Elkhart County, Indiana Rides the Surge in Spending on Consumer Durables

More than 80 percent of the recreational vehicles (RV) sold in the United States are manufactured in Elkhart County, Indiana. As we discuss in the opener to Chapter 22 in Economics (Chapter 12 in Macroeconomics), being dependent on sales of expensive durable goods like RVs means that the county is particularly vulnerable to the business cycle, with local firms experiencing rising sales during economic expansions and sharply falling sales during economic recessions. Accordingly, the unemployment rate in the county fluctuates much more during the business cycle than is typical—as shown in the above graph.

For example, during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the unemployment rate in the country rose from a low of 3.9 percent in May 2007 to a high of 20 percent in March 2009, before declining during the following economic recovery.  Just before the start of the Covid-19 recession of 2020, the unemployment rate in Elkhart was 2.8 percent. It then soared to 30.8 percent in April. 

But, as we discuss in the chapter, the recovery from the 2020 recession was unusually rapid, although uneven. Many services industries, such as restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters continued to struggle well into 2021 as firms had difficulty attracting workers and as some consumers remained reluctant to spend time inside in close contact with other people. In contrast, consumer spending on durable goods was far above its pre-pandemic level, as well as being above the rate at which it had been growing during the years before the pandemic. The two graphs below show real consumer spending on durables and on services up through August 2021.

During 2021, sales of RVs through August were 50 percent higher than in the same period in 2020 and were on a pace to reach record annual sales. The success of the RV industry has led to rising incomes in Elkhart County, which, in turn, has allowed the area to attract other industries, including a logistics center that when completed will be the largest industrial building in Indiana and an Amazon warehouse that when completed will provide 1,000 new jobs. Rising incomes have also supported other businesses, such as community theaters, art galleries, and a recently reopened 1920s-era hotel.

In October 2021, the Wall Street Journal ranked Elkhart County first in its rating of metropolitan areas as measured by the index it compiles with realtor.com. The index “identifies the top metro areas for home buyers seeking an appreciating housing market and appealing lifestyle amenities.” If consumers continue to buy more goods and fewer services, it could be bad news for restaurants and other service industries, but good news for places like Elkhart that depend on goods-producing industries. 

Sources: Nicole Friedman, “RV Capital of America Tops WSJ/Realtor.com Housing Index in Third Quarter,” wsj.com, October 19, 2021; Business Wire, “Amazon Announces New Robotics Fulfillment Center and Delivery Station in Elkhart County, Creating More Than 1,000 New, Full-Time Jobs,” businesswire.com, October 7, 2021; Construction Review Online, “Hotel Elkhart Grand Opening Celebrated in Elkhart, Indiana,” constructionreviewonline.com, October 4, 2021; Construction Review Online, “Elkhart County Logistics Facility to Bring about 1,000 jobs in Indiana,” constructionreviewonline.com, August 16, 2021; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; and RV Industry Association.

The Pandemic and Hidden Inflation

If the price of your meal is the same, but the service is slow and the menu is limited you have experienced hidden inflation.

Each month, hundreds of employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics gather data on prices of goods and services from stores in 87 cities and from websites. The BLS constructs the consumer price index (CPI) by giving each price a weight equal to the fraction of a typical family’s budget spent on that good or service. (We discuss the construction of the CPI in Chapter 9, Section 9.4 of Macroeconomics and Chapter 19, Section 19.4 of Economics.) Ideally, the BLS tracks prices of the same product over time. But sometimes a particular brand and style of shirt, for example, is discontinued. In that case, the BLS will use instead the price of a shirt that is a very close substitute.

A more difficult problem arises when the price of a good increases at the same time that the quality of the good improves. For instance, a new model iPhone may have both a higher price and a better battery than the model it replaces, so the higher price partly reflects the improvement in the quality of the phone.  The BLS has long been aware of this problem and has developed statistical techniques that attempt to identify that part of price increases that are due to increases in quality. Economists differ in their views on how successfully the BLS has dealt with this quality bias to the measured inflation rate. Because of this bias in constructing the CPI, it’s possible that the published values of inflation may overstate the actual annual rate of inflation by 0.5 percentage point. So, for instance, the BLS might report an inflation rate of 3.5 percent when the actual inflation rate—if the BLS could determine it—was 4.0 percent.

During 2021, a number of observers pointed to a hidden type of inflation occurring, particularly in some service industries. For example, because many restaurants were having difficulty hiring servers, it was often taking longer for customers to have their orders taken and to have their food brought to the table.  Because restaurants were also having difficulty hiring enough cooks, they also limited the items available on their menus. In other words, the service these restaurants were offering was not as good as it had been prior to the pandemic. So even if the restaurants kept their prices unchanged, their customers were paying the same price but receiving less. 

Alan Cole, who was formerly a senior economist with the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, noted on his blog that “goods and services are getting worse faster than the official statistics acknowledge, suggesting that our inflation problem has actually been bigger than the official statistics suggest.” As examples, he noted that “hotels clean rooms less frequently on multi-night stays,” “shipping delays are longer, and phone hold times at airlines are worse.” In a column in the New York Times, economics writer Neil Irwin made similar points: “Complaints have been frequent about the cleanliness of [restaurant] tables, floors and bathrooms.”  And: “People trying to buy appliances and other retail goods are waiting longer.”

A column in the Wall Street Journal on business travel by Scott McCartney was headlined “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast.” McCartney noted that many hotels continue to advertise free hot breakfasts on their websites and apps but have stopped providing them. He also noted that hotels “have suffered from labor shortages that have made it difficult to supply services such as daily housekeeping or loyalty-group lounges,” in addition to hot breakfasts.

The BLS makes no attempt to adjust the CPI for these types of deterioration in the quality of services because doing so would be very difficult. As Irwin notes: “Customer service preferences—particularly how much good service is worth—varies highly among individuals and is hard to quantify. How much extra would you pay for a fast-food hamburger from a restaurant that cleans its restroom more frequently than the place across the street?”

As we noted earlier, most economists believe that the failure of the BLS to fully account for improvements in the quality of goods results in changes in the CPI overstating the true inflation rate.  This bias may have been more than offset since the beginning of the pandemic by deterioration in the quality of services resulting in the CPI understating the true inflation rate. As the dislocations caused by the pandemic gradually resolve themselves, it seems likely that the deterioration in services will be reversed. But it’s possible that the deterioration in the provision of some services may persist. Fortunately, unless the deterioration increases over time, it would not continue to distort the measurement of the inflation rate because the same lower level of service would be included in every period’s prices.

Sources: Alan Cole, “How I Reluctantly Became an Inflation Crank,” fullstackeconomics.com, September 8, 2021; Scott McCartney, “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast—and Other Amenities Travelers Miss,” wsj.com, October 20, 2021; and Neil Irwin, “There Is Shadow Inflation Taking Place All Around Us,” nytimes.com, October 14, 2021.

Coming Attractions: Hubbard and O’Brien Principles of Economics Updated

It’s customary for textbook authors to note that “much has happened in the economy” since the last edition of their book appeared. To say that much has happened since we prepared our last edition in 2019 would be a major understatement. Never in the lifetimes of today’s students and instructors have events like those of 2020 and 2021 occurred. The U.S. and world economies had experienced nothing like the Covid-19 pandemic since the influenza pandemic of 1918. In the spring of 2020, the U.S. economy suffered an unprecedented decline in the supply of goods and services as a majority of businesses in the country shut down to reduce spread of the virus. Many businesses remained closed or operated at greatly reduced capacity well into 2021. Most schools, including most colleges, switched to remote learning, which disrupted the lives of many students and their parents.

During the worst of the pandemic, total spending in the economy declined as the unemployment rate soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Reduced spending and closed businesses resulted in by far the largest decline in total production in such a short period in the history of the U.S. economy. Congress, the Trump and Biden administrations, and the Federal Reserve responded with fiscal and monetary policies that were also unprecedented.

Our updated Eighth Edition covers all of these developments as well as the policy debates they initiated. As with previous editions, we rely on extensive digital resources, including: author-created application videos and audio recordings of the chapter openers and Apply the Concept features; figure animation videos; interactive real-time data graphs animations; and Solved Problem whiteboard videos.

Glenn and Tony discuss the updated edition in this video:

Sample chapters will be available by October 15.

The full Macroeconomics text will available in early to mid December.

The full Microeconomics text will be available in mid to late December.

If you would like to view the sample chapters or are considering adopting the updated Eighth Edition for the spring semester, please contact your local Pearson representative. You can use this LINK to find and contact your representative.

New 09/03/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the recent jobs report, Fed comments, and financial stability!

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the recent jobs report falling short of expectations. They also discuss the comments of Fed Chairman Powell’s comments at the Federal Reserve’s recent Jackson Hole conference. They also get to some of the recommendations of a Brookings Task Force, co-chaired by Glenn Hubbard, on ways to address financial stability. Use the links below to see more information about these timely topics:
Powell’s Jackson Hole speech: 

https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/files/powell20210827a.pdf 

The report of Glenn’s task force: 

https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/financial-stability_report.pdf 

The most recent economic forecasts of the FOMC: 

https://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/files/fomcprojtabl20210616.pdf

Menu Costs in the Digital Age

Inflation imposes a number of costs on households and firms (see our discussion in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.7 and Macroeconomics, Chapter 19, Section 19.7). Economists call the costs to firms of changing prices menu costs. For instance, when supermarkets raise prices, employees have to spend time changing the prices posted on shelves. 

