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My Question for Simon Johnson

October 24, 2013 in Economics

By Peter G. Klein

As Bob Higgs has tirelessly reminded us, regime uncertainty — doubt about the security of person and property — retards investment and delays recovery from economic downturns. FDR’s constantly changing economic policies help explain why it took the US so long to recover from the Great Depression, and the inconsistent bailout, subsidy, and regulatory regimes of the Bush and Obama Administrations continue to harm the economy today.

Bob points out that that regime uncertainty is distinct from “policy uncertainty,” as that term is typically used today to describe changes in fiscal or monetary policy within a particular legal regime. This kind of policy uncertainty is getting increasing attention in the mainstream press — not in reference to things like Obamacare, but to proposed reductions in government borrowing and spending. For example, Simon Johnson, the IMF’s former chief economist, writes in today’s New York Times that Congressional debates about the non-shutdown and raising the debt ceiling have created uncertainty that is damaging the economy. “If people really believe that the government could default on its debts or otherwise not make payments to which it is committed, that introduces a huge element of uncertainty into many economic calculations. When you are less certain about what is going to happen tomorrow, you tend to postpone big irreversible decisions – like buying a new car or building a factory.”

Here’s my question for Johnson: Imagine a set of government policies deeply harmful to the economy — in this case, the continued monetary and fiscal stimulus from the Fed and Treasury that is perpetuating the malinvestment responsible for the recession. Which is worse, a belief that these bad policies will continue ad infinitum, giving people incentives to make bad economic decisions, or uncertainty about whether the bad policies will remain in place, possibly discouraging people from making the bad decisions?

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