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Economic Policy

In your 1978 AER paper on ‘Unemployment Policy’ you suggested that

macroeconomic analysis would make better progress if the concept of involuntary

unemployment were abandoned. Many economists, for example Kevin

Hoover [1988, 1995c], have criticized you for this and question whether you

can regard unemployment as simply voluntary.

There is both an involuntary and a voluntary element in any kind of unemployment.

Take anybody who is looking for a job. At the end of the day if

they haven’t found one, they are unhappy about it. They did not choose to

find one in some sense. Everyone wishes he has better options than he does.

But there is also obviously a voluntary element in unemployment when there

are all these jobs around. When we are unemployed it is because we think we

can do better.

I suppose this is something that bothers Europeans more because aggregate

unemployment is much more of an issue in Europe. It doesn’t seem to be as

much of an issue in the USA.

It should be.

Many European economies including Germany, France and Italy are currently

experiencing unemployment rates in excess of 10 per cent.

Well, if you go into the neighbourhoods within a mile of my university you

will find 50 per cent unemployment rates. So it is an issue here too.

The Bank of England is less independent than the German Bundesbank. Do

you see that as a possible reason why Britain’s inflation performance has

been less successful than that of Germany?

I don’t know, it could be. I don’t feel I have much understanding of the

political sources of differences in monetary policy across countries.

Economic policy doesn’t seem to have been guided by new classical theoretical

developments in the same way as it has by Keynesianism and monetarism.

Why has its impact been less influential in economic policy making?

Why do you say that? We have talked about the increasing focus of central

bankers on inflation and the de-emphasis of everybody on fine-tuning. That is

an important trend in the last 20 years in the USA and Europe, and to my

mind a very healthy one.

Would this not have come about in any case as a result of Friedman’s

influence, without rational expectations and equilibrium theorizing?

Maybe.

Have you ever been invited to be an economic adviser in Washington? Is that

a role you see for yourself?

No.

You once made a comment [Lucas, 1981c] that ‘as an advice-giving profession

we are in way over our heads’. Is that the reason you haven’t considered

such a role more seriously?

No. Not at all. I believe economists ought to run everything [laughter].

So did Keynes.

I know. I don’t think I personally have any particular talent or liking for that

kind of role. But I am glad that other people like John Taylor or Larry

Summers do. For example, I think that the whole reason the Clinton health

insurance reform fell on its face was that not enough economists were involved.

I like economics and I think economics is hugely relevant on almost

any issue of national policy. The more good economists are involved the

happier I am. But I don’t personally feel drawn to doing it.

What are your views on European Monetary Union?

Again I don’t know enough about the politics, which has to be central.

Does it make economic sense to you?

Well, it’s an issue in inventory theory. The cost of dealing with multiple

currencies is that if you are doing business in Europe you, or people you hire

to help you, have to have stocks of inventories of a lot of different currencies

because payments are coming due in a lot of different currencies. The inventory

cost of holding money is the interest foregone you could have earned by

holding interest-bearing assets. If you have a common currency you can

consolidate your cash inventories so that there is a saving involved. That is a

very modest saving, but it is positive. But obviously multiple currencies are

not inconsistent with a huge amount of prosperity. If you can consolidate, all

the better, but those purely economic gains are pretty modest. If you don’t

trust somebody else to run your monetary policy, maybe you want to oppose

monetary union. For myself, I would be happy to turn my monetary policy

over to the Germans any day [laughter].