Keynesianism isn't economics. It's just an excuse for socialized government.
When Dorothy and her friends finally reach Oz, they present themselves to the almighty Wizard, only to eventually discover that he is just an illusion maintained by a charlatan hiding behind a curtain. This seems eerily akin to to the state of Keynesian economics. It does not matter that Keynesianism isn’t working for Obama. It does not matter that it didn’t work for Bush, or for Japan in the 1990s, or for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s.
In the ultimate triumph of theory over reality, the Keynesians say all that matters is the macroeconomic model behind the curtain showing that more government spending leads to more jobs and growth.
Our public servants in Washington would not make important policy decisions based on a model that automatically produces a certain result, would they? Peter Suderman of Reason pulls aside the curtain:
…those reports rely on assumption-packed models that effectively predetermine their outcomes; what they say, in essence, is that the stimulus worked because we assume it did. …That’s especially true when estimating government spending’s productive effects, which is accomplished by plugging numbers into a formula that assumes that government spending produces a multiplier—an increased return for every government dollar spent. In other words, it extrapolates from how much money is put in rather than from what has actually come out. And it does so using a formula that dictates that if money is put in, even more money will come out. According to the CBO’s estimates, depending on how the money is spent, one dollar of government spending can produce total economic activity of up to $2.50. What a deal! …for all practical purposes, the same multipliers that were used to predict how many jobs would be created are being used to estimate how many jobs have been created.
[T]he problem with Keynesianism is that it fails the empirical test. The Keynesians may be good at constructing models, but that doesn’t mean much if the models don’t match the real world.
Most of the people who purport to possess expertise about the economy rely on a common set of presuppositions and modes of thinking. I call this pseudo-intellectual mishmash vulgar Keynesianism. It's the same claptrap that has passed for economic wisdom in this country for more than fifty years and seems to have originated in the first edition of Paul Samuelson's Economics (1948), the best-selling economics textbook of all time and the one from which a plurality of several generations of college students acquired whatever they knew about economic analysis. Long ago, this view seeped into educated discourse and writing in the news media and in politics and established itself as an orthodoxy.
Unfortunately, this way of thinking about the economy's operation, particularly its overall fluctuations, is a tissue of errors of both commission and omission. Most unfortunate have been the policy implications derived from this mode of thinking, above all the notion that the government can and should use fiscal and monetary policies to control the macroeconomy and stabilize its fluctuations. Despite having originated more than half a century ago, this view seems to be as vital in 2009 as it was in 1949.
Let us consider briefly the six most egregious aspects of this unfortunate approach to understanding and dealing with economic booms and busts.
Aggregation. John Maynard Keynes persuaded his fellow economists and then they persuaded the public that it makes sense to think of the economy in terms of a handful of economy-wide aggregates: total income or output, total consumption spending, total investment spending, and total net exports ... So, the idea is that aggregate supply (physical output times the price level) equals aggregate demand equals the sum of four types of money expenditure for newly produced final goods and services.
This way of compressing diverse, economy-wide transactions into single variables has the effect of suppressing recognition of the complex relationships and differences within each of the aggregates. Thus, in this framework, the effect of adding a million dollars of investment spending for teddy-bear inventories is the same as the effect of adding a million dollars of investment spending for digging a new copper mine. Likewise, the effect of adding a million dollars of consumption spending for movie tickets is the same as the effect of adding a million dollars of consumption spending for gasoline ... It does not take much thought to conceive of ways in which suppression of the differences within each of the aggregates might cause our thinking about the economy to go seriously awry.
In fact, "the economy" does not produce an undifferentiated mass we call "output." Instead, the millions of producers who bring forth "aggregate supply" provide an almost infinite variety of specific goods and services that differ in countless ways. Moreover, an immense amount of what goes on in a market economy consists of dealings among producers who supply no "final" goods and services at all, but instead supply raw materials, components, intermediate products, and services to one another. Because these producers are connected in an intricate pattern of relations, which must assume certain proportions if the entire arrangement is to work effectively, critical consequences turn on what in particular gets produced, when, where, and how.
