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Archive for the ‘Keynesian’ Category

Since I just landed in London, it appropriate that today’s column will be based on an article in the U.K.-based Economist.

A recent issue of the magazine included an article lauding the Internal Revenue Service.

Why?

What could the bureaucrats have done to earn praise?

You’ll be amazed to learn that the Economist believes the IRS helped the economy by becoming a vehicle for income redistribution.

I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from the article.

Despite its awful backlog, the irs has, from another perspective, had a very good pandemic. It has played a critical role in delivering support to Americans. And it has been surprisingly efficient at it. For each of the three rounds of stimulus payments, the irs was the conduit. Within two weeks of Mr Biden’s signing of the stimulus bill in March 2021, for instance, it sent out $325bn via 127m separate payments, mainly by direct bank deposit. Some people fell through the cracks and cheques took longer. But most got the money quickly. The irs operated at even greater frequency in making child-tax-credit payments every month. …It also expanded the earned-income tax credit, a subsidy given to low earners, one of America’s biggest anti-poverty programmes. Putting it together, a poor family with two young children could expect $20,000 from the irs last year, double what they would normally receive.

The Economist seems to think it’s wonderful that the IRS now plays a big role in distributing goodies.

In all, the agency paid out more than $600bn in pandemic-related support in 2021, equivalent to about two-thirds of Social Security spending in the federal government’s budget. “We have seen a substantial share of what used to be the social safety-net migrate from the public-expenditure side of the federal ledger to being run through the tax code,” points out Gordon Gray of the American Action Forum, a think-tank. …the irs…stands as one of the few federal agencies that would generate a large and nearly immediate return on investment were the government to spend more on it. The hope for the harried tax agents is that…irs performance during the pandemic will have earned it grudging support in Washington, demonstrating that it is both overstretched and indispensable.

Needless to say, “delivering support to Americans” should not be an “indispensable” function of the a bureaucracy that was created to collect tax revenue.

Even more problematic, giving out record amounts of money is not what “has kept the economy going.” This is a Keynesian view of the world.

In reality, the borrow-and-spend approach is akin to thinking you are richer after taking money out of the right pocket and putting it in the left pocket.

Sort of the economic version of a perpetual motion machine, all based on the broken-window theory of economics.

P.S. The article also cites the bogus estimate of a $1 trillion tax gap. If the Economist now is in the business of uncritically regurgitating make-believe numbers, I’m also willing to play that game. I encourage that magazine’s reporters to call me and I’ll blindly claim that all tax cuts pay for themselves and that we can have entitlement reform without transition costs.

Actually, I have ethics, so I won’t make those over-the-top claims.

P.P.S. Amazingly (but predictably), the Economist never mentioned past or present IRS scandals.

P.P.P.S. This isn’t the first time the Economist has engaged in anti-economics journalism. The magazine also has been guilty of dishonest journalism.

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Keynesian economics is based on the misguided notion that consumption drives the economy.

In reality, high levels of consumption should be viewed an indicator of a strong economy.

The real drivers of economic strength are private investment and private production.

After all, we can’t consume unless we first produce.*

Not everyone agrees with these common-sense observations. The Biden Administration, for instance, claimed the economy would benefit if Congress approved a costly $1.9 trillion “stimulus” plan last year.

Yet we wound up with 4 million fewer jobs than the White House projected. We even wound up with fewer jobs than the Administration estimated if there was no so-called stimulus.

So what did we get for all that money?

Some say we got inflation. In a column for the Hill, Professor Carl Schramm from Syracuse is unimpressed by Biden’s plan. And he’s even less impressed by the left-leaning economists who claimed it is a good idea to increase the burden of government.

Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz rounded up another 16 of the 36 living American Nobel Prize economists to declare, in an open letter, that…there was no threat of inflation. …The Nobelists’ letter showed that those signing had bought Team Biden’s novel argument that its enormous expansion of social welfare programs really was just a different form of infrastructure investment, just like roads and bridges. …The laureates seemed to have overlooked that previous COVID benefits had often exceeded what tens of millions of workers regularly earned and that recipients displaced by COVID were never required to look for other work. While the high priests of economic “science” were cheering on higher federal spending, larger deficits and increased taxes, employers were and are continuing to deal with inflation face-to-face. …The Nobelists assured that we would see a robust recovery because of President Biden’s “active government interventions.” Their presumed authority was used to give credence to the president’s continuously twisting storyline on inflation — that it was “transitory,” good for the economy, a “high-class problem,” Putin’s fault for invading Ukraine, and the greed of oil and food companies… Today’s fashionable goals seem to have displaced the no-nonsense pragmatism that has long characterized economics as a discipline. …Don’t expect a mea culpa from Stiglitz or his coauthors any time soon. …They can be wrong, really wrong, and never pay a price.

The New York Post editorialized about Biden’s economic missteps and reached similar conclusions.

President Joe Biden loves to blame our sky-high inflation on corporate greed and Vladimir Putin. But a new study from the San Francisco Fed shows it was Biden himself who put America on this grim trajectory. …other advanced economies…haven’t seen anything like the soaring prices now punishing workers across America. Which means that the spike is due to something US-specific, rather than global prevailing conditions. That policy, was, of course, Biden’s signature economic “achievement.” …The damage it did has been massive. …inflation…to 7%… Put in concrete terms, a recent Bloomberg calculation translates this to an added $433 per month in household expenses for 2022. And historic producer price inflation, a shocking 10%, guarantees even more pain ahead.

For what it’s worth, I don’t fully agree with Professor Schramm or the New York Post.

They are basically asserting that Biden’s wasteful spending is responsible for today’s grim inflation numbers.

I definitely don’t like Biden’s spending agenda, but I agree with Milton Friedman that it is more accurate to say that inflation is a monetary phenomenon.

In other words, the Federal Reserve deserves to be blamed.

The bottom line is that Keynesian monetary policy produces inflation and rising prices while Keynesian fiscal policy produces more wasteful spending and higher levels of debt.

I’ll close with a couple of caveats.

  • First, Friedman also points out that there’s “a long and variable lag” in monetary policy. So it is not easy to predict how quickly (or how severely) Keynesian monetary policy will produce rising prices.
  • Second, Keynesian deficit spending can lead to Keynesian monetary policy if a central bank feels pressure to help finance deficit spending by buying government bonds (think Argentina).

*Under specific circumstances, Keynesian policy can cause a short-term boost in consumption. For instance, a government can borrow lots of money from overseas lenders and use that money to finance more consumption of things made in places such as China. The net result of that policy, however, is that American indebtedness increases without any increase in national income.

P.S. You can read the letter from the pro-Keynesian economists by clicking here. And you can read a letter signed by sensible economists (including me) by clicking here.

P.P.S. Keynesianism is a myth with a history of failure in the real world.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

  • They were wrong about growth after World War II (and would have been wrong, if they were around at the time, about growth when Harding slashed spending in the early 1920s).
  • They were wrong about Thatcher in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Reagan in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Canada in the 1990s.
  • They were wrong after the sequester in 2013.
  • They were wrong about unemployment benefits in 2020.

Call me crazy, but I sense a pattern. Maybe, just maybe, Keynesian economics is wrong.

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The “bad penny” of Keynesian economics (based on the “broken window fallacy“) has returned, as I discussed in an interview last week.

While I’m not a fan of Keynesianism, I tried to give a fair description of the theory.

I pointed out that supporters think government spending can “prime the pump” of the economy. Give people money, and they will spend it, and the merchants who receive that money will spend it, which then leads to further spending. And so on and so on.

In reality, this is the fiscal version of a perpetual motion machine.

I explained in the interview that Keynesian economics has never worked in the real world. It didn’t work for Hoover or FDR. It didn’t work for Japan. It didn’t work for Obama.

If I had more time, I also would have explained the theory’s underlying deficiency – which is that government can’t put money into the economy without first taking money out of the economy (a part of the equation that some Keynesians apparently don’t understand).

Who are these people who don’t understand basic economics?

One of them is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. Here are excerpts from a story posted by MSN.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., argued…that increased U.S. government spending on domestic social programs would help decrease the national debt and bring down inflation at home. …”So when we’re having this discussion, it’s important to dispel some of those who say, well it’s the government spending – no, it isn’t,” she continued. “The government spending is doing the exact reverse, reducing the national debt. It is not inflationary.” …Biden made similar comments during a Democratic retreat in Philadelphia on Friday.

Just in case some of you may be thinking Speaker Pelosi is being misquoted, you can watch videos of her making the statement, either on Twitter or YouTube.

I’ll close by bending over backwards to (sort of) rationalize her statement.

If you listen closely to her full remarks, it’s possible that she may be mixing up arguments about Keynesianism potentially stimulating the economy in the short run and Biden’s budget plan potentially reducing debt in the long run.

She would be wrong about both short-run policy and long-run policy, in my humble opinion, but at least she wouldn’t be crazy wrong.

P.S. It’s not uncommon for politicians to misspeak rather than deliberately lie. For instance, Trump was wrong five years ago when he claimed the U.S. had the world’s highest taxes, but I think he was being sloppy rather than dishonest. And the same may be true for Pelosi .

P.P.S. As I noted in the interview, Pelosi has a track record of making foolish statements based on Keynesian theory.

P.P.P.S. Not to be pedantic, but I don’t think government spending increases are inflationary. The better argument is to say that reckless fiscal policy may encourage the Federal Reserve to enact inflationary monetary policy.

P.P.P.P.S. Since today’s column is about Keynesian economics, click here, here, and here for some amusing cartoons. Here’s some clever mockery of Keynesianism. And here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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I’ve written about President Warren Harding’s under-appreciated economic policies.

He restored economic prosperity in the 1920s by slashing tax rates and reducing the burden of government spending.

I’ve also written many times about how President Franklin Roosevelt’s economic policies in the 1930s were misguided.

And that’s being charitable. For all intents and purposes, he doubled down on the bad policies of Herbert Hoover. As a result, what should have been a typical recession wound up becoming the Great Depression.

But I’ve never directly compared Harding and FDR.

Ryan Walters, who teaches history to students at Collins College, has undertaken that task. In a piece for the Foundation for Economic Education, he explains how Harding and Roosevelt took opposite paths when facing similar situations.

Both men came into office with an economy in tatters and both men instituted ambitious agendas to correct the respective downturns. Yet their policies were the polar opposite of one another and, as a result, had the opposite effect. In short, Harding used laissez faire-style capitalism and the economy boomed; FDR intervened and things went from bad to worse. …Unlike FDR, who was no better than a “C” student in economics at Harvard, Harding understood that the old method of laissez faire was the best prescription for a sick economy.

Here’s some of what he wrote about Harding’s successful policies.

America in 1920, the year Harding was elected, fell into a serious economic slide called by some “the forgotten depression.” …The depression lasted about 18 months, from January 1920 to July 1921. During that time, the conditions for average Americans steadily deteriorated. Industrial production fell by a third, stocks dropped nearly 50 percent, corporate profits were down more than 90 percent. Unemployment rose from 4 percent to 12, putting nearly 5 million Americans out of work. …Harding campaigned on exactly what he wanted to do for the economy – retrenchment. He would slash taxes, cut government spending, and roll back the progressive tide. …Under Harding and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, and with the leadership of Andrew Mellon at Treasury, taxes were slashed from more than 70 percent to 25 percent. Government spending was cut in half. Regulations were reduced. The result was an economic boom. Growth averaged 7 percent per year, unemployment fell to less than 2 percent, and revenue to the government increased, generating a budget surplus every year, enough to reduce the national debt by a third. Wages rose for every class of American worker.

And here’s what happened under FDR.

Basically the opposite path, with horrible consequences.

FDR certainly inherited a bad economy, like Harding, yet he made it worse, not better, prolonging it for nearly a decade. With the stock market crash in October 1929, the American economy slid into a steep recession, which Herbert Hoover…proceeded to make worse by intervening with activist government policies – increased spending, reversing the Harding-Coolidge tax cuts, and imposing the Smoot-Hawley tariff. …once in office FDR set in motion a massive government economic intervention called the New Deal. …under FDR taxes were tripled and new taxes, like Social Security, were added, taking more money out of the pockets of ordinary Americans and businesses alike. Between 1933 and 1936, FDR’s first term, government expenditures rose by more than 83 percent. Federal debt skyrocketed by 73 percent. In all, spending shot up from $4.5 billion in 1933 to $9.4 billion in 1940. …The results were disastrous. …Unemployment under Roosevelt averaged a little more than 17 percent and never fell below 14 percent at any time. And, to make matters worse, there was a second crash in 1937. From August 1937 to March 1938, the stock market fell 50 percent.

At the risk of understatement, amen, amen, and amen.

Sadly, very few people understand this economic history.

This is mostly because they get spoon fed inaccurate information in their history classes and now think that laissez-faire capitalism somehow failed in the 1930s.

