Allan H. Meltzer: A Life Well Lived (1928-2017)

stable spending, monetarism, Allan Meltzer, Cato Journal, Cato Monetary Conference
Allan Meltzer seated next to Anna Schwartz, Karl Brunner, and Milton Friedman at a 1986 Liberty Fund Symposium, organized by Jim Dorn, in San Francisco

The world lost a great champion of liberty with the passing of Allan Meltzer, a longtime Professor of Political Economy at Carnegie Mellon University.  Allan was a prodigious worker who wrote hundreds of articles and more than ten books, including his monumental A History of the Federal Reserve and more recently Why Capitalism?  The latter provides a strong defense of limited government, the rule of law, private property and free markets, which he saw as the surest means to increase the wealth of nations.

A Passion for Ideas and Policy

Allan had a passion for ideas and a desire to influence policy; he sought to make the world a better place by safeguarding economic and personal freedom. He became a major player in the marketplace for ideas — writing, teaching, advising policymakers, serving on editorial boards, co-founding the Shadow Open Market Committee with his close colleague and lifelong friend Karl Brunner, acting as president of the Mont Pelerin Society founded by F. A. Hayek, chairing the International Financial Institution Advisory Commission (also known as the “Meltzer Commission”), and participating in numerous conferences. He continued working right up until his death on May 8, at the age of 89.

A Giant in Monetary Economics

I first met Allan in the early 1980s, when he began to participate in Cato’s Annual Monetary Conference. His paper “Monetary Reform in an Uncertain Environment” was delivered at the first conference, in January 1983, and published in the Cato Journal later that year; it was reprinted in The Search for Stable Money (University of Chicago Press, 1987), a book I co-edited with Anna J. Schwartz.

In that article, Allan examined alternative monetary regimes and their implications for reducing risk and uncertainty. He sought a rule-based regime that would minimize uncertainty and best allow markets to flourish. He preferred, at the time, a quantity rule that would have the monetary base grow in line with the growth of real output adjusted for changes in the velocity of base money. Such a rule, he argued, would anchor expectations regarding the path of nominal income and achieve long-run price stability. However, the rule had to be credible and be supplemented with a fiscal rule that limited the taxing and spending powers of government. He did not want the Fed to finance government deficits or to allocate credit.

It is important to note that Allan was not opposed to private money. At the 1993 monetary conference and in his paper, he held that

individuals or groups should be permitted to issue and use privately produced money or monies. . . . The objective of policy rules is to reduce the uncertainty that the community must bear, not to prevent voluntary risk taking.

Allan was open-minded and was willing to change his policy advice based on logic and evidence.

He continued to participate in Cato’s Annual Monetary Conference for many years and contributed 15 articles to the Cato Journal (see Table 1). Although he was often critical of Fed policy, he thought Paul Volcker was correct in ending double-digit inflation by slowing the growth of money and credit, and that Alan Greenspan was correct in following an implicit monetary rule to prevent wide fluctuations in nominal income during the “Great Moderation.”

Meltzer, however, was highly critical of the Fed’s unconventional monetary policy and wrote in the Spring/Summer 2012 Cato Journal:

Overresponse to short-run events and neglect of longer-term consequences of its actions is one of the main errors that the Federal Reserve makes repeatedly. The current recession offers many examples of actions that some characterize as bold and innovative. I regard many of these actions as inappropriate for an allegedly independent central bank because they involve credit allocation, fill the Fed’s portfolio with an unprecedented volume of long-term assets, evade or neglect the dual mandate, distort the credit markets, and initiate other actions that are not the responsibility of a central bank.

He kept up his criticism until the end, writing articles for the Hoover Institute, where he was a distinguished senior fellow, with such titles as “Fed Up with the Fed” (Defining Ideas, February 17, 2016), “Fed Failures” (March 9, 2016), and “Reform the Federal Reserve” (October 12, 2016).  His last article in Hoover’s online journal appeared on April 25, less than two weeks before he died.

The last time I saw Allan was in Switzerland, in September 2016, where we had enjoyed many discussions at Karl Brunner’s Interlaken Seminar on Analysis and Ideology. He was in Zurich to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Karl’s birth, sponsored by the Swiss National Bank, and to deliver a paper discussing Karl’s many contributions to monetary theory as well as to political economy in general. In his paper, “Karl Brunner, Scholar: An Appreciation,” he emphasized that Karl

highlighted information, institutions and uncertainty as well as the importance of microanalysis in macroeconomics. Karl Brunner explained that nominal monetary impulses changed real variables by changing the relative price of assets to output prices. And he concluded that economic fluctuations occurred because of an unstable public sector — especially the monetary sector — that disturbs a more stable private sector, a policy lesson forgotten or never learned by many central banks.

Those ideas also were central to Allan’s work — both with Karl and independently — and they are evident in his interpretation of Keynes’s monetary theory.

John Maynard Keynes and Meltzer’s Monetary Rule

In a careful study of John Maynard Keynes’s writings, Meltzer argues that the vast literature on Keynes neglected the importance he placed on credible rules, which he thought would reduce uncertainty and improve economic welfare (see Keynes’s Monetary Theory: A Different Interpretation, Cambridge University Press, 1988).[1]

In particular, Allan was influenced by Keynes’s classic A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923), which discusses rules for domestic (internal) price stability and for international (external) price stability — that is, exchange rate stability. In thinking about a rule to reduce the variability of unanticipated changes in prices and outputs, Meltzer ([1987] 1989: 78–81) draws on Keynes’s distinction and his recognition of the benefits of reducing both internal and external instability.[2] The problem, of course, is to choose the appropriate institutional framework. Countries operating independently cannot achieve both internal and external stability, argued Keynes, unless a key country anchors its price level by enforcing a credible rule.

Building upon Keynes’s insights, Meltzer (p. 78) notes that if each major trading partner makes domestic price stability a priority, then uncertainty about the future path of prices will diminish and exchange rates among the partners will be more stable. To realize both internal and external stability, Meltzer proposes a simple rule: each major country should set “the rate of growth of the monetary base equal to the difference between the moving average of past real output growth and past growth in base velocity” (p. 83). If each country complies, the rule will reduce the “variability of exchange rates arising from differences in expected rates of inflation.”[3]

Meltzer’s proposed rule is “forecast free” and adaptable; it is mildly activist but nondiscretionary, similar to Bennett McCallum’s monetary rule.[4]  By choosing to stabilize the anticipated price level rather than the actual price level, there is no need “to reverse all changes in the price level,” argues Meltzer (1989: 79). Instead, the actual price level is allowed “to adjust as part of the process by which the economy adjusts real values to unanticipated supply shocks.”  In other words, Meltzer’s monetary rule “does not adjust to short-term, transitory changes in level, but it adjusts fully to permanent changes in growth rates of output and intermediation (or other changes in the growth rate of velocity) within the term chosen for the moving averages” (p. 81).

In the current environment — with the Fed paying interest on excess reserves (in excess of  what banks can get on highly liquid assets), no competitive fed funds market, banks subject to uncertainty about future monetary policy and complex macro-prudential regulations, and depositors holding more cash due to ultralow interest rates, Meltzer’s monetary rule would be severely constrained. The link between base money and broader monetary aggregates has weakened significantly since the 2008 financial crisis and the Fed’s unconventional monetary policy.

Before serious consideration can be given to implementing any rule-based monetary regime, the Fed needs to normalize monetary policy by ending interest on excess reserves and shrinking its balance sheet to restore a pre-crisis fed funds market. Once changes in base money can be effectively transmitted to changes in the money supply and nominal income, Meltzer’s rule would reduce uncertainty and spur investment and growth.

The key point, however, is that Allan wanted to explore alternative monetary rules and select those he thought would work best to reduce the variability of prices and output. That comparative-institutions approach was evident in all his work. But he recognized that, ultimately, the choice of a rule would be heavily influenced by the political economy. His careful scholarship was intended to help shape the climate of ideas and public policy in the direction of what Richard Epstein has called “simple rules for a complex world.”[5]

A Breadth of Knowledge

Although Allan was known primarily for his work on monetary theory and history, he was deeply interested in the role of government in a free society; the relation between institutions, incentives, and behavior; the determinants of economic growth; the theory of public choice; the damaging effects of official foreign aid; and the distribution of income.[6] He wrote many articles for the popular press, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Financial Times, and he was always willing to help younger scholars and students understand the complexities of political economy.

A Man of Integrity

Allan Meltzer was a great scholar and teacher, a friend of liberty, a man of integrity who kept his word, and a fine human being. He was persistent in his research and his life. Allan taught at Carnegie Mellon for 60 years and was married to his lovely wife Marilyn for 67 years.

