Krugman and the Goldbugs

Por Nicolás Cachanosky y William J. Luther. Publicado el 23/8/19 en:


he announcement that President Trump would nominate Judy Shelton, a long-time advocate of the gold standard, for a seat on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors got Paul Krugman thinking: why do some economic commentators become goldbugs?

Krugman offers a rather cynical view. It is difficult “to build a successful career as a mainstream economist,” he writes.

Parroting orthodox views definitely won’t do it; you have to be technically proficient, and to have a really good career you must be seen as making important new contributions — innovative ways to think about economic issues and/or innovative ways to bring data to bear on those issues. And the truth is that not many people can pull this off: it requires a combination of deep knowledge of previous research and the ability to think differently.

So what’s an aspiring if not so smart or creative economist to do?

“Heterodoxy,” Krugman writes, “can itself be a careerist move.”

Everyone loves the idea of brave, independent thinkers whose brilliant insights are rejected by a hidebound establishment, only to be vindicated in the end. And such people do exist, in economics as in other fields.… But the sad truth is that the great majority of people who reject mainstream economics do so because they don’t understand it; and a fair number of these people don’t understand it because their salary depends on their not understanding it.

In other words, Krugman suggests most gold standard advocates are either ignorant or disingenuous — and, in some cases, both.

According to Krugman, “events of the past dozen years have only reinforced that consensus” view that “a return to the gold standard would be a bad idea.”

[T]he price of gold soared from 2007 to 2011; if gold-standard ideology had any truth to it, that would have been a harbinger of runaway inflation, and the Fed should have been raising interest rates to keep the dollar’s gold value constant. In fact, inflation never materialized, and an interest rate hike in the face of surging unemployment would have been a disaster.

Is that so?

Krugman commits two mistakes here. First, he implicitly assumes that the data-generating process for the dollar price of gold would have been the same if, over the period in question, the U.S. had been on a gold standard. Robert Lucas famously warned against such an assumption. The argument is straightforward. Individuals do the best they can given their institutional constraints. If those institutional constraints change, so too will the decisions individuals make and, hence, the data generated by those decisions.

Consider that many see gold as a hedge against inflation today. But there would be no scope for gold to serve as an inflation hedge under a gold standard. In other words, the decision to hold gold under a gold standard would be fundamentally different from the decision people face today.

The second error concerns Krugman’s characterization of the gold standard. The gold standard is not a system where the price of gold is fixed. Rather, it is a system where the dollar is defined as a particular weight of gold. Under a gold standard, the dollar price of gold cannot change because the dollar is gold.

Krugman’s mischaracterization of the gold standard as a system where the price of gold is fixed leads to a fundamental misunderstanding about how a gold standard operates. The gold standard does not require a central bank to raise or lower rates “to keep the dollar’s gold value constant,” as Krugman claims. Indeed, a central bank is wholly unnecessary.

Under a gold standard, the purchasing power of gold is determined by the ordinary forces of supply and demand. If the demand for gold coins increases, the purchasing power of gold will rise (i.e., dollar coins buy more goods and services). Miners respond to the higher purchasing power by digging up more gold and hauling it off to the mint to be coined. And, as the supply of monetary gold expands, the purchasing power gradually falls back to its long-run level. Likewise, if the demand for gold coins falls, less gold is mined and some existing coins are melted down and repurposed for nonmonetary ends. This automatic mechanism meant that the price level was much easier to forecast under the gold standard.

What about Krugman’s claim that the gold standard would have required contractionary monetary policy from 2007 to 2011, when many economists would have called for expansionary monetary policy? Wrong and wrong. It would not have called for any kind of policy — just individuals pursuing their own interests, as usual. And, since the purchasing power of gold was increasing over the period, it would have set in motion an expansion in the supply of money — not a contraction, as Krugman claims.

We won’t take issue with Krugman’s working model of the economics profession. No doubt many drift to unconventional views because they do not understand mainstream economics or find it in their interest to hold unconventional views. Advocacy of the gold standard, an unconventional view, is no exception.

Unlike Krugman, however, we do not believe the problem is limited to those holding unconventional views. Many economists have strong opinions about the gold standard. Few seem to understand how a gold standard functions and how such a system performed historically relative to modern fiat-money regimes. Krugman provides a case in point.


Nicolás Cachanosky es Doctor en Economía, (Suffolk University), Lic. en Economía, (UCA), Master en Economía y Ciencias Políticas, (ESEADE). Fué profesor de Finanzas Públicas en UCA y es Assistant Professor of Economics en Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Easy Money, The Fed, Latin America

Entrevista a Nicolás Cachanosky, publicada en The Free Market:

TFM: What led to your initial interest in the Austrian School?

 NC: My initial interest in the Austrian School came from my father, who completed his Ph.D. under the supervision of Hans Senholz on “The Pitfalls of Mathematical Analysis in Economics.”

