Tag: keynesian theory

Paul Krugman on Pump-Priming and Trump

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently chided President Trump for imagining he invented the metaphor of “priming the pump” during an Economist interview. Yet Krugman, like Trump, buys into the premise that budget deficits really do “stimulate” total spending or “aggregate demand” which is commonly measured by growth of Nominal GDP (NGDP).

Economic booms and busts clearly have huge effects on budget deficits, but where is the evidence that deficits and surpluses have their own separate (“exogenous”) effect on NGDP? 

To isolate cause and effect, we have to take out the “endogenous” effects that ups and downs in the economy have on taxes and spending. That is why the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)estimates budget deficits or surpluses (divided by GDP) without automatic stabilizers, which has traditionally been called the “cyclically-adjusted” budget. I will label it the “C-A Deficit” for short.  

CA Deficit and NGDP

The red line in the graph shows the CBO’s Cyclically-Adjusted (C-A) deficit or surplus as a share of GDP. The blue line shows the percentage growth in Nominal GDP (NGDP). 

From 1965 to 2016, the C-A Deficit averaged -2.7% of GDP, and growth of nominal GDP averaged 6.6%.

Contrary to 1960s Keynesian orthodoxy, the graph and table reveal no connection between the size of cyclically-adjusted deficits or surpluses and the rate of growth of aggregate demand (NGDP).  From 1991 to 2001, for example, the C-A Budget swings from an average deficit to a sizable surplus with essentially no change in the pace of NGDP growth. 

There is no measurable or even visible connection between larger CA-Deficits and faster NGDP growth in 2009-2012, nor between budget surpluses and slower NGDP growth in 1998-2000.  For more than 50 years, our experience has frequently been the opposite of what demand-side fiscalism predicts. This is not just a short-term phenomenon.

Prof. Krugman Is Wrong, Again

Prof. Paul Krugman asserts in his New York Times column of May 31st that “Both textbook economics and experience say that slashing spending when you’re still suffering from high unemployment is a really bad idea – not only does it deepen the slump, but it does little to improve the budget outlook, because much of what governments save by spending less they lose as a weaker economy depresses tax receipts.”

While Prof. Krugman and most other fiscalists believe this to be self-evident, it is not.  Indeed, this fiscalist dogma fails to withstand the indignity of empirical verification.  Prof. Paul Krugman’s formulation fails to mention the state of confidence.  This is an important oversight.  As Keynes himself put it: “The state of confidence, as they term it, is a matter to which practical men pay the closest and most anxious attention.”

By ignoring the confidence factor, economic theory can lead to wildly incorrect conclusions and misguided policies.  Just consider naive Keynesian fiscal theory – the type presented (as Prof. Krugman notes) in textbooks and embraced by most policymakers and the general public.  According to Keynesian theory, an expansionary fiscal policy (an increase in government spending and/or a decrease in taxes) stimulates the economy, at least for a year or two after the fiscal stimulus.  To put the brakes on the economy, Keynesians counsel a fiscal contraction.

A positive fiscal multiplier is the keystone for Keynesian fiscal theory because it is through the multiplier that changes in the budget balance are transmitted to the economy.  With a positive multiplier, there is a positive relationship between changes in the fiscal deficit and economic growth: larger deficits stimulate growth and smaller ones slow things down.

So much for theory.  What about the real world?  Suppose a country has a very large budget deficit.  As a result, market participants might be worried that a further loosening of fiscal conditions would result in more inflation, higher risk premiums and much higher interest rates.  In such a situation, the fiscal multipliers may be negative.  Fiscal expansion would then dampen economic activity and a fiscal contraction would increase economic activity.  These results would be just the opposite of those predicted by naive Keynesian fiscal theory.

The possibility of a negative fiscal multiplier rests on the central role played by confidence and expectations about the course of future policy.  If, for example, a country with a very large budget deficit and high level of debt (estimated U.S. deficit and debt levels as a percentage of GDP for 2010 are 10.3% and 63.2%, respectively) makes a credible commitment to significantly reduce the deficit, a confidence shock will ensue and the economy will boom, as inflation expectations, risk premiums and long-term interest rates decline.

