Posts Tagged ‘keynes’

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.”

The great Keynesian hope: Republicans?

19 August 2011

It is well known that Republican politicians typically denounce John Maynard Keynes as an apologist for big government and deride “public investment” as a smokescreen for pork-barrel spending (mmm, smoked pork). Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly notes, however, that Republicans in Congress are rather Keynesian in prolifically proposing public investments in their own districts. Which leads him to a clever idea:

‘… how about a new stimulus package focused on granting Republicans’ requests for public investments?

‘Here’s the pitch: have the White House take the several hundred letters GOP lawmakers have sent to the executive branch since 2009, asking for public investments, and let President Obama announce he’ll gladly fund all of the Republicans’ requests that have not yet been filled.’

(Hat tip: Bob Cesca, who sums it up as ‘Keynesian economics as endorsed by the Republican Party.’)

If Obama wants to make this idea more responsible, he could say he’ll do this only for requests that are also on the American Society of Civil Engineers‘ extensive list of needed infrastructure improvements.

It may be the best hope for a new spending stimulus. (A tax-cut stimulus might be easier to get through Congress, but standard economic impact estimates find that tax cuts do less to increase GDP than new spending does. And the type of tax cuts that Republicans tend to favor, like lowering the top marginal tax rate and reducing the capital gains tax rate, do even less, because wealthy people don’t consume much of their extra income.) If Republicans reject it, they’ll look hypocritical for wanting one thing for their districts and another for the nation.

The beatings will continue until morale improves

4 August 2011

The stock markets are looking pretty Keynesian today. A 512-point (4.3%) drop in the Dow Jones average today, and drops of 4.8% and 5.1% in the S&P 500 and Nasdsaq; overall a drop of more than 10% (a.k.a. a “market correction”) in the past 10 days. Might it have something to do with the fact that Washington is obsessed with deficit-cutting while the rest of the world is obsessed with jobs and economic growth, or the lack thereof?

Jeff Macke of Yahoo! Finance’s Breakout blog puts it this way:

‘There’s a growing realization among even the most optimistic investors that the United States is entering a new recession — a dreaded “double-dip.” Adding to the pain is the sense that the government and Federal Reserve are out of both ideas and ways to stimulate the economy. Corporate America is sitting on record amounts of cash but is refusing to make new investments with so little end demand for its products. Consumers and corporations are hoarding cash, and the economy appears to be seizing. The debt ceiling debate was a fiasco, snuffing any remaining confidence traders had for help from Washington, D.C.’

Yes, Mr. President (and happy birthday, by the way), the time-suck that was the debt-ceiling negotiations was a “self-inflicted wound,” as you said last night. Now why couldn’t you have said the same about the debt ceiling itself? Worldwide investor confidence could not possibly have been inspired by this fight over a redundant institution that no other democratic country (besides Denmark) has and which serves no purpose besides political grandstanding. You may have looked like the only grownup in the room during that whole travesty, but I think the world would like to see a grownup with a clue. You’re talking about focusing on jobs now, but how on earth are you going to do that having just committed yourself to cutting government spending? If you were a Republican, the (specious) answer would be deregulate the hell out of everything, but traditionally Democrats have looked to fiscal stimuli, be they spending programs (Roosevelt), tax cuts (Kennedy-Johnson), or both (you in 2009). It looks to me like you’ve let the Republicans box you into a corner, and you’ve boxed yourself in even further by parroting their rhetoric about the primacy of deficit reduction and how government, like a family, has to spend less in hard times.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 took another hit today when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the Pentagon could not absorb any more cuts beyond the $350 billion over 10 years in the first round of cuts. The second round calls for across-the-board cuts of $1.5 trillion, including $600 billion from the defense budget, if Congress can’t agree on specific cuts. Panetta said that would “do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation.” I’ll pass on whether or not he’s right, but I’m pretty sure his objection and the military-industrial complex will carry the day. Which makes it more likely that (a) the budget ax falls even harder on ordinary families who would spend the money they’d receive from the government, or (b) the spending cuts just don’t happen, which is better for the economy but bad for the government’s credibility. The battle over that second round of cuts looks to be nasty, brutish, and horrifying.

