting proposals, when they related to infrastructure spending. But generally, they supported him in his broad-based deficit cutting activities, because they bought into the fiscal responsibility as deficit cutting and budget balancing notion, and also accepted that as political virtue in a time of uncertainty and stagflation.

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And the Last Shall Be First – It Was the Peanut Farmer, Not the Tall Guy or the Iron Lady

7:01 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

By
Warren Mosler
(Cross-posted with permission of the author from
The Center of the Universe)

(Editor’s note: I think this reaction of Warren’s to the death of Margaret Thatcher is pretty unique and also the best statement I’ve seen of his view of why the “stagflation” of the late 70s and early 80s went away. Hint: President Jimmy Carter had more to do with it than Paul Volcker, and Thatcher is much less important to what happened next, than the Keynesian failure to handle the stagflation, and the resulting shift to monetarist economics. Here’s Warren!)

Here’s how I remember it all.

I didn’t look anything up, with the idea that memories matter.

The ‘golden age’ from WWII was said to have ended around 1973. Inflation and employment was remembered as relatively low, productivity high, the American middle class thriving.

Why? Keynes was sort of followed. The Kennedy tax cuts come to mind. But also of consequence and ignored was the fact that the US had excess crude production capacity, with the Texas Railroad Commission setting quotas, etc. to support prices at maybe the $2.50-$3.00 price range. And stable crude prices, though maybe a bit higher than they ‘needed’ to be, meant reasonable price stability, as much was priced on a cost plus basis, and the price of oil was a cost of most everything, directly or indirectly.

But in the early 1970′s demand for crude exceeded the US’s capacity to produce it, and Saudi Arabia became the swing producer, replacing the Texas Railroad commission as price setter. And, of course, price stability wasn’t their prime objective, as they hiked price first to about $10 by maybe 1975, which caused a near panic globally, then after a too brief pause they hiked to $20, and finally $40 by maybe 1980.

With oil part of the cost structure, the consumer price index, aka ‘inflation’, soared to double digits by the late 70′s. Headline Keynesian proposals were largely the likes of price and wage controls, which Nixon actually tried for a while. But it turned out the voters preferred inflation to their government telling them what they could earn (wage controls on organized labor and others) and what they could charge. Arthur Burns had the Fed funds rate up to maybe 6%. Miller took over and quickly fell out of favor, followed by tall Paul in maybe 1979 who put on what might be the largest display of gross ignorance of monetary operations with his borrowed reserve targeting policy. However, a year or so after the price of oil broke as did inflation giving tall Paul the spin of being the man who courageously broke inflation. Overlooked was that President Jimmy Carter had allowed the deregulation of natural gas in 1978, triggering a massive increase in supply, with our electric utilities shifting from oil to nat gas, and OPEC desperately cutting production by maybe 15 million barrels/day in what turned out to be an unsuccessful effort to hold price above $30, as the supply shock was too large for them and they drowned in the flood of no longer needed oil, with prices falling to maybe the $10 range where they stayed for almost 20 years, until climbing demand again put the Saudis in the catbird seat. Meanwhile, Greenspan got credit for that goldilocks period that again was the product of stable oil prices, not the Fed (at least in my story.)

So back to the 70′s, and continuous oil price hikes by a foreign monopolist. All nations experienced pretty much the same inflation. And it all ended at about the same time as well when the price of crude fell. The ‘heroes’ were coincidental. In fact, my take is they actually made it worse than it needed to be, but it did ‘get better’ and they of course were in the right place at the right time to get credit for that.

So back to the 70′s. With the price of oil being hiked by a foreign monopolist, I see two choices. The first is to try to let there be a relative value shift (as the Fed tries to do today) and not let those price hikes spill into the rest of the price level, which means wages, for the most part. This is another name for a decline in real terms of trade. It would have meant the Saudis would get more real goods and services for the oil. The other choice is to let all other price adjust upward to keep relative value the same, and try to keep real terms of trade from deteriorating. Interestingly, I never heard this argument then and I still don’t hear it now. But that’s how it is none the less. And, ultimately, the answer fell somewhere in between. Some price adjustment and some real terms of trade deterioration. But it all got very ugly along the way.

It was decided the inflation was caused by unions trying to keep up or stay ahead of things for their members, for example. It was forgotten that the power of unions was a derivative of price power of their companies, and as companies lost pricing power to foreign competition, unions lost bargaining power just as fast. And somehow a recession and high unemployment/lost output was the medicine needed for a foreign monopolist to stop hiking prices??? And there was Ford’s ‘whip inflation now’ buttons for his inflation fighting proposal, and Carter with his hostage thing adding to the feeling of vulnerability. And the nat gas dereg of 1978, the thing that actually did break the inflation two years later, hardly got a notice, before or after, and to this day.

As today, the problem back then was no one of political consequence understood the monetary system, including the mainstream Keynesians who had been the intellectual leadership for a long time. The monetarists came into vogue for real only after the failure of the Keynesians, who never did recover, and to this day I’ve heard those still alive push for price and wage controls, fixed exchange rates, etc. etc. in the name of price stability.

So in this context the rise of Thatcher types, including Reagan, makes perfect sense. And even today, those critical of Thatcher type policies have yet to propose any kind of comprehensive proposals that make any sense to me. They now all agree we have a long term deficit problem, and so put forth proposals accordingly, etc. as they are all destroying our civilization with their abject ignorance of the monetary system. Or, for some unknown reason, they are just plain subversive.

Thatcher?

It was the blind leading the blind then and it’s the same now.

And that’s how I remember it/her.

And i care a whole lot more about what happens next than about what happened then.

:(

(Editor’s note: So, we have ignorance about the fiat monetary system and “chance” to blame for the displacement of the Keynesians by the monetarists, the victories of Thatcher, Reagan, and neoliberalism, and the ensuing decades of increasing evolution to a new feudalism. This is the broad scope of change over the past 40 years. In viewing this change, we can’t forget what it’s done and is still doing to people. Bill Mitchell’s retrospective on Thatcher is very good on that. Don’t miss it!)