January 27, 2016 by Dan Mitchell
If everyone has a cross to bear in life, mine is the perplexing durability of Keynesian economics.
I thought the idea was dead when Keynesians incorrectly said you couldn’t have simultaneously rising inflation and unemployment like we saw in the 1970s.
Then I thought the idea was buried even deeper when the Keynesians were wrong about simultaneously falling inflation and unemployment like we saw in the 1980s.
I also believed that the idea was discredited because Keynesian stimulus schemes didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. They didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And they didn’t work for Bush or Obama in recent years.
Last but not least, I figured Keynesian economics no longer would pass the laugh test because of some very silly statements by Paul Krugman.
He stated a couple of years ago that it would be good for growth if everyone thought the world was going to be attacked by aliens because that would trigger massive military outlays.
He also asserted more recently that a war would be very beneficial to the economy.
Equally bizarre, he really said that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center would “do some economic good” because of the subsequent money spent on rebuilding.
Wow. I guess the moral of the story is that we should destroy lots of wealth because it’s good for prosperity. Just like we should eat more cheeseburgers to lose weight.
So you can see why I’m frustrated. It seems that evidence and logic don’t matter in this debate.
But maybe this latest example of Keynesian malpractice will finally open some eyes. The International Monetary Fund recently published a study asserting that higher spending on refugees would be good for European economies.
I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from that report.
In the short term, the macroeconomic effect from the refugee surge is likely to be a modest increase in GDP growth, reflecting the fiscal expansion associated with support to the asylum seekers… In the short term, additional public spending for the provision of first reception and support services to asylum seekers, such as housing, food, health and education, will increase aggregate demand. …Relative to the baseline, the level of GDP is lifted by about 0.05, 0.09, and 0.13 percent for 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively (solid line in the chart below, representing the response of EU GDP as a whole). For the first year, the output impact is entirely due to the aggregate demand impact of the additional fiscal spending.
To understand the implications of what the IMF is claiming, let’s review some basic facts, all of which presumably are uncontroversial.
First, we know that economic output is the result of capital and labor being mixed together to produce goods and services.
Second, we know that growth occurs when the amount of output increases, which implies increases in the quantity and/or quality of labor and capital.
Third, we know that the influx of migrants to Europe will lead governments to divert additional resources from the private sector to finance various programs.
If you’re wondering how this makes sense, welcome to the club.
The only way this analysis possibly could be true is if governments finance the additional spending by borrowing from foreigners. But even that’s not really right because all that’s increasing is domestic consumption, not domestic output.
In other words, it’s like running up your credit card to live beyond your means when the real goal should be increasing your income.
But maybe you don’t want to believe me, so let’s look at some other voices.
The top economist of Germany’s Finance Ministry, Ludger Schuknecht, writes in the Financial Times about the perils of never-ending Keynesianism.
…after decades of attempts to fine-tune the economic cycle by running fiscal deficits and cutting interest rates at times of weak demand, many economies are fragile. …Government deficits and private-sector debt are at high levels in emerging markets, and many western ones too. Ageing populations are weighing on public finances. …Traders gamble on continued bailouts. …Yet this lesson goes largely unheeded; policymakers are urged to pile more debt on the existing mountain. …The work of repairing public sector balance sheets has ground to a halt almost everywhere. …Public debt in many countries is now well above 100 per cent of gross domestic product. …nations lacking resilience increasingly rely on support from others… This creates a new form of moral hazard: since countries that behave recklessly will be bailed out, they have little incentive to reform. …talk of global safety nets is futile, and focusing…on stimulus is outright frivolous.
In any event, Schuknecht realizes that there’s a point beyond which more spending and more so-called stimulus is simply impractical.
Which is basically the main point in a column by Daniel Finkelstein in the U.K.-based Times. He’s writing about the attacks on “austerity” and is unimpressed by the financial literacy (or lack thereof) on the part of critics.
If I went to…buy a new sweater and decided not to get one because it was too expensive, would I be making an ideological statement about shopping? …Or would I just be, like, putting up with my old sweater for the time being while I saved up a bit of money? …Apparently my innocent view that it is a good idea to be able to pay for the goods you purchase makes me a small-state neo-liberal Tory free market fundamentalist. Which seems quite a complicated description for just wanting things to add up. …Between 2000 and 2006, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair engaged in a structural increase in public spending without a matching increase in taxation. You cannot do this for ever. …one thing is clear. Two plus two has to equal four. However unpopular that is.
By the way, if you read the entire piece, it’s rather obvious that Mr. Finkelstein is not a “small-state…free market fundamentalist.”
He simply understands that an ever-expanding public sector simply doesn’t work.
Which reminds me of a very wise observation by Tyler Cowen.
…at the popular level, there is a confusion between “austerity is bad” and “the consequences of running out of money are bad.”
In other words, this issue is partly about the putative value of Keynesian economics and partly about whether nations get to the point where Keynesian policy simply isn’t practical.
To cite an example, Switzerland or Hong Kong have what’s called “fiscal space” to engage in Keynesianism, while Greece and Italy don’t.
Of course, one of the reasons that Greece and Italy don’t have any flexibility is that politicians in those nations have rationalized ever-larger public sectors. And now, they’ve finally reach the point Margaret Thatcher warned about: They’ve run out of other people’s money (both in terms of what they can tax and what they can borrow).
Meanwhile, Hong Kong and Switzerland are in good shape because they generally have avoided Keynesian stimulus schemes and definitely have policies to constrain the overall size of the public sector.
For further information, here’s my video on Keynesian economics.