And they know nothing about what happened under Harding.

P.S. What happened in the 1920s and 1930s also is very instructive when thinking about the growth-vs-equality debate.

P.P.S. Shifting back to people not learning history (or learning bad history), it would be helpful if there was more understanding of how supporters of Keynesian economics were completely wrong about what happened after World War II.

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At the risk of understatement, economists are not good forecasters.

And they are especially incompetent when they make forecasts based on bad policy, such as when the Obama White House projected that his so-called stimulus would quickly lead to falling unemployment.

In reality, the jobless rate immediately increased and then remained much higher than projected for the remainder of the five-year forecast.

The failure of Obama’s stimulus should have been a learning moment for Washington politicians.

But Joe Biden must have slept through that lesson because his first big move after taking office was to saddle the nation with a $1.9 trillion “stimulus” package.

The White House claimed this orgy of new spending would lead to four million additional jobs in 2021, on top of the six million new jobs that already were expected.

So what happened? Matt Weidinger of the American Enterprise Institute looked at the final numbers for 2021 and discovered that employment actually fell compared to pre-stimulus baseline projection.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected on February 1, 2021…a gain of 6.252 million jobs over…2021…we now know payroll employment in the fourth quarter of 2021 averaged 148.735 million — an increase of 6.116 million compared with the average of 142.619 million in the fourth quarter of 2020. That means the job growth the President praised this week has fallen 136,000 jobs short of what was expected under the policies he inherited. …President Biden and congressional Democrats promised their $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan would create millions of additional new jobs this year — on top of what White House economists called the “dire” baseline of 6.252 million new jobs reflected in CBO’s projection without that enormous legislation. …House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) repeated that claim, stating that “if we do not enact this package, the results could be catastrophic,” including “4 million fewer jobs.” Yet…not one of those four million additional jobs supposedly resulting from that $1.9 trillion spending plan has appeared, as job creation in 2021 did not even match CBO’s projection without that legislation.

Below you’ll see the chart that accompanied the article.

As you can see, the White House projected more than 10 million new jobs (right bar).

Yet we would up with 6.1 million new jobs (left bar), about 140,000 less than we were projected to get (center bar) without wasting $1.9 trillion.

If pressed, I’m sure the Biden Administration would use the same excuse that we got from the Obama White House (and from the Congressional Budget Office), which is that the initial forecast was wrong and that the so-called stimulus did create jobs.

In other words, the Biden economists now would say they should have projected 2 million new jobs, which means that the $1.9 trillion spending spree added 4 million jobs, for a net increase of 6 million.

You may think I’m joking, but that is exactly how the Keynesian economists tried to justify Obama’s stimulus failure.

The moral of the story is that the best way to really create jobs is to get government out of the way rather than adding new burdens.

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A couple of years ago, to help build the case against socialism, I showed how West Germany enjoyed much faster growth and much more prosperity than East Germany.

The obvious lesson to be learned from this example of “anti-convergence” is that market-oriented economies out-perform state-controlled economies.

I want to revisit this topic because I recently dealt with someone who claimed that government spending via the Marshall Plan deserves the credit for West Germany’s post-war economic renaissance.

What does the evidence say? Was foreign aid from the United States after World War II a key driver (for Keynesian or socialist reasons) of the West German economy.

The answer is no.

Professor David Henderson explained the role of the Marshall Plan for Econlib.

After World War II the German economy lay in shambles. …less than ten years after the war people already were talking about the German economic miracle. What caused the so-called miracle? The two main factors were currency reform and the elimination of price controls, both of which happened over a period of weeks in 1948. A further factor was the reduction of marginal tax rates later in 1948 and in 1949. …Marshall Plan aid to West Germany was not that large. Cumulative aid from the Marshall Plan and other aid programs totaled only $2 billion through October 1954. Even in 1948 and 1949, when aid was at its peak, Marshall Plan aid was less than 5 percent of German national income. Other countries that received substantial Marshall Plan aid exhibited lower growth than Germany.

Moreover, the money that was dumped into Germany as part of the Marshall plan was offset by money that was taken out of the country.

…while West Germany was receiving aid, it was also making reparations and restitution payments well in excess of $1 billion. Finally, and most important, the Allies charged the Germans DM7.2 billion annually ($2.4 billion) for their costs of occupying Germany.

Inconvenient facts like this make the socialism or Keynesian argument very difficult to maintain.

In a 1990 study on whether there should be something similar to the Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe, Melanie Tammen summarized some of the research on how the original plan for Western Europe was a flop.

…those that received relatively large amounts of aid per capita, such as Greece and Austria, did not recover economically until U.S. assistance was winding down. Germany, France, and Italy, on the other hand, began their recovery before receiving Marshall Plan funds. As for Belgium, it embarked on a radical monetary reform program in October 1944, only one month after liberation. Belgium’s economic stabilization and recovery were well under way by 1946, fully two years before the arrival of U.S. aid. Great Britain, conversely, received more Marshall Plan aid than any other nation but had the lowest postwar economic growth rate of any European country. The critical problem facing Europe was…simply bad economic policy.

Kai Weiss of the Austrian Economic Center in Vienna also addressed this issue. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education.

Common knowledge says that the United States’ Marshall Plan was responsible for the rapid economic growth, rebuilding the country by throwing a lot of money at it. But that’s a mistaken view. …why was there a “Wirtschaftswunder”? …two main reasons: a monetary reform and the freeing of the economy by abolishing price controls and cutting taxes. All of this was implemented thanks to one man: Ludwig Erhard. …What Erhard did was unthinkable in a hostile environment. The Allied forces, still heavily controlling Germany, left the Nazi price controls and rationing intact. But when Erhard became Secretary of the Economy in West Germany, he quickly ended all price controls and stopped rationing — to the dismay of the US advisors. …He, not a Keynesian Project like the Marshall Plan, enabled the miracle.

Speaking of Ludwig Erhard, here’s a video clip on what he did to trigger West Germany’s prosperity.

I have one minor disagreement with that video.

It states that Germany combined “free markets with a strong welfare state.”

That’s a very accurate description of, say, current policy in Denmark.

But total social welfare spending in Germany was less than 20 percent of GDP for the first few decades after World War II, considerably less than social welfare spending today in the United States.

At the risk of being pedantic, it would be more accurate to state that Germany combined free markets with a medium-sized welfare state.

Let’s close with one final bit of evidence.

Here’s a look at the most pro-market nations in the decades after the war. Germany (outlined in red) was never at the top of the list, but it was almost always in the top 10.

Was Germany a libertarian paradise?

Hardly.

But the main takeaway from today’s column is that it’s even more absurd to claim that Germany’s post-war growth was because of big government.

P.S. Regarding Eastern Europe, western nations ultimately decided to create a cronyist institution, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, in hopes of boosting post-Soviet economies. Needless to say, that was a mistake. Many nations have enjoyed good growth after escaping communist tyranny, but the cause was good policy rather than handouts.

P.P.S. The Erhard video is an excerpt from The Commanding Heights, a must-watch video that basically tells the economic history of the 20th century).

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Washington is filled with dishonest and self-serving analysis. Much of that shoddy output is driven by privileged groups seeking bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, or a tilted playing field.

But that’s not the only type of dishonest and self-serving you find in Washington.

Let’s take the example of President Biden’s proposal to gut welfare reform with per-child handouts.

The micro-economic problem with that policy is that it reduces incentives to work – as illustrated by this Wizard-of-Id parody or this cartoon about socialism.

The macro-economic problem with that policy is that it’s part of a radical expansion in the burden of government that will make the U.S. more like Europe.

For today’s topic, though, I want to call attention to a recent report by the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee. It relies on the sloppiest and most disingenuous analysis imaginable.

To recycle a term from 2015, let’s call it primitive Keynesianism.

Here’s the relevant excerpt.

The Treasury Department released information on how much money went to each state, which allows us to estimate the impact of the newly expanded CTC on local economies. Using an estimated multiplier of 1.25—or how much additional spending each $1 in CTC payments will generate, as people use their funds to buy goods and services that in turn generate income for other people and businesses—implies that the expanded CTC will generate nearly $19.3 billion in spending in local economies each month. This increased economic activity is a boon to local businesses, creating jobs in communities across the United States.

You’ll notice an astounding omission.

Nowhere in the JEC “report” is there any acknowledgement that politicians can’t “inject” money into local economies without first taxing or borrowing the money from the private sector.

Honest Keynesians acknowledge that there’s no magic money tree. They know the government can’t put money in our right pocket without first removing from our left pocket.

So they make arguments about things such as the “marginal propensity to consume.”

I disagree with that argument, but at least the folks making that case are being ethical.

The JEC report, by contrast, is utter garbage.

But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. They’re trying to sell very bad policy, so the staff have no choice but to produce nonsensical “research.”

P.S. Arthur Okun would be very disappointed.

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Our friends on the left who want more government spending generally have a short-run argument and a long-run argument.

  • In the short run, they assert that more government spending can stimulate a weak economy. This is typically known as Keynesian economics and it means temporary borrowing and spending.
  • In the long run, they claim that big government is an investment that leads to better economic performance. This is the “Nordic Model” and it means permanent increases in taxes and spending.

In many ways, the debate about short-run Keynesianism is different than the debate about the appropriate long-run size of government.

But there is one common thread, which is that proponents of more government pay too much attention to consumption and too little attention to production.

I wrote a somewhat wonky column about this topic back in April, but let’s take another look at this issue.

In a column last month for the Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler shared some economic fundamentals.

Here’s how capitalism works—pay attention if you took the social-justice version of Econ 101. SIPPC: Save. Invest. Produce. Profit. Consume. Save means postponing consumption, money and time. Only then you can invest, especially your human capital, in something productive. Usually this means doing more with less, being efficient and effective. This is when innovation happens. Wealth comes only from productivity, not from giving away money. …Supply first and then consume…, creating incentives to put money into the hands of entrepreneurs and clearing a path for them to innovate by getting government out of the way.

In some sense, this is simply the common-sense observation that you can’t consume (or redistribute) unless someone first produces.

But it’s also a deeper message about what actually drives production.

There are no shortcuts. You can’t induce demand without supply. Didn’t the lockdowns prove that? Stimulus checks did little good given that there were few places to spend them until businesses were allowed to reopen. We’re now perversely sitting on almost $3 trillion in excess savings and even more new government debt. Yet the government stimulus mentality continues in Congress. …Through taxes and currency depreciation, demand-side spending steals savings needed to invest in future supply, which is why it never works. It is why the Great Depression lasted so long, why Japan lost two decades, and why 2009-16 saw subpar U.S. economic growth. When demand drops, government spending and giveaways make things worse. The only solution to kickstart production is to increase investment and make jobs more plentiful by cutting taxes and easing regulation. ..Price signals tell entrepreneurs what to supply. But price signals are only as good as their inputs. Minimum-wage laws mess up labor price signals. Tariffs mess up trade price signals. The Federal Reserve’s bond-buying blowouts mess up interest-rate price signals.

Amen. We know the policies that lead to more prosperity, but politicians constantly throw sand in the gears.

Simply stated, bigger government diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. And that makes it more difficult to get the innovation and investment that are necessary for rising wages.

To be sure, there are some types of government spending that arguably help a private economy function.

But that’s not what we get from much of the federal government (Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentDepartment of EducationDepartment of EnergyDepartment of AgricultureDepartment of Transportation, etc).

Which is why the growth-maximizing size of government is far smaller than what we are burdened with today.

P.S. I can’t resist sharing this additional segment of Mr. Kessler’s column.

Modern Monetary Theory, known as MMT—what economist John Christensen called the “Magic Money Tree”—is the worst of demand-side nonsense. MMT believers think that to boost aggregate demand we can have government print money and spend, spend, spend. We tried this in the 1960s and ’70s with Great Society programs

At the risk of understatement, I agree with his concerns.

P.P.S. It’s worth noting that the World BankOECD, and IMF have all published research showing the benefits of smaller government.

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The private sector reacted quickly (when allowed by sluggish and inefficient government) to the coronavirus pandemic. We quickly got everything from vaccines to personal protective equipment.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that politicians also reacted quickly.

The crowd in Washington used the crisis as an excuse to spend money. Lots of money.

This predictably led to lots of waste, fraud, and abuse.

But did it also help the economy? In other words, did the pandemic spending “stimulate” the private sector, as Keynesian economists have long claimed?

In a new study, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center and Professor Garett Jones of George Mason University examined whether government spending has a “multiplier effect” that leads to additional prosperity.

Here’s the issue they investigated.

