A neat and sensible assessment of where Keynesian economic theory is today. I suspect there are many who think like this but are reluctant to say so in public. This is accurate and to the point. It comes from the History of Economics discussion website and was posted by Doug MacKenzie.
The historical facts of this debate, and of the policy itself, are quite clear, and it does not simply boil down to proving that the multiplier is (or is not) zero.
1. Keynes himself recognized (in the GT) that the multiplier is not stable and can be ineffective. To quote Keynes:
“It would seem (following Mr. Kahn) that the following are likely in a modern community to be the factors which it is most important not to overlook (though the first two will not be fully intelligible until after Book IV. has been reached):
(i) The method of financing the policy and the increased working cash, required by- the increased employment and the associated rise of prices, may have the effect of increasing the rate of interest and so retarding investment in other directions, unless the monetary authority takes steps to the contrary; whilst, at the same time, the increased cost of capital goods will reduce their marginal efficiency to the private investor, and this will require an actual fall in the rate of interest to offset it.
(ii) With the confused psychology which often prevails, the Government programme may, through its effect on “confidence”, increase liquidity-preference or diminish the marginal efficiency of capital, which, again, may retard other investment unless measures are taken to offset it.
(iii) In an open system with foreign-trade relations, some part of the multiplier of the increased investment will accrue to the benefit of employment in foreign countries, since a proportion of the increased consumption will diminish our own country’s favourable foreign balance; so that, if we consider only the effect on domestic employment as distinct from world employment, we must diminish the full figure of the multiplier. On the other hand our own country may recover a portion of this leakage through favourable repercussions due to the action of the multiplier in the foreign country in increasing its economic activity.
Furthermore, if we are considering changes of a substantial amount, we have to allow for a progressive change in the marginal propensity to consume, as the position of the margin is gradually shifted; and hence in the multiplier. The marginal propensity to consume is not constant for all levels of employment, and it is probable that there will be, as a rule, a tendency for it to diminish as employment increases; when real income increases, that is to say, the community will wish to consume a gradually diminishing proportion of it.” JMK chapter 10 GTEIM
So one can admit to possibilities that planned saving and planned investment don’t always line up correctly when implemented, without concluding that fiscal policy works in a reliable and useful fashion. Crowding out effects are real and Keynes knew all about it.
2. There is zero evidence of Lerner’s functional finance working as planned. Politicians have most definitely not run surpluses during booms, but have accumulated debt. Buchanan and Wagner have provided plausible explanations of debt-bias in policy.
3. Friedman’s Long and Variable Lags argument has stood the test of time, Keynesians have no substantive answer to this challenge. Given the length of a ‘normal recession’ politicians in a democracy are not at all likely to implement appropriate fiscal policy in a timely fashion.
4. Estimates of the actual fiscal multiplier come in at very low levels anyway. Data indicates that fiscal policy has little or no effect. Barro leans towards saying its no effect (see here), Krugman says there is still a small multiplier effect. Nobody finds the strong and reliable effect that Keynesians originally hoped to use in “fine tuning the economy”.
The 2008-2013 experience is highly relevant because the slump has been long enough to negate the Long and Variable Lags issue – politicians have had more than enough time to act, they have acted with historic monetary and fiscal “stimulus” and the effects were less than originally predicted. After the fact speculation by Mark Zandi that things could have been worse and by Krugman that the deficits should have been larger are not based on hard statistical facts, but are the product of faith and shaky analysis.
I don’t see how anyone can look at relevant theory and the data both and walk away thinking that there is a strong case for activist fiscal policy. It has not worked. The overall case is at best very weak.
D.W. MacKenzie, Ph.D.
Carroll College, Helena MT