The Evolution of Larry Summers

November 14, 2011 – Munk Debate: “Be it resolved North America faces a Japan-style era of economic stagnation.”

Paul Krugman and David Rosenberg vs. Larry Summers and Ian Bremmer.

Larry Summers:

Paul, I would buy, not sell. You’re right that we will suffer needless unemployment and stagnation until more is done to address [our] demand deficiency [...] My thesis is that as serious as [our] problem is, it is dimensionally much less than the problems that Japan faced in four respects. Japan’s problems were different in magnitude, different in the depth of their structural roots, different in the relative perspective they had [...] and different in the degree of resilience their system had for adapting to them [...]

Paul, you forecast in 1994 [...] that Japanese potential GDP growth would be 3% or a bit more. By that standard, Japan is now producing half of the potential output that people were forecasting when its lost decade began. That’s a problem of a different magnitude than a U.S. gap, serious though it is, at 6 or 7%.

There is little wonder that Japan’s slow-down is so profound given the magnitude of the structural problems that hold Japan back: the most rapidly aging society in the industrialized world resulting in slow labour-force growth; epic insularity and inability to accept immigration; in the face of distress a massive retrenchment by its companies to their home markets; an utter lack of capacity for entrepreneurial innovation in the era of the social network. The United States remains, witness my colleague here, the only country in the world where you can raise your first 100 million dollars before you buy your first suit and tie.

Let’s look at relative perspective. When Japan went wrong in the 1990s, the world was working. The United States was flourishing and growing. [...] The United States’ problems are the problems of every industrial democracy. And the U.S. share of the industrial world is steadily increasing.

[I]f you look at what passes for governance in Europe in recent years, I would suggest that our problems do not loom large relative to either the economics or to the politics in the rest of the world. We remain totally unlike Japan. We remain the place where everyone in the world wants to come and the place where everyone in the world wants to put their money.

Finally, we are a uniquely resilient society and we have seen this before. John Kennedy died believing that Russia would surpass the United States by the early 1980s. Every issue of the Harvard Business Review in 1991 proclaimed that the Cold War was over and that Japan and Germany had won, and that was before the best decade in U.S. economic history.

It will take time. There are steps that need to be taken but we are a society that works. We are a society whose principle problems — we all up here agree — can be addressed by a change in the printing of money and the creation of infrastructure. That is not the kind of fundamental problem Japan has. 

February 11, 2013 – World Economic Forum: “The Future of the American Public Sector”

Larry Summers in conversation with Chrystia Freeland:

Chrystia Freeland: [Tell us about the United States]

Larry Summers: Look I think people have counted the US out before. John Kennedy died believing that the Soviet Union would surpass the US by 1995. […] People make that mistake now with respect to our economy and with respect to our politics. I think if we seize the moment we have huge and unique opportunity in the world. This is a moment for broad renewal that corrects all the deficits we have […]

If we can in our public life, corporate life, and individual life turn our attention more to the future away from the present, this can be a profoundly important moment for the US.

CF: [Are you moving into the PK Camp?]

LS: I don’t know if I’m going to do camps. In 1993, here’s what the situation was. Capital costs were really high. The trade deficit was really big. And if you looked at a graph average wages and productivity of American workers, those two graphs laid on top of each other. Reducing capital costs and raising productivity growth was the right strategy. That was what Bob Rubin told Bill Clinton. That’s what Bill Clinton did. They were right. Today the long-term interest rate is negligible. The constraint is lack of demand. Productivity has vastly outstripped wage growth. And the syllogism reduce the deficit and you’ll get more wages does not work the same way. But, if you don’t get the deficit under control you will eventually get a macroeconomic catastrophe. […]

CF: Following on from your focus on growth, there is an argument that I hear more and more people taking seriously advanced maybe most boldly by Tyler Cowen that growth maybe innovation and productivity growth is over. The low hanging fruit has been picked and we’re in a stagnant period. Do you buy any of it?