Since March 2020, Congress and two successive administrations have passed and signed into law five COVID-19 pandemic relief bailouts…  That adds up to almost $6 trillion in “emergency” federal spending… designed to save jobs that would have been lost or create jobs that would have gone uncreated otherwise. …this perspective fails to acknowledge the limits that this type of government intervention has in achieving the goal of pulling the economy out of recession. …According to the best available evidence, there are no realistic scenarios where the short-term benefit of stimulus is so large that the government spending pays for itself. In fact, even when government spending crowds in some private-sector activity, the positive impact is small, and much smaller than economic textbooks suggest. …the COVID-19 recession was driven by supply constraints on growth, not a lack of aggregate demand. …Both history and Keynesian-influenced economic theory teach that extra government spending per se cannot do much to overcome the effects of a supply shock.

And here are some of their conclusions.

The possibility that higher government spending, rather than increasing the size of the private sector, results in the private sector shrinking, is often omitted from the Keynesian theories that students learn in textbooks. Nevertheless, this kind of result turns up routinely in recent data-driven research. …evidence from the past few decades has seriously weakened (though not entirely defeated) the argument that expanding the government is a path to growing the private sector. …The outpouring of academic interest into Keynesian fiscal multipliers has ultimately led researchers to the view that those effects are even smaller than earlier supposed. …So even during recessions, even during times of high unemployment, high-quality statistical analysis of US economic history shows that extra government spending shrinks the private sector, at least a little. …The Keynesian idea that short-term government spending can reboot a crashed economy has not proven useful. …it is more like a myth.

And it’s a myth with a history of failure in the real world.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

  • They were wrong about growth after World War II (and would have been wrong, if they were around at the time, about growth when Harding slashed spending in the early 1920s).
  • They were wrong about Thatcher in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Reagan in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Canada in the 1990s.
  • They were wrong after the sequester in 2013.
  • They were wrong about unemployment benefits in 2020.

P.S. Here’s a bit of satire about Keynesian economics.

P.P.S. If you want to enjoy some cartoons about Keynesian economics, click here, here, here, and here. Here’s some clever mockery of Keynesianism. And here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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Way back in 2010, I shared this video explaining how “gross domestic product” and “gross domestic income” are basically the same number, but warning that the former leads to sloppy thinking (including the Keynesian myth that consumer spending drives the economy).

Since President Biden is seeking to resuscitate Keynesian Economics, let’s revisit this topic.

The first thing I want to do is to reassure skeptical readers that there’s nothing remotely controversial about my assertion that GDP and GDI are equivalent measures. It’s simply the common-sense recognition that total spending in a country is going to closely match total income.

If you really want to get into the technical weeds, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has a very detailed document showing how all the measurements fit with each other. Feel free to read that material by clicking here.

But if you don’t have the time or inclination to wade through all that material, here are two charts from the document that capture what’s important, at least for purposes of our discussion about macroeconomic policy.

First, here’s a chart showing that GDP and GDI are two ways of arriving at the same number (though never exactly identical because of statistical discrepancies).

And if you really want to be a wonk, here’s the BEA’s depiction of GDP and GDI, along with a bunch of other measures of economic output.

And if all that boring background doesn’t convince you that it’s okay to equate GDP and GDI, let’s go back to 2018 and look at a column in the Wall Street Journal by Jason Furman, who was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Obama

…the data aren’t perfect. …GDP is not measured directly. Instead, the BEA sums up economy-wide expenditures from dozens of data sources, covering consumption, investment, government spending, net exports and more. …the underlying data are noisy and incomplete, meaning that revisions to GDP growth estimates can be large and often confusing. …Drawing on more data can cancel out some of this noise and produce a more accurate figure that requires smaller revisions. Specifically, the BEA separately gauges the size of the economy by adding up all the different sources of income, such as wages and profits. This figure is called gross domestic income, or GDI… Ultimately, GDI should be identical to GDP, since all money spent is money earned.

With all that out of the way, now let’s move to some analysis that actually is controversial (not in my mind, of course, but my left-leaning friends probably won’t agree with me).

As explained in the video, and as I wrote back in 2013, people without much knowledge about economics draw inaccurate conclusions when using data on GDP .

But don’t take my word for it. Professor Alexander William Salter of Texas Tech University described, in an article for National Review, how GDP accounting equations are mistakenly interpreted to justify more government spending.

The most egregious abuses of economics that we see today start with an accounting identity — a true statement or equation — but end with an absurd economic claim. …Here’s an example: If you’ve taken an introductory economics course, this equation is probably familiar to you: Y=C+I+G+(X-IM). In plain English: Gross Domestic Product (GDP, in this equation ‘Y’) is the sum of consumption (C), investment (I), government spending (G), and net exports (X-IM). This is the foundation of national-income accounting, and it’s true by construction. GDP is defined as the sum of these things. Nothing in this equation tells us how the economy actually works. …often it’s misused. Here’s a case from the Left: Because government expenditures enter positively into GDP, increased government spending raises GDP. Simple, right? Not so fast. …Uncle Sam spending more doesn’t increase the size of the economic pie. It just redistributes existing slices to Uncle Sam, or to whomever Uncle Sam finances. More public-sector consumption means less private-sector consumption.

That’s a look at theory.

He also applies theory to reality, most recently in a column for the Wall Street Journal about Biden’s supposed infrastructure plan.

Whether public or private, spending doesn’t cause growth. Mr. Stiglitz and his allies have it backward: Consumption is downstream from production. Growth is about increasing the supply of goods over time; you can’t spend if the goods haven’t been produced. Production grows as technology and production processes improve. Such improvement requires saving and investing rather than consuming. …all the financing in the world won’t boost productivity if it isn’t channeled correctly. More-efficient producers, not partisan spending, create economic flourishing. Though the president’s plans will consume plenty, they’ll produce only disappointment.

That last sentence is an apt summary. A bigger government means a smaller economy.

The empirical evidence shows that nations with smaller fiscal burdens economically out-perform countries with large welfare states. Simply stated, there’s an incentive for efficiency in the private sector, whereas people in Washington are governed by the perverse incentives described by “public choice” theory.

I’ll close with a relevant caveat that was mentioned in the above video. It is possible for a nation to consume more than it produces. But only if it borrows from overseas, and only at the cost of having to sacrifice future income to service the additional debt.

P.S. If you want more information, here’s my video on Keynesian Economics, and here’s my 4-part series on the economics of government spending.

P.P.S. I also wrote about GDP vs. GDI in 2017, in part to debunk some grotesquely dishonest reporting by Time.

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According to data on jobs and growth, President Obama’s so-called stimulus was a failure.

But at least politicians and bureaucrats were able to concoct new and clever ways to waste money. Including research grants to interview people about their sexual histories and to study erectile dysfunction.

In other words, stimulus spending on stimulus (though at least we did get some clever humor in exchange for nearly $1 trillion of wasted money).

Now we’re wasting nearly $2 trillion on Biden’s spending spree.

And we’re getting more stimulus spending on stimulus.

But not the economic kind of stimulus. Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner reports that people are using handout cash for interesting purchases.

An analysis of spending on Amazon following the distribution of the latest coronavirus stimulus, a massive $1.9 trillion package, suggests that people are using it to let off some steam. The global e-commerce firm Pattern said that the biggest surges in sales were for the PlayStation 5 and a female sex toy called the “Rose Flower Sex Toy.” …Rose’s sales (check Amazon for the description) shot up 334%. …“Distribution of stimulus checks on Wednesday, March 17…may have represented an opportunity for some retail therapy,” said the company.

I’m sure there’s probably some interesting social commentary to make about guys playing video games and neglecting their wives and girlfriends.

But I’m a policy nerd, so I’m focused on how we’re now saddled with a bigger burden of government spending.

The problem is much bigger than the humorous/irritating example discussed above.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Brad Polumbo shares some big-picture data on how politicians have squandered our money.

Whenever the government spends money, a significant portion is lost to bureaucracy, waste, and fraud. But the…unprecedented scope of federal spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—an astounding $6 trillion total—has led to truly unthinkable levels of fraud. Indeed, a new report shows that the feds potentially lost $200 billion in unemployment fraud alone. …More than $200 billion of unemployment benefits distributed in the pandemic may have been pocketed by thieves… To put that $200 billion figure in context, it is equivalent to $1,400 lost to fraud per federal taxpayer. (There goes your stimmy check!) Or, comparing it to the $37 billion the federal government spent on vaccine and treatment development, it’s more than five times more lost to fraud than went to arguably the most crucial COVID initiative of all. That’s just scratching the surface. According to the American Enterprise Institute, “unemployment fraud” now ranks as the 4th biggest federal COVID expenditure out of more than 17 different categories.

If you’re a taxpayer, hundreds of billions of dollars in fraud sounds like a bad outcome.

But if you’re a Keynesian economist, it’s not a problem. All they care about is having the government borrow and spend a bunch of money. They think that making government bigger automatically generates benefit for the economy, even if the money goes to thieves and crooks.

I’m not joking. This is why people like Paul Krugman said a fake attack by space aliens would be good for the economy because Washington would spend a bunch of money in response.

And it’s why Nancy Pelosi actually said the economy benefits if we subsidize joblessness.

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We have decades of real-world experience with Keynesian economics. The results are not pretty.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

  • They were wrong about growth after World War II (and would have been wrong, if they were around at the time, about growth when Harding slashed spending in the early 1920s).
  • They were wrong about Thatcher in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Reagan in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Canada in the 1990s.
  • They were wrong after the sequester in 2013.
  • They were wrong about unemployment benefits in 2020.

This story needs to be told, again and again, especially since we’re now going to have another real-world test case thanks to President Biden’s so-called American Rescue Plan.

I just wrote a column on Biden’s proposal for the Foundation for Economic Education, and it is co-authored by Robert O’Quinn, who most recently served as the Chief Economist at the Department of Labor.

We started by pointing out that Biden is basically copying Trump’s big-spending approach, but with a different justification (Keynesianism instead of coronavirus).

Mr. Biden is bringing a new twist to the profligacy. Instead of trying to justify the new spending by saying it is needed to compensate households and businesses for government-mandated lockdowns, he is making the Keynesian argument that the new spending is a way of stimulating the economy. The same approach was used when he was Vice President, of course, but did not yield positive results. …Mr. Biden and his team apparently think the anemic results were a consequence of not spending enough money. Hence, the huge $1.9 trillion price tag for his plan. Will his approach work? …We can learn about economic recovery today by reviewing what happened during the Great Recession earlier this century and what happened at the end of World War II.

We explain the causes of the previous recession and point out that Obama’s so-called stimulus didn’t work.

…the Great Recession…was the result of an unsustainable housing bubble caused by overly accommodative monetary policy from the Federal Reserve and misguided housing policies. …it took years to clean up the mess from the bursting of the housing bubble. Households slowly rebuilt their savings and cleaned up their balance sheets. …Banks had to work out problem loans and rebuild their capital… Obama’s stimulus did not drive that healing process and spending more money would have done little to accelerate it.

And we also point out that the economy recovered very quickly after World War II, even though the Keynesians predicted disaster in the absence of a giant new package such as Truman’s 21-Point Program (his version of FDR’s horrible vision of an entitlement society).

Keynesians feared that demobilization would throw the US economy into a deep depression as federal spending was reduced. Paul Samuelson even wrote in 1943 that a failure to come up with alternative forms of government spending would lead to “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced.” …President Harry Truman proposed “a 21-Point Program for the Reconversion Period” shortly after the war ended. But his plan, which was basically a reprise of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, was largely ignored by Congress. Did the economy collapse, as the Keynesians feared? Hardly. …Spared a repeat of FDR’s interventionism, the economy enjoyed strong growth. One of the big tailwinds for growth is that the forced savings accumulated during the war years allowed consumers to go on a peacetime buying binge.

That last sentence in the above excerpt is key because 2021 is a lot like 1945. Back then, households had lots of money in the bank (wartime rationing and controls meant there wasn’t much to buy), which helped trigger the post-war boom.

Something similar is about to happen, as we explain in the column.

The current economic conditions are somewhat reminiscent of the ones that existed after World War II. The limited ability to spend money during the pandemic has helped boost the personal saving rate…  In aggregate terms, personal saving soared from $1.2 trillion in 2019 to $2.9 trillion in 2020. …pent-up demand funded with more than $1 trillion in excess savings will resuscitate…GDP.

So what does all this mean? Well, the good news is that 2021 is going to be a very good year for the economy. That’s already baked into the cake.

The bad news is that Biden is taking advantage of the current political situation to increase the burden of government spending.

…the economy prospered after World War II despite (or perhaps because of) the failure of Mr. Truman’s 21-point proposal. President Biden’s team is either unaware of this history, or they simply do not care. Perhaps they simply want to take advantage of the current environment to reward key constituencies. Or they may be trying to resuscitate the tattered reputation of Keynesian economics by spending a bunch of money so they can take credit for an economic recovery that is already destined to happen.

