Basic Economics

A thought on Keynesian economics.  Brad DeLong offers this thought concerning our current debate over government spending:

The government purchases $100 billion of goods, issues $100 billion of bonds, and raises taxes by $3 billion a year in order to amortize the bonds.  Government purchases go up by $100 billion this year.  Private consumption goes down by $3 billion this year.  Net fiscal impetus is not $0 but rather $97 billion.  Cochrane [and other Keynesians] doesn’t understand the Ricardian Equivalence argument he is trying to make.

Keynesians think $97 billion were created through this spending and taxing program and that government spending is a good.  But having sold $100 billion in bonds generate this “demand increment,” from where would those $100 billion have come, and to where would they have gone otherwise?  The Keynesian view can be summarized in either (or both) of two ways: supply creates its own demand, or demand creates its own supply. Talk about trickle down, or building fields of fancy and hoping fanaticizers come.

No, what goes on actually is this.  Falkenblog commenter Aaron Brown explains:

The main point is…that people react to the $100 billion future tax increase (or spending cut, or reduction in value of nominal assets from inflation, or some other loss).  You might argue that people will under-react in some cases, but it’s highly implausible that they don’t react at all, or that they systematically under-react (and there’s no data supporting either implausible contention).  I think systematic over-reaction is plausible (although also has no empirical evidence) since once currency debasement begins i[t] almost always seems to accelerate.

The question of where the $100 billion would have gone otherwise is a different one.  It could come from private consumption or private investment, in either case likely making the net effect of the stimulus spending negative, even before factoring in the future costs.  Government takes money today from privately-selected uses to government-directed ones (loss of utility there) and also must take money tomorrow from privately-selected uses to repay the debt.

And since the economy continues to be depressed from the government having withdrawn so much money from it for its own spending, government must, apart from tomorrow’s taking for current borrowing, repeat the whole borrowing and taxing cycle tomorrow, also.  This continues to hold down the economy, as we saw with the government’s “stimulus” spending in the Great Depression, and as we’re seeing today.  Brown continues:

The Keynesian hope is that today’s $100 billion comes from hoarding or asset bubbles, in which case the net effect could be neutral or even positive.  The further hope would be that the future debt repayment will go to sound private investment or elimination of future wasteful spending (sort of “stuff then starve the beast”).

However “hoarding” and “bubble” are in the eye of the beholder. So even if you make the assumption people under-react to the future implications of stimulus spending, you also have to assume that the government’s judgment using other people’s money, with officials being paid whether they are right or wrong, is better than people making choices with their own money, bearing the losses if they are wrong.

If people are correctly preparing for future bad times instead of “hoarding” or correctly anticipating a rise in nominal asset prices instead of feeding a “bubble”, then the stimulus will be doubly harmful.

But the fact is, we don’t hoard.  We (both individual and business) save/invest.  We may have a good idea of why we’re saving—a new house, future retirement, or future expansion—or we may not, saving only against an inchoate reservation about the future—but this isn’t “hoarding.”  And government judgment?  We’re seeing how that’s playing out with the government’s substituting its judgment for ours in its use of our money for its entitlement programs.  Keynesians are all about the superiority of government’s judgment.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t keep taking our money and spending it for us, even (especially) when we don’t want to spend, in order to stimulate our economy (which, just incidentally, Keynesians also view as government’s economy).

h/t to Eric Falkenstein at Falkenblog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *