The Economist endorses NGDP targeting. Well, sort of…

The Economist endorses a bit of NGDP targeting, for a bit, in a bit.

The Economist has an editorial in this week's magazine calling for a form of nominal GDP targeting. The editorial reads:

At the moment the Bank of England’s mission, set by the chancellor of the exchequer, is to focus on an inflation target of 2%. That makes sense in normal circumstances. But with short-term interest rates at almost zero, the economy growing at barely 2% in nominal terms (and not at all if you factor in inflation) and many years of austerity ahead, it is worth temporarily reinterpreting that policy and focusing on nominal GDP. Our suggestion is that the bank, backed by the chancellor, George Osborne, should make clear that it will not tighten policy until nominal GDP, currently £1.5 trillion, gets to a level that is at least 10% higher than today.

The magazine is clearly happy to call what it's suggesting a nominal GDP target, but that's not really the case. Instead, the suggestion is more akin to the US's recent adoption of the so-called Evans Rule, which stated that:

The interest rate is guaranteed to stay at its historic low of 0-0.25 per cent until unemployment is below 6.5 per cent or inflation is above 2.5 per cent.

The American case is different for two key reasons: the first is that the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee, which sets monetary policy, has a dual mandate, requiring it to keep both inflation and unemployment low. The FOMC had been doing a good job keeping the former down, but not such a good job with the latter. The second is that growth in the State is doing OK; again, the real concern was that, in focusing too heavily on inflation, the Fed might choke off that recovery.

But both the Evans rule and the Economist's rule — let's call it the Micklethwait rule — are more about binding the monetary policy committees' future actions. They are a way of communicating to the markets that the rates will not be raised until good things happen, and that the traditional role of the central banks (to keep inflation under control) will be put to one side in the meantime.

The fact that the Micklethwait rule is described in terms of "nominal GDP" makes it sound like a nominal GDP target, but it's not. The latter, a dreadfully trendy prospect in economics circles at the moment, involves commanding the central bank to target a specific level of nominal GDP (that is, GDP unadjusted for inflation). Its benefits are that it explicitly allows for a burst of inflation to get us out of a depression, and commands central bankers to not just restore growth after a slump, but to increase nominal GDP to the level it would be if that slump hadn't actually happened.

The Micklethwait rule would allow for the first — but only as a one time thing, since it would need to be re-enacted in a future depression — but explicitly prevents the second. It only gets half the benefits of true nominal GDP targeting, but all of the downsides, particularly the big one: before we can target NGDP, we need to be able to measure it. Given the ONS's revisions to real GDP, made over the span of three months, are still subject to enormous revisions, the thought of it having to make them three times as fast, for a new measure of the country's production, and get them right first time seems faintly ludicrous.

That's not to say that the Micklethwait rule might not be better than what we have at the moment. Just that if we're going to go to all that trouble, we may as well leap into the great unknown with both feet, rather than just stumbling off the cliff out of desperation.

The Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear