We are all Keynesians now. Even the right in the US has joined the Keynesian camp with unbridled enthusiasm and on a scale that at one time would have been truly unimaginable.
For those of us who claimed some connection to the Keynesian tradition, this is a moment of triumph, after having been left in the wilderness, almost shunned, for more than three decades. At one level, what is happening now is a triumph of reason and evidence over ideology and interests.
Economic theory had long explained why unfettered markets were not self-correcting, why regulation was needed, why there was an important role for government to play in the economy. But many, especially people working in the financial markets, pushed a type of “market fundamentalism.”
The misguided policies that resulted — pushed by, among others, some members of US president-elect Barack Obama’s economic team — had earlier inflicted enormous costs on developing countries. The moment of enlightenment came only when those policies also began inflicting costs on the US and other advanced industrial countries.
Keynes argued not only that markets are not self-correcting, but that in a severe downturn, monetary policy was likely to be ineffective. Fiscal policy was required. But not all fiscal policies are equivalent. In the US today, with an overhang of household debt and high uncertainty, tax cuts are likely to be ineffective (as they were in Japan in the 1990s). Much, if not most, of last February’s US tax cut went into savings.
With the huge debt left behind by the administration of US President George W. Bush, the US should be especially motivated to get the largest possible stimulation from each dollar spent. The legacy of underinvestment in technology and infrastructure, especially of the green kind, and the growing divide between the rich and the poor, requires congruence between short-run spending and a long-term vision.
That necessitates restructuring both tax and expenditure programs. Lowering taxes on the poor and raising unemployment benefits while simultaneously increasing taxes on the rich can stimulate the economy, reduce the deficit, and reduce inequality. Cutting expenditures on the Iraq war and increasing expenditures on education can simultaneously increase output in the short and long run and reduce the deficit.
Keynes was worried about a liquidity trap — the inability of monetary authorities to induce an increase in the supply of credit in order to raise the level of economic activity. US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has tried hard to avoid having the blame fall on the Fed for deepening this downturn in the way that it is blamed for the Great Depression, famously associated with a contraction of the money supply and the collapse of banks.
And yet one should read history and theory carefully: preserving financial institutions is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. It is the flow of credit that is important, and the reason that the failure of banks during the Great Depression was important is that they were involved in determining creditworthiness; they were the repositories of information necessary for the maintenance of the flow of credit.
But the US financial system has changed dramatically since the 1930s. Many of the US’ big banks moved out of the “lending” business and into the “moving business.” They focused on buying assets, repackaging them and selling them, while establishing a record of incompetence in assessing risk and screening for creditworthiness. Hundreds of billions have