Lend Me Your Ears: Friedman and The Role of Financial Policy

I was invited by Matías Vernengo, Co-Editor of the Review of Keynesian Economics, to write a paper, 'The Role of Financial Policy' in honour of the 50th anniversary of Friedman's Presidential Address to the American Economic Association. The Review will be publishing a special edition later this year and I am honoured to be writing in the distinguished company of many fine economists. 

Invited contributors that I am aware of include Brad DeLong, James Forder, Robert Gordon, David Laidler, Rober Pollin, Louis-Philippe Rochon, Sergio Rossi, Antonell Stirati, Servaas Storm and Nathan Perri.  


I opened my essay with a quote from Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.


Opening an essay to honour the work of a great man by quoting from Marc Anthony’s words at Julius Caesar’s funeral, may appear to some to be a boorish opening gambit. But I do not mean disrespect. Milton Friedman was one of the greatest economists, if not the greatest economist, of the twentieth century. Friedman’s views of the appropriate role of monetary policy have become accepted wisdom and they form the core belief of every practicing central banker in the world today. That does not make them right. I come to bury some, but not all, of Friedman’s ideas. And as for Friedman himself, unlike Marc Anthony, I come to praise him.

My praise is for the influence of Friedman's ideas on the operation of monetary policy. Although his advocacy of a money supply rule was a failure in practice, his focus on rules evolved into the adoption of inflation targeting, implemented by interest rate control, that was a pillar of monetary policy in the last thirty years and was, arguably, responsible for the long period of economic stability that we refer to as the Great Moderation.

My critique of Friedman is of his insistence on the free market as a self-stabilizing system. The  Great Recession is just the latest example of the failure of that idea. Friedman was the greatest monetary economist of his generation. But the natural rate hypothesis, introduced in his 1968 Presidential Address, was a spectacular failure and we are only now digging out of the rubble of the New-Keynesian edifice that was constructed on this concept.

My solution, discussed in this essay, is to supplement inflation targeting with a new kind of financial policy that institutionalizes the role of the central bank as the lender of last resort.