Zingales on Keynes

This is Luigi Zingales’ opening statement in The Economist‘s 2009 debate. It is Say’s Law in all its ramifications without the actual name applied. It is my bolding in the article below:

What does “being Keynesian” mean? Simply believing in the role of demand-side factors in the determination of aggregate output is an insufficient characterisation. A true Keynesian differs, in so much as he also believes that: 1) monetary policy is not the most effective tool for stabilising the economy and it may be completely ineffective in some circumstances (liquidity trap); 2) fiscal policy is effective and government spending is the preferred tool; 3) government intervention works and short-run consequences are more important than long-run ones.

With this definition in mind, there could be four ways in which the statement “we are all Keynesians now” can be interpreted. I propose that the statement is false in three out of four of these interpretations.

The first interpretation is that the economic profession has reached a consensus on Keynesian positions. This statement is definitely false. If you browse through the articles published in the leading journal of the American Economic Association in 2008, you would find that only one of the 12 articles that deal with macroeconomic issues (JEL Code E) supports (albeit very indirectly) the idea of a fiscal policy expansion as a policy tool. An even stronger imbalance is present at the pinnacle of our profession. Among the 37 Economics Nobel prize winners in the last 20 years, four received the prize for their contributions to macroeconomics. None of these could be considered Keynesian. In fact, it is hard to find academic papers supporting the idea of a fiscal stimulus.

The second possible interpretation is that there exists a consensus among economists that the causes of the current crisis are Keynesian. Even under this interpretation the statement is patently false. I do not think that any economist would dare to say that the current US economic crisis has been caused by underconsumption. With zero personal saving and a large budget deficit the Bush administration has run one of the most aggressive Keynesian policies in history. Not only has adherence to Keynes’s principles not averted the current economic disaster, it has greatly contributed to causing it. The Keynesian desire to manage aggregate demand, ignoring the long-run costs, pushed Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke to keep interest rates extremely low in 2002, fuelling excessive consumption by the household sector and excessive risk-taking by the financial sector. Most importantly, it has been the Keynesian training of our policy-makers that has led them to ignore the role that incentives play in economic decisions. The main difference between Keynes and modern economics is the focus on incentives. Keynes studied the relation between macroeconomic aggregates, without any consideration for the underlying incentives that lead to the formation of these aggregates. By contrast, modern economics base all their analysis on incentives. In 1998, when the Fed co-ordinated the bail-out of Long Term Capital Management, it did not care about the impact this decision would have on the incentives to take risk and price liquidity appropriately. When Mr Bernanke engineered the bail-out of Bear Stearns, he did not care about the impact this decision would have on the other investment banks’ incentives to raise equity capital at rock-bottom prices. When he changed his position twice in the space of two days, letting Lehman fail, but bailing out AIG, he did not care about the impact it would have on investors’ confidence and incentives to invest. It is this erratic behaviour that has spooked the market and created the current economic crisis: in a recent survey 80% of Americans declare that they are less confident of investing in the market as a result of the way the government has intervened.

If Keynesian principles and education are the cause of the current depression, it is hard to imagine they can be the solution. Thus, even the third interpretation of the house statement—that we should follow Keynesian prescriptions to combat the current economic crisis—is false. I am not disputing the idea that some government intervention can alleviate the current economic conditions, I am disputing that a Keynesian economic policy can do it. With a current-account deficit that in 2008 was $614 billion, a budget deficit that was $455 billion and military expenditures of $731 billion, it is hard to argue that the government is not stimulating demand sufficiently. The current crisis is not a demand crisis, it is a trust crisis. Bad corporate governance coupled with bad government policies has destroyed the financial sector, scaring investors and freezing lending. It is as if a nuclear bomb had destroyed all roads in America and we claimed that to alleviate the economic impact of such an event we should invest in banks. It is possible that eventually the effect will trickle down. But if the problem is the roads, you want to rebuild roads, not subsidise the financial sector. And if the problem is the financial sector, you want to fix this and not build roads.

The only interpretation under which the house statement is true is that “we”—the English/American people and their elective representatives—are all Keynesians now. Keynesianism has conquered the hearts and minds of politicians and ordinary people alike because it provides a theoretical justification for irresponsible behaviour. Medical science has established that one or two glasses of wine per day are good for your long-term health, but no doctor would recommend a recovering alcoholic to follow this prescription. Unfortunately, Keynesian economists do exactly this. They tell politicians, who are addicted to spending our money, that government expenditures are good. And they tell consumers, who are affected by severe spending problems, that consuming is good, while saving is bad. In medicine, such behaviour would get you expelled from the medical profession; in economics, it gives you a job in Washington.

I just don’t think the major dividing line is over incentives. It is, in my view, about the need for value adding activity which public spending never provides.

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