Yes, There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch


Economists like to say there’s no such thing as a free lunch – this was even the title of a 1975 book by Milton Friedman. But sometimes there is a free lunch – in a vitally important sense – and now is one of those times for a lot of countries suffering from unnecessary unemployment and in some cases, recession.

Adam Posen doesn’t want to recognize that this is the case for Japan at present.  Posen is president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which is probably Washington’s most influential think tank on international economics.  Posen is not an “austerian” economist – in the second half of the 1990s he supported expansionary fiscal policy in Japan; and more recently, as a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee from 2009-2012, he supported expansionary monetary policy, including quantitative easing and very low interest rates.

So it is worth looking at his argument, because it may help us understand how the mainstream of the economics profession can sometimes be an obstacle to global economic recovery, as well as to important social goals such as reducing unemployment and poverty.

The Japanese government of Shinzo Abe recently announced a large stimulus program; the exact size is not clear but the government is seeking to boost GDP growth by 2 percentage points.  That would seem to be a good idea, since the Japanese economy is currently in recession, and the world economy to which it exports is not doing so well either.  Japanese inflation is currently negative, which means that the government can create money to pay for the stimulus without having to worry about increasing inflation.  In fact, deflation is the much greater worry, and the government wants the central bank to target a 2 percent inflation rate. (Deflation tends to discourage consumption, because purchases will be cheaper in the future; and investment, because investors are looking at shaky demand in the future, especially with the economy already in recession).

This is what I mean by a free lunch.  In fact, it’s a free lunch and a five-course dinner plus dessert.  It costs the central bank nothing to create this money for the government to spend; and any resulting increase in inflation actually helps get the Japanese economy out of its slump.  It also means that the government doesn’t have to add anything to its net debt – so, no increase in the public debt burden for the future.

But Posen argues that it’s an idea whose time has past.  Here is the crux of his argument:

Stuffing bank balance sheets with JGBs [Japanese government bonds] has constrained commercial lending by those banks – even during the recovery of 2003-08 – which harmed small and new business development. The persistently low returns on Japanese savings have further squandered investment opportunities, thereby creating a negative feedback loop with deflation and older savers’ risk aversion. The absence of external pressure has fed the combined long-term appreciation of the yen and stagnation of Japanese stock market returns, both severely distorting the economy. Needed public investment and funds for adequate healthcare and disaster recovery have been crowded out by debt payments …

I find it difficult to believe that Japanese government debt payments are crowding out public spending, much less private investment.  Net interest payments on Japan’s public debt are less than 1 percent of GDP. (This is also true for the U.S., incidentally, for those who have debt-phobia here.) This is quite small. I am also skeptical about the other problems that he attributes to Japan’s debt accumulation, such as the long-term appreciation of the yen and low stock market returns.  These have multiple causes, as does the amount of commercial lending by banks – which is more likely to be constrained by a weak economy than by government spending.

In any case, it’s difficult to see how a new stimulus program, financed by money creation, would worsen any of these problems – even if the potential for such an effect were possible — since it doesn’t add to the country’s net debt burden or reduce banks’ lending capacity.

And a big chunk of the stimulus is targeted toward “needed public investment” and disaster reconstruction that Posen is worried about being crowded out by public debt.

From a public interest perspective, the only worries about a stimulus program like this one would be if the money were poorly spent, e.g. on environmentally destructive rather than constructive activities; and – to a much lesser extent, if the government were to finance it through borrowing from the public, rather than the central bank (i.e. the free lunch).

Posen also argues that the stimulus won’t fix Japan’s “real problem” which is “a return to deflation and an overvalued currency.”  But it’s more likely to reduce these problems than to make them worse. Indeed press reports have noted:

The expectation of aggressive monetary easing and a much bolder BOJ [Bank of Japan] since Abe, who was prime minister in 2006-2007, returned to power has sparked a bull run in Japanese markets.

Tokyo’s benchmark stock index, the Nikkei 225, has soared more than 20 percent since mid-November, while the yen has fallen roughly 11 percent in anticipation of aggressive monetary easing. The Nikkei hit a fresh 23-month high on Friday following the release of the stimulus package.

