Debating Keynes – part 2

The one thing about our economies everyone can agree on is that they are in a mess. The question then is, what’s the reason for the mess they are in and what should be done to fix things up? The potential for the present dismal state of affairs to drag on for another decade or more is a genuine possibility, just it has done in Japan since it tried its own stimulus in the 1990s. Such an outcome is all the more likely given the continuous belief, fostered by standard textbook macroeconomics, that a government stimulus is essential if a recovery is to occur. It is this belief that will keep our economies in permanent disarray. There is therefore no economic issue of more importance at the present time than whether such Keynesian policies should be continued.

I am in the midst of an “exchange of letters” on Keynesian economics with Louis-Philippe Rochon, the editor of the Journal of Keynesian Economics. We had each written one letter – (my first is discussed here) – and now I have written my second, which may be found at this link under the title: “How to Promote a Global Economic Recovery? ‘Markets… have been the single most liberating institution in possibly the entire history of the human race’.” You can find all three of our letters, my two and Louis-Philippe’s reply to the first, at the link.

The letter that has just been published was, in fact, the second I had written in response to his. What follows below is the first version I wrote in reply, which is still trying to get at the same ideas but in a different way.

Dear Louis-Philippe

Thank you for your reply which I must confess was not really a reply to the issues I raised. I wrote to explain why a stimulus could not possibly have worked, emphasising the theory. Your reply has merely stated that we have not really had a stimulus since it was prematurely brought to an end and that in your view, it is the absence of a stimulus that is causing our economies to fall into deeper recession. You then go on to provide your own Keynesian program with nothing to support it other than your own set of preferences for public spending.

But if we are to examine the record, let me remind you that there has never been a single example of a Keynesian stimulus that has ever succeeded in returning an economy to full employment and strong rates of growth. Not a single one, not one, not ever.

The one example that gets trotted out from time to time was the outcome of the Kennedy tax cuts of 1962. But tax cuts are not increases in public spending, and are in perfect keeping with pre-Keynesian policy. It was the same approach that Ronald Reagan took in the 1980s and with equal success.

Increases in public spending have never succeeded in bringing an economy out of recession. The United States notoriously, in spite of the spending and deficits of the Roosevelt administration, never returned the American economy to full employment. It was only the coming of the war in 1941 that brought the Great Depression in the US to an end.

By then, the rest of the world had left the Depression behind long before. Even by the time The General Theory was published in 1936, the Great Depression had long disappeared in the UK. Unemployment was still high but the worst was well and truly over. By 1937 Keynes was worrying about inflation, not unemployment.

Moreover, the policy approach in the UK had been entirely classical. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer (ie the Secretary of the Treasury) in his 1933 budget speech specifically noted that the budget had finally been balanced, and correctly forecast that recovery would therefore soon be under way.

Where are the success stories to go with the obvious failures that were found pretty well everywhere in the 1970s and 80s, in Japan in the 1990s, or the experience of every economy that had tried a stimulus after the Global Financial Crisis in 2009. There is not a single example of a successful stimulus you can point to.

Let me also remind you of the greatest disproof of Keynesian economic policy in history. Everyone always points out that one Keynesian data point which is the so-called boom that came at the start of World War II. Not a boom at all since what most people remember about the home front was rationing and controls of every kind. And if you are thinking about the labour shortages, merely recall that around half the male workforce under thirty was drafted into the armed forces. But that’s not that point either, although it should put quite a dent into such Keynesian thought.

It is the coming of peace in 1945 that is the grand refutation of Keynesian economics. At the end of the war, in the space of a year millions who had been overseas fighting, or had been part of the war effort at home, were suddenly in the labour market looking for work. Think of these as millions of people who had suddenly lost their jobs all at once. Many women who had taken jobs while the men were overseas also remained in the workforce. The Keynesians were continually badgering Truman to maintain war-time deficits since, they said, if he did not the US would go straight back into the depression which in the United States had ended only four years before.

Truman, however, having had a business background, was adamantly opposed to deficits and as a result the US virtually balanced its budget in a single year. No deficits, no stimulus, no nothing. The US slashed its expenditures, balanced its budget and in so doing set off the greatest economic boom in world history, a boom that lasted straight through until ground into the dust by the war on poverty, and dare I say it, the unfunded, deficit-financed war in Vietnam.

Thinking about macroeconomic issues from the demand side is amongst the biggest mistakes anyone in economics can make.

Given its perfect record of failure, why does Keynesian macro persist? Why is it still taught in our textbooks? Aside from being very simple to understand, it remains in place because, disastrous though the policies Keynesian theory promotes may be, it is loved by governments, the bureaucracy and that brand of entrepreneurial activity that today goes under the name of “crony capitalism”. Keynesian policies may not do much for the poor and unemployed but it brings amazing dividends to our economic and political elites.

Before Keynes, governments knew their limits. There was no pretence that beyond a narrow range of activities, there was little a government could do that would be value adding. It was universally appreciated that during recessions governments could take various steps to reduce unemployment and that there was a limited role for governments to have projects available that could soak up some of those who lost their jobs. Nothing new in that.

Today, with macro so drenched in Keynesian conceptions, government spending of all kinds on just about anything, is seen as wealth creating. Politicians, who know nothing about running a business, nevertheless believe themselves capable of making billion dollar decisions because they believe that whatever they spend on will, of necessity, raise the level of economic growth and add to communal prosperity.

The confidence with which governments devised expenditure programs following the GFC in the apparent belief that recovery would follow soon after was incredible to those few of us who understood that it is impossible to increase growth by increasing public waste of resources.

In his introduction to The General Theory, Paul Krugman summed up Keynes’s message in four points, which are almost identical to my own description of Keynesian economics:

“1. Economies can and often do suffer from an overall lack of demand, which leads to involuntary unemployment

“2. The economy’s automatic tendency to correct shortfalls in demand, if it exists at all, operates slowly and painfully

“3. Government policies to increase demand, by contrast, can reduce unemployment quickly

“4. Sometimes increasing the money supply won’t be enough to persuade the private sector to spend more, and government spending must step into the breach.”

This is the theory that is drummed into every introductory student in economics and which maintains its grip unless specifically taught that these four propositions are fundamentally wrong.

And within the worldwide community of economists, no more than around two in a hundred are ever taught to reject such beliefs, and even with this two percent only a small proportion ever come to understand what is actually wrong with the macro they have been taught. The rest more or less accept the theory as it comes, which is why when the Global Financial Crisis struck, there was virtually no opposition to the stimulus from within the economics community.

Even now, as governments struggle to deal with the debt and deficits they have created in their various expenditure programs – almost none of which will ever have a positive return – there is still no general understanding of what went wrong or how to fix what is clearly broken.

The four fundamental principles of Keynesian economics are so ingrained that most economists are not even aware that before Keynes, such beliefs were recognised as utterly fallacious and the mark of an economic illiterate.

Again, I can do no more than remind you of the second edition of my Free Market Economics which discusses both the Keynesian and the classical theories of the cycle. Here I can do not much more than raise your interest in these wrongly discarded theories of the cycle. If you would like to know more about what they said, and why modern macro is so deeply flawed, it is to my text you must go.

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