Keynesianism

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The basics of Keynes can be summed up as:
  • Keynes microeconomics was brilliant, his macroeconomics have never worked in the real world
  • Examples where it failed include: Japan, Venezuela, China, Russia, North Korea, U.S. in every administration since WWII
  • Keynes idea that government can borrow and spend to stimulate growth relies on the ignorance of the people to recognize that increased spending will cost them in taxes/inflation, that government will trim back as the economy gets better (which never happens), and assumes that jobs are highly mutable (they’re not any more).
  • Not all government spending is bad, it’s just usually worse than the alternatives: and the few successes are the broken window fallacy (looking at seen benefits, while ignoring larger unseen consequences)

Keynes: old and new

Keynes had micro and macro theories, and while his micro theories/models were quite good and still work, his macro-theory (the model of models) is what most people who say they're Keynesians tend to be talking about. Those not only never worked (Hayek won the nobel prize for showing why in the 1940's), but they broke completely in the 1970's with Stagflation (which couldn't exist according to Keynes's models).

Rather than admitting their prophet was wrong, Keynesians reworked the models and called that New Keynesianism -- they fixed the models so that stagflation could exist, and kept their religious theory in tact. So pre-1970's and post 1980's Keynesianism is based on different models, but the same flawed beliefs.. But we know that the new models have also never been accurate in any major prediction of trajectory in a recession or a recovery. So while they're not as glaringly wrong, it still doesn't actually work.

Treasury View

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The general definition is "government spending crowds out private investment" and is widely accepted. The Keynesian version is that it all has to be perfectly efficient and instantaneous, and since it isn't, they mock their re-definition of it. Keynesians prefer to see those lags, overreactions and inefficiencies in corrections (recessions/depressions) as opportunities for government to step in and spend (stimulate) to where "things should have been", to smooth out the downturns.

Nice theory. FDR tried it in the great depression (believing in his "brain trust"), and the results were extending the depression by a decade, and we have many more examples of its failure. So it's never actually worked in the real world. Keynes was a brilliant micro-economist, with delusions of being a macroeconomist, but his religion of collectivism got in the way of understanding human nature (how people and thus economies would react) or the nature of governments.


Why doesn't Keynesianism work?

Thus, since the model was more dynamic, you could inject artificial borrowing/spending to stimulate things in down-turns. To Keynes, the problem in a down economy was fear. Sometimes private sector would over-react and over-cut (e.g. markets weren't perfectly efficient). In those cases (depression/recession) unemployment would spike, the cost of labor would crash, and while things would eventually recover, there was more harm in that down-spike than there needed to be. So, his theory was that if in those down markets, government could spend up to where the economy should have been (the balance point), assuming we know what that was, and we could take up some of the slack (soften the fall from unemployment and create artificial consumption). While government still wasn't as efficient as private sector, it was NOT a macro-win (efficient jobs were replaced by less efficient ones), but it was less of a loss than doing nothing (and those jobs just not getting done). So in the short term (and micro-view), that's better than nothing. And when the economy went back up, you could CUT those government programs/jobs, the private sector would replace them with more efficient versions private sector jobs as things got better, and you changed a big dip into a smaller dip, which let you grow more overall.

The problems are:

You have to exist in an information vacuum

If people SEE government spending (and borrowing), they're generally smart enough to react to it. Since they realize government spending means the government must either tax, print money or borrow (to fund that spending), thus they KNOW they’re going to get hit by either taxes or inflation: which hurts their purchasing power. So they react (sometimes in advance of the policies even kicking in), by saving more, spending less, or sheltering investements. That negative economic reaction swamps any of the theoretical benefits in Keynes algorithms, sometimes before the policies have a chance to be implemented. His magical positive multipliers turn it into negative multipliers. Hayek believed that consumers were smart enough to see this and react. Keynes didn't factor it into the models. Guess which maps better in the real world?

You have to CUT government spending/programs when the economy gets better

If you don’t cut when you have the opportunity, all you succeeded in doing is replacing the more efficient private sector with the less efficient public sector, over time. But as Milton Friedman said, "nothing is as permanent as a temporary tax/program". Once you create a program it becomes a special interest and thus has impetus that not only keeps it around forever, but tries to make it grow. And in good times, everyone is more tolerant of that wasteful program, so there’s no leverage to implement a cutback. Which means that whole sector suffocates under the weight of a subsidized government competitor. (They reinvest, innovate and grow, less). Thus you did soften the dip, a little, but you also soften the recovery by even more -- and you'll never climb back to where the economy would have gotten without that less efficient replacement holding it back. Since a gain in efficiency of output translates, loosely, to higher salaries — you lost a lot of earning/economic potential, it’s just a missed opportunity cost (hidden).