My interest in economics was sparked in mid–high school and my father gave me books by Hazlitt, Hayek, Mises, and Rothbard. The summer I graduated he gave me my first copy of Human Action.

 I read it for the first time during the summer before going into the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina to do my Licentiate in Economics.

 When I finished my licentiate studies I went for my Master of Economics and Political Science to ESEADE, the free-market/Austrian graduate institution in Argentina. After two years studying with Martin Krause, Gabriel Zanotti (who was my advisor), and other faculty, I joined Suffolk University and wrote my dissertation under Ben Powell.

  Now I’m moving to Metropolitan State University of Denver where I’ll be teaching macroeconomics and money. I’m looking forward to continuing the work of [Mises Institute Senior Fellow and retiring MSUD faculty member] John Cochran and working next to [Mises Institute Associated Scholar] Alex Padilla in his Explore Freedom Project.

 TFM: Austrians have often looked at how central banks cause the boom-bust cycle domestically. But in recent research, you’re looking at how the Federal Reserve has contributed to unsustainable booms in Latin America.

 NC: If we date the first treatment of Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) to Mises’s Theory of Money and Credit (1912), then a hundred years has gone by. It is to be expected that some of the empirical assumptions that Mises and Hayek were using at the beginning of the century need revision.

The monetary institution in place is one of those assumptions. The world is not under the gold standard anymore, but under fiat currencies. This means two things. First, because international interest rates are defined by major central banks, major economies have an effect on small open economies.

 Second, with fiat currencies we have more than one currency. This means that there is a new price to take into consideration, the foreign exchange rate. If we have a new price, then the market distortions produced by a major central bank are channeled through two variables, not one. Through the interest rate, as is usual in the canonical version of the ABCT, and through the exchange rate, which means a change in the relative price of nontradables to tradables.

 For instance, could it be that part of the export-led growth of China is an unsustainable boom that was driven by the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy plus China’s central bank’s decision to peg their currency to the U.S. dollar?

 TFM: What are some specific areas where this has had the greatest impact?

 NC: If you look at Latin America’s countries you see that more roundabout (capital-intensive and forward-looking) industries are more sensitive to U.S. monetary policy than less roundabout industries. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the two largest economic crises in Latin America in the last 60 years occurred after the two largest periods of loose monetary policy by the Fed: at the beginning of 1980, and in 2009, after the subprime crisis.

Industries like mining and quarrying, for example, are more sensitive to U.S. monetary policy than, say, real estate intermediation.

The pattern predictions of the ABCT hold for Latin America and U.S. monetary policy.

 TFM: Give us a glimpse into the banking sector in Latin America. Are central banks restrained right now, or are they, like the Bank of Japan and the Federal Reserve, engaging in monetary activism?

 NC: It’s hard to say because there’s plenty of variation. What is important is what drives their activism. It is crucial whether a central bank is independent of the Treasury needs. Some central banks in Latin America, like those of Chile, Colombia,

and Brazil have been gaining respect in recent times. Others, like the Argentinean and Venezuelan central banks are at the service of the government.

What central banks can’t do is avoid the effects of activism by major central banks. When the Federal Reserve decided to lower their interest rates between 2002 and 2007, the central bank in these countries needed to re-evaluate policy under

such circumstances. Latin American countries that usually have big economic sectors that depend on the export of commodities may very well feel compelled to expand their money supply and keep their exchange rates stable. In this sense, the activism of Latin American countries is dependent of the

activism of major central banks.

 TFM: Of course, American monetary policy is hardly the only challenge faced by Latin American economies. What are some other impediments to sustainable growth faced by the region?

 NC: The underlying problem of the region in general is its anti-free-market ideology rooted in political populism, so well represented by Hugo Chavez and the Kirchners. The results of their policies are clear for anyone who wants to see them.

Most economic problems ultimately depend on this cultural setting. Populism is a very dangerous road to take with very damaging and long lasting consequences.

 TFM: Speaking broadly, are free-market ideas gaining traction in the region?

 NC: It is not easy to say because some countries have become more prosperous and free, and others less prosperous and less free. Some countries like Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia show repressed economic and civil liberties. But other countries like Chile, Colombia, Perú, and Paraguay are doing much better.

Still, I remain confident that the outlook of the region will improve in the coming years, especially if the freest countries do not change their course. Countries like Argentina and Venezuela are showing strong manifestations in opposition to their current politicians in power. I can’t say for sure that this is rooted in free-market ideas; it is, more likely, against the poor economic performance and the lack of freedom citizens

feel every day without a clear connection to free-market institutions. However, this situation of civil protest can open the door for some of these countries to follow the Chilean example and get onto a more stable road of growth and development.

Nicolás Cachanosky es Doctor en Economía, (Suffolk University), Lic. en Economía, (UCA), Master en Economía y Ciencias Políticas, (ESEADE) y profesor universitario.