Why Paul Krugman Is Wrong on the Austrians

The Austrians on Capital In contrast to mainstream macro models, which either do not possess capital at all or at best denote it as a homogenous stock of size “K,” Austrian theory explicitly treats the capital structure of the economy as a complex assortment of different tools, equipment, machinery, inventories, and other goods in process. Much of the Austrian perspective is dependent on this rich view of the economy’s capital structure, and mainstream economists miss out on many of the Austrian insights when they make the “convenient” assumption that the economy has one good. (Krugman will be glad to know that yes, I can spell all this out in a formal model — and one that referee Paul Samuelson grudgingly signed off on.) Krugman and other Keynesians stress the primacy of demand: they keep pointing out that the owner of an electronics store, say, won’t have the incentive to hire more workers, and buy more inventory, if he doesn’t expect consumers will show up with money to spend on new TVs or laptops. But Austrians point out that demand per se is hardly the whole story: Regardless of how many green pieces of paper the customers have, or how much credit the store can get from the bank, it will be physically impossible for the electronics store to fill the shelves with new TVs and laptops unless the manufacturers of those items have already produced them. And in turn, the manufacturers can’t magically create TVs and laptops merely because the demand for their products picks up; they rely on other sectors in the economy having done the prior preparation as well, such as mining the necessary metals, assembling the proper amount of tractor trailers needed to ship the goods from the factory, and so on. These observations may strike some as trivial, not worthy of the consideration of serious economists. But that’s only because normally, a market economy “spontaneously” solves this tremendous coordination problem through prices and the corresponding signals of profit and loss. If someone had to centrally plan an entire economy from scratch, there would be all sorts of bottlenecks and waste — as actual experience has shown. Without the guidance of market prices, we wouldn’t observe a smoothly functioning economy, where natural resources move down the chain of production — from mining to processing to manufacturing to wholesale to retail — as neatly depicted in macro textbooks. Instead, we would see a chaotic muddle where the various interlocking processes didn’t dovetail. There would be too many hammers and not enough nails, too much perishable food and not enough refrigerated railroad cars to deliver it, and so on. The Austrians on Interest When it comes to explaining the coordinating function of market prices, Austrians assign a very important role to interest rates, for they steer …

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Why Paul Krugman Is Wrong on the Austrians

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