When restaurants raise prices, they have to print new menus (hence the general name economists give to these costs). Particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, the trend toward having digital menus rather than paper ones increased.  But even with digital menus, a restaurant incurs some costs, as this sign in a coffee shop indicates. An employee has to update the digital menu to reflect the new prices and, in the meantime, the shop may experience friction from customers who see one price on the digital menu and are charged a higher price when they pay at the register. 

H/T Lena Buonanno

WELCOME BACK! New 08/20/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien return to discuss delta variant & inflation!

Join authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they return for a new academic year! The issues have evolved but the importance of these issues has not waned. We discuss the impact of closures related to the delta variant has on the economy. The discussion extends to the active fiscal and monetary policy that has reintroduced inflation as a topic facing our economy. Many students have little or no experience with inflation so it is a learning opportunity. Check back regularly where Glenn & Tony will continue to wrestle with these important economic concepts and relate them to the classroom!

Glenn on Keynes, Hayek, and What It Will Take to Return to Full Employment

   Glenn wrote the following opinion column for the New York Times.

How to Keep the Economy Booming — And Meet the Demand for Workers

In recent economic news, optimists and pessimists could both find evidence to support their outlooks.

The May jobs report showed a gain of 559,000 jobs in May and a decline in the unemployment rate to 5.8 percent. It also showed a marked improvement from last month’s weaker showing across a number of sectors, and average hourly earnings continued to rise. Ahead of the monthly report, the unemployment insurance weekly claims report on Thursday showed the number of new unemployment insurance claims fell from 405,000 the week before to 385,000 — lower than levels typically indicative of a recession (400,000). This is the first time this has happened since the pandemic-induced closures began. Further wage growth should help draw more workers back to the labor force.

Yet at the same time, the recent jobs report showed a big miss relative to the expected gain of 650,000 jobs. Constraints in supply chains and business reopenings still complicate the return to work. And workers still aren’t out of the woods: Thursday’s report indicated the total number of already unemployed individuals claiming benefits hasn’t dropped since mid-March. If job creation is robust, that contrast between falling new claims and those still on the jobless rolls is odd.

What explains these confounding tensions? To unpack them, consider the legacies of the economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek.

In his day, Keynes argued for boosting aggregate demand during a recession to keep workers afloat — a prescription that has clearly shaped the ultra-stimulative fiscal and monetary policies from both the Trump and the Biden administrations. His influence also resonates in the recent jobs reports: The coming rebound in the consumption of services — restaurant meals, entertainment and travel — will lift demand above its prepandemic level, and reopening and abundant consumer cash, bolstered by policy, will increase the demand for workers.

While Keynes may have lit the path to recovery after last spring’s cataclysmic job loss, he offers little to guide us through the coming labor-supply crunch. If policy actively disincentivizes the unemployed from returning to the fold, as recent reports suggest, there will be no one in place to meet the coming surge in demand, imperiling our economic rehabilitation.

To preserve the still-shaky recovery, we must now turn to Hayek, the godfather of free-market thinking. He argued that policy should allow workers to adjust to changes in the economy. Looking ahead, policymakers must consider curbing elevated unemployment benefits and a focus on old, prepandemic jobs in order to let workers and the economy adjust to new activities and new jobs that are more promising in the postpandemic world. We don’t want unemployed workers to find the postpandemic economy has passed them by.

As demand revives, supply will need to keep pace. Those in some industries, like carmakers, can simply sell off excess inventories, something that is already happening. Tool and machinery makers can increase imports to keep up. But eventually, demand must be met by higher domestic production from workers. Once businesses are freed from pandemic restrictions, we can expect to see some improvements in supply.

But holding back a faster improvement in employment and output are the very challenges Hayek identifies, including slowing down the process of matching dislocated workers to new, postpandemic jobs. That is to say, demand growth with supply constraints won’t produce the sustainable jobs recovery we need.

Many workers are taking their time to find a new job or are choosing to work less, thanks to their generous pandemic unemployment insurance benefits. These benefits provided extra income for those who lost their jobs early in the crisis. As a result, the economy’s adjustment to a postpandemic paradigm will be slow. These benefits also slow future gains in the form of higher wages workers might earn from a new and better job. But as Hayek tells us, the longer it takes for these workers to rejoin the work force, the longer it will take for them to gain these benefits.

