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Friday, July 8, 2011

The Keynesian Drug: America’s Achilles' Heel

Keynes posited that government deficit-spending could boost an economy’s output of goods and services when it is short of full-employment. In the context of an economy near full-steam, tax cuts and/or more government spending could trigger inflation while adding little to GDP. To maintain balance in the government accounts, government surpluses during the ensuing upswing are used to pay off the accumulated debt. This is the theory. Unfortunately, it seems to be at odds with representative democracy. Specifically, a systemic bias exists in favor of recurrent deficits, and thus accumulating debt.

As one example, the surpluses in the U.S. Government in the late 1990s were not devoted entirely to debt reduction; even if they had been, the debt would not have been wiped out, given the economic downturn in 2001. Clinton’s assumption of 15 years of surpluses turned out to be wildly idealistic, and his decision to spend portions of the surpluses in the late 1990s imprudent. Besides the natural human preference for immediate gratification over paying down debt and the associated enabling by elected representatives who are easily distracted by other goals, the tendency of an economy to stay well below full-employment means deficits will continue to be called for more often than surpluses. In other words, on economic terms alone, Keynesianism is inherently unbalanced, and political dynamics rooted in human nature extenuate the imbalance.

The propensity of government officials to supervene other agenda items such as “size of government” and “jobs” in the face of deficits over $1 trillion and an accumulated debt of over $14 trillion boggles the mind. To be sure, those other items are important; but if they are allowed to eclipse or block the achievement of fiscal balance, it can be asked whether a people (and elected representatives) are sufficiently mature for to manage public debt.

For example, referring to the two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010 in the midst of a huge deficit (and accumulated debt), Alan Simpson (WY-R) bemoaned, "It's a great disappointment, a tremendous disappointment, because—what is it, $858 billion in two years added to the deficit? I mean, that just breaks your heart. What the hell do you think we've been talking about?" The former U.S. Senator was pointing to the immaturity involved in placing other priorities, even his own (i.e., smaller government), above reducing deficits running over $1 trillion and a debt of over $14 trillion. He was being an adult, bracketing other priorities dear to him while talking to irresponsible children who ought not be allowed to play with debt, especially when it is at a dangerous level.

Speaking on the possibility of the Chinese pulling out as a creditor of the U.S. Government Treasury bonds, Alan Simpson warns, "It will be precipitous. It won't be six months, might not even be six weeks. It might be six days when they suddenly start the flight. And I know how bankers are: once the flight starts, and the money and rumors, it'll be fast and difficult. . . . We don't know the tipping point. But the tipping point will come if you fail to address the long-term problem of debt, deficit, and interest." Given this danger, it is foolish, in other words, not to throw everything we have—including more revenue and lower spending—at the problem and then debate jobs and the size of government later.

In short, the American people ought to stay away from the Keynesian drug—finding a better way—or we must enact mechanisms by which we will enforce fiscal balance on ourselves. A balanced budget amendment would disallow Keynesianism rather than apply balance by limiting deficits to what a government stipulates itself to paying off in a few years’ time.

Even if modern Americans are in a convenient denial, the Anti-federalists saw the danger in sustained government borrowing (and the possibility of an associated increase in the U.S. Government’s power). Brutus (p. 151), for example, observes: “The power to borrow money is general and unlimited . . . By this means, they may create a national debt, so large, as to exceed the ability of the country ever to sink. I can scarcely contemplate a greater calamity that could befal this country, than to be loaded with a debt exceeding their ability ever to discharge. If this be a just remark, it is unwise and improvident to vest in the general government a power to borrow at discretion, without any limitation or restriction. (I)t would certainly have been a wise provision in this constitution, to have made it necessary that two thirds of the members should assent to borrowing money—when the necessity was indispensible, this assent would always be given, and in no other cause ought it to be.” War stemming from being invaded is likely what Brutus was thinking of—rather than stimulating the economy. Lest it be assumed that the latter would necessarily be excluded, two-thirds of the U.S. House members and U.S. Senators could vote for borrowing to stimulate the economy to create jobs that are necessary. To be sure, the likelihood of such a vote would be less than under the hurdle of a mere majority, but Keynesianism would not be theoretically excluded. The matter of enforcing balance in using the Keynesian drug is difficult in terms of design because of the gravity of the addiction and the associated enabling rationalization of slippage.

Click to add a question or comment on the Keynesian drug in a laggard economy.

Sources:

Brutus, Letter 8, January 10, 1788, 2.9.95, in Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Anti-Federalist, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Alan Simpson, Newsweek, December 27, 2010, p. 28.