America's Big Monetary Policy Mistake: How Negative Interest Rates Could Have Stopped the Great Recession in Its Tracks

Here is a link to my 31st Quartz column, “America’s huge mistake on monetary policy: How negative interest rates could have stopped the Great Recession in its tracks.”

This post is a rearticulation of my argument for electronic money, focusing on the negative interest rates themselves.

Cutout. An early draft had a lead paragraph that was cut for reasons of brevity and focus, but that I think will be of independent interest for many readers:

John von Neumann, who revolutionized economics by inventing game theory (before going on to help design the first atom bomb and lay out the fundamental architecture for nearly all modern computers), left an unfinished book when he died in 1957: The Computer and the Brain. In the years since, von Neumann’s analogy of the brain to a computer has become commonplace. The first modern economist, Adam Smith, was unable to make a similarly apt comparison between a market economy and a computer in his books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments or in the The Wealth of Nations, because they were published, respectively, in 1759 and 1776—more than 40 years before Charles Babbage designed his early computer in 1822. Instead, Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“Every individual … neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it … he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

Now, writing in the 21st century, I can make the analogy between a market economy and a computer that Adam Smith could not. Instead of transistors modifying electronic signals, a market economy has individuals making countless decisions of when and how much to buy, and what jobs to take, and companies making countless decisions of what to buy and what to sell on what terms. And in place of a computer’s electronic signals, a market economy has price signals. Prices, in a market economy, are what bring everything into balance.