"Is macroeconomics bankrupt?"
Economists assembled in Washington for the annual meetings of the American Economic Association asked that question of key speakers last week. Some of the professionals clearly worry as much as the public about whether economists can deal with the major economic issues now facing the nation: persistent inflation and sluggish productivity.
But despite some chagrin about their inability to agree on how best to fight inflation or stimulate the economy, there seemed little doubt in the minds of the many economists that they and their colleagues could and should help policymakers reach better decisions.
Economists in government should not be afraid to claim expert knowledge and push their views forcefully, according to former Carter adviser Charles Schultze. "After all, the macroeconomic views of the lawyers, businessmen and others who are in the government are not noted for their unity," he remarked. "There is no case for the economist to overqualify his or her views."
But the economists and economics presently guiding President Reagar came in for widespread criticism. Supply-side economics may have achieved political respectability, but it appeared a long way from professionally respectable last week.
Supply-side claims amounted to "wizardly" even if the policy recommendations were good economics, conservative economist Martin Feldstein said. Others heaped scorn on the view that large tax cuts could pay for themselves, and many blamed the supply side faith for huge looming budget deficits, which, they said, could undo much of the intended good from investment incentives and tax cuts.
Budget deficits were on everyone's mind. The theory that the federal budget should always be in balance may have "just about received the coup de grace from the most conservative administration" in many years, as former Nixon adviser Herbert Stein remarked. But concern about prospective federal deficits has spread from traditional conservatives to many Democrats and others who used to worry less.
Murray Weidenbaum, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, remarked rather sourly on this to a Congressional Budget Office Director Alice Rivlin and others insisted that deficit-reducing measures, most likely including tax increases, would be necessary for 1983 and 1984. "Apparently," said Weidenbaum, "the folks who invented deficit spending are now rather late in life developing concerns about the government's red ink."
But the reason for preoccupation with deficits is not hard to find. With no policy changes -- in the form of further spending cuts or tax increases -- the federal deficit is set to rise to historic highs next year and thereafter.
And Reagan's opposition to tax increases makes many fear there will not be sufficient money-saving measures to bring down the government's borrowing to tolerable levels. Rivlin declared to one group that "fiscal drag [whereby federal revenues go up automatically with inflation and an expanding economy] is dead."
The days when Congress and the administration could rely confidently on rising revenues to pay for expanding government, and when the AEA would regularly discuss the problem of this "fiscal drag," were decidedly over, she said. Now, new procedures to ensure adequate control over budget expenditures are needed, along with "drastic action" next year to narrow the deficit.
Even Feldstein, one of the most avid tax-cutters, agreed that more taxes should be raised than under Reagan's present plan. He suggested postponing the last 10 percent cut in the personal income tax from mid-1983 to 1984 or splitting it between 1984 and 1985. Too large a federal deficit could push interest rates so high as to counteract the business investment tax incentives also approved by Congress last summer, he warned.
Administration officials trying to persuade Reagan to sign off on tax increases to be included in the fiscal 1983 budget due next February will likely seize on Feldstein's caution to press their case.
Although incomes policies, such as wage and price controls, of any kind are anathema to this administration, they still seem popular among economists. Few accepted the basic premise of Reaganomics: that declining inflation can be combined with a sustained expansion in the economy. Fighting inflation has a cost in terms of lost output and employment, many of them argued, and incomes policies are one way of limiting the cost.
Governments attempting to fight inflation through their economic policies are caught in a bind, some of the economists said. They will lose credibility if they promise better results than they can achieve, and the loss of credibility will itself weaken the policy. But who will elect a government that promises "thorns, not roses?"
At the moment the Federal Reserve is providing the thorns. But these will take a long time to translate into a lasting reduction in inflation, many economists contended. Stable money policy is not the key to stable prices, according to Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard, who pointed to the Swiss experience of a rate of money growth "as variable as in the U.S." but a much lower and more stable inflation rate.
The efficacy of money policy would be greatly improved if fiscal policy were pulling in the same direction, according to a study by Franco Modigliani of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Lucas Papademos of Columbia University. But, the latter remarked, "the fiscal authorities seem a little bit unwilling to recognize this fact."
In an upbeat moment, Schultze claimed that today's economic problems were those of success. Since World War II, the worst recession in the United States -- in 1974-75 -- was many times less severe than those before the war, and before the advent of modern macroeconomics, he said.
But the Keynesian economics that has helped to limit recessions and support employment since the war is also fundamentally responsible for today's inflation, Federal Reserve Governor Henry Wallich said. Schultze agreed that the success of the postwar measures to support employment has contributed to the failure to contain inflation. But it was not correct to blame inflation simply on the growth of government, he added. Moreover, economists should try to calculate and describe the costs of policies to fight inflation, and to seek measures to limit these.
There was apparently more support for Schultze's view of how the world works than for Reagan's. But as the former Carter economist said ruefully, the best labels to distinguish economists are not "liberal" or "conservative," "Keynesian" or "monetarist" but "in" or "out." And for the time being at least, supply side is "in."