LS. Not a bit of it. Everyone in this room here was required to turn off their device in this room a couple of minutes ago. The device you were required to turn off had more power than the Apollo project, it has better access to information than the Library of Congress and in terms of reaching people around the planet, you would trade JFK’s communication system for your iPhone. And in 5 years from now 5 billion people will have it. So I don’t know how anyone can say we are making fundamental progress.

The prophets of doom cannot have it both way. You cannot both say that the [robots are taking your jobs] and say nothing is happening that’s important for productivity growth. And in between those two if you want to have a dystopian idea, I think the must more fundamental idea is what technology is doing for the middle-skilled.

[Talk about inequality].

I think that is a much more serious problem than the idea that somehow there is nothing new. One other thing, I see my friend Francis Collins sitting here and he knows infinitely more about this than I do. But perhaps the wisest aphorisms I learned in grad school was [Rudi] who told us that things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you think they could. It was famously observed that the computers were everywhere but the productivity statistics. And then you saw what happened. [I think the same thing will happen with genomics].

Larry Summers believes deficits pose an important problem and hence negative interest rates are not yet on his radar. Larry Summers refuses to accept Paul Krugman’s comparison of the United States to Japan. Also, an odd choice of boots.

November 8, 2013 – The International Monetary Fund:

Larry Summers:

There is I think another aspect of the situation that I think warrants our close attention that receives insufficient attention. The share of men, women, and adults that are working today is essentially the same as four years ago. Four years ago the financial panic had been arrested. TARP money had been paid back. Credit spreads had normalized. There was no panic in the air. That was a great achievement. But in those four years the share of adults who were working has not improved at all. GDP has fallen further behind potential as we would have defined it in the fall of 2009. The American experience in this regard and this experience is not unique as RR has documented in the wake of a financial crisis. Japan’s real GDP today is about half of what we [the Washington Consensus] believed it would be. It is a central pillar of both classical and Keynesian models that it is all about fluctuations and what you need is less volatility. I wonder if a set of older ideas (that I have to say were pretty firmly rejected in [Stan's class]) that went under the phrase secular stagnation that are now profoundly important in understanding Japan and may be relevant to the United States today. [...]

If you go back and you study the economy prior to the crisis. There’s something a little bit odd. Many people believe monetary policy was too easy. Everybody agrees there was a vast amount of imprudent lending going on. Almost everyone agrees wealth as it was experienced by households was in excess of its reality. Too easy money, too much borrowing, too much wealth. Was there a boom? Growth was not high, unemployment was not too low, and inflation was quiescent. Somehow even a great bubble was not enough to create an excess in aggregate demand. Now think about after the crisis.

[Insert Larry Summers analogy of choice]

You’d imagine that once things normalize you’d get more GDP than you would have had. Not that four years later you’d still be having substantially less. So there’s something odd about financial normalization if that was what the whole problem was and then continued slow growth. So what’s an explanation that would fit both of these observations? Suppose that the short term real interest rate that was consistent with full employment had fallen to negative 2 or negative 3 percent sometime in the middle of the last decade. Then what would happen? Even with artificial stimulus to demand coming from all this financial imprudence, you would not see any excess demand. And even with a relative resumption of normal credit conditions, you’d have a lot of difficulty getting back to full employment. Yes, it has been demonstrated that panics are terrible and that monetary policy can contain them when the interest rate is zero. It has been demonstrated less conclusively but presumptively that when short term interest rates are zero monetary policy can affect other asset prices to plausibly impact demand. But imagine a situation where natural and equilibrium interest rates have fallen significantly below zero. Then conventional macroeconomic thinking leaves us in a very serious problem because we all seem to agree that whereas you can keep the FFR in a low rate forever, it is very hard to do extraordinary measures for ever beyond that. [...] This may all be madness and I may not have this right at all, but it does seem to me four years after the successful combating of crisis with no evidence of growth that is restoring equilibrium one has to be concerned about a policy agenda that is doing less with monetary policy than has been done before that is doing less with fiscal policy than has been done before and is taking steps whose basic purpose is for there to be less lending, borrowing than before. So my lesson from this crisis which the world has under internalized is that it is not over until it is over and that is not right now and cannot be judged relative to the extent of financial panic. And, we may well need in the years ahead to think about how we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity holding our economies back holding us back from our potential.