Since I gave the good news and bad news, I’ll close with the worse news.

There’s every reason to expect very strong growth in 2021, but Biden’s spending binge means that future growth won’t be as robust

  • Especially since the economy also is saddled with lots of wasteful spending by Bush, Obama, and Trump.
  • And especially if Biden is able to push through his agenda of higher taxes on work, saving, and investment.

The bottom line is that the United States is becoming more like Europe and the economic data tells us that means less prosperity and lower living standards.

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For supporters of sensible policy, 2008 was not a good year. The economy suffered a big drop thanks to bad government policies (easy-money from the Federal Reserve and corrupt housing subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).

So what did politicians do?

Sadly, they gave us another tragic example of Mitchell’s Law. In response the damage caused by one set of bad policies, they adopted another set of bad government policies (in this case, the TARP bailout and Keynesian “stimulus” schemes).

Quite predictably, bailouts and bigger government didn’t work. Either in the United States or elsewhere in the world.

But proponents of Keynesian economics never learn from their mistakes. They simply assert that their policies somehow would have worked if the government spent even more money and maintained profligacy over a longer period of time.

You may think I’m joking, but here’s another example of this phenomenon. According to a recent news report, a senior bureaucrat at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says we can have more prosperity if politicians make government bigger – both today and tomorrow.

The chief economist of the OECD has urged governments not to rush to cut public spending deficits… Laurence Boone – who runs the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Economics Department – also said that political leaders should use fiscal policy to revive their economies… Boone said that governments had been correct to invest in stimulus packages during 2009: “The mistake came later in 2010, 2011 and so on, and that was true on both sides of the Atlantic,” she commented.

Needless to say, her analysis is wrong. If the answer is lots of spending over a long period of time, then why did the U.S. economy languish for an entire decade under the Keynesian policies of Hoover and FDR? And why has the Japanese economy languished for several decades when politicians on that side of the Pacific Ocean have imposed Keynesian policies?

Before pushing for another orgy of government spending, shouldn’t advocates of Keynesian economics be required to show us at least one success story for their approach, in any country and at any point in history?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.

By the way, before getting her sinecure at the OECD, Ms. Boone was an economic advisor to French President Francois Hollande.

That should have been a black mark. Hollande was the socialist who imposed confiscatory tax rates (resulting in effective tax rates above 100 percent for thousands of people) and drove entrepreneurs to flee the nation. Also, I can’t resist noting that Hollande copied Biden with the absurd assertion that higher taxes are “patriotic.”

Though, to be fair, Hollande eventually decided to be merciful and limit any taxpayer’s overall burden to 80 percent. How merciful!

Anyhow, you would think anyone associated with Hollande’s disastrous tenure would have a hard time getting another job.

But to the statists in charge of hiring at the OECD, Boone’s association with failed socialists policies apparently made her the most attractive candidate.

P.S. Returning to the article cited above, Ms. Boone did make one sensible observation, noting that Keynesian easy-money policies push up asset prices, which mostly benefits the rich.

…governments propped up growth with monetary policy – slashing interest rates and pumping liquidity into the banking system. But Boone argued that monetary policy “has distributional impacts” – it can for example drive up asset prices, favouring the wealthy.

Very true.

It’s great when people become rich by providing goods and services to the rest of us. It’s nauseating when people become rich because of bad government policy.

P.P.S. If governments follow Ms. Boone’s and expand the burden of government spending, it will be just a matter of time before they also impose higher taxes. But Ms. Boone won’t have to worry about that since OECD bureaucrats (like their counterparts at other international bureaucracies) get tax-free salaries.

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Trump was a big spender before coronavirus and he became an even-bigger spender once the pandemic began.

But the White House generally didn’t add insult to injury by citing Keynesian economic theory to justify the president’s profligacy .

Prior to the pandemic, the excuse was that more money was needed for defense and that required (from a political perspective) more money for domestic programs.

And once the coronavirus hit, the excuse was that people and businesses needed to be compensated because of government-mandated lockdowns.

I thought the pre-pandemic excuse was pathetic and I’ve been skeptical of the post-pandemic excuse (why, for instance, are bureaucrats getting checks when their comfy jobs aren’t at risk?).

Well, Trump in on the way out and Biden is on the way in, which means one big spender is being replaced by another.

But there will be one difference, at least stylistically.  Biden will copy Obama by citing Keynesian theory to justify his spending binges.

Which means heartburn from me because I’ve been trying for years to drive a stake through the heart of this free-lunch concept.

But I obviously need to address the issue again.

To begin, Andy Kessler opines about so-called stimulus in his Wall Street Journal column.

…get ready for the “multipliers.” You know, the idea that a government dollar spent magically turns into multiple dollars in the economy. …Expect more multiplier mumbo jumbo as the Biden administration begins its tax-and-spend fiesta. …during the early days of the Obama administration. The financial crisis team…were “carrying around this list of multipliers”… Every dollar spent extending unemployment insurance benefits would, the fairy tale went, boost the economy by $1.64. …every dollar spent on food stamps would spur a $1.73 increase in gross domestic product. …“bang for the buck”—the proverbial free lunch. It’s more like “dud for the dollar” because it didn’t work. It never does. Multipliers are a canard, a Keynesian conceit. …The theory of multipliers is based on the Keynesian view that poorer consumers tend to spend a large amount of increased income, and the rich less so. But multipliers are half a story. Someone has to put up the original money that allegedly gets multiplied, taking it away from the private sector and negating whatever dwindling chain of transactions are hypothesized.

Amen.

Kessler is making many of the same points I made in my 2008 video about Keynesian economics, so I obviously agree.

Since Kessler’s column poked holes in the theory, now let’s look at some new evidence.

Former Senator Phil Gramm has a column on this topic in today’s WSJ, co-authored by Mike Solon.

The main takeaway is that Obama did a Keynesian “stimulus” and the economy suffered a weaker-than-normal recovery.

Between the start of the subprime mortgage crisis and the end of the recession in mid-2009, net new spending of $1.6 trillion was enacted. In 2009, federal spending as a share of gross domestic product surged by an unprecedented 4.2 percentage points to reach 24.4%, the highest level since World War II. Spending was 23.3% of GDP in 2010. …what happened after 2010? …some six months into the Obama administration, the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office both confidently predicted an economic boom, with real GDP growing an average of 3.6% from 2010-13. …Yet…growth from 2010-13 averaged less than 2.1%, half the 4.2% average growth rates in the four-year periods following the previous 10 postwar recessions. The Obama recovery didn’t falter for lack of sustained stimulus; it was shackled from the beginning by his economic program.

I think it’s especially instructive to compare the economy’s weak performance under Obama with the strong recovery we enjoyed under Reagan.

By the way, I think it’s possible to artificially and temporarily boost consumption with so-called stimulus spending, but increasing consumer spending with borrowed money is not the same as boosting national income.

Anyhow, what’s the moral of this story?

Because Mr. Biden’s proposed program is little more than Mr. Obama’s tax, spend and regulate agenda on steroids, and because his appointees are merely grayer retreads of the Obama administration, it is excessively optimistic to believe that his stimulus will do any more good for the economy than Mr. Obama’s did. …How does it end? …it isn’t a question of if government is going to run out of other people’s money, but when.

For what it’s worth, I think the United States could be profligate for decades before we reach some sort of fiscal crisis.

But Gramm and Solon are correct to cite Thatcher’s warning that statists eventually run out of other people’s money.

P.S. My fingers are crossed that Biden is more like Bill Clinton rather than Barack Obama, but I’m not overly hopeful.

P.P.S. We have a very recent example of Paul Krugman being wrong about Keynesian economics.

P.P.P.S. Even though it’s no longer the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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I’ve previously written that Keynesian economics is like Freddy Kreuger. No matter how many times it is killed off by real-world evidence, it comes back to life whenever a politician wants to justify a vote-buying orgy of new spending.

And there will always be Keynesian economists who will then crank up their simplistic models that churn out results predicting that a bigger burden of government spending somehow will produce additional growth.

They never bother to explain why they think draining funds from the private sector is good for growth, of course, or why they think politicians supposedly spend money more wisely than households and businesses.

Nonetheless, there are some journalists who are willing to act as stenographers for their assertions.

In a September 25 story for the Washington Post, Tory Newmyer gives free publicity to Keynesian predictions that the economy will grow faster if Biden wins and then imposes his profligate agenda – which they underestimate to include $7.3 trillion of new spending and $4.1 trillion of new taxes over the next 10 years.

A Democratic sweep that puts Joe Biden in the White House and the party back in the Senate majority would produce 7.4 million more jobs and a faster economic recovery than if President Trump retains power. …Moody’s Analytics economists Mark Zandi and Bernard Yaros…see the higher government spending a Biden administration would approve — for emergency relief programs, infrastructure, and an expanded social safety net — giving the economy a potent injection of stimulus. …while a Biden administration would seek to offset some of his proposed $7.3 trillion in new spending over the next decade with $4.1 trillion in higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, “the net of these crosscurrents is to boost economic activity,” the economists write.

Here’s one of the charts that was included in the story, which purports to show how bigger government leads to faster growth.

If there was a contest for the world’s most inaccurate economist, Zandi almost surely would win a gold medal.

But his laughable track record is hardly worth mentioning. What matters more is that we have decades of real-world experience with Keynesian economics. And it never works.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

Now let’s look at another example of how Keynesian predictions are wrong.

Professor Casey Mulligan from the University of Chicago analyzed what happened when turbo-charged unemployment benefits recently ended.

July was the final month of the historically disproportionate unemployment bonus of $600 per week. The termination or reduction of benefits will undoubtably make a difference in the lives of the people who were receiving them, but old-style Keynesians insist that the rest of us will be harmed too. …Paul Krugman explained in August that “I’ve been doing the math, and it’s terrifying. . . . Their spending will fall by a lot . . . [and there is] a substantial ‘multiplier’ effect, as spending cuts lead to falling incomes, leading to further spending cuts.” GDP could fall 4 to 5 percent, and perhaps as much as ten percent… Wednesday the Census Bureau’s advance retail-sales report provided our first extensive look at consumer spending in August, which is the first month with reduced benefits (reduced roughly $50 billion for the month). Did consumer spending drop by tens of billions, starting our economy on the promised path toward recession?

Not exactly. As shown in this accompanying chart, “…retail sales increased $3 billion above July.”

Professor Mulligan explains why Keynesian economics doesn’t work in the real world.

Two critical elements are missing from the old-style Keynesian approach. The first piece is that employment, which depends on benefits and opportunity costs to employer and employee, is a bigger driver of spending than government benefits are. For every person kept out of work by benefits, that is less aggregate spending that is not made up elsewhere in the economy. The second missing piece is that taxpayers and lenders to our government finance these benefits and therefore have less to spend and save on other things. Even a foreign lender who decides to lend that extra $1 million to our government may well be lending less to U.S. households and companies. At best, redistribution from workers to the unemployed reallocates demand rather than increasing its total.

Amen.

At best, Keynesian policy enables a transitory boost in consumption, but there’s no increase in production. At the risk of stating the obvious, a nation’s gross domestic income does not increase when the government borrows money from one group of people and redistributes it to another group of people.

P.S. Since today’s topic is Keynesian economics here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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Regular readers know that I give Trump mixed grades on economic policy.

He gets good marks on issues such as taxes and regulation, but bad marks in other areas, most notably spending and trade.

Which is why I’ve sometimes asserted that there has been only a small improvement in the economy’s performance under Trump compared to Obama.

But I may have to revisit that viewpoint. The Census Bureau released its annual report yesterday on Income and Poverty in the United States. The numbers for 2019 were spectacularly good, with the White House taking a big victory lap.

Here are the three charts that merit special attention.

First, we have the numbers on inflation-adjusted median household income. You can see big jumps for all demographic groups.

Next, here’s a look at whether Americans are getting richer or poorer over time.

As you can from this chart, an ever-larger share are earning high incomes (a point I made last month, but this new data is even better).

Last but not least, here’s the data on the poverty rate.

Once again, remarkably good numbers, with all demographic groups enjoying big improvements.

We’ll see some bad news, of course, when the 2020 data is released at this point next year. But that’s the result of coronavirus.

So let’s focus on whether Trump deserves credit for 2019, especially since I got several emails yesterday from Trump supporters asking whether I’m willing to reassess my views on his policies.

At the risk of sounding petulant, my answer is no. I don’t care how good the data looks in any particular year. Excessive government spending is never a good idea, and it’s also never a good idea to throw sand in the gears of global trade.

But perhaps we should rethink whether the positive effects of some policies are stronger and more immediate while the negative effects of other policies are weaker and more gradual.

I’ll close with two cautionary notes about “sugar high” economics.

For what it’s worth, we’re not going to resolve this debate because coronavirus has been a huge, exogenous economic shock.

