A rare debate on Keynesian economics

You cannot imagine how rare a moment it was last night to be debating Stimulus versus Austerity. No one takes these things on, from the austerity side because hardly anyone actually understands what’s wrong with Keynesian economics as a theoretical issue, and from the Keynesian side because it is almost impossible to defend based on its theory. From the nature of the discussion, Keynesian theory is now defended only on sentiment and reflex. People want to do something, and raising government spending is in all the textbooks so we keep on doing it. Raising demand just seems obvious, which is why economics once explained why it was a terrible mistake. It is not obvious why public spending is bad for growth and jobs. And of course, infrastructure is a good thing so we should have more of it and therefore government spending is essential, whether you can afford it or not.

As for my own presentation, when in a public forum, you basically say what comes into your head, and you hope that what actually comes to mind is appropriate to the mood of the room and the case you wish to make. The one thing I told myself before I began is not to argue in the way it used to be done by John Stuart Mill, which was to point out how absolutely ridiculous the position held by other side was. He was particularly scathing on anyone who actually thought Keynesian economics had any merit at all – the carrier in his day being Malthus who had argued that demand deficiency (a general glut) was the cause of recessions, therefore requiring a stimulus to bring them to an end. But alas, in the midst of it, I found I was no better than JSM. The notion that we can wilfully waste our productive potential and that this will create jobs is so ridiculous that I just had to point it out just like that. What kind of a profession is economics if such obvious nonsense can sit at its very core?

But it’s not just theory we are dealing with. I have been on about this since the start of the stimulus packages in 2009, not one of which has brought recovery, and every one of which has had to be abandoned. They are economic poison, so why doesn’t our economic theory explain why they don’t work, rather than encouraging governments to try these experiments which inevitably fail? For me, I have no answer; you would have to go to a social psychologist to work it out.

But as I said at the start, it seems partly reflex, since this is all we have taught for 70 years, and partly sentiment, since we think we should do something. If it comes to that, I think we should do something too, but since lowering taxes on our businesses is so contrary to the anti-capitalist ethos that pervades more than just the left (but the left almost root and branch), the cure to many such people is worse than the disease. Better people should live in poverty, remain unemployed and individuals remain dependent on the government than that business profits should go up.

Anyway, a very interesting night demonstrating just how completely empty Keynesian economics is. Since the defence of the stimulus as presented was to show how the Greek economy had collapsed after international support had been removed, and that in Australia, although the data show that consumer demand ought to be rising by four percent but is only rising by two and a half percent – demonstrating apparently that we are being overly cautious and saving too much. It was also argued that capital spending is lower than expected given what it ought to be, and that real growth in incomes is flat! I can only say, that these seemed to be the kinds of things I wanted to get across. How that amounts to a defence of the stimulus I have still not been able to work out. What I do understand is that you need a heavy dose of classical economic theory to see why the economy remains flat. What will continue, I expect, is that we will teach what we teach in our economics classes, and governments will keep doing other kinds of things which are described as austerity. I just say again, that you won’t make sense of what is going on if you still think that Y=C+I+G gives you any insight at all into how an economy works.

My thanks to Joe Dimasi and the Economic Society for setting this up and to Alan Oster for his presentation of the other side.

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