These extraordinarily complex micro-relationships are what we are really referring to when we speak of "the economy." It is definitely not a single, simple process for producing a uniform, aggregate glop. Moreover, when we speak of "economic action," we are referring to the choices that millions of diverse participants make in selecting one course of action and setting aside a possible alternative. Without choice, constrained by scarcity, no true economic action takes place. Thus, vulgar Keynesianism, which purports to be an economic model or at least a coherent framework of economic analysis, actually excludes the very possibility of genuine economic action, substituting for it a simple, mechanical conception, the intellectual equivalent of a baby toy.
Relative prices. Vulgar Keynesianism takes no account of relative prices or changes in such prices. After all, in this framework, there's only one price, which is called "the price level" and represents a weighted average of all the money prices at which the economy's countless actual goods and services are sold.
Because the vulgar Keynesian has no conception of the economy's structure of output, he cannot conceive of how an expansion of demand along certain lines but not along others might be problematic. In his view, one cannot have, say, too many houses and apartments. Increasing the spending for houses and apartments is, he thinks, always good whenever the economy has unemployed resources, regardless of how many houses and apartments now stand vacant and regardless of what specific kinds of resources are unemployed and where they are located in this vast land. Although the unemployed laborers may be skilled silver miners in Idaho, it is supposedly still a good thing if somehow the demand for condos is increased in Palm Beach, because for the vulgar Keynesian, there are no individual classes of laborers or separate labor markets: labor is labor is labor. If someone, whatever his skills, preferences, or location, is unemployed, then, in this framework of thought, we may expect to put him back to work by increasing aggregate demand, regardless of what we happen to spend the money for, whether it be cosmetics or computers.
Note that this "aggregate production function" has only one input, aggregate labor. The workers seemingly produce without the aid of capital! If pressed, the vulgar Keynesian admits that the workers use capital, but he insists that the capital stock may be taken as "given" and fixed in the short run. And – which is highly important – his whole apparatus of thought is intended exclusively to help him understand this short run. In the long run, he may insist, we are, as Keynes quipped, "all dead"; or he may simply deny that the long run is what we get when we place a series of short runs back to back. The vulgar Keynesian in effect treats living for the moment, and only for it, as a major virtue. At any given time, the future may safely be left to take care of itself.
Malinvestments and money pumping. With their great, simple faith in the efficacy of government spending as a macroeconomic balance wheel, vulgar Keynesians disregard malinvestment, past and future, and support government spending in excess of the government's revenues, the difference being covered by borrowing. Of course, they favor central-bank actions to make such borrowing cheaper for the government. In fact, they chronically prefer "easy money" to more restrictive central-bank policies. As noted previously, they prefer easy money not only because it lowers the cost of financing the government's deficit spending, but also because it induces individuals to borrow more money and spend it for consumption goods – such increased consumption spending being viewed as always a good thing, notwithstanding the recent near-zero rate of saving by individuals in the United States. Reflecting on the vulgar Keynesian attitude toward Fed policy, I keep recalling an old country song whose refrain was: "older whiskey, faster horses, younger women, more money."
Vulgar Keynesians do not spend much time worrying about potential inflation; on the contrary, they are obsessed with an irrational fear of even the slightest hint of deflation. If inflation should become an undeniable problem, we may count on them to support price controls, which, they are convinced on the basis of sketchy knowledge of such controls during World War II, can be made to work well.
Regime uncertainty. Vulgar Keynesians are nothing, if not policy activists. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, they believe that the government should "try something," and if it doesn't work, try something else. Better still is that the government try a bunch of things at once, and if they don't turn the trick, then pour more money into them and try something else, to boot. The eras they esteem as the most glorious ones in U.S. politico-economic history are Roosevelt's first term as president and Lyndon B. Johnson's first few years in the presidency. These periods witnessed an outpouring of new government measures to spend, tax, regulate, subsidize, and generally create mischief on an extraordinary scale. The Obama administration's ambitious plans for government action on many fronts fill vulgar Keynesians with hope that a third such Great Leap Forward is now beginning.
The vulgar Keynesian does not understand that policy activism itself works against economic prosperity by creating what I call "regime uncertainty," a pervasive uncertainty about the very nature of the impending economic order, especially about how the government will treat private property rights in the future. This kind of uncertainty especially discourages investors from putting money into long-term projects.
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Don't believe the hype! Keynesianism is not only wrong, but destructive.