Yes, kick the can down the road

20 July 2011

I don’t say this often, but Eric Cantor is half right. The Republican House Majority Leader’s mantra in the current debate over a long-term budget fix has been “You don’t raise taxes in a recession.” That is good policy advice, and any Keynesian economist would tell you the same. Tax increases lower GDP, indirectly, by lowering people’s disposable income — if they have less money, most people will spend less money, so consumption drops. But any Keynesian economist would also tell you, “Don’t cut spending in a recession.” Cuts in government spending directly lower GDP and indirectly lower it by lowering the consumption of laid-off government workers and government contractors. So neither tax increases nor spending cuts are a good idea in this time of 9.2% unemployment.

(It’s a pity that Cantor doesn’t understand the second part, or pretends not to. But not a surprise. Misrepresenting Keynes is a cottage industry among Republican politicians and pundits. Ezra Klein notes that Cantor wrote in his campaign manifesto of last year that Keynesianism is the theory that “government can be counted on to spend more wisely than the people.” But I digress . . .)

Right now, we’re told August 2 is the deadline for an agreement by Congress to raise the national debt ceiling or face a partial government shutdown in which some Treasury bondholders, government employers, government contractors and/or other government creditors won’t get paid. I’ve written again and again that the whole concept of a debt ceiling is self-destructive and a waste of time — and, as usual, The Onion says it better than I ever could — but the “grand bargain” that the president seeks could easily be self-destructive as well. Both Democrats and Republicans say they want to pass a long-term deficit reduction plan that reduces the national debt by several trillion dollars over the next decade. That’s fine in a broad sense, as health care costs continue to jump by leaps and bounds, two wars continue to drain our resources, and federal taxes as a share of GDP are at their lowest level in a half-century. But if the tax increases and spending cuts kick in while the economy is still in this Little Depression, with unemployment well above its normal range of 5-7%, then the grand bargain becomes a starvation diet.

If we could just fine all politicians and pundits a dollar each time they say “we can’t afford to kick the can down the road any more,” we could pay off the national debt. Barring that, we can at least question that bit of conventional wisdom, telling them, no, it’s not a good idea to raise taxes or cut spending while the economy is still in the tank, and any plan to do either or both that kicks in while unemployment is still above 7% is a bad one. Worse than defaulting on the government’s obligations? Probably not. But a lot worse than doing nothing on both fronts.

Bummer in the summer (updated)

22 June 2011

In today’s press conference Bernanke acknowledges the obvious: the economy is worse than we thought and likely to stay that way into 2012.  The Fed lowered its official economic growth forecasts and raised its unemployment rate forecasts for 2011-2012. After almost two years of slow but steady recovery and myriad positive straws that one could grasp, the last couple of months have brought mostly lousy news, notably the latest jobs report, which showed a gain of just 54,000 jobs last month, only about a quarter or a sixth as many as we’d need to get unemployment down to normal levels in five years or so.

It’s notable that the imminent end of the Fed’s quantitative easing, all $600 billion of which will be over by the end of the month, brings few calls for another round — everyone seems to agree that we’re in a liquidity trap, in which further monetary stimulus fails to stimulate, because interest rates are already practically 0%, banks are not eager to lend, and companies are not eager to invest in new capital.*

Our best hope, it seems to me, is an almost nihilistic one: the economy somehow recovers on its own, through black-box mechanisms that we still don’t really understand. Business confidence returns, hiring finally picks up, and the economy roars forth. This may be a vain hope, but the “animal spirits” of investors (and consumers) that Keynes wrote about in The General Theory are not really visible, despite the several monthly surveys of business sentiment that are out there.

Our next best hope is another fiscal stimulus. It won’t be like the first one, which is about to run out and was too small anyway, not with a Republican majority in the House that believes spending = death and doesn’t even want to avert a financial crisis by raising the debt ceiling unless the Democrats agree to massive long-term spending cuts. But I could see the two parties agreeing on a big set of tax cuts, which is the usual form that a fiscal stimulus takes anyway (e.g., 1964, 1981, 2001).  That has a couple of disadvantages: (1) the “multiplier” effect of a tax cut on GDP is typically empirically estimated to be smaller than that of a spending increase of equal size, because not all of a tax cut gets spent; (2) tax cuts are hard to reverse, as everyone hates seeing their taxes go up, so they could make the long-term debt problem much worse. Still, it’s probably the only politically viable option for a fiscal stimulus.

* The last part of that statement (companies are not eager to invest in new capital) is less true than I had thought. As the Wall Street Journal article linked to below notes, a survey of banks indicated that small businesses were demanding more loans, at least in the first quarter of the year.

UPDATE: This Associated Press article from the next day’s newspapers adds some helpful detail. The headline from the Syracuse Post-Standard’s version of that article says it all: “Slow Economy a Puzzle: Fed chief flummoxed, says troubles could last a while.” My quick take:

(1) The economy has long been in a liquidity trap (Krugman’s definition, i.e., a slump in which monetary policy is no longer effective).

(2) Bernanke has long suspected this himself, but as Fed Chairman he feels obligated to try to stimulate the economy through monetary policy, via unusual, unprecedented channels “that just might work” like QE2.

(3) QE2 has failed to measurably stimulate the economy, because the economy was in a liquidity trap.

(4) Liquidity trap or not, it’s not easy for the Fed to just throw in the towel, so a QE3 might well happen. But I doubt the Street will get all that excited about it, considering what a dud QE2 seems to have been.

Jobs, jobs, jobs, stimulus, Depression

28 January 2010

It’s been noted that President Obama used the word “jobs” more times (29) than other word in last night’s State of the Union address.  Much of that was in connection with a jobs bill that he plans to introduce, and about which he mentioned a few reasonable-sounding specifics.  But indications are that he and his party will try to do this one on the cheap, rather than open themselves to the “big spenders” charge or the predictable cries of deficit scolds who think there’s nothing wrong with the economy that a good bloodletting won’t cure.

And, according to polls, last winter’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus bill) is unpopular.  It was too small to make much of a dent in the massive unemployment crisis, and the continued high and rising unemployment has led many to conclude, by that famous fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc and with the encouragement of countless politicians and talking heads, that the stimulus actually caused the rise in unemployment.  Brad DeLong has an excellent column on “America’s Employment Dilemma” right here.

Some on the right have likened the Obama stimulus bill and the still-high unemployment to the New Deal jobs programs and the Great Depression:  the argument is, if they didn’t end it, then they must have caused it.  (Which is kind of like blaming Doctors Without Borders for an earthquake.)  Others make the less extreme but still ridiculous argument that because unemployment is still high, the fiscal stimulus must not have created a single job.  (Which is hogwash — Prof. Menzie Chinn of Econbrowser shows that private studies by IHS/Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers, and Moody’s estimate that the stimulus has created 1.1 to 1.6 million jobs to date, and Chinn himself estimates that the number may be more like 2.9 million.  It’s wonkish stuff, but worth a look.)

Anyway, here’s an unpublished letter I wrote a few weeks ago to USA Today in response to a letter that made that bogus argument about how those New Deal programs that employed millions somehow didn’t employ anybody:


Keynes pulls a Lazarus

8 December 2009  “Obama outlines bailout for Main Street”

President Barack Obama outlined new multibillion-dollar stimulus and jobs proposals Tuesday, saying the nation must continue to “spend our way out of this recession” until more Americans are back at work.Without giving a price tag, Obama proposed a package of new spending for highway, bridge and other infrastructure projects, deeper tax breaks for small businesses and tax incentives to encourage people to make their homes more energy efficient….

A major part of his package is new incentives for small businesses, which account for two-thirds of the nation’s work force. He proposed a new tax cut for small businesses that hire in 2010 and an elimination for one year of the capital gains tax on profits from small-business investments.

Obama also proposed an elimination of fees on loans to small businesses, coupled with federal guarantees of those loans through the end of next year. He called for more government spending on infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and water projects and for new tax breaks for consumers who invest in energy-efficient retrofits in their homes.

Works for me.  While I’d prefer to see more direct job creation in the form of federal jobs programs a la the Works Progress Administration or other New Deal agencies, my main reaction is what a difference a couple of weeks makes.

Barack Hoover Obama? (updated Dec. 4)

13 November 2009

The administration has apparently ditched Keynesian economics in favor of Philistine economics, calling for a domestic spending freeze or even spending cuts in the midst of double-digit unemployment.

The Associated Press has the story here.

Focusing on deficit reduction during a depression did not work for Herbert Hoover in 1932, and I’m at a loss to see why Obama’s economists are embracing spending cuts now.  The article does quote budget director Peter Orszag as saying cutting spending too fast could undermine the recovery, so I can only hope that they do not mean to make these cuts until recovery is well underway.  (Then again, the article implies that Obama’s budget next February will ask every agency for spending freezes or 5 percent cuts.)  Given the dim prospects for a rapid recovery, the economy may not be ready to absorb any deep spending cuts for many years to come.

Perhaps a better analogy than Hoover in 1932 is Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936-37.  At that time the U.S. economy had been recovering for about four years (after bottoming out in early 1933) but was still in depression, with unemployment above 9%.  But FDR, deciding it was time to focus on the budget deficit instead of the economy, cut spending and raised taxes (as the Fed doubled bank reserve requirements to soak up the vast excess reserves out there — which also sounds like a recent conversation), and the economy nosedived.  Had FDR and the Fed been less leery of deficits and excess reserves, the depression might not have lasted until World War II.

UPDATE, 18 November 2009:  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns, writing on the Naked Capitalism site, makes a similar argument with a lot more detail.

UPDATE, 21 November 2009: Krugman has an excellent piece on the matter here, and a “wonkier” one on deficits and interest rates here.

By the way, I changed the heading from “Barack Hoover Roosevelt?” to the current one, because FDR is so widely associated with pro-active steps like the Works Progress Administration and other jobs programs, fixing and reforming the banking and financial system, and ending the early-’30s deflation by going off the gold standard.  While his budget-balancing disaster of 1936-37 and his too-small budget deficits in other years show that he was no Keynesian when it came to fiscal policy, I’d be delighted to see Obama commit to policies that created three million relief jobs per year, as FDR did.  The stimulus is creating a fraction of that number, which seems unsurprising considering that the job creation is indirect:  rather than create new agencies to directly employ workers in various projects, the government is handing out money to lucky companies in the hope that they’ll hire people.  The fear of creating new federal government employees seems even stronger than the fear of deficits.

UPDATE, 4 December 2009:  Obama may have talking out of school when he said that last month.  In an interview yesterday just prior to the jobs summit, he said the following:

He ruled out an immediate effort to reduce the $1.4 trillion budget deficit until the economy rebounds further and the 10.2% unemployment rate begins to decline. Focusing on the deficit too soon, he said, could risk a “double-dip recession.”

“If we move too abruptly in that direction and we’re not thinking about all the people out there who aren’t working and businesses who aren’t making money, then we’re going to be in a negative spiral that I think would be very destructive,” the president said.

Instead, Obama said, any additional spending and tax cuts intended to spur job growth should be balanced later with deficit-reduction efforts. “The most important thing we could do for our deficits is to have robust economic growth and have people working and businesses selling products and they’re paying taxes,” he said. “That’s a hole that we can fill.”

On the other hand, he also said, “It is not going to be possible for us to have a huge second stimulus, because frankly, we just don’t have the money.”  Apparently the government jobs initiatives that the article mentions will somehow not involve government money.  Nice free lunch if you can get it.

So what we have is a mixed bag, but I’d say the bag is more empty than full.  While it is a relief to hear the president say that he’s aware that sudden deficit-reduction measures could trigger a double-dip recession, he has yet to retract his earlier remark, i.e, this one to Fox News:

“It is important though to recognize if we keep on adding to the debt, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point, people could lose confidence in the U.S. economy in a way that could actually lead to a double-dip recession,” he said.