There have been many cases in which negative fiscal multipliers have been observed.  The Danish fiscal squeeze of 1983-86 and the Irish stabilization of 1987-89 are notable.  The fiscal deficits that preceded the Danish and Irish fiscal squeezes were clearly unsustainable, and risk premiums and interest rates were extremely high.  Confidence shocks accompanied the fiscal squeezes, and with negative multipliers in play, the Danish and Irish economies took off.  (Evidence from the U.S. is presented in an article by Professors Jason E. Taylor and Richard K. Vedder which appears in the current May/June 2010 issue of the Cato Policy Report.)

Margaret Thatcher also made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze.  To restart the economy in 1981, Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy.  Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists.  In a letter to the Times of London, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian (Prof. Krugman-type) response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”  Thatcher was quickly vindicated.  No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures than the economy boomed.  People had confidence in Britain again, and Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep free-market reforms.

While Prof. Krugman’s authority is weighty, his arguments and evidence are slender.

More Garbage-In-Garbage-Out from CBO

You don’t need to watch old Gunsmoke episodes if you want to travel into the past. Just read the latest Congressional Budget Office “research” claiming that Obama’s so-called stimulus “increased the number of full-time-equivalent jobs by 1.8 million to 4.1 million.” CBO’s analysis is a throwback to the widely discredited Keynesian theory that assumes you can enrich yourself by switching money from your left pocket to right pocket. For all intents and purposes, CBO wants us to believe their Keynesian model and ignore real world data. This is akin to the famous line attributed to Willie Nelson, who was caught with another woman by his wife and supposedly said, “Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?”

Using its own Keynesian model, the White House last year said that wasting $800 billion was necessary to keep the unemployment rate from rising above 8 percent. Yet the joblessness rate quickly jumped to 10 percent and remains stubbornly high. We’ve already beaten this dead horse (here, here, here, here, and here), in part because the White House has embarrassed itself even further with silly attempts to find some way of turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. This is why Obama Adminisration estimates have evolved from “jobs created” to “jobs saved” to “jobs financed.”

The CBO’s most recent ”calculations” are just another version of the same economic alchemy. But don’t believe me. Buried at the end of the report is this passage, where CBO basically admits that its new “research” simply plugged new spending numbers into its Keynesian formula. This sounds absurd, and it is, but don’t forget that these are the same geniuses that predicted that a giant new health care entitlement would reduce long-run budget deficits.

CBO’s current estimates of the impact of ARRA on output and employment differ slightly from those presented in its February 2010 report primarily because the agency has revised its estimates of ARRA’s impact on federal spending on the basis of new information. Outlays resulting from ARRA in the first quarter of calendar year 2010 were higher than the amount that CBO projected in February 2010 in preparing its estimate of the law’s likely impact on output and employment, primarily because a larger-than-expected amount of refundable tax credits was disbursed in the first quarter rather than later in the year. That change makes the estimated impact of ARRA on output and employment in the first quarter slightly higher than what CBO projected in February.

Is Keynesian Stimulus Working?

In his Brookings Institution speech yesterday, President Obama called for more Keynesian-style spending stimulus for the economy, including increased investment on government projects and expanded subsidy payments to the unemployed and state governments. The package might cost $150 billion or more.

The president said that we’ve had to “spend our way out of this recession.” We’ve certainly had massive spending, but it doesn’t seem to have helped the economy, as the 10 percent unemployment rate attests to.

It’s not just that the Obama “stimulus” package from February has apparently failed. The total Keynesian stimulus is not measured by the spending in that bill only, but by the total size of federal government deficits.

The chart shows that while the federal deficit (the total “stimulus” amount) has skyrocketed over the last three years, the unemployment rate has more than doubled. (The unemployment rate is the fiscal year average. Two months are included for FY2010.)


The total Keynesian stimulus of recent years has included the Bush stimulus bill in early 2008, TARP, large increases in regular appropriations, soaring entitlement spending, the Obama stimulus package from February, rising unemployment benefits, and falling revenues, which are “automatic stabilizers” according to Keynesian theory.

The deficit-fueled Keynesian approach to recovery is not working. The time is long overdue for the Democrats in Congress and advisers in the White House to reconsider their Keynesian beliefs and to start entertaining some market-oriented policies to get the economy moving again.