In the coming months, we will be able to assess the potency of dealing with these forces of supply and demand by comparing employment gains in the 25 states choosing to end federal pandemic benefit supplements with the 25 states retaining them. While employment is likely to rise quickly as the pandemic fades and extra unemployment insurance benefits fall away, unemployment rates are still likely to remain high relative to prepandemic levels for another year.

If we look ahead, wage gains should be robust for those employed, particularly for lower-skilled service-sector workers — especially if some employees delay returning to work. Those higher real wages are good news for recipients.

A less welcome wild card would be inflationary pressures, fueled by demand outstripping supply. Those pressures could be a brief blip in an adjusting economy. Or they could suggest a reduction in purchasing power from higher inflation for an extended period. Higher recent inflation readings in consumer prices are a cause for concern.

Whether this happens hinges on whether the federal government and the Federal Reserve dial back their extra Keynesian demand support in time to avoid increases in expected inflation. Inflation risks robbing them of purchasing power gains from their higher wages.

The latest jobs report, then, favors a more Hayekian solution — with a nudge: Policy should support returning to work and matching workers to jobs by supporting re-employment and training for new skills, not just boosting demand. That shift offers the best chance for a sustained lift in jobs as well as demand as the pandemic recedes. In the matter Keynes v. Hayek, then: Let Hayek now prevail.

The Debate over Macro Policy

   The current debate over monetary and fiscal policy has been particularly wide-ranging, touching on many of the issues we discuss in the policy chapters of the principles textbook.

Here are links to recent contributions to the debate.

Glenn and Tony discuss fiscal policy in a podcast HERE.

And monetary policy in a podcast HERE.

We discuss the Fed’s new monetary policy strategy HERE.

We discuss the current state of the labor market HERE.

The President’s Council of Economic Advisers discusses the need for additional fiscal policy measures in this POST on their blog.

An article on politico.com summarizes the debate HERE.

Harvard economist and former Treasury secretary Larry Summers has argued that fiscal and monetary policy have been too expansionary. A recent op-ed by Summers appears in the Washington Post HERE (subscription may be required).

Jason Furman, who was chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama gives his take on the division of opinion among academic economists in this Twitter THREAD.

Glenn Is Interviewed by the Financial Times

The Financial Times recently interviewed Glenn. Here is an edited version. The full interview can be found here.

Financial Times (Gillian Tett, editor-at-large for the United States): Gross domestic product data show that the economy is rebounding very fast from the pandemic; the Federal Reserve just said that it doesn’t intend to raise rates any time soon; and President Joe Biden has pledged a massive fiscal package. So what is your forecast for the American economy?

Glenn:  Re-opening as the virus recedes would always lead to a very significant pop in GDP growth. So the near-term is not really the big question. There will certainly be a transitory increase in inflation. But I think the Fed on balance is correct, that boost is likely to be transitory. My worry is when I hear the Fed talk, as its chair Jay Powell has done, about wanting to watch for labor market “re-healing” to finish. The problem in the labor market is [largely] structural. Just running the economy hot by the Fed doesn’t fix that.

On fiscal policy, this is not just a “boost”.… The American Rescue Plan was intended as stimulus. But the American Jobs Act, the American Families Plan, those are really a remaking of the size of government. It has to be paid for and arithmetically can’t be paid for by taxes on the rich. There’s just not enough there. So the honest conversation with the American people is a matter of public choice: if you want a big government that does what President Biden wants [it to do], you’ll have to pay for it. 

GT: How confident are you that inflation pressures are transitory?

GH: One can never be completely confident, but I think if the Fed had a clearer policy story I could be confident that commodity price increases are transitory. What worries me is the Fed thinking it can lean against structural changes in the labor market with monetary policy. One might worry a bit about inflation risks in the long-term—some of the structural headwinds against inflation to do with demography and growth in the emerging world, particularly in China, are going away. 

GT: Do you think that the Fed should be indicating that it’s willing to raise rates if inflation rises?

GH: I think the Fed is unlikely to do that. [But] one of the reasons you are seeing implied volatility in rates and credit markets so high relative to equities, is the fear in the bond market that, maybe, the Fed is saying one thing but if backed into the corner could do another. Remember that the Fed bought around half of Treasury issues last year, and owns 40 per cent of all of the outstanding 10-year plus maturity treasuries, so the Fed’s thoughts there, which aren’t really clear to the bond market, are very, very important. 

GT: Larry Summers has said this is way too much [stimulus], way too fast and will create inflation risks. You and Larry don’t often agree, but would you agree on this? 

GH: I would agree on the risk, but it’s [not] the problem that is worrying me the most. What worries me even more is [in trying to] create a government that large . . .  if you want a government that does those things, tax burdens will have to be higher.

If you look at the math on the tax burden, the [proposed] corporate tax increase or capital gains tax increase are not remotely large enough. The other structural thing that worries me is that I do see productivity reductions and investment reductions as a result of these large tax increases. 

GT: Biden said if you are earning less than $400,000 a year you will not see your taxes go up. 

GH: Well, it’s just not true, [neither] in the near-term [nor] the long-term. Take the corporate tax. Many economists have concluded that much of the burden of the corporate tax is borne by workers. In the 1970s and early 1980s, we thought it was capital that bore the burden of the corporate taxes. [But] that is not what economists believe today. So you simply cannot say that people who make less than $400,000 aren’t going to bear a part of the burden of the tax. 

Likewise with capital gains, the president says: “I’m only going after 0.3 per cent of taxpayers,” meaning [those] that make more than a million dollars a year and have capital gains. But those individuals don’t have 0.3 per cent of the capital gains—they likely have the bulk of them. So if there are any effects on risk-taking, on saving and investment, the [risks] are very large.

Those effects are borne by the economy, not by the top 0.3 per cent …. And in the longer term … if you look at the budget math here, there’s going to be a large revenue hole. Somebody has to pay for it. 

GT: Well, what about that “somebody” being companies? 

GH: Let’s put the tax changes into two buckets. On the rates, I don’t think we want to go as high as the president is proposing, certainly not back to the old rates. On the base, president Biden is proposing a tax increase by base broadening—it’s a very, very big change. I expect companies will acknowledge they need to pay some minimum level, but the math isn’t going to add up.

GT: What about taxes under the guise of climate change action, such as a fuel tax or value added tax?

GH: I think it’s a great idea. For years I have supported a carbon tax because I do believe that it is one of the best ways to deal with climate change. I’m very skeptical of subsidies in green things but if you put a price on carbon, businesspeople will rush around and innovate and do it efficiently and it does not have to be regressive .…

About [a value-added tax] VAT—there is no question that if we want the government President Biden is suggesting, you absolutely have to have a VAT.

European states that have much bigger [state sectors] than the American state as a share of GDP are not financed with taxes on capital. In fact, in many European countries capital taxes are lower than they are in the United States. They’re financed by consumption taxes [such as the VAT]. 

GT: Why do you think Biden’s package is undermining productivity? 

GH: Let me just take one step back. Some discussions of secular stagnation come from insufficient aggregate demand. Another school of thought thinks that structurally we have a problem with productivity growth, in terms of the supply side of the economy and the economy’s potential to grow. That is where I’m coming from. The tax plans are definitely anti-investment, as the lack of capital deepening explains low productivity growth and capital gains tax increases can affect risk-taking. There’s certainly nothing to enhance productivity [in Biden’s plans] and a lot to discourage productivity. 

It is not just the tax policy. I worry about a monetary policy that could lead to zombification of firms—an environment of very low interest rates that sustain low-productivity firms. To President Biden’s credit, pieces of what he’s proposing that are true infrastructure could, in fact, raise productivity, but that is a small part of what he’s actually calling infrastructure. 

GT: Are you concerned about a future debt crisis?

GH: Well, we are the reserve currency country, and we are borrowing in our currency, so I think a slow and steady malaise is more likely. To give a practical example, the Medicare trust fund could run out of money within a year or so, social security within five or so years. That will force discussions in Washington as to whether the public may wish to have a government this size. 

GT: So you don’t expect a debt crisis per se because of the reserve currency status?

GH: [Not] at the moment.

GT: Should Republicans be co-operating to create a bipartisan bill? 

GH: You could get bipartisan support for a new “GI bill” to prepare workers to adjust from the Covid world. For example, support in community colleges.

I’m not talking about free community college but supply side support—increasing their capacity to train people. Where you won’t get bipartisan support is [for] the notion that we need to move away from a work-supported social insurance system to a broader cradle-to-grave safety net.

The administration really fuzzed that up by calling it an infrastructure bill. Infrastructure doesn’t have to be just roads and bridges and airports—it could be broadband. But not healthcare. 

GT: Are childcare support and elderly support part of “infrastructure”?

GH: No—those are social spending. 

GT: One of the interesting ways you frame this debate is with the contrast between Keynes and Hayek, i.e. whether you’re trying to prop up the current system or encourage more rapid transformation. What do you mean?

GH: You could think of Covid [in terms of] a Keynesian response — we have a collapse in demand. The Keynesian response is not fanciful. But Hayek would say the new world after Covid isn’t going to look like the old world, so why support every single business? Both are right. We did a good job in policy on the Keynesian part. [But] we’ve done less well [thinking about Hayek]. 

GT: What do you think about Larry Summer’s concept of secular stagnation? 

