Published for www.johnbtaylorsblog.blogspot.com, July 31st, 2012
We can still learn much from Milton Friedman, who was born 100 years ago today. Here I focus on his role in the macroeconomic debates of the 1960s and 1970s, because they are so similar to the debates raging again today.
Friedman, Samuelson, and Rules Versus Discretion
First, go back to the early 1960s. The Keynesian school was coming to Washington led more than anyone else by Paul Samuelson who advised John F. Kennedy during the 1960 election campaign and recruited people like Walter Heller and James Tobin to serve on Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers. In fact, the Keynesian approach to macro policy received its official Washington introduction when Heller, Tobin, and their colleagues wrote the Kennedy Administration’s first Economic Report of the President, published in 1962.
The Report made an explicit case for discretion rather than rules: “Discretionary budget policy, e.g. changes in tax rates or expenditure programs, is indispensable…. In order to promote economic stability, the government should be able to change quickly tax rates or expenditure programs, and equally able to reverse its actions as circumstances change.” As for monetary policy a “discretionary policy is essential, sometimes to reinforce, sometimes to mitigate or overcome, the monetary consequences of short-run fluctuations of economic activity.”
In that same year Milton Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom (1962) giving the competing view on role of government which he then continued to espouse through the 1960s and beyond. He argued that “the available evidence . . . casts grave doubt on the possibility of producing any fine adjustments in economic activity by fine adjustments in monetary policy—at least in the present state of knowledge . . . There are thus serious limitations to the possibility of a discretionary monetary policy and much danger that such a policy may make matters worse rather than better . . . The basic difficulties and limitations of monetary policy apply with equal force to fiscal policy . . . Political pressures to ‘do something’ . . . are clearly very strong indeed in the existing state of public attitudes. The main moral to be had from these two preceding points is that yielding to these pressures may frequently do more harm than good. There is a saying that the best is often the enemy of the good, which seems highly relevant . . . The attempt to do more than we can will itself be a disturbance that may increase rather than reduce instability.”