Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Kins(l)ey Report (on Inflation)

One could, in a debate of US inflation prospects, discuss the virtues of issuing the currency in which your debt is denominated, and the ability of US political leadership to enact tough change counter-balanced, I think, by the magnitude of the debt in question relative to world GDP, and the actual history of US political leadership to enact tough change. But my aim is not (in this essay) a reasoned debate but a notice of the lack thereof.

If, like me, you're an official member of the pajama wearing blogger corps, you might be familiar with the recent debate over US inflation prospects between Michael Kinsley and Paul Krugman, et. al. If not, here's Kinsley's initial article, Krugman's rebuttal, Kinsley's retort, and Krugman's rebuttal of the retort.

Krugman's second rebuttal dripped with condescension, or so it seemed to me, recalling memories of school yard bullies. Those memories tempted me to begin this article with a quip about Krugman needing to pick on someone his own size......, but I'll use a different metaphor.

"Ouch!," you might be thinking, "that's a bit cruel."


So's this line from Krugman to Kinsley: "I’m tempted to get into an argument about whether it’s “bullying” to suggest that if you’re going to write about an economic issue, you might want to study it first. But what I really want to do is..."

Don't you love the artful use of the non-statement statement?

Aside from my belief that future events are more likely to follow some variation of Kinsley's nightmare scenario than Krugman's Japan model (about which, more here), the element of the exchange that inspired this post was Krugman's nasty dismissal of an apparently serious inquiry from one who apparently admires his views.

Kinsley's initial article contains statements like: "am I crazy?", "Every economist I admire, from Paul Krugman and Larry Summers on down, is convinced that inflation will remain low for as long as we can predict", "I can’t help feeling that the gold bugs are right", and "My fear is not the result of economic analysis. It’s more from the realm of psychology."

These are the words of a humble student searching for wisdom to quell his fears.

The wise Professor Krugman begins his rebuttal with: "Mike Kinsley has an odd piece in the Atlantic in which he confesses himself terrified about future inflation, even though there’s no hint of that problem in the real world."

You can almost see the sneering Professor holding up the student's paper in front of the class as you read the words (at least I could).

Using the tried and true nasty Professor trick of tossing about a bit of relevant jargon and a counter-example, Krugman expects Kinsley to slink back into his seat.

To his credit, Kinsley doesn't flinch.... much. He almost falls for the Professorial misdirection (debating whether a sudden 100% inflation shock is better than a Weimar hyper-inflation is like debating whether losing both legs is better than getting killed- I see your point, but I'll take none of the above) but then gets back on point, telling the Prof (in effect), "you didn't answer my question."

Why not inflation?

As Kinsley argued, the 70s demonstrated the US is not immune to inflation and Gold has risen from $275 to over $1000 during the past decade. Perhaps Kinsley's main confusion lies in his focus on the future tense, instead of seeing it as an ongoing issue.

Kinsley's search for the truth on inflation reminds me of Alfred Kinsey's search for truth on human sexual habits, which led to the publication of two books on human sexuality known collectively as the Kinsey Reports. Like Kinsley (or so it seems to me) Kinsey's search for truth battled with popular conceptions of what should (in some views) be, but wasn't.

In a sense Kinsey reported on what everyone (collectively) knew, but was afraid to say. The fear (perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, somewhat justified) among then current opinion shapers was, in part, that open discussion would release the genie from the bottle. Hugh Hefner, of Playboy fame, credits Kinsey with opening his eyes to human sexual experience.

Krugman, in my view, is too smart an economist to dismiss outright the possibility of another significant inflation episode in the US, which may or may not be followed by hyper-inflation.

To use his phrasing, for those dismissing prediction of substantial US inflation, what is it about the US now that looks different to you from Thailand, Korea and Indonesia in say, 1997 (or Russia in 1998, or Iceland just recently)? Substantial public and private sector debt? Check. Huge expansion in the monetary base? Check. Large external debts and ongoing external deficits? Check. Increasing difficulties rolling over ever shorter term debt? Check. And yet each of those countries suffered, not multi-year hyperinflation, admittedly, but a sudden substantial (50-100% or more) inflation shock.

There are, admittedly, differences. As I wrote, I was using his phrasing and argument form. One could debate the virtues of issuing the currency in which your debt is denominated, and the ability of US political leadership to enact tough change counter-balanced, I think, by the magnitude of the debt in question relative to world GDP, and the actual history of US political leadership to enact tough change. But my aim is not a reasoned debate but a notice of the lack thereof.

Mr. Krugman might snidely respond to my snidely put question that the issue was hyper-inflation. I lived in Asia during their crisis and such shocks are worth worrying about even if hyper-inflation is avoided (besides, his use of Japan- a nation which self-finances, which seems to me a critical distinction- as counter-point suggests even moderate inflation is unlikely). Moreover, as Kinsley notes, who knows what policy makers will opt to do when the next crisis erupts. The history of the Bernanke Fed is not one of monetary restraint in a time of crisis.

I suspect that Krugman, not the economist, but the opinion shaper is, like those Kinsey battled, trying to keep the genie in the bottle- thus the Professorial dismissal instead of reasoned discussion of the issue. Inflation has both psychological and real world causes- when the two unite, the fireworks begin.

Perhaps, in a limited fashion, the Kinsley Report on Inflation will have a similar effect as Kinsey's, (then again maybe both should be seen as catalyst instead of cause) by bringing the debate into the open.

I wonder who the Hugh Hefner of Inflation will prove to be- perhaps Bill Murphy of GATA?

My advice to Kinsley is to have the courage of his convictions and buy some Gold, the price of which may have been as suppressed as reasoned open debate on US inflation prospects appears to be- both actions aim at the same effect.  I did (at $275 for Krugman's information) and I'm still holding.


STS said...

Welcome back, Dude. How's the home school going?

I agree that Krugman brushed off Kinsley's argument without addressing the underlying anxiety. And it might well be (in part) because of his desire not to "shout 'fire!' in a crowded theater". But I don't think he feels any real doubt about his deflationary forecast.

Personally, I see the situation as deflationary because there is a vast over-supply of labor. As long as there is this huge population of people with too little share of the work of producing things, they can't earn enough to pull their own weight. The root problem is *distributional*. Firstly, the mal-distribution of useful work and secondly, as a consequence, a mal-distribution of income and wealth.

We didn't notice this so much in the 1970's because the American labor market was much more autarkic. We had to give up some purchasing power to the rest of the world, but inflation was available because we had the *effective* means to debase the currency.

We have ample ability to print more money today, but we won't get it to circulate if businesses can just make 'profits' by cramming down wages and material costs through offshoring or bludgeoning domestic workers with threats of off-shoring. What do you get if you multiply infinite money supply times zero velocity?

Until some combination of currency adjustment, geopolitical instability or saturation in skilled labor markets in 'low cost countries' start to make domestic labor more price competitive the immiseration of the American working class is likely to proceed via deflation.

I've been in gold because -- in Keynes' phrase -- 'not one man in a million can diagnose' deflation. Keynes was talking about inflation, but my point is that fear and uncertainty will drive people to buy gold as effectively as inflation will. It's entirely sufficient that large numbers of people fear inflation -- it doesn't actually have to materialize.

Dude said...

Home school is going fine, thanks for asking.

As to your analysis, you might be right. We'll see how the future unfolds.