US economy

In Praise of Janet Yellen the Economist


This understanding didn’t fail the test of reality — on the contrary, the experience of the early 1980s strongly confirmed the predictions of basic macroeconomics.

But useful economics was under threat.

On one side, right-wing politicians turned away from reality-based economics in favor of crank doctrines, especially the claim that governments can conjure up miraculous growth by cutting taxes on the rich. On the other side, a significant number of economists themselves rejected any role for policy in fighting recessions, claiming that there would be no need for such a role if people were acting rationally in their own interests, and that economic analysis should always assume that people are rational.

Which is where Yellen came in; she was a prominent figure in the rise of “new Keynesian” economics, which rested on one key insight: People aren’t stupid, but they aren’t perfectly rational and self-interested. And even a bit of realism about human behavior restores the case for aggressive policies to fight recessions. In later work Yellen would show that labor market outcomes depend a lot not just on pure dollars-and-cents calculations, but also on perceptions of fairness.

All this may sound abstruse, but I can vouch from my own experience that this work had a huge impact on many young economists — basically giving them a license to be sensible.

And it seems to me that there’s a direct line from the disciplined realism of Yellen’s academic research to her success as a policymaker. She was always someone who understood the value of data and models. Indeed, rigorous thinking becomes more, not less important in crazy times like these, when past experience offers little guidance about what we should be doing. But she also never forgot that economics is about people, who aren’t the emotionless, hyperrational calculating machines economists sometimes wish they were.

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Now, none of this means that things will necessarily go well. The race is not to the swift, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet success to policymakers of understanding, but time and chance happen to them all. Trump’s cabinet was a clown show — possibly the worst cabinet in America’s history — but it wasn’t until 2020 that the consequences of the administration’s incompetence became fully apparent.

Still, it’s immensely reassuring to know that economic policy will be made by someone who knows what she is doing.

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