GH: There’s a scene in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge asks, [something like] “are these the shadows of things that are or might be?”. I feel the same way about Bob Gordon’s descriptions of the American economy — Larry and Bob are talking about the shadows of things that could be if we have bad enough public policy, going back to the anti-productivity story. But I don’t think they’re inevitable. 

Every businessperson with whom I speak is pretty optimistic about the technology frontier in productivity. If there’s a reason for pessimism, it’s more about the political system’s ability and willingness to let that productivity growth [run free].

GT: Do you think that the Republican party knows what it stands for with economics?

GH: … [An] approach Republicans could take is to go past the neoliberalism to liberalism (with a small L), to Adam Smith. He was anti-mercantilist—that’s what got him angry in The Wealth of Nations—and he was very interested in the ability of everybody in the economy to compete.

So a new Republican agenda might do more to help people compete—that sounds more like Lincoln, or like Roosevelt’s GI bill. In that lies a new agenda. But I don’t see the party really moving in that direction. 

GT: What about the second book of Smith’s, The Theory of Moral Sentiments?

GH: Smith referred to “mutual sympathy”, which today we would call empathy. Forward-leaning businesspeople and business leaders think that way. I don’t see [the environmental, social, and governance] ESG [approach to investing] as somehow an enemy of shareholders—this isn’t Milton Friedman versus socialism—it’s more a matter of what really is in the long-term interest of the firm.

Remember, Smith railed against the British East India Company, which he thought of as a cancer. He thought you had to be very careful in the social framing of corporations. Businesspeople today need to understand the corporate structure is a social gift. In fact, capitalism is a social gift. If the public doesn’t want it, it won’t happen. 

GT: I have a book coming out in a few weeks’ time that stresses this social and cultural aspect of business and finance and economics, and argues that business leaders need to move beyond tunnel vision to use lateral vision. Do you agree with this? 

GH: Yes. When I teach students political economy, I remind them that great thinkers like a Friedman or Hayek or Smith wrote [for] the times in which they lived. Friedman and Hayek were writing in response to a very slovenly and inefficient corporatist economic system and were horrified by fascism. If Ronald Reagan were with us today, I don’t think he would be the 1980s Ronald Reagan. If Friedman and Hayek were with us today, they might have a different view. Context shifts.

GT: Friedman was also operating when people assumed that they could outsource the difficult social decisions to government and when there wasn’t radical transparency and customers, clients and employees couldn’t see exactly what firms were doing. Does that matter?

GH: Yes. If Friedman were here he might correctly remind us that there are big social externalities no one company can fix. But there is no reason businesspeople can’t be leaders. When the Marshall Plan was passed, that was not because Congress in its great wisdom decided to do something. It was because the business community came together and said: “Good Lord, we are going to have communism in western Europe and what’s that going to do to our economic system?” They pushed Congress. I understand that [today business is] afraid. But it’s not an excuse not to act. At many companies, their own employees are going to put pressure [on them to act]. 

GT: You are starting to see a level of company collaboration which was unimaginable when we had Thatcherism and Reaganism. Will this last? 

GH: I do [think so] and Hayek would have celebrated this co-ordinated response because it bubbled up from the bottom. If you compare the production of vaccines, which was largely a private-sector activity, to the distribution of vaccines, which was more a public-sector activity, I think we know which one seemed to work better.

There are things that could help that—imagine if Biden put applied research centers all around the country that were linked with universities. That might help companies fix localities, as well as solving big problems like vaccines. 

GT: Are you concerned that we have an ESG bubble?

GH: I am, in several aspects. We are running the risk of industrial policy and rent seeking, with just subsidizing “green things.” I also worry about how CEOs can deal with this—you don’t want the CEO spending half of his or her day responding to social concerns.

GT: What about protectionism? Can the Republicans present an alternative voice on this? 

GH: I hope so, but I’m not sure. Like almost all economists … I believe in free trade. So why is something that is obvious in Econ 101 not so popular with the public?

I think for two reasons. One is whenever your Econ 101 professor talked about the gains from trade, he or she always [had] the idea that there would be losers, but compensation would somehow occur—and it hasn’t.

[Second] free trade is one of those examples, like the old classical gold standard, of a system that’s outside-in. You have to sign up for the rules of the game and then you just adjust. I think we need to go back to a period that says, look, we do need to understand domestic constituencies. That could mean much more support for training, it could be wage insurance, it could be lots of things rather than just saying free trade. 

GT: So it’s about trying to talk about free trade with both parts of Adam Smith. 

GH: Yes, exactly. Even Smith, who was the champion for openness, would not have countenanced whole areas just being left behind. Smith talked a lot about places—he said something like a man is a sort of luggage that’s hard to move, meaning you really have to look after places, not just jobs . . . its culture. 