You need to be replacing the same jobs you're losing

That was fine when job training in the early 1900's was hours: whether working a hoe, hammer, or welder, a worker was a worker was a worker. There was lots of grunt work, and much less skilled labor. Assembling a car, digging a ditch, a monkey could do it. So creating productivity required a body. But in the modern economy, it doesn't work that way. Unions have made job mobility difficult in low-skill jobs. And most jobs aren't low-skilled union ones any more. More of our economy is built around high skill jobs (that have far less worker mobility). Replacing a computer programmer with a ditch digger doesn't work, nor does replacing a SEO Optimization person with an accountant work. So a government temporary bridge projects doesn't help out of work IT folks, or autoworkers, accountants and so on. Retraining programs can't solve recessions since, the training lasts longer than the recession itself does -- thus it takes potential workers out of the economic pool of contributor (even fractional contributor, if they're doing something below their skill level), and moves them to the pool of taker/burden for the duration of the recession (while they're in training). This magnifies the depth and length of the recession. (Called Obamanomics).

Government has to be as efficient at the same job

If you replace 100 workers with 200, you lose 100 workers worth of money for the same output. That negative multiplier means the economy lost 100 workers worth of potential output. And it's the output (what we produce) that is real net value to the economy. That's where the famous Milton Freedman anecdote (that predates him) about replacing workers shovels with spoons comes from [1], it's not how many workers are working, it's how much they're producing that matters. And in the end, rarely, government programs start out as efficient, and they entropy quicker in a productivity sapping bureaucracy (there's no profit incentive for continual improvement in efficiency).

That is why Keynesian magic positive multipliers never actually worked in the real world.

Keynesian failures

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It would be great if Keynesianism worked, governments could manipulate economies, and our lives would be better. But history shows us the opposite: it has failed every time it has been tried. Examples: the new deal, the new new deal, after WWII (Keynesians predicted a depression cutting all those military jobs, instead we had huge growth), 1970's Stagflation broke their models completely, Japan's lost decades (Abenomics) all went the opposite of Keynes predictions. Every country that converted from centralized planning and communism to free'er economies (Russia, China, Vietnam, East Germany, etc), should have had a depression, instead of massive growth. The history of central planned economies like North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, should have all outgrown places like South Korea, Brazil or Hong Kong: but the opposite happened. Heck, if it would have worked, then Obamanomics would have given us the highest labor participation rates in our history, instead of the lowest since the Great Depression. So what did we learn? Keynesians learned nothing because reality doesn't fit their desires. But the rest of us learned that Keynes was wrong.

Avoid the strawman

Now I'm not arguing government spending never produces anything good. It does. In theory, you can do things like invest billions in infrastructure, and that will benefit the economy in the long term. Hoover dam meant cheap power, and helped enable Vegas and L.A. So a few public works programs, do help, eventually. However, for each Hoover dam, there are a dozen Solyndra's, or government spending disasters. When you average them all in, you get far more weighing down your economy than helps it up, because: politics. Obama's stimulus spent ≈6% on infrastructure. And the individual spending by government is less efficient than spending by private sector (as far as output per dollar, and so on).

Mostly, it's about time. Spending doesn't usually happen fast enough to be useful for what it's advocated for. Helping a recession requires immediate spending, not stuff that's going to happen over 5, 10 or 40 years. This is why if you want to "stimulate", a tax cut has been MUCH faster and more effectively than government spending -- as history has played out. Which choice will have the more immediate impact over the next 1-3 years?:

  • (a) government is going to stimulate by building roads & brides, so they start the studies on which need it the most, and 3 years later they're ready to break ground on something that will take 4 years to complete
  • (b) all companies that invest in communications infrastructure or facilities improvement will get a tax credit for that amount for the next 3 years.

It's not malice or partisan, it's just logic and math.

You may hate the military industrial complex, and that's fine. And war machinery isn't horribly good at adding value to an economy (it has some abstract value in security/stability/confidence). But even there, accidentally creating a fuckton of information workers (computer programmers, engineers, etc), helped empower the dot-com boom, and other innovations. Of course if you look at the other side, imagine if you'd spent that trillions on information infrastructure that we can all use, instead of just weapons system that have less value to society? So it was a net loss compared to what the private sector would have done with the money. But it was a net win compared to just social spending or Obama type spending.