When Allan was five years old, he lost his mother and went to live with his grandmother for several years until he moved to Los Angeles where his family ran a business. Reflecting on his early years, Allan said, “Her most important influence on my career and my outlook was her strongly held belief that, in America (and only in America), there were no real limits other than ability to what one could achieve by personal effort.”[7]

In his many accomplishments and honors, Allan certainly realized the American Dream, and had a life well lived.[8] He will be sorely missed, but his work will live on.

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TABLE 1: Allan H. Meltzer’s Articles in the Cato Journal

  1. Monetary Reform in an Uncertain Environment,” Cato Journal 3 (1), Spring/Summer 1983. Reprinted in J. A. Dorn and A. J. Schwartz (eds.) The Search for Stable Money, University of Chicago Press (1987).
  2. The International Debt Problem,” Cato Journal 4 (1), Spring/Summer 1984.
  3. Monetary and Exchange Rate Regimes: A Comparison of Japan and the United States,” Cato Journal 6 (2), Fall 1986.
  4. Comment on “Can Monetary Disequilibrium Be Eliminated?Cato Journal 9 (2), Fall 1989.
  5. Some Empirical Findings on Differences between EMS and Non-EMS Regimes: Implications for Currency Blocs,” Cato Journal 10 (2), Fall 1990.
  6. Karl Brunner: In Memoriam,” Cato Journal 12 (1), Spring/Summer 1992.
  7. Benefits and Costs of Currency Boards,” Cato Journal 12, Vol. 12 (3), Winter 1993.
  8. Asian Problems and the IMF." Cato Journal, 17, (3), pp. 267-274.
  9. "Monetary Policy in the New Global Economy: The Case of Japan,” Cato Journal 20 (1),Spring/Summer 2000.
  10. Argentina 2002: A Case of Government Failure,” Cato Journal 23 (1), Spring/Summer 2003.
  11. A Monetary History as a Model for Historians,” Cato Journal 23 (3), Winter 2004.
  12. New Mandates for the IMF and World Bank,” Cato Journal 25 (1), Winter 2005.
  13. Learning about Policy from Federal Reserve History,” Cato Journal 30 (2), 2010.
  14. Federal Reserve Policy in the Great Recession,” Cato Journal 32 (2), Spring/Summer 2012.
  15. What’s Wrong with the Fed? What Would Restore Independence?”  Cato Journal 33 (3), Fall 2013.

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[1] When Allan’s book was still being drafted, I organized a conference in October 1986, sponsored by the Liberty Fund, which took place in San Francisco and brought together a number of leading monetary scholars to critique Allan’s arguments and help facilitate completion of his book. Participants included Milton Friedman, Anna Schwartz, Karl Brunner, Leland Yeager, David Laidler, John Whitaker, Lawrence H. White, and Axel Leijonhuvud.

[2] A. H. Meltzer, “On Monetary Stability and Monetary Reform,” in J. A. Dorn and W. A. Niskanen (eds.) Dollars, Deficits, and Trade, 63–85. Boston: Kluwer (1989).  This paper was originally presented the Third International Conference of the Institute for Monetary and Economic Studies at the Bank of Japan, June 3, 1987.

[3] Meltzer’s proposal is similar to Brunner’s call for a “club of financial stability.”  See K. Brunner, “Policy Coordination and the Dollar,” Shadow Open Market Committee: Policy Statement and Position Papers (PPS 87-01), 49–51. Center for Research in Government Policy & Business, University of Rochester, March 1987.

[4] See B. T. McCallum, “Monetarist Rules in the Light of Recent Experience.American Economic Review 74 (May 1984): 388–96.

[5] See R. A. Epstein, Simple Rules for a Complex World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

[6] Meltzer viewed economics as “a policy science, not a branch of applied mathematics.”  He argued that “economics will be poorer if it does not include institutions and the incentives embodied in the rules, institutions or arrangements that we call society.”  See A. H. Meltzer, “My Life Philosophy,” The American Economist 34 (1), Spring 1990, p. 27.

[7] Ibid., p. 22.

[8]  Meltzer’s many honors include: Distinguished Fellow, American Economic Association; Irving Kristol Award, American Enterprise Institute; Distinguished Professional Achievement Medal, UCLA; The Adam Smith Award, National Association for Business Economics; The Bradley Foundation Award; The Harry Truman Award for Public Policy; and the Distinguished Teacher Award, International Mensa Foundation.

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