Though if (or when) the United States ever gets to a tipping point of too much debt, there may be some retroactive regret that Trump (along with Obama and Bush) viewed the federal budget as a party fund.

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Last week, I shared some data showing how the economy enjoyed a strong recovery from recession in the early 1920s when President Warren Harding cut government spending.

(And these were genuine cuts, not the nonsense we get from today’s politicians, who claim they’ve cut spending simply because the budget increases by 5 percent rather than 7 percent.)

What happened nearly 100 years ago is very relevant today since we still have advocates of Keynesian economics who claim that more spending (especially debt-financed spending) is a recipe for more growth.

To show why this view is misguided, let’s now look at what happened in the 1940s after World War II came to an end.

In a column for today’s Wall Street Journal, Professor Richard Vedder explains that the Keynesians predicted economic disaster because of big reductions in government spending.

…many Americans assumed the end of the war would mean a resumption of the Depression, which was cut off by the World War II military buildup. In the middle of the fighting, America’s leading Keynesian economist, Alvin Hansen of Harvard, said: “When the war is over, the government cannot just disband the Army, close down munitions factories, stop building ships, and remove economic controls.” …When the sudden end of combat became apparent in late August 1945, economist Everett Hagen predicted that the unemployment rate in the first quarter of 1946 would be 14.8%.

So what actually happened?

Vedder points out that the Keynesian predictions of massive unemployment were wildly inaccurate.

Millions of military personnel did become jobless within months and defense spending plummeted, putting more out of work. In June 1946 federal employment was almost precisely 10 million less than a year earlier. Yet the sharp rise in overall unemployment didn’t occur. The total unemployment rate for 1946 was 3.9%… Perhaps most interesting for today, all this occurred as the U.S. moved from an extremely expansionary fiscal policy—with budget deficits equal to almost 25% of gross domestic product in 1944 (the equivalent of more than $5 trillion today)—to an extremely contractionary one. The U.S. by 1947 was running a budget surplus exceeding 5% of output—the equivalent of more than $1 trillion today. …This was the complete reverse of the expectation of the newly dominant Keynesian economists.

In the following chart, you can see the numbers from the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables (Table 1.2), which show that fiscal policy between 1945 and 1948 was very contractionary, at least as defined by the Keynesians.

There definitely were huge spending cuts (the real kind, not the fake kind) during those years, and big deficits also became big surpluses.

Professor Vedder’s column explained that this anti-Keynesian policy didn’t produce mass unemployment.

But what about economic growth?

Well, you’ll see in the chart below the data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis for the 1945-48 period. There was a recession in 1946, which could be interpreted as evidence for Keynesianism.

But then look what happened in the next couple of years. There were more budget cuts, deficits became surpluses, and the economy enjoyed a strong rebound.

According to Keynesian theory, these two charts can’t exist. There can’t be an economic recovery when spending and deficits are falling.

Yet that’s exactly what happened after World War II (just as it happened under Harding, as Thomas Sowell observed).

Maybe, just maybe, Keynesianism is simply wrong. Maybe it’s nothing more than the economic version of a perpetual motion machine?

P.S. It’s also worth noting that huge increases in spending and debt under Hoover and Roosevelt didn’t produce good results in the 1930s.

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We did not get good policy during the economic crisis of the 1930s. Indeed, it’s quite likely that bad decisions by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt deepened and lengthened the Great Depression.

Likewise, George Bush and Barack Obama had the wrong responses (the TARP bailout and the faux stimulus) to the economic downturn of 2008-09.

But people in government don’t always make mistakes. If we go back nearly 100 years ago, we find that Warren Harding oversaw a very rapid recovery from the deep recession that occurred at the end of Woodrow Wilson’s disastrous presidency.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Robert Murphy has a very helpful tutorial on what happened.

…the U.S. experience during the 1920–1921 depression—one that the reader has probably never heard of—is almost a laboratory experiment …the government and Fed did the exact opposite of what the experts now recommend. We have just about the closest thing to a controlled experiment in macroeconomics that one could desire. To repeat, it’s not that the government boosted the budget at a slower rate, or that the Fed provided a tad less liquidity. On the contrary, the government slashed its budget tremendously… If the Keynesians are right about the Great Depression, then the depression of 1920–1921 should have been far worse. …the 1920–1921 depression was painful. The unemployment rate peaked at 11.7 percent in 1921. But it had dropped to 6.7 percent by the following year and was down to 2.4 percent by 1923. …the 1920–1921 depression “purged the rottenness out of the system” and provided a solid framework for sustainable growth. …The free market works. Even in the face of massive shocks requiring large structural adjustments, the best thing the government can do is cut its own budget and return more resources to the private sector.

Writing for National Review, David Harsanyi points out that there are many reasons why Warren Harding should be celebrated over Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson was one of the most despicable characters in 20th-century American politics: a national embarrassment. The Virginian didn’t merely hold racist “views;” he re-segregated the federal civil service. He didn’t merely involve the United States in a disastrous war in Europe after promising not to do so; he threw political opponents and anti-war activists into prison. Wilson, the first president to show open contempt for the Constitution and the Founding, was a vainglorious man unworthy of honor. Fortunately, we have the perfect replacement for Wilson: Warren Harding, the most underappreciated president in American history… Harding, unlike Wilson — and most of today’s political class, for that matter — didn’t believe politics should play an outsized role in the everyday lives of citizens. …Where Wilson had expanded the federal government in historic ways, creating massive new agencies such as the War Industries Board, Harding’s shortened term did not include any big new bureaucracies… Wilson left the country in a terrible recession; Harding turned it around, becoming the last president to end a downturn by cutting taxes, and slashing spending and regulations. Harding cut spending from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $3.3 billion by 1923.

Walter Block, in an article for the Mises Institute, explains that what happened almost 100 years ago can provide a good road map if President Trump wishes to restore prosperity today (especially when compared to the disastrous policies of Hoover and Roosevelt).

…let us look back a bit at some economic history regarding recessions and depressions… The depression in 1921 was short lived—maybe not a V, but at least a very narrow U. …Happily, during the 1921 depression, the government of President Warren G. Harding did not intervene…and the entire episode was over not in a matter of weeks (the V) or years (a fattish U), but months (a narrow U). The Great Depression, which stretched from 1929–41 (a morbidly obese U) stemmed from identical causes. …But Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt “fixed” this by propping up heavy industries whose extent was overblown by the previous artificially lowered interest rates, in an early “too big to fail” paroxysm. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff added insult to injury, and put the kibosh on any early recovery. …I now predict the sharpest of Vs, but if and only if, all other things being equal, the Trump administration cleaves to market principles. …So, Mr. President, embrace the free enterprise system, attain a V, a very narrow and sharp one, and the prognostication for November will be significantly boosted.

Professor Block’s analysis is very sound…except for the part where he speculates that Trump will do the right thing and copy Harding.

Given Trump’s awful track record on spending, it would be more accurate to speculate that I’ll be playing in the outfield for the Yankees when they win this year’s World Series.

Suffice to say, though, that it would be great to find another Warren Harding. Here’s a chart based on OMB data showing that he actually cut spending (and we’re looking at genuine spending cuts, not the make-believe spending cuts that happen in DC when politicians boost the budget by less than previously planned).

According to fans of Keynesian economics, these spending cuts should have tanked the economy, but instead we got a boom.

P.S. By the way, something similar happened after World War II.

P.P.S. Back in 2012, I shared some insightful analysis from Thomas Sowell about Harding’s economic policy.

P.P.P.S. Harding also lowered tax rates.

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There’s much to dislike about Keynesian economics, most notably that it tells politicians that their vice – buying votes by spending other people’s money – is somehow a virtue.

Advocates of Keynesianism also can be very simplistic, sometimes falling victim to the “broken window fallacy” described in this short video.

Bastiat is perhaps most well-known for his insight on this fallacy.

He explained that a good economist was capable of recognizing the difference between the seen and unseen (if you want to be wonky, the difference between direct effects and indirect effects).

Sadly, there are many people today who don’t grasp this distinction.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman is in this group.

And now we have a new member of the club. In a piece for Axios, Felix Salmon reveals he still believes in this primitive form of Keynesian economics.

There’s one big non-political reason why luxury stores were targeted by looters: Their wares can now be sold for top dollar, thanks to the rise of what is often known as the “circular economy.” …Instead of stealing goods they need to live, looters are increasingly stealing the goods they can most easily sell online. …Economically speaking, looting can have positive effects. Rebuilding and restocking stores increases demand for goods and labor, especially during a pandemic when millions of workers are otherwise unemployed. …The circular economy helps to reduce waste and can efficiently keep luxury goods in the hands of those who value them most highly.

To be fair, Salmon would have been correct (though immoral) if he said looting had a positive effect on looters.

But it definitely doesn’t have a positive effect on merchants (who lose money in the short run and probably have higher insurance payments thereafter), on consumers (who are likely to pay more for products in the future), or on the overall economy (because of the unseen reductions in other types of economic activity).

Let’s wrap up with a cartoon on the topic.

P.S. If you like humor about Keynesian economics, here’s the place to start.  You’ll find additional material herehere, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. Here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

P.P.P.S. To be fair to Keynes, he wrote that taxes should never exceed 25 percent.

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The coronavirus is a genuine threat to prosperity, at least in the short run, in large part because it is causing a contraction in global trade.

The silver lining to that dark cloud is that President Trump may learn that trade is actually good rather than bad.

But dark clouds also can have dark linings, at least when the crowd in Washington decides it’s time for another dose of Keynesian economics.

  • Fiscal Keynesianism – the government borrows money from credit markets and politicians then redistribute the funds in hopes that recipients will spend more.
  • Monetary Keynesianism – the government creates more money in hopes that lower interest rates will stimulate borrowing and recipients will spend more.

Critics warn, correctly, that Keynesian policies are misguided. More spending is a consequence of economic growth, not the trigger for economic growth.

But the “bad penny” of Keynesian economics keeps reappearing because it gives politicians an excuse to buy votes.

The Wall Street Journal opined this morning about the risks of more Keynesian monetary stimulus.

The Federal Reserve has become the default doctor for whatever ails the U.S. economy, and on Tuesday the financial physician applied what it hopes will be monetary balm for the economic damage from the coronavirus. …The theory behind the rate cut appears to be that aggressive action is the best way to send a strong message of economic insurance. …Count us skeptical. …Nobody is going to take that flight to Tokyo because the Fed is suddenly paying less on excess reserves. …The Fed’s great mistake after 9/11 was that it kept rates at or near 1% for far too long even after the 2003 tax cut had the economy humming. The seeds of the housing boom and bust were sown.

And the editorial also warned about more Keynesian fiscal stimulus.

Even if a temporary tax cuts is the vehicle used to dump money into the economy.

This being an election year, the political class is also starting to demand more fiscal “stimulus.” …If Mr. Trump falls for that, he’d be embracing Joe Bidenomics. We tried the temporary payroll-tax cut idea in the slow growth Obama era, reducing the worker portion of the levy to 4.2% from 6.2% of salary. It took effect in January 2011, but the unemployment rate stayed above 9% for most of the rest of that year. Temporary tax cuts put more money in peoples’ pockets and can give a short-term lift to the GDP statistics. But the growth effect quickly vanishes because it doesn’t permanently change the incentive to save and invest.

Excellent points.

Permanent supply-side tax cuts encourage more prosperity, not temporary Keynesian-style tax cuts.

Given the political division in Washington, it’s unclear whether politicians will agree on how to pursue fiscal Keynesianism.

But that doesn’t mean we can rest easy. Trump is a fan of Keynesian monetary policy and the Federal Reserve is susceptible to political pressure.

Just don’t expect good results from monetary tinkering. George Melloan wrote about the ineffectiveness of monetary stimulus last year, well before coronavirus became an issue.

The most recent promoters of monetary “stimulus” were Barack Obama and the Fed chairmen who served during his presidency, Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen. …the Obama-era chairmen tried to stimulate growth “by keeping its policy rate at zero for six-and-a-half years into the economic recovery and more than quadrupled the size of the Fed’s balance sheet.” And what do we have to show for it? After the 2009 slump, economic growth from 2010-17 averaged 2.2%, well below the 3% historical average, despite the Fed’s drastic measures. Low interest rates certainly stimulate borrowing, but that isn’t the same as economic growth. Indeed it can often restrain growth. …Congress got the idea that credit somehow comes free of charge. So now the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders think there is no limit to how much Uncle Sam can borrow. Easy money not only expands debt-service costs but also encourages malinvestment. …when Donald Trump hammers on the Fed for lower rates, …he is embarked on a fool’s errand.

Since the Federal Reserve has already slashed interest rates, that Keynesian horse already has left the barn.

That being said, don’t expect positive results. Keynesian economics has a very poor track record (if fiscal Keynesianism and monetary Keynesianism were a recipe for success, Japan would be booming).

So let’s hope politicians don’t put a saddle on the Keynesian fiscal horse as well.

If Trump really feels he has to do something, I ranked his options last summer.

The bottom line is that good short-run policy is also good long-run policy.

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Back in 2010, I wrote about the absurd contention, promoted by some advocates of Keynesian economics, that wars are good for prosperity.

According to this crackpot theory, destroying wealth is a net positive because people then have to spend money to rebuild.

Now this “conceptual bad penny” is showing up again.

The New York Times, in an article about Iran’s economy, includes some analysis suggesting that war would stimulate growth.

…some experts suggest that the regime’s hard-liners may eventually come to embrace hostilities with the United States as a means of stimulating the anemic economy. …Iran has in recent years focused on forging a so-called resistance economy in which the state has invested aggressively, subsidizing strategic industries, while seeking to substitute domestic production for imported goods. …it appears to have raised employment. Hard-liners might come to see a fight with Iran’s archenemy, the United States, as an opportunity to expand the resistance economy.

Needless to say, Iran is marching in the wrong direction. Not only would a war be devastating for the country’s prosperity, but Iran also is making a big mistake by pursuing a policy of “import substitution.”

That’s basically the Peronist approach that helped trigger Argentina’s big economic decline. Though, to be fair, Iran presumably is doing the wrong thing for geopolitical reasons (avoiding sanctions) rather than protectionist reasons.

There are some Keynesians in other parts of the world who think war is good for growth, in part based on a misreading of America’s economic history.

In a piece for the Foundation for Economic Education, Professor Burton Folsom exposes a great weakness in their argument, pointing out that advocates of Keynesian wrongly expected a return to depression when government spending dropped after World War II.

On the surface, World War II seems to mark the end of the Great Depression. During the war more than 12 million Americans were sent into the military, and a similar number toiled in defense-related jobs. Those war jobs seemingly took care of the 17 million unemployed in 1939. Most historians have therefore cited the massive spending during wartime as the event that ended the Great Depression. …In truth, building tanks and feeding soldiers—necessary as it was to winning the war—became a crushing financial burden. …In other words, the war had only postponed the issue of recovery. …President Roosevelt and his New Dealers sensed that war spending was not the ultimate solution; they feared that the Great Depression—with more unemployment than ever—would resume after Hitler and Hirohito surrendered. Yet FDR’s team was blindly wedded to the federal spending that…had perpetuated the Great Depression during the 1930s. …Roosevelt’s death in the last year of the war prevented him from unveiling his New Deal revival. But President Harry Truman was on board for most of the new reforms. …Republicans and southern Democrats refused to give Truman his New Deal revival. …Instead they cut tax rates to encourage entrepreneurs to create jobs for the returning veterans. …In 1945 and 1946 Congress repealed the excess-profits tax, cut the corporate tax to a maximum 38 percent, and cut the top income tax rate to 86 percent. In 1948 Congress sliced the top marginal rate further, to 82 percent.

Let’s be thankful that FDR (and then Truman) didn’t succeed in the plan for an “economic bill of rights” that would have radically expanded the power of government.

For those interested, there are other possible economic consequences of war.

In a scholarly study for the Journal of Monetary Economics, Professors Dan Ben-David and David H. Papell find that moments of significant economic disruption – such as wars – often are followed by periods of above-average and better-than-expected growth.

In this paper, we use up to 130 years of annual aggregate and per capita GDP data for 16 countries to investigate whether output exhibits a trend break and whether economic growth is constant or changing over time. …This study provides empirical evidence that, for nearly every one of the countries, the years that provide the strongest evidence for a trend break are associated with a sharp decline in GDP. These breaks are associated with World War II for most of the countries and either World War I or the Great Depression for the remainder. While countries do tend to exhibit relatively constant growth rates for extended periods of time, the occurrence of a major shock to the economy and the resultant drop in levels are usually followed by sustained growth that exceeds the earlier steady state growth. …On average, aggregate postbreak steady state growth rates are 79 percent higher than the average prebreak rates. The results are even stronger for the per capita case, where all fifteen countries exhibit postbreak growth rates that exceed prebreak rates. In the per capita case, the steady state postbreak rates are 163 percent higher than the steady state prebreak rates.

Their study doesn’t explain why the economy expands beyond the pre-disruption trend, but one obvious explanation is that wars erode the power of privileged interest groups and thus reduce the deadweight cost of cronyism. Especially for nations that lose wars and have to start from scratch.

That’s not an excuse to have a war, of course, but it does suggest that dark clouds can have silver linings.

But sometimes dark clouds have dark linings.

In a column for Vox, Dylan Matthews examines research about the link between war and harsh tax rates.

…for the first century of American history, the federal government was funded mainly through tariffs, not income taxes. It was only in the early 20th century that the 16th Amendment authorizing income taxes passed… A recent paper by UC – Berkeley grad student Juliana Londoño Vélez provides an intriguing explanation for this evolution. Progressive taxation wasn’t an inevitable effect of democracy… It was an accidental effect of the 20th century’s massive wars. …The first federal income tax proposal came during the War of 1812, and one was implemented briefly during the Civil War. While the Progressive Era brought a renewed push, and the 16th Amendment and an accompanying income tax law were passed four years before US entry into World War I, it wasn’t until the US joined the conflict that the tax’s scale expanded to modern levels. …World War I also greatly expanded the French income tax; in 1920, to help pay for reconstruction, the top rate grew from 2 percent to 50 percent. …Londoño Vélez’s argument is quantitative. She compiled data on top income tax rates for sixteen rich, developed countries, and pairs it with data on mass mobilizations for war. …Londoño Vélez found that “no country had high taxes on the rich before the advent of war, with [the] top rate rarely exceeding 10 percent … the Wars created substantial income tax progressivity, with periods of mass war mobilization coinciding with significant rises in the top income tax rate.” …Londoño Vélez also finds that war mobilization has a significant effect on income tax rates five years on, suggesting that the effect on taxes persisted.

Here’s Figure 1 from the article, showing how tax burdens jumped because of World War I and then jumped again because of World War II.

My two cents is that wars may have been the initial excuse for income taxes and high rates, but politicians eventually would have concocted other reasons (based on their self interest) to extract lots of money.

Indeed, “Wagner’s Law” is an entire hypothesis based on the notion that politicians figure out how to grab ever-greater amounts of money as nations get richer.

That being said, it’s good to have another reason to oppose war.

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Arthur Okun was a well-known left-of-center economist last century. He taught at Yale, was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for President Lyndon Johnson, and also did a stint at Brookings.

In today’s column, I’m not going to blame him for any of LBJ’s mistakes (being a big spender, creating Medicare and Medicaid).

Instead, I’m going to praise Okun for his honesty. Is his book, Equality and Efficiency: The Big Trade Off, he openly acknowledged that higher taxes and bigger government – policies he often favored – hindered economic performance.

Sadly, some folks on the left today are not similarly honest.

A column in the New York Times by Jim Tankersley looks at the odd claim, put forth by Elizabeth Warren and others, that class-warfare taxes are good for growth.

Elizabeth Warren is leading a liberal rebellion against a long-held economic view that large tax increases slow economic growth… Generations of economists, across much of the ideological spectrum, have long held that higher taxes reduce investment, slowing economic growth. …Ms. Warren and other leading Democrats say the opposite. …that her plans to tax the rich and spend the revenue to lift the poor and the middle class would accelerate economic growth, not impede it. …That argument tries to reframe a classic debate…by suggesting there is no trade-off between increasing the size of the pie and dividing the slices more equitably among all Americans.

Most people, when looking at why some nations grow faster and become more prosperous, naturally recognize that there’s a trade-off.

So what’s the basis of this counter-intuitive and anti-empirical assertion from Warren, et al?

It’s partly based on their assertion that more government spending is an “investment” that will lead to more growth. In other words, politicians ostensibly will allocate new tax revenues in a productive manner.

Ms. Warren wrote on Twitter that education, child care and student loan relief programs funded by her tax on wealthy Americans would “grow the economy.” In a separate post, she said student debt relief would “supercharge” growth. …Ms. Warren is making the case that the economy could benefit if money is redistributed from the rich and corporations to uses that she and other liberals say would be more productive. …a belief that well-targeted government spending can encourage more Americans to work, invest and build skills that would make them more productive.

To be fair, this isn’t a totally absurd argument.

The Rahn Curve, for instance, is predicated on the notion that some spending on core public goods is correlated with better economic performance.

It’s only when government gets too big that the Rahn Curve begins to show that spending has a negative impact on growth.

For what it’s worth, modern research says the growth-maximizing size of government is about 20 percent of economic output, though I think historical evidence indicates that number should be much lower.

But even if the correct figure is 20 percent of GDP, there’s no support for Senator Warren’s position since overall government spending currently consumes close to 40 percent of U.S. economic output.

Warren and others also make the discredited Keynesian argument about government spending somehow kick-starting growth, ostensibly because a tax-and-spend agenda will give money to poor people who are more likely to consume (in the Keynesian model, saving and investing can be a bad thing).

Democrats cite evidence that transferring money to poor and middle-class individuals would increase consumer spending…liberal economists say taxes on high-earners could spur growth even if the government did nothing with the revenue because the concentration of income and wealth is dampening consumer spending.

This argument is dependent on the notion that consumer spending drives the economy.

But that’s not the case. As I explained two years ago, consumer spending is a reflection of a strong economy, not the driver of a strong economy.

Which helps to explain why the data show that Keynesian stimulus schemes routinely fail.

Moreover, the Keynesian model only says it is good to artificially stimulate consumer spending when trying to deal with a weak economy. There’s nothing in the theory (at least as Keynes described it) that suggests it’s good to endlessly expand the public sector.

The bottom line is that there’s no meaningful theoretical or empirical support for a tax-and-spend agenda.

Which is why I think this visual very succinctly captures what Warren, Sanders, and the rest (including international bureaucracies) are proposing.

P.S. By the way, I think Tankersley’s article was quite fair. It cited arguments from both sides and had a neutral tone.

But there’s one part that rubbed me the wrong way. He implies in this section that America’s relatively modest aggregate tax burden somehow helps the left’s argument.

Fueling their argument is the fact that the United States now has one of the lowest corporate tax burdens among developed nations — a direct result of President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. Tax revenues at all levels of government in the United States fell to 24.3 percent of the economy last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported on Thursday, down from 26.8 percent in 2017. America is now has the fourth lowest tax burden in all of the O.E.C.D.

Huh? How does the fact that we have lower taxes that other nations serve as “fuel” for the left?

Since living standards in the United States are considerably higher than they are in higher-taxed Europe, it’s actually “fuel” for those of us who argue against class-warfare taxation and bigger government.

Though maybe Tankersley is suggesting that America’s comparatively modest tax burden is fueling the greed of U.S. politicians who are envious of their European counterparts?

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I was interviewed yesterday about the possibility of a recession and potential policy options. You can watch the full interview here and get my two cents about economic forecasting, as well as Keynesian monetary policy.

In this segment, you can see that I’m also worried about a return of Keynesian fiscal policy.

Let’s examine the issue, starting with an analogy.

According to the Urban Dictionary, a bad penny is a “thing which is unpleasant, disreputable, or otherwise unwanted, especially one which repeatedly appears at a bad time.”

That’s a good description of Keynesian economics, which is the strange notion that the government can provide “stimulus” by borrowing money from some people, giving it to other people, and assuming that society is then more prosperous.

Keynesianism has a long track record…of failure.

Now the bad penny is showing up again.

Donald Trump already has been pushing Keynesian monetary policy, and the Washington Post reports that he is now contemplating Keynesian fiscal policy.

Several senior White House officials have begun discussing whether to push for a temporary payroll tax cut as a way to arrest an economic slowdown… The payroll tax was last cut in 2011 and 2012, to 4.2 percent, during the Obama administration as a way to encourage more consumer spending during the most recent economic downturn. …Payroll tax cuts have remained popular with Democrats largely because they are seen as targeting working Americans and the money is often immediately spent by consumers and not saved. …In the past, Democrats have strongly supported payroll tax cuts, while Republicans have been more resistant. Republicans have complained that such cuts do not help the economy.

As I wrote back in 2011, it’s possible that a temporary reduction in the payroll tax rate could have some positive impact. After all, the marginal tax rate on work would be lower.

But it wouldn’t be a large effect, and whatever benefit wouldn’t accrue for Keynesian reasons. Consumer spending is a symptom of a strong economy, not the cause of a strong economy.

Now let’s look at another nation.

Germany was actually semi-sensible during the last recession, resisting the siren song of Keynesianism.

But now politicians in Berlin are contemplating a so-called stimulus.

The Wall Street Journal opines against this type of fiscal backsliding.

