Answering Krugman on Austrian Economic Theory

I still get the sense that Krugman truly doesn’t understand the Austrian position. For example, he asks, “Why is there overwhelming evidence that when central banks decide to slow the economy, the economy does indeed slow?” But because the Austrian theory says the bust occurs when the central bank backs off and allows interest rates to rise toward their “correct” level, this is hardly a problem. In fact, if central banks couldn’t slow the economy, as an Austrian economist I would be worried about my theory.

Krugman also poses questions concerning (price) inflation rates and the connection between nominal and real GDP. But I think he is conflating the Austrian theory with a purely “real” business-cycle theory. Austrians understand that monetary influences can have real effects. To repeat, that is the very essence of the Mises-Hayek theory.

Although most of Krugman’s objections are due to his unfamiliarity with the actual Austrian theory, I think one source of confusion came from the particular illustration I used in my article. First let’s set the context by quoting Krugman:

“So what is the essence of this Austrian story? Basically, it says that what we call an economic boom is actually something like China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, which led to a temporary surge in consumption but only at the expense of degradation of the country’s underlying productive capacity. And the unemployment that follows is a result of that degradation: there’s simply nothing useful for the unemployed workers to do.

“I like this story, and there are probably other cases besides China 1958–1961 to which it applies. But what reason do we have to think that it has anything to do with the business cycles we actually see in market economies?”

First, I should say I’m glad that Krugman at least concedes that (his understanding of) the Austrian explanation both is theoretically possible and actually happens in the real world — coming from the guy who referred to it in 1998 as equivalent to the “phlogiston theory of fire,” this is progress!

However, Krugman still doesn’t have quite the right understanding of the Austrian view of the “capital consumption” that occurs during the unsustainable boom. As I said above, on this particular issue the fault lies with the necessarily simplistic “sushi model” I used in the article that Krugman read.

In that article, in order to make sure the reader really saw why Krugman (and Tyler Cowen) were overlooking something basic, I had the villagers boost their daily sushi intake even while they developed a new technology to help augment their fishing. So during their “boom,” it would have seemed to a dull villager that both consumption and investment were rising.

In my fable, this was physically possible because the villagers neglected the regular maintenance of their boats and nets. This neglect wouldn’t show up overnight, but eventually the village economy would crash. To repeat, I chose this illustration to make basic points about the capital structure and how short-term consumption binges can be physically possible, but must still be “paid for” in the long run.

Unfortunately, my fable and the lessons I drew from it gave the impression (see Tyler Cowen’s critique) that the Austrians think the “capital consumption” during the unsustainable boom period must show up in things like reduced spending on building maintenance, or perhaps in the owner of a fleet of trucks neglecting to have the tires rotated.

In reality, it’s more accurate to say that during the boom period, entrepreneurs (led by false signals) invest in projects that are individually rational and “efficient,” but that don’t mesh with each other. In other words, it’s not so much that a farmer forgets to plant some of the seed corn in order to have a future crop. Rather, it’s that a farmer plans on expanding his output, and so he plants much more than he did in the past, but unbeknownst to him, the owners of the silos and railroads (needed to bring the harvest to market) aren’t expanding their own operations at the same pace.

In summary, it’s not that the Austrians think an inspection of an individual enterprise will reveal a technological deficiency. Rather, it’s that all of the entrepreneurs are “getting ahead of themselves,” trying to develop too quickly. There aren’t enough real savings to allow all of the new processes to be completed. To capture this aspect of the Austrian theory, Mises’s analogy of a homebuilder (who draws up blueprints thinking he has more bricks than he really does) is still the best.

Krugman Wants to Know: Where’s the Evidence?

This leads into Krugman’s central complaint:

“Oh, and what evidence is there that the economy’s capacity is damaged during booms? Investment rises, not falls, during booms; yes, I know that Austrians take refuge in cosmic talk about the complexity of production and how measured investment may not show what’s really happening, etc., but where’s the positive evidence of what they’re claiming?”

I can sympathize with Krugman, but there is no simple statistic to which we can point. Austrians are correct to say that “measured investment may not show what’s really happening,” and correct to say that production is much more complex than depicted in Krugman’s models. This isn’t “cosmic talk” but a statement of basic facts.

[Robert Murphy’s newest book is Lessons for the Young Economist. Paul Krugman would do very well to read it. You can get your copy today for only $19.96 when you go to our bookstore and apply your 20% discount code. Just click here and don’t forget to enter the code E401M102 to get 20% off your total purchase. — Ed.]

But to answer his question, Austrians certainly can point to positive evidence of their view. For example, Austrians argue that during the housing boom years, Americans didn’t save enough out of their wage and salary income, because they were misled into thinking they were much wealthier than they really were. Then when reality set in the illusion was shattered, and valuations of capital assets fell sharply. Realizing they had made terrible decisions during the boom, Americans sharply increased their savings. The data match this story pretty well:

The above chart shows that the savings rate (blue) plummeted during the peak years of the housing bubble, as the S&P 500 (red) zoomed upward. Then in late 2007 the stock market began crashing, while the savings rate increased very sharply. The stock market turned around in early 2009, of course, but from the Austrian perspective, this is because the Fed’s massive interventions — capped off by the first round of “quantitative easing” (which was announced at this time) — started artificially blowing up asset prices again.