I just sum up government spending with the real world example of New Jersey: For each $1.00 New Jersey gets back from the fed, they have to give the fed $1.64, they have to pay $.18 in compliance costs, and the government borrows about $.81 of that buck, and leaves New Jersey with the debt obligation. Progressives see the $1.00 as a net win. The taxpayers see that they paid about $2.63 to get <$1.00 in value, to build something they may or may not need -- and even then they only got that $1.00 back with all sorts of stipulations (politics) on how it would be spent (whether it made sense for their state or not). Yes, the $1.00 is better than nothing and occasionally does some good, and progressives love to crow about the occasional good things. But the point is that it never does nearly as much as much good as if the state/community had kept the $2.63 they had in the first place.

So government does good. Just historically it tends to produce less, for more money, than the alternative.

Conclusion

I believe that after another 60 years of examples, pounding home why he was wrong, Keynes would have eventually realized that while his micro-theories were valid, but his macro-theories never worked in practice (and broke in the 1970's). Keynes was a reasonable man that admitted Hayek was brilliant. So it is likely he would have revised his views, and would no longer be a Keynesian (at least not as Keynesians today think of it).

Or in other words:

  • in theory, theory and practice are the same thing
  • in practice, they are not

Keynes created theories. Hayek observed the real world, and human nature, and said that Keynes (and others models) couldn't work, unless you could model human behavior. Which you can't very well.

What is left of Keynes theories has become a mockery of what Keynes had ever believed or advocated: that spending results in magic multipliers (for each dollar you spend, you get many in return), and does so by ignoring that the dollar comes out of the economy (and that this has any de-stimulating effects by people/companies smart enough to see through the charade), or that companies have become more mobile than employees (they can offshore, and job training makes make-work job programs and stimulus way too specialized to have broad economic returns).

Thus simplest argument against Keynesianism is if Keynesianism worked, we wouldn't have recessions in the first place. Governments could manipulate money and spending to just make them disappear -- and of course, while governments can be credited with causing many recessions (or depressions), they can't be credited with stopping any of them.

So Keynes and Hayek would have eventually grown to have more similar views over time. And it probably would have looked more Hayekian than Keynesian.

References

More

Broken Window Fallacy

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The Broken Window Fallacy is a fundamental concept of economics (and logic) about seen advantages versus unseen costs. Henry Hazlitt summed up the art of economics as not merely looking at the immediate consequences but the longer effects of any act or policy, and tracing those consequences not merely for one group but for all groups

Keynes is Trickle Down Economics

One frequently sees liberal criticism of "trickle-down" economics based on the idea that the "down" part never happens.

Why, then, should we believe that Keynesian stimulus works any better?

Isn't that really just trickle-down? Let's give government lots of money and see what crumbs trickle down to the little guy, after that money has gone through a bunch of politically-motivated decisions from the top?

Income inequality and the middle class

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There’s a bunch of meme’s and soundbites going around where politicians love to point out the disappearing middle class (income inequality), and how we need them to fix it. There’s only a few problems with that:

  1. It’s a lie that plays to people’s ignorance and greed
  2. History always looks better from a distance (and if you don’t look too closely)
  3. It’s prestidigitation to distract you while they pick your pockets

This article details why this is a fraud, and how they give ammo to the frauds and flimflam the gullible.

Keynesian failures

GetFull.jpg
It would be great if Keynesianism worked, governments could manipulate economies, and our lives would be better. But history shows us the opposite: it has failed every time it has been tried. Examples: the new deal, the new new deal, after WWII (Keynesians predicted a depression cutting all those military jobs, instead we had huge growth), 1970's Stagflation broke their models completely, Japan's lost decades (Abenomics) all went the opposite of Keynes predictions. Every country that converted from centralized planning and communism to free'er economies (Russia, China, Vietnam, East Germany, etc), should have had a depression, instead of massive growth. The history of central planned economies like North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, should have all outgrown places like South Korea, Brazil or Hong Kong: but the opposite happened. Heck, if it would have worked, then Obamanomics would have given us the highest labor participation rates in our history, instead of the lowest since the Great Depression. So what did we learn? Keynesians learned nothing because reality doesn't fit their desires. But the rest of us learned that Keynes was wrong.


Written 2012.09.01 Edited 2014.12.22