The German Finance Minister said Sunday he might possibly…cobble together a Keynesian stimulus package for his recession-menaced country. …Berlin invites this stimulus pressure as the only large eurozone government responsible enough to live within its means. A balanced budget and government debt below 60% of GDP encourage the International Monetary Fund…to call for Berlin to “use” its fiscal headroom to avert a recession. …Germany’s record on delivering projects quickly is lousy, as with Berlin’s perennially delayed new airport. Too few projects would arrive in time to stimulate the new business investment proponents say would save Germany from an imminent downturn, if they stimulate business investment at all. …The worst idea, though one of the more likely, is some form of cash-for-clunkers tax handout to support the auto industry.

The right answer, as I said in the above interview, is to adopt sensible pro-market reforms.

The main goal is faster long-run growth, but such policies also help in the short run.

And the WSJ identifies some of those reforms for Germany.

Cutting taxes in Germany’s overtaxed economy would be a faster and more effective stimulus… The main stimulus Germany needs is deregulatory. In the World Bank’s latest Doing Business survey, Germany ranked behind France on time and cost of starting a business, gaining construction permits and trading across borders. Germany also lags on investor protections and ease of filing tax returns. A dishonorable mention goes to Mrs. Merkel’s Energiewende (energy transformation), which is driving up costs for businesses already struggling with trade war, taxes and regulation. …these problems don’t require €50 billion to fix, and scrapping the Energiewende would save Berlin and beleaguered businesses and households money. The bad news for everyone is that Berlin is more likely to fall for a quick-fix chimera and waste the €50 billion.

The bottom line is that Keynesian economics won’t work. Not in the United States, and not in Germany.

But politicians can’t resist this failed approach because they can pretend that their vice – buying votes by spending other people’s money – is actually a virtue.

In other words, “public choice” in action.

Let’s close by augmenting our collection of Keynesian humor. Here’s a “your mama” cartoon, based on the Keynesian notion that you can boost an economy by destroying wealth.

P.S. Here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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Earlier this month, I commented on a Wall Street Journal report that expressed puzzlement about some sub-par economic numbers in America even though politicians were spending a lot more money.

I used the opportunity to explain that this shouldn’t be a mystery. Keynesian economics never worked in the past, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s not working today.

This is true in the United States, and it’s true in other nations.

Speaking of which, here are some excerpts from a story in the Wall Street Journal about China’s sagging economy.

A strategy by Chinese policy makers to stimulate the economy…hasn’t stopped growth from slowing, stoking expectations that Beijing will roll out more incentives such as easier credit conditions to get businesses and consumers spending. …The breakdown of second-quarter figures shows how roughly 2 trillion yuan ($291 billion) of stimulus, introduced by Premier Li Keqiang in March, is failing to make business owners less risk-averse. …While Beijing has repeatedly said it wouldn’t resort to flooding the economy with credit, economists say it is growing more likely that policy makers will use broad-based measures to ensure economic stability. That would include fiscal and monetary stimulus that risks inflating debt levels. Policy makers could lower interest rates, relax borrowing restrictions on local governments and ease limits on home purchases in big cities, economists say. Measures they could use to stimulate consumption include subsidies to boost purchases of cars, home appliances and other big-ticket items.

This is very worrisome.

China doesn’t need more so-called stimulus policies. Whether it’s Keynesian fiscal policy or Keynesian monetary policy, trying to artificially goose consumption is a dead-end approach.

At best, temporary over-consumption produces a very transitory blip in the economic data.

But it leaves a permanent pile of debt.

This is why, as I wrote just a couple of days ago, China instead needs free-market reforms to liberalize the economy.

A period of reform beginning in the late 1970s produced great results. Another burst of liberalization today would be similarly beneficial.

P.S. Free-market reforms in China also would help cool trade tensions. That’s because a richer China would buy more from America, thus appeasing folks like Trump who mistakenly fixate on the trade deficit. More important, economic liberalization presumably would mean less central planning and cronyism, thus mitigating the concern that Chinese companies are using subsidies to gain an unfair advantage.

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Given the repeated failures of Keynesian economic policy, both in America and around the world, you would think the theory would be discredited.

Or at least be treated with considerable skepticism by anyone with rudimentary knowledge of economic affairs.

Apparently financial journalists aren’t very familiar with real-world evidence.

Here are some excerpts from a news report in the Wall Street Journal.

The economy was supposed to get a lift this year from higher government spending enacted in 2018, but so far much of that stimulus hasn’t shown up, puzzling economists. Federal dollars contributed significantly less to gross domestic product in early 2019 than what economic forecasters had predicted after Congress reached a two-year budget deal to boost government spending. …Spending by consumers and businesses are the most important drivers of economic growth, but in recent years, government outlays have played a bigger role in supporting the economy.

The lack of “stimulus” wasn’t puzzling to all economists, just the ones who still believe in the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics.

Maybe the reporter, Kate Davidson, should have made a few more phone calls.

Especially, for instance, to the people who correctly analyzed the failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus.

With any luck, she would have learned not to put the cart before the horse. Spending by consumers and businesses is a consequence of a strong economy, not a “driver.”

Another problem with the article is that she also falls for the fallacy of GDP statistics.

Economists are now wondering whether government spending will catch up to boost the economy later in the year… If government spending were to catch up in the second quarter, it would add 1.6 percentage points to GDP growth that quarter. …The 2018 bipartisan budget deal provided nearly $300 billion more for federal spending in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 above spending limits set in 2011.

The government’s numbers for gross domestic product are a measure of how national income is allocated.

If more of our income is diverted to Washington, that doesn’t mean there’s more of it. It simply means that less of our income is available for private uses.

That’s why gross domestic income is a preferable number. It shows the ways – wages and salaries, small business income, corporate profits, etc – that we earn our national income.

Last but not least, I can’t resist commenting on these two additional sentences, both of which cry out for correction.

Most economists expect separate stimulus provided by the 2017 tax cuts to continue fading this year. …And they must raise the federal borrowing limit this fall to avoid defaulting on the government’s debt.

Sigh.

Ms. Davidson applied misguided Keynesian analysis to the 2017 tax cut.

The accurate way to analyze changes in tax policy is to measure changes in marginal tax rates on productive behavior. Using that correct approach, the pro-growth impact grows over time rather than dissipating.

And she also applied misguided analysis to the upcoming vote over the debt limit.

If the limit isn’t increased, the government is forced to immediately operate on a money-in/money-out basis (i.e. a balanced budget requirement). But since revenues are far greater than interest payments on the debt, there would be plenty of revenue available to fulfill obligations to bondholders. A default would only occur if the Treasury Department deliberately made that choice.

Needless to say, that ain’t gonna happen.

The bottom line is that – at best – Keynesian spending can temporarily boost a nation’s level of consumption, but economic policy should instead focus on increasing production and income.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some Keynesian-themed humor, click here.

P.P.S. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can watch my 11-year old video on Keynesian economics.

P.P.P.S. Sadly, the article was completely correct about the huge spending increases that Trump and Congress approved when the spending caps were busted (again) in 2018.

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Being a policy wonk in a political town isn’t easy. I care about economic liberty while many other people simply care about political maneuvering. And the gap between policy advocacy and personality politics has become even larger in the Age of Trump.

One result is that people who should be allies periodically are upset with my columns. Never Trumpers scold me one day and Trump fanboys scold me the next day. Fortunately, I have a very simple set of responses.

  • If you would have loudly cheered for a policy under Reagan but oppose a similar policy under Trump, you’re the problem.
  • If you would have loudly condemned a policy under Obama but support a similar policy under Trump, you’re the problem.

Today, we’re going to look at an example of the latter.

The New York Times reported today on Trump’s advocacy of easy-money Keynesianism.

President Trump on Friday called on the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates and take additional steps to stimulate economic growth… On Friday, he escalated his previous critiques of the Fed by pressing for it to resume the type of stimulus campaign it undertook after the recession to jump-start economic growth. That program, known as quantitative easing, resulted in the Fed buying more than $4 trillion worth of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities as a way to increase the supply of money in the financial system.

I criticized these policies under Obama, over and over and over again.

If I suddenly supported this approach under Trump, that would make me a hypocrite or a partisan.

I’m sure I have my share of flaws, but that’s not one of them.

Regardless of whether a politician is a Republican or a Democrat, I don’t like Keynesian fiscal policy and I don’t like Keynesian monetary policy.

Simply stated, the Keynesians are all about artificially boosting consumption, but sustainable growth is only possible with policies that boost production.

There are two additional passages from the article that deserve some commentary.

First, you don’t measure inflation by simply looking at consumer prices. It’s quite possible that easy money will result in asset bubbles instead.

That’s why Trump is flat-out wrong in this excerpt.

“…I personally think the Fed should drop rates,” Mr. Trump said. “I think they really slowed us down. There’s no inflation. I would say in terms of quantitative tightening, it should actually now be quantitative easing. Very little if any inflation. And I think they should drop rates, and they should get rid of quantitative tightening. You would see a rocket ship. Despite that, we’re doing very well.”

To be sure, many senior Democrats were similarly wrong when Obama was in the White House and they wanted to goose the economy.

Which brings me to the second point about some Democrats magically becoming born-again advocates of hard money now that Trump is on the other side.

Democrats denounced Mr. Trump’s comments, saying they showed his disregard for the traditional independence of the Fed and his desire to use its powers to help him win re-election. “There’s no question that President Trump is seeking to undermine the…independence of the Federal Reserve to boost his own re-election prospects,” said Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee.

Notwithstanding what I wrote a few days ago, I agree with Sen. Wyden on this point.

Though I definitely don’t recall him expressing similar concerns when Obama was appointing easy-money supporters to the Federal Reserve.

To close, here’s what I said back in October about Trump’s Keynesian approach to monetary policy.

I also commented on this issue earlier this year. And I definitely recommend these insights from a British central banker.

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Back in January, I wrote about the $42 trillion price tag of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.

To pay for this massive expansion in the burden of government spending, some advocates have embraced “Modern Monetary Theory,” which basically assumes the Federal Reserve can finance new boondoggles by printing money.

I debated this issue yesterday on CNBC. Here’s a clip from that interview.

Wow, this Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reminds me of the old joke about “I can’t be out of money. I still have checks in my checkbook.”

I don’t know how far Ms. Kelton would go with this approach. I know from previous encounters that she’s a genuine Keynesian and thus willing to borrow lots of money to finance a larger public sector. But her answer at 2:45 of the interview also suggests she’s okay with using the Federal Reserve to finance bigger government.

In either case, our debate is really about the size of government.

And anybody who wants a bigger burden of government is at least semi-obliged to say how it would be financed. The MMT crowd stands out because they basically say the Federal Reserve can print money.

To help understand the various options, I’ve created a helpful flowchart.

It’s possible, of course, for my statist friends to say “all of the above,” so these are not mutually exclusive categories.

Though the MMT people who select “Print money!” are probably the craziest.

And I hope that they are not successful. After all, nations that have used the printing press to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

I noted in the interview that MMT is so radical that it is opposed by conventional economists on the right and left.

For instance, Michael Strain of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute opines that the theory is preposterous and nonsensical.

…modern monetary theory…freshman Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke favorably about it earlier this month. …MMT is…sometimes a theory of money. MMT is also being discussed in the context of a political program to justify huge increases in social spending. Finally, there is its role as a prescription for macroeconomic policy. …The bedrock observation of MMT is correct: Any government that issues its own currency can always pay its bills. …this is about all that can be said favorably regarding modern monetary theory. …it is in its ideas about macroeconomic policy that MMT fully earns its place on the fringe. …what does MMT have to say about inflation when it does materialize? …it falls to the institution with authority over tax and budget policy — the U.S. Congress — to make sure prices are stable by raising taxes… MMT seems to call for tax increases in order to restrain inflation. …Modern monetary theory…if enacted it could cause great harm to the U.S. economy.

From the left side of the spectrum, here’s some of what Joseph Minarik wrote on the topic.

MMT rests on simplistic observations that have just enough truth to take in those who need to believe. Believers in MMT see crying societal needs… By common reckoning, government lacks the resources to address all of those needs immediately. MMT solves that problem with a simple and (literally) true observation: The federal government can just print the money. …And that is what willing policymakers choose to hear: Anything. Without limit. It is so convenient —  “too good to check.” …to MMT adherents, the Federal Reserve and all other inflation “Chicken Littles” are and forever have been totally wrong. There has not been rapid inflation for 20 years or so. Therefore, there never will be inflation again. …Yes, inflation is low. But it always is before it rises. And once inflation begins, slowing it is hard and painful. MMT is the perfect theory for the video game generation, which never saw the 1960s economic miscalculations so much like what MMT advocates today, and apparently believes that such mistakes can be reversed painlessly by just hitting the reset button. …the consequences could be catastrophic.