I would also take issue with a certain “false equivalence” regarding the alleged dangers of fiscal stimulus (in this case involving an economy with actual deflation) versus austerity, at a time when not only Japan but Europe is in recession, and much of the global economy is weak and facing downside risks. Posen writes:

Persistent fiscal policies that fail to adapt to changing cyclical conditions result in long-term damage. This holds true whether a government errs on the side of excessive austerity, as in Europe of late, or on the side of unjustified indiscipline, as in Japan since its recovery a decade ago . . . Italy, the UK and the US should fear the structural damage of following Japan’s example if fiscal expansion is not timed to end with recovery.

But the U.S. recovery is too weak; at the current pace it will take more than a decade to get back to full employment.  This is unacceptable. The world economy is projected to grow at 3.6 percent this year, as compared with 5.1 percent in 2010. Japan’s example should be followed anywhere that there is the economic capacity to do so, including in the United States and the eurozone.

Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This essay originally appeared in The Guardian.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Weekend Edition
October 9-11, 2015
David Price – Roberto J. González
The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan
Mike Whitney
Putin’s “Endgame” in Syria
Jason Hribal
The Tilikum Effect and the Downfall of SeaWorld
Paul Street
Hope in Abandonment: Cuba, Detroit, and Earth-Scientific Socialism
Gary Leupp
The Six Most Disastrous Interventions of the 21st Century
Andrew Levine
In Syria, Obama is Playing a Losing Game
Louis Proyect
The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita
Rob Urie
Democrats, Neoliberalism and the TPP
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
The Bully Recalibrates: U.S. Signals Policy Shift in Syria
Brian Cloughley
Hospital Slaughter and the US/NATO Propaganda Machine
John Walsh
For Vietnam: Artemisinin From China, Agent Orange From America
John Wight
No Moral High Ground for the West on Syria
Robert Fantina
Canadian Universities vs. Israeli Apartheid
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000
John Feffer
Mouths Wide Shut: Obama’s War on Whistleblowers
Paul Craig Roberts
The Impulsiveness of US Power
Ron Jacobs
The Murderer as American Hero
Alex Nunns
“A Movement Looking for a Home”: the Meaning of Jeremy Corbyn
Philippe Marlière
Class Struggle at Air France
Binoy Kampmark
Waiting in Vain for Moderation: Syria, Russia and Washington’s Problem
Paul Edwards
Empire of Disaster
Xanthe Hall
Nuclear Madness: NATO’s WMD ‘Sharing’ Must End
Margaret Knapke
These Salvadoran Women Went to Prison for Suffering Miscarriages
Uri Avnery
Abbas: the Leader Without Glory
Halima Hatimy
#BlackLivesMatter: Black Liberation or Black Liberal Distraction?
Michael Brenner
Kissinger Revisited
Cesar Chelala
The Perverse Rise of Killer Robots
Halyna Mokrushyna
On Ukraine’s ‘Incorrect’ Past
Jason Cone
Even Wars Have Rules: a Fact Sheet on the Bombing of Kunduz Hospital
Walter Brasch
Mass Murders are Good for Business
William Hadfield
Sophistry Rising: the Refugee Debate in Germany
Christopher Brauchli
Why the NRA Profits From Mass Shootings
Hadi Kobaysi
How The US Uses (Takfiri) Extremists
Pete Dolack
There is Still Time to Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Marc Norton
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Andre Vltchek
Stop Millions of Western Immigrants!
David Rosen
If Donald Dump Was President
Dave Lindorff
America’s Latest War Crime
Ann Garrison
Sankarist Spirit Resurges in Burkina Faso
Franklin Lamb
Official Investigation Needed After Afghan Hospital Bombing
Linn Washington Jr.
Wrongs In Wine-Land
Ronald Bleier
Am I Drinking Enough Water? Sneezing’s A Clue
Charles R. Larson
Prelude to the Spanish Civil War: Eduard Mendoza’s “An Englishman in Madrid”
David Yearsley
Papal Pop and Circumstance
October 08, 2015
Michael Horton
Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?