Way back during the post-World War II era, the economy was booming. Unemployment was very low, productivity was up, and workers’ wages were growing steadily in real terms—that is, even after adjusting for inflation. Along with the cost-of-living adjustments written into many job contracts, that meant wage-price inflationary spirals were always on the horizon. As a result, for about thirty years, from the mid-1940s through the ’70s, the main problem for economic policymakers was not growth or unemployment, it was simply keeping inflation in check. Since it’s very hard to cut wages, the Fed did that by repeatedly inducing small recessions. The idea was to create enough unemployment to slow both aggregate wage growth and the ensuing spending. Despite the often-uncomfortable abruptness with which the economy bounced from recession to rapid growth, this was still the greatest economic boom in American history.
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The third policy option is known as nominal gross domestic product targeting, the major proponent of which is the economist Scott Sumner. The idea is all about self-fulfilling expectations. Recall that the central bank owns the printing press, so it can create arbitrary quantities of dollars. By making a pre-commitment to keep the economy on a particular spending trajectory, self-fulfilling collapses in spending would not happen. Something similar to this policy seems to have kept Australia and Israel out of the Great Recession. But in order to sustain such a policy, the Fed might have to intervene in the economy quite frequently, and then the distributional consequences could be serious. Quantitative easing, for example, helps push up asset prices (the stock market has regained all the ground lost since 2009 and then some), which disproportionately benefits the wealthy. Free Money Machine
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