Posts Tagged ‘e. cary brown’

How dead is Keynes? Very.

3 September 2011

Eric Alterman hits the nail right on the head right here. Just as E. Cary Brown concluded about New Deal fiscal policy in the 1930s, the problem wasn’t that Keynesian fiscal stimulus was tried and found wanting, it’s that it wasn’t tried. Or was barely tried. In the 1930s the federal deficits were too small, were largely offset by budget cutting at the state and local level, and were reversed by a misguided attempt at budget balancing in 1936-37. Sound familiar? A key difference between then and now, however, is that Pres. Roosevelt and the Democratic Congresses of the 1930s believed in direct government job creation. The New Deal added an average of 3.5 million workers per year to the federal payroll. Pres. Obama was under great political pressure to keep that number at zero, and to hope that job creation would come from tax cuts (not promising, since much of that money gets saved or spent on imports) and government contracts (also not promising, since profit-maximizing contractors try to economize on labor costs).

For the last few quarters the government has actually been cutting spending and as a result its contribution to GDP growth has actually been negative. Yes, that’s from too little government, not too much.

Alas, this famous passage by Keynes no longer seems to be true:

‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.’

One could argue that Keynesian economics gave way to another academic branch of economics, like monetarism or new classical economics, but I see little in recent political or policy debates to suggest that either of those schools is being consulted. What about supply-side economics, you ask? It’s not really an academic school of economics, more a fig leaf for certain vested interests. Consider for, example former Reagan budget director David Stockman’s famous admission that the Kemp-Roth/Reagan “supply side” tax cuts were really just a Trojan Horse for cutting taxes on the rich.

Speaking of Reagan, his declaration thirty years ago that “government is the problem” seems to have become the  guiding light for economic policy-making in America. Score one for “the power of vested interests.”

Advertisements

Fiscal policy in the oughts

22 December 2008

Everyone’s expecting some fairly big fiscal stimulus bill to emerge early next year from Congress and to be signed by President Obama, but let’s not forget about what’s happening right now at the state level.  Most states are constitutionally required either to pass a balanced budget or to have their governor submit one, so right now the talk in the statehouses, notably here in New York State where I live, is all austerity all the time.

Austerity budgets — draconian spending cuts, tax increases, or some combination thereof — are the last thing any economy needs during a recession.  The backfiring “Hoover” tax increase of 1932 is forever held up as one of the Lessons From the Great Depression.  Another lesson, familiar to economic historians though not so much the general public, is that the overall fiscal stimulus during the 1930s was actually quite small, as the New Deal deficits (which were actually not that huge in relation to the economy, as Paul Krugman reminds us) were largely offset by budget-balancing efforts at the state and local level.  (The classic reference is E. Cary Brown’s “Fiscal Policy in the Thirties,” American Economic Review, 1956.)

This point about the government’s overall fiscal thrust might be even more important now than in the 1930s, when much if not most of the (partial) recovery of 1933-41 came from monetary expansion, mostly in the form of gold inflows from Europe.  (Christina Romer, the incoming Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, has an article about this, “What Ended the Great Depression?”, in The Journal of Economic History.)  Right now, by contrast, the Fed is trying everything and then some, and doesn’t seem to be able to get the economy going again.  So it may be up to fiscal policy.

Right now it seems to be mostly talk at the federal and state levels.  The White House and Congress are in lame-duck mode, so nothing very concrete is being proposed.  State legislatures are home for the holidays, and in states like mine where the governor has to submit a balanced budget but the state doesn’t have to pass one, there’s even less certainty.  My take is that the federal stimulus package should not skimp on aid to state and local governments.  For all the dysfunction of some state governments (like my own), their budgets reflect the needs and priorities of their people to at least some degree, and ignoring them just seems like bad policy.  (I remember, when Clinton was getting started in 1993 and talking about an economic stimulus plan, hearing David Gergen deride the new president’s planned aid to state and local governments as “walking-around money for mayors.”  I’m sure those kinds of dismissals will be common in the halls of Congress in 2009.)

My nightmare is that Congress passes a “Washington Knows Best” stimulus package that mostly stiffs the states and instead puts the funds into projects of its own choosing.  Thousands of Bridges to Nowhere, and fifty state governments in distress.  If that happens, the recession could be a long one, and could feel like a depression for anyone who works for a state or municipal government.