Yes, if in a spontaneous shower of sparks, holders of U.S. Treasury bonds suddenly decided that mid-1990s debt/GDP ratios (like we have now) were completely unacceptable and decided to dump their T-bonds, interest rates would go up and the economy would go south.  Except the economy has already gone south.  And the debt-doomsday scenario (which some people have been predicting for decades) just ain’t very plausible.  What is plausible, and seems to be the consensus forecast of economists, is that unemployment stays in double digits well into next year and even rises (despite the good news for November).  By ruling out any more stimulus spending to counter that unemployment, Obama seems to be ruling in a depression.

“The food is terrible. And in such small portions.”

9 July 2009

“How dead is Keynes?” asked economist James Tobin in 1977, when Keynesian economics was starting to lose ground in economics departments to more theoretically elegant alternatives like new classical economics, and when the stagflation of the mid-1970s sapped many people’s confidence in Keynesian policy prescriptions. Tobin said Keynesian economics was still the best macroeconomic theory out there, and that standard Keynesian pump-priming remedies for recessions like deficit spending and monetary expansion still worked. True as those words might have been, however, Keynesian economics was not faring well in the court of public opinion, neither among academic economists nor among policymakers. Paul Volcker’s Federal Reserve invoked monetarism, not Keynesianism, in its draconian anti-inflationary policies of the early ’80s, and President Reagan, of course, sold his tax cuts as “supply side” economic policies designed to restore incentives to work and save.

It’s fair to say that nothing really did come along to supplant Keynesian economics on the policy front.  Even Reagan’s “supply side” tax cuts had most of their impact through traditional Keynesian channels — putting more money in people’s pockets for them to spend — than by influencing people to supply more labor or save more. The estimated impact on labor supply was meager. The personal saving rate actually fell (graph from Calculated Risk). And President Bush 43’s early 2001 tax rebates worked much the same way — though they weren’t enough to prevent the recession of that year, they did mitigate it. But it’s hard to imagine any Republican politician of the last 30 years announcing, as President Nixon once did, “I am now a Keynesian.” Even Democratic politicians seem less than eager to embrace Keynes.

Fast forward to President Obama’s and Congress’s $787 billion, two-year stimulus package. Republicans have been calling it a failure practically ever since the time the ink on the bill was dry, and the American public seems to be getting increasingly impatient with, if not skeptical of, the stimulus. Unemployment keeps creeping up, after all, most recently to 9.5%. Warnings about the country’s long-term debt problems, to which the stimulus makes some contribution (however overblown in some quarters), have become ever more dire. Andrew Leonard of Salon has a nice little update on the politics and economics of the stimulus, titled “Is the Obama economic rescue plan a failure?”

annie_hallLeonard, citing Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture, says the real problem, contrary to Republican critics who say the stimulus is just worthless “spending” as if government purchases weren’t part of GDP (and as if tax cuts weren’t part of the stimulus, too), is not that the food is so bad but that the portions are too small:


Heckuva job, Brownie (UK edition)

8 June 2009

Paul Krugman has mixed feelings about the Labour Party’s shellacking in this week’s elections.   Me too.  It’s hard to feel sorry for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who as Tony Blair’s Chancellor of the Exchequer was a Big Swinging Deregulator to rival the Greenspan-Rubin-Summers axis in the U.S.  Krugman:

‘Do Mr. Brown and his party really deserve blame for the crisis here? Yes and no.

‘Mr. Brown bought fully into the dogma that the market knows best, that less regulation is more. In 2005 he called for “trust in the responsible company, the engaged employee and the educated consumer” and insisted that regulation should have “not just a light touch but a limited touch.” It might as well have been Alan Greenspan speaking.

‘There’s no question that this zeal for deregulation set Britain up for a fall. Consider the counterexample of Canada — a mostly English-speaking country, every bit as much in the American cultural orbit as Britain, but one where Reagan/Thatcher-type financial deregulation never took hold. Sure enough, Canadian banks have been a pillar of stability in the crisis.’