An Interview With Paul Samuelson, Part Two

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This is the second part of my interview with Paul Samuelson. I posted part one yesterday. Part two is a little more all over the place. We discuss fiscal stimulus, the current administration, behavioral economics, the risk of inflation, and Dr. Samuelson's relationship with Larry Summers. Skim milk makes an appearance, and so does Greg Mankiw's textbook (again).

I have very lightly edited the transcript for clarity, but otherwise it is an exact rendering of our conversation. My questions in bold.


I have a couple of questions about the current debate.  Do you think large fiscal stimulus should be controversial? And would you like to see more of it? Would you like to see a second or third stimulus, depending on where you start counting?

Well, in the first place, the E. Carey Brown analysis stressed that one shot spending gives you only one-shot response. It's gotta be sustained. The way we got out of the 1929 Great Depression in the US -- and this happened not only in the US but also in Germany and each place in which there was almost a third unemployed --- was heavy deficit spending. It was not clever Federal Reserve policy, because early on the Federal Reserve had shot its bolt when we came near to liquidity trap.

I'll speak from some experiences. My father in law was president of a national bank in Vernon, Wisconsin, population 4,100 as of the last Census. His was the only bank in the first week after Roosevelt's bank holiday that was allowed to reopen. Why? Well, he knew every borrower and he knew better than they did what they could afford and what they couldn't afford. And so he came into the situation with a clean balance sheet.

You think 'Great, because we preserve the monetary supply in the system, right?' Not great. Because the average person did not go out spending and lending freely. He bought treasury bills for as little as half a percent per annum. So the system was frozen without these supplementary expenditures, where the WPA competed with the PWA and with the reconstruction finance corporation. For really depressed situations, unorthodox central banking is needed.

We're almost getting there. In one of Greg Mankiw's articles, he said that maybe when the interest rate gets down to zero and it's threatening to be negative, you should give a subsidy with it. Well, that's what fiscal policy is!

By the way, I don't want you to think that I think that everything for the next 15 years will be cozy. I think it's almost inevitable that, with a billion people in China wide awake for the first time, and a billion people in India, there's going to be some kind of a terrible run against the dollar. And I doubt it can stay orderly, because all of our own hedge funds will be right in the vanguard of the operation. And it will be hard to imagine that that wouldn't create different kind of meltdown.

Last thing. Mea culpa, mea culpa. MIT and Wharton and University of Chicago created the financial engineering instruments, which, like Samson and Delilah, blinded every CEO -- they didn't realize the kind of leverage they were doing and they didn't understand when they were really creating a real profit or a fictitious one. There 's a lot of causality in economics, even though it's very far from an exact science.

A question about the exact science stuff before going back to policy questions. One of the things for which you are most famous is for writing the Foundations of Economic Analysis, which as I understand it attempted to bring a kind of mathematical uniformity to the field --

Well, I would say a mathematical searchlight --

Okay, what's the distinction there? I'm curious what you think about some recent developments in economics, some of the movements that are hot right now -- like behavioral economics, part of which wants to challenge the notion of humans as utility maximizing rational agents.

In my view behavioral science describes an extremely large and important part of the modern picture. However, whenever the economy turns in a very irrational way, that can create opportunities for very rational speculators to make a profit. So you can still get some approximation on the micro level of an efficient market. But there never has been a true macro efficient market. You just have to look at the record of economic history the ups and downs. Bubbles are self-generating.

And I'm not sure most of the people that get caught up in the middle of a bubble can be described as irrational. It seems pretty rational to buy a house and flip it in the next few weeks at a profit when that's been happening for along time. It works both ways.

The crowd mentality is maybe not rational.

Well, let's put that differently. It's not optimal. It's what it is. You have to cope with people. Now, if all the people had gone to the Wharton School and become very sophisticated that doesn't mean the society in which they lived and operated would be incapable of having a business cycle or bubbles. They're self generating.

So are people utility maximizing and rational and can we make sense of interpersonal comparisons of utility in a mathematical way?

No. But you know, people say, 'greed has suddenly increased.' But it isn't that greed's increased. What's increased is the realization that you've got a free field to reach out for what you'd like to do. Everybody would still like to retire with a satisfactory nest egg in real terms. And the tragedy of this unnecessary eight-year interlude is that much of what has been accumulated is gone and gone forever. And no amount of pumping is going to bring back into reality what were ill-advised overextensions of bridges to nowhere and housing developments for which there was no effective demand.

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Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.
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