About face.

Note, I am not accusing Summers of hypocrisy in this case. Too few intellectuals – especially those of this prestige – change their mind. I’d be thrilled to hear Summers detail the revision of his priors. That is always an interesting process. I will add it does not seem to me – at least within the intellectual confines of a twenty minute video for Davos – that Summers really gets Tyler Cowen’s argument right. It is very easy to “have it both ways”, as Summers puts it. In fact, his latest at the IMF is provides precisely this reconciliation. Certainly Summers does not now believe that the iPhone will not reach the masses of Africa, that genomics will stop in its tracks, or that 3D printing will fail (any more than it would have in January of this year, at least). But suddenly that does not matter. In fact, that is precisely why this is interesting – everything Summers said in 2011 holds true and could still be argued today. It seems, given that the facts have not changed, that Summers is interpreting them through a different model.

There is also the possibility that Larry Summers judged that the audience at the Fourteenth Jacques Polak Annual Research Conference at the International Monetary Fund in honor of Stan Fischer is a lot, lot more sophisticated than jet setters at the Munk Debate or Davos.

Count me as eager to see whether Summers as successfully sheds his Keynesian-Classical (deficits matter in the long run) worldview as Paul Krugman. So long as the growth rate is above the interest rate, and he sure seems to think that will be the case, he cannot be saying something like:

But, if you don’t get the deficit under control you will eventually get a macroeconomic catastrophe.

It is not that his underlying model of the world is wrong. Just that the parameters that were always true, that no one really thought about, don’t matter anymore.

This deserves a post on its own, but there seem to be a few schools of thought on stagnation:

  • Cyclical demand shortfall (Larry Summers, Munk + Davos).
  • Secular demand shortfall (Larry Summers today, Paul Krugman).
  • Innovative constraints (Michael Mandel).
  • Other structural factors. Or an amalgam of the above. Or something else. (Tyler Cowen).

First of all, talking about “low demand” without reference to a given level of supply is stupid. Aggregate demand in Eurozone is really low right now. But if South India + Maharashtra (approximately the same population) had the same level of demand relative to their supply India would be, well, indescribable. I make this explicit because it is very important to distinguish between “demand” in Summers’ first two videos to that in his last. In the former two he is extolling America’s supply-side potentials. It is unclear to me the way he models supply with his new interpretation of the world. I am looking forward to reading many more posts on this hypothesis.

By the way, this is something I’ve been saying for a few months now, but most clearly detail in a post a few days before the conference:

I am glad others are thinking along the same lines. Hopefully central bankers consider a higher inflation target seriously.

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4 comments
  1. Can you “have it both ways”? I think that depends on what the “both ways” are that you want to have it. Theoretically you could have technology that both advances more slowly and shifts toward a structure that increasingly favors capital over labor. But I don’t think that’s what Larry is suggesting (and it doesn’t seem very plausible to me empirically). In fact, if you listen to his answer to Jeff Frankel’s question, I think Larry is suggesting something like the opposite: a technology that advances quickly but in such a way as to keep the equilibrium marginal product of capital low. That is, the technology for producing capital goods has advanced so quickly, and capital goods have become so plentiful that it is now difficult, on the margin, to find productive uses for them. So he has it both ways, but the both ways are the opposite of the both ways that he previously accused the stagnationists of wanting to have it. His argument is that rapid advancement can result in weak demand in general (which would include absolutely weak demand for labor), not that retarded advancement could coincide with relatively weak demand for labor.

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