GT: Hey, anthropology can mingle with economics! 

GH: Exactly—two social sciences, peas in a pod. 

GT: So what’s happening to the economics profession? With issues like [the debate around Larry Summers’ criticism of Biden’s policies] are we seeing a tribal warfare break out between economists? Is there a rethink of economics? Is Biden moving away from them?

GH: Well, let me start with some good news: the young stars in the [economics] profession today tend to be people who are talking about big problems with new tools and techniques, ranging from development to monetary policy to labor markets. I think that’s entirely healthy. 

I think the government needs people who have big macro views [too]. If I were in Janet Yellen’s shoes, I’d want to be talking to economists who could continue to give me that perspective, but also get micro perspectives from labor and financial markets. So there needn’t be a war. [But] I do worry from the way the Biden administration is talking about policies that economists just aren’t very involved at all. That’s not the first administration I’ve seen that happen—but it is a concern for the economics profession. 

Is the Natural Rate of Unemployment the Best Guide to Monetary Policy? The Fed’s New Monetary Policy Strategy

In response to the 2007-2009 financial crisis, in December 2008, the Federal Open Market Committee effectively cut its target for the federal funds to zero where it remained during the first six years of the recovery. In December 2015, Fed Chair Janet Yellen and the FOMC began the process of normalizing monetary policy by raising the target for the federal funds rate to 0.25 to 0.50 percent.

The FOMC raised the target several more times during the following years (Jerome Powell succeeded Janet Yellen as Fed Chair in February 2018) until it reached 2.25 to 2.50 percent in December 2018. In Chapter 27 of the textbook we discuss the fact that the experience of the Great Inlfation that had lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1980s had convinced many economists inside and outside of the Fed that if the unemployment rate declined below the natural rate of unemployment (also referred to as the nonaccelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU), the inflation rate was likely to accelerate unless the FOMC increased its target for the federal funds rate. The actions the FOMC took starting in December 2015 were consistent with this view.

At the December 2015 meeting, the FOMC members gave their estimates of several key economic variables, including the natural rate of unemployment. At the time of the meeting, the unemployment rate was 5.0 percent. The average of the FOMC members’ estimates of the natural rate of unemployment was 4.9 percent. The inflation rate in December 2015 was 1.2 percent—well below the Fed’s target inflation rate of 2 percent. Although it might seem that with such a low inflation rate, the FOMC should not have been increasing the federal funds rate target, doing so was consistent with one of the lessons from the Great Inflation: Because monetary policy affects the economy with a lag, it’s important for the Fed to react before inflation begins to increase and a higher inflation rate becomes embedded in the economy. With many FOMC members believing that the NAIRU had been reached in December 2015, raising the federal funds rate from effectively zero seemed like an appropriate policy.

At least until the end of 2018, some members of the FOMC indicated publicly that they still believed that the Fed should pay close attention to the relationship between the natural rate of unemployment and the actual rate of unemployment. For example, in a speech delivered in December 2018, Raphael Bostic, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, who was serving that year on the FOMC, made the following points:

“[P]eriods of time when the actual unemployment rate fell below what the U.S. Congressional Budget Office now estimates as the so-called natural rate of unemployment … I refer to … as “high-pressure” periods. … Dating back to 1960, every high-pressure period ended in a recession. And all but one recession was preceded by a high-pressure period….

One potential consequence of overheating is that inflationary pressures inevitably build up, leading the central bank to take a much more “muscular” stance of policy at the end of these high-pressure periods to combat rising nominal pressures. Economic weakness follows. You might argue that the simple answer is to not respond so aggressively to building signs of inflation, but that would entail risks that few responsible central bankers would accept. It is true that the Fed and most other advanced-economy central banks have the luxury of solid credibility for achieving and maintaining their price stability goals. But we shouldn’t forget that such credibility was hard won. Inflation expectations are reasonably stable for now, but we know little about how far the scales can tip before it is no longer so.”

Bostic also noted in the speech that “it is very difficult to determine when the economy is actually overheating.” One indication of that difficulty is given by the following table, which shows how the average estimate by FOMC members of the natural rate of unemployment declined each year during the period in which they were raising the target for the federal funds rate. 

December 20154.9%
December 20164.8%
December 20174.7%
December 20184.4%
December 20194.1%
Federal Open Market Committee Forecasts of the Natural Rate of Unemployment, 2015-2019

As we discuss in Chapter 19, Section 19.1 of the textbook, because of problems in measuring the actual unemployment rate and in estimating the natural rate of unemployment, some economists inside and outside of the Fed have argued that the employment-population ratio for prime age workers is a better measure of the state of the labor market.  The following shows movements in the employment-population ratio for workers aged 25 to 54 between January 2000, when the ratio was near its post-World War II high, and February 2021. 