We can also get hard empirical support for the Austrian claim that the housing boom drew an unsustainable amount of real resources (including labor) into that sector, which eventually collapsed and caused a spike in unemployment. The following chart compares total construction employment (blue line) with the home vacancy rate (red line), which is a good indication of a speculative bubble: people were buying homes not to live in, or even to rent out, but to “flip” when the price went up. Notice the connection between the speculative housing bubble and the workers sucked into — and then expelled from — construction:

When it comes to applying the generic Austrian theory to the recent boom-bust cycle, we have to think globally. During the boom, much of the rising stream of consumption goods enjoyed by Americans was physically produced in China and other foreign countries. To put it in terms Krugman will appreciate, we could say that the boom period’s surge in imports (which “subtract” from GDP) was consistent with a “healthy” string of GDP increases, not because of counterbalancing exports, but rather because Americans and their government kept spending more and more each year (thus boosting C, I, and G), more than offsetting the growing trade imbalance.

There is nothing wrong with a trade deficit (or more accurately, a current account deficit) per se; elsewhere I explained how a very healthy and sustainably growing economy could have an indefinite stream of such deficits, as the rest of the world rushed to invest in a country blessed with attractive policies.

But when it comes to the actual housing boom under George W. Bush, Americans’ accumulation of SUVs, plasma-screen TVs, and gaming consoles was clearly unsustainable. This is not because — as in my sushi story — Americans were forgetting to do standard maintenance. Rather, it is because Americans couldn’t possibly have kept “total output” — which is very imperfectly captured in our official GDP figures — at the dizzying height at the end of the boom period, because it required foreign producers to continue sending us goodies in exchange for ownership claims on a growing collection of McMansions in which nobody could afford to live.

To make sure that this intuitive story fits the facts, we can chart an index of home prices (blue) against the current account balance (red). The figure below illustrates quite nicely that as the housing bubble inflated, the current account sank more deeply negative. Then the housing bubble and the trade deficit both began collapsing at roughly the same period, as American consumers (and foreign investors) came to their senses.

Of course, Krugman’s models and interpretation can incorporate the above evidence too. So he could understandably claim that he has no reason to credit the Austrian view over his own.

But I can point to at least two episodes where the “sectoral-readjustment” story of the Austrians clearly has more explanatory power than Krugman’s “insufficient demand” story. Specifically, in late 2008 Krugman argued that the housing bust had little to do with the recession, because the latest BLS figures showed that unemployment at the state level bore little relationship to the declines in home prices across the states.

However, I pointed out that looking at year-over-year changes in unemployment at the end of 2008 was hardly the right test. If we looked at changes from the moment the housing bubble burst, then five of the six states with the biggest housing declines were also in the list of the six states with the biggest increases in unemployment.

On another occasion (last summer), Krugman once again thought he had dealt the readjustment story a crushing blow when he pointed out that manufacturing had lost more jobs than construction. I pointed out that this too wasn’t a valid test, because manufacturing had more workers to begin with. When we looked at percentage declines, then construction did indeed crash more heavily than manufacturing. Furthermore — and just as Austrian theory predicts — the employment decline in durable-goods manufacturing was worse than in nondurable-goods manufacturing, while the decline in the retail sector was lighter than in the other three.

These are very important episodes. When Krugman thought the numbers were on his side, he was happy to cast aspersions on the sectoral-readjustment story; he thought his own model was perfectly able to explain the situation if the crash in housing really didn’t have much to do with the upheaval in the labor markets. And, as Krugman himself argued, had he been using valid tests, then the outcomes would indeed have been challenging to the Austrian story.

So now that we see the changes in employment really do match up with the Austrian explanation, we should be much more confident that it is capturing at least an important part of the story. To repeat, I didn’t set out to find data that matched the Misesian exposition and then finally settled on some charts that did the trick. Rather, Krugman thought he had found a falsification of the theory, but it turned out he had conducted a poor experiment.

Because Krugman was the one who set up these two challenges, it is significant that the Austrian theory passed with flying colors. Furthermore, it is significant that Krugman’s own theory cannot explain the actual sectoral shifts in the labor markets. Remember, Krugman wasn’t at all embarrassed by the data when he (erroneously) thought the housing bubble had little to do with the unemployment problem.

This is very important, because it was Krugman who notoriously advocated (in 2002) and then defended (with caveats in 2006) the creation of a housing bubble.

I am not engaging in a character attack or “gotcha” by pointing this out: it is very significant that Krugman’s model prescribed a housing bubble as a solution to the dotcom crash, even though — as we’ve seen — Krugman’s model is obviously inferior to the Austrian explanation when it comes to assessing the fallout from the housing bubble.


I do not claim that the Austrian theory of the business cycle captures every pertinent feature of modern recessions. What I do claim is that a theory — including any of Paul Krugman’s Keynesian models — that neglects the distortion of the capital structure during boom periods cannot possibly hope to accurately prescribe policy solutions after a crash.

Robert P. Murphy
Whiskey & Gunpowder

February 2, 2011