Catastrophic indeed.

Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle is not a good idea. And the policies of the MMT crowd presumably would lead to something far worse than what America experienced in the 1970s.

Rescuing the economy from that inflation was painful, so it’s not pleasant to imagine what would be needed to salvage the country if the MMT people ever got their hands on the levers of power.

Let’s wrap this up. Earlier this week, I presented a guide to fiscal policy based on six core principles.

If Modern Monetary Theory gains more traction, I may have to add a postscript.

P.S. If ever imposed, I suspect MMT would be very good news for people with a lot of gold and/or a lot of Bitcoin.

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I don’t care about the current shutdown battle, but I still feel compelled to add my two cents when people make silly arguments about the economy suffering because government is temporarily spending less money.

This is actually a two-part debate.

From a microeconomic perspective, there is some genuine disruption for affected federal bureaucrats, even if they eventually will get full – and lavish – compensation for their involuntary vacations. And some federal contractors are being hit as well.

There’s also a debate about the macroeconomic impact, with some making the Keynesian argument that government spending is somehow a stimulant for the economy.

I’ve endlessly explained why Keynesian argument is bad in theory and a joke in reality.

In this interview, I tried to make a more nuanced point, explaining that we should focus more on gross domestic income (GDI), which measures how we earn our national income, rather than gross domestic product (GDP), which measures how we allocate national income.

I’m not sure I got my point across effectively in a 30-second sound bite, but it’s a point worth making since people who understand GDI are much less susceptible to the Keynesian perpetual-motion-machine argument.

But enough from me.

Harold Furchtgott-Roth, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, analyzes the potential macroeconomic consequences of the shutdown.

Does the U.S. government shutdown endanger economic growth? It has led to missed paychecks… Yet these employees represent approximately 0.5% of all American workers… The effect of the furloughs on gross domestic product is likely small. …U.S. GDP is more than $20 trillion annually, or approximately $55 billion daily. The daily compensation of furloughed federal workers is about $52.5 million, or less than 0.1% of GDP. This figure does not include affected government contractors, but even doubling or tripling this figure yields only a small share of GDP. …The net effect of the partial shutdown on direct salaries and wages will primarily be to delay, but not reduce, income for the affected families. …Maybe that’s one reason the stock market, a barometer of expectations of future economic growth, has been unperturbed by the budget impasse. The Dow and the S&P 500 are up nearly 9% since the shutdown began Dec. 22. Experience also gives reason for optimism. The last major government shutdown occurred in 1995-96. It affected the entire federal government, not only part of it. Yet U.S. GDP growth increased from 2.7% in 1995 to 3.8% in 1996.

That final sentence is key.

The Keynesians are always predicting bad consequences when there’s some sort of policy that limits government spending.

But the real-world outcome is always different, as we saw with the sequester.

Steve Malanga, writing for the City Journal, takes a microeconomic perspective on the shutdown.

I’ve seen no evidence that the shutdown will affect me and my family. I’ve heard no friend, neighbor, or relative even mention it. Virtually everyone I know outside of my professional life seems to be going about their business. Still, I’ve taken a thorough look at press coverage over the past two weeks and found nearly 500 stories on how the closure is supposed to affect our lives. …The press seems intent on convincing the rest of us that we’re at risk… Many headlines stoking fear contradict the articles they introduce. A story in the Guardian, for instance, was pitched as a tale of the shocking impact that the shutdown would have on a small rural town. Though the paper tells us the town is “in the grip of a partial government shutdown,” readers find little evidence of it. “We really haven’t noticed anything,” City Manager Mike Deal confesses. …a story in the Bangor Daily News noted that the Small Business Administration, which hands out government-subsidized loans to firms, won’t be making them during the shutdown. Still, the story notes, that’s not going to make much of a hit on the local economy, since the SBA has made just 2,687 loans in Maine since 2010, for an average of just 27 a month. …a story in the Lafayette Daily Advertiser entitled, “How the shutdown is affecting local breweries in Louisiana.” The problem, the owner of Bayou Teche Brewing explains, is that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is responsible for approving labels for new beers, and the agency’s not working right now. “With every government shutdown that’s happened since we opened, we’ve had a beer needing label approval,” said Karlos Knott of Bayou. “And that results in beer we’re just having to sit on.”

Steve’s column reminds me of a piece I wrote back in 2013.

Which is why I wish one of the lessons we learned from the shutdown fight is that much of what government does is either pointless or counterproductive.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

Anyhow, no column on a government shutdown would be complete without some satire.

We’ll start with a sarcastic observation from Libertarian Reddit. Though it actually raises a serious point. I want to downsize Washington, but I don’t want any needless pain for bureaucrats. Yet shouldn’t we be similarly sensitive to the plight of folks in the private sector who suffer because of D.C.’s bad policies?

And it appears that government bureaucrats have figured out what to do with their hands now that they have extra time on their hands.

For what it’s worth, some bureaucrats engage in such recreation even when the government is open.

If you enjoy shutdown humor, you can find older examples here and here, and a new example here.

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I wrote in 2010 that Keynesian economics is like the Freddy Krueger movies. It refuses to die despite powerful evidence that you don’t help an economy by increasing the burden of government. In 2014, I wrote the theory was based on “fairy dust.” And in 2015, I said Keynesianism was akin to a perpetual motion machine.

What’s my proof? Well, during the period when Obama’s “stimulus” was in effect, unemployment got worse. And the best growth period under Obama was after the sequester, which Obama and others said was going to hurt the economy.

When I discuss these issues with Keynesians, they reflexively claim that Obama would have gotten good results if only he had increased spending even faster (which is also their knee-jerk response when you point out that Keynesianism didn’t work for Hoover, didn’t work for FDR, didn’t work for Japan, etc).

This is the Wizard-of-Oz part of Keynesianism. No matter how bad it works in the real world, they always claim that it theoretically could have worked if governments simply spent more.

But how do they explain away the fact that nations that adopt the right kind of austerity get better results?

Professor Edmund Phelps of Columbia University won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2006. Here’s some of what he wrote today for the Wall Street Journal, starting with a description of the debate.

Generations of Keynesian economists have claimed that when a loss of “demand” causes output to fall and unemployment to rise, the economy does not revive by itself. Instead a “stimulus” to demand is necessary and sufficient to pull the economy back to an equilibrium level of activity. …it is widely thought that fiscal stimulus—increased public spending as well as tax cuts—helped pull employment from its depths in 2010 or so back to normal in 2017. …But is there evidence that stimulus was behind America’s recovery—or, for that matter, the recoveries in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Britain and Ireland? And is there evidence that the absence of stimulus—a tight rein on public spending known as “fiscal austerity”—is to blame for the lack of a full recovery in Portugal, Italy, France and Spain?

So he looked at the real-world evidence and discovered that Keynesian policy is correlated with worse outcomes.

The stimulus story suggests that, in the years after they hit bottom, the countries that adopted relatively large fiscal deficits—measured by the average increase in public debt from 2011-17 as a percentage of gross domestic product—would have a relatively speedy recovery to show for it. Did they? As the accompanying chart shows, the evidence does not support the stimulus story. Big deficits did not speed up recoveries. In fact, the relationship is negative, suggesting fiscal profligacy led to contraction and fiscal responsibility would have been better. …what about monetary stimulus—increasing the supply of money or reducing the cost of money in relation to the return on capital? We can perform a similar test: Did countries where monetary stimulus in the years after they hit bottom was relatively strong—measured by the average quantity of monetary assets purchased by the central bank from 2011-17—have relatively speedy recoveries? This is a complicated question, but preliminary explorations do not give strong support to that thesis either. …the Keynesian tool kit of fiscal and monetary stimulus is more or less ineffective.

Here’s the chart showing how so-called fiscal stimulus is not associated with economic recovery.

He also reminds us that Keynesian predictions of post-World War II disaster were completely wrong.

Don’t history and theory overwhelmingly support stimulus? Well, no. First, the history: Soldiers returning from World War II expanded the civilian labor force from 53.9 million in 1945 to 60.2 million in 1947, leading many economists to fear an unemployment crisis. Keynesians—Leon Keyserling for one—said running a peacetime fiscal deficit was needed to keep unemployment from rising. Yet as the government under President Harry S. Truman ran fiscal surpluses, the unemployment rate went down (from 3.9% in 1946 to 3.1% in 1952) and the labor-force participation rate went up (from 57.2% to 58.9%).

It’s also worth remembering that something similar happened after World War I.

The economy boomed after the burden of government was reduced.

Let’s close by adding to our collection of Keynesian humor.

This is amusing, but somewhat unfair to Bernanke.

Yes, he was a Keynesian. But he wasn’t nearly as crazy as Krugman.

P.S. Here’s my video on Keynesian economics.

P.P.S. Here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

P.P.P.S. I also like what Professor Phelps said about the benefits of tax competition and jurisdictional rivalry.

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When I give speeches on Keynesian economics, I usually begin with a theoretical discussion on why consumer spending is a consequence of growth rather than the cause of growth.

I then focus on two reasons to be skeptical about borrow-and-spend schemes to artificially boost growth.

  • In the short run, it makes no sense to “stimulate” an economy by borrowing from one group of people and giving the money to another group of people. It’s like trying to become richer by taking money out of your left pocket and putting it in your right pocket.
  • In the long run, so-called stimulus creates a ratchet effect for larger government since politicians rarely obey Keynes’ admonition to cut back on government spending and run surpluses when the economy is in an expansion phase.

But I oftentimes include a caveat when discussing the first point.

It is possible, I hypothesize, to increase your short-run consumption if you take money out of a foreigner’s left pocket and put it in your right pocket.

I hasten to add that this is probably not be a wise course of action since the money may be squandered and you simply wind up further in debt, but I admit that the short-run consumption data will be better.

Well, there’s a new academic study on exactly this issue from the European Stability Mechanism (sort of an IMF for eurozone countries).

Here’s what the authors decided to investigate.

In this paper, we argue that there is a natural and largely unexplored connection between fiscal multipliers and the foreign holdings of public debt. The intuition is simple….fiscal expansions can…have crowding-out effects on the domestic private sector. Probably the most important among the latter is that the resources used by the domestic private sector to acquire public debt can detract from consumption and investment. This implies that the crowding-out effect of fiscal expansions is likely to be stronger when they are financed by selling public debt to domestic (as opposed to foreign) residents.

Here’s some of the data on foreign holdings of national debt.

Our data on foreign holdings of public debt reveals interesting patterns. First of all, there is significant variation across countries: in some countries, such as Canada and Japan, the share of public debt held by foreigners is consistently low, whereas in others, such as Finland and Austria, foreigners hold more than 75% of public debt towards the end of the sample. Over time, in line with the rise of financial globalization, the general pattern is one of increasing public debt in the hands of foreigners. In the United States, for instance, the share of public debt held by foreigners has increased from less than 5% in the 1950s to close to 50% today.

And here’s a chart from the study showing how foreign holdings of U.S. government debt have increased over time.

And their conclusions, after crunching all the numbers, is that nations can boost short-run consumption if a significant share of new debt is financed by foreigners.

Our main result is that, consistent with the previous argument, the estimated size of fiscal multipliers is increasing in the share of public debt that is in the hands of foreigners. This result holds both for the United States during the postwar period, and for a panel of advanced (OECD) economies over the last few decades. …We find that the average foreign share, i.e., the share of public debt held by foreigners before a fiscal shock, …reflect capital inflows, which help finance fiscal expansions thereby minimizing their crowding-out effects on domestic investment.

Incidentally, the authors acknowledge that this creates a beggar-thy-neighbor effect.

Our findings…point to a potentially negative spillover: to the extent that fiscal expansions are financed via foreign borrowing, their crowding-out effects are exported and consumption and investment are reduced elsewhere.

In other words, any transitory benefit one country experiences will be offset by losses elsewhere.

But politicians barely care about their own voters, much less those who live in other countries, so that certainly would not be an effective argument against Keynesian spending binges.

For what it’s worth, I still think the most persuasive argument is that Keynesian economics has an awful track record, even if there’s some ability to shift part of the short-run cost onto foreigners. After all, ask Keynesians to identify an example of successful government stimulus.

And let’s not forget that the long-run costs are always negative because larger government sectors necessarily lead to smaller productive sectors.

P.S. I feel somewhat guilty for writing a column that acknowledges a potential benefit (albeit transitory and unneighborly) of Keynesian economics, so allow me to expiate my sins by sharing this comparison of Keynesian economics and Austrian economics.

For what it’s worth, I think the Austrians over-emphasize the importance of interest rates. But there’s no question they are much closer to the truth than the Keynesians.

P.P.S. If you want to enjoy some cartoons about Keynesian economics, click here, here, here, and here. Here’s some clever mockery of Keynesianism. And here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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