Employment-Population Ratio for Worker Aged 25 to 54, 2000-2021

The figure shows that in December 2015, when the Fed began to raise its target for the federal funds rate and when the average estimate of the FOMC members indicated that unemployment was at its natural rate, the employment-population rate was still 4.5 percentage points below its level of early 2000. The FOMC members do not report individual forecasts of the employment-population ratio. If they had focused on that measure rather than on the unemployment rate, they may have concluded that there was more slack in the labor market and, therefore, have been less concerned that inflation might be about to significantly increase.

In 2019, the Fed began to cut its target for the federal funds rate as the growth of real GDP slowed. In March 2020, following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Fed cut the target back to 0 to 0.25 percent. During that time, some members of the FOMC and some economists outside of the Fed concluded that the Fed may have made a mistake by raising the target for the federal funds rate multiple times between 2015 and 2018. For example, Bostic in a speech in November 2020, noted that “the actual unemployment rate exceeded estimates of the NAIRU by an average of 0.8 percentage points each year” between 1979 and 2019. He concluded that “If estimates of the NAIRU are actually too conservative, as many would argue they have been …unemployment could have averaged one to two percentage points lower” between 1979 and 2019, which he argues would have been a particular benefit to black workers. In a speech in September 2020, Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors, noted that the Fed’s previous approach of making policy less expansionary “when the unemployment rate nears the [natural] rate in anticipation of high inflation that is unlikely to materialize risks an unwanted loss of opportunity for many Americans.”  

in August 2020, the Fed announced the results of a review of its monetary policy. In a speech that accompanied the statement Fed Chair Jerome Powell noted that in attempting to achieve its mandate of high employment, the Fed faces the difficulty that “the maximum level of employment is not directly measurable and changes over time for reasons unrelated to monetary policy. The significant shifts in estimates of the natural rate of unemployment over the past decade reinforce this point.” Powell noted that the in the Fed’s new monetary policy statement, policy will depend on the FOMC’s: “’assessments of the shortfalls of employment from its maximum level’ rather than by ‘deviations from its maximum level’ as in our previous statement. This change may appear subtle, but it reflects our view that a robust job market can be sustained without causing an outbreak of inflation.” 

At this point, the details of how the Fed’s new monetary policy strategy will be implemented are still uncertain. But it seems clear that the Fed has ended its approach dating back to the early 1980s of raising its target for the federal funds rate when the unemployment rate declined to or below the FOMC’s estimate of the natural rate of unemployment. Particularly after Congress and the Biden administration passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March 2021, some economists wondered whether the Fed’s new strategy might make it harder to counter an increase in inflation without pushing the U.S. economy into a recession. For instance, Olivier Blanchard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics argued that the combination of very expansionary fiscal and monetary policies might lead to a situation similar to the late 1960s:

“From 1961 to 1967, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations ran the economy above potential [GDP], leading to a steady decrease in the unemployment rate down to less than 4 percent. Inflation increased but not very much, from 1 percent to just below 3 percent, suggesting to many a permanent trade-off between inflation and unemployment. In 1967, however, inflation expectations started adjusting, and by 1969, inflation had increased to close to 6 percent and was then seen as a major issue. Fiscal and monetary policies tightened, leading to a recession from the end of 1969 to the end of 1970.”

Fed Chair Jerome Powell seems confident, however, that any increase in inflation will only be temporary. In testifying before Congress, he stated that: “We might see some upward pressure on prices [as a result of expansionary monetary and fiscal policy]. Our best view is that the effect on inflation will be neither particularly large nor persistent.” 

Time will tell which side in what one economic columnist called the Great Overheating Debate of 2021 will turn out to be correct.

Sources: Neil Irwin, “If the Economy Overheats, How Will We Know?” New York Times, March 24, 2012; Olivier Blanchard, “In Defense of Concerns over the $1.9 Trillion Relief Plan,”  piie.com, February 18, 2021; Paul Kiernan and Kate Davidson, “Powell Says Stimulus Package Isn’t Likely to Fuel Unwelcome Inflation,” Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2021; Federal Open Market Committee, “Minutes,” various dates; Lael Brainard, “Bringing the Statement on Longer-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy into Alignment with Longer-Run Changes in the Economy,” September 1, 2020; Raphael Bostic, “Views on the Economic and Policy Outlook,”  December 6, 2018; Raphael Bostic, “Racism and the Economy: Focus on Employment,” November 17, 2020; Jerome Powell, “New Economic Challenges and the Fed’s Monetary Policy Review,” August 27, 2020; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.