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Posts Tagged ‘Keynesian Economics’

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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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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Keynesian economics is like Freddie Krueger, constantly reappearing after logical people assumed it was dead. The fact that various stimulus schemes inevitably fail should be the death knell for the theory, which is basically the “perpetual motion machine” of economics. Indeed, I’ve wondered whether we’ve reached the point where the “debilitating drug” of Keynesianism has “jumped the shark.”

Yet Keynesian economics has “perplexing durability,” probably because the theory tells politicians that their vice of profligacy is actually a virtue.

But there are some economists who genuinely seem to believe that government can artificially boost growth. They claim terrorist attacks and alien attacks can be good for growth if they lead to more spending. They even think natural disasters are good for the economy.

I’m not joking. As reported by CNBC, the President of the New York Federal Reserve actually thinks the economy is stimulated when wealth is destroyed.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma actually will lead to increased economic activity over the long run, New York Fed President William Dudley said in an interview. …”The long-run effect of these disasters unfortunately is it actually lifts economic activity because you have to rebuild all the things that have been damaged by the storms.”

I’m always stunned when sentient adults make this kind of statement.

Should we invite ISIS into the country to blow up some bridges? Should we dynamite new buildings? Should we pray for an earthquake to destroy a big city? Should we have a war, featuring lots of spending and destruction?

All of those things, along with hurricanes and floods, are good for growth according to Keynesian theory.

Jeff Jacoby explains why this is poisonous economic analysis.

Could anything be more absurd? The shattering losses caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, and other calamities are grievous misfortunes that obviously leave society poorer. Vast sums of money may be spent afterward to repair and rebuild, but society will still be poorer from the damage caused by the storm or other disaster. Every dollar spent on cleanup and reconstruction is a dollar that could have been spent to enlarge the nation’s reservoir of material assets. Instead, it has to be spent replacing what was lost. …No, hurricanes are not good for the economy. Neither are floods, earthquakes, or massacres. When windows are shattered, all of humanity is left materially worse off. There is no financial “glint of silver lining.” To claim otherwise is delusional.

By the way, I don’t think any Keynesians actually want disasters to happen.

They’re simply making a “silver lining” argument that a bad event will lead to more spending. In their world, what drives the economy is consumption, and it’s the role of government to either consume directly or to give money to people so they will spend it.

In a recent interview, I pointed out that investment and production are the real keys to growth (which is why I prefer GDI over GDP). Increased consumption, I explained, is a result of growth, not the cause of growth.

You’ll notice I also threw in a jab at the state and local tax deduction, a loophole that needs to be abolished as part of tax reform.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

For those who want to do some additional reading on Keynesian economics, I recommend this new study by a couple of professors. Here’s a blurb from the abstract.

…Keynesians assert that even wasteful government spending can be desirable because any spending is better than nothing. This simple Keynesian approach fails to account, however, for several significant sources of cost. In addition to the cost of waste inherent in government spending, financing that spending requires taxation, which entails an excess burden. Furthermore, the employment of even previously idle resources involves opportunity costs.

I’ll close by augmenting theory and academic analysis with some real-world observations. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt, hasn’t worked for Japan, didn’t work for Obama, and didn’t work in Australia. Indeed, Keynesians can’t point to a single success story anywhere in the world at any point in history.

Though they always have an excuse. The government should have spent more, they tell us.

P.S. Since their lavish tax-free salaries are dependent on pleasing the governments that finance their budgets, international bureaucrats try to justify Keynesian economics. Here’s some recent economic alchemy from the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. I frequently urge people to watch my video debunking Keynesian economics. Though I admit it’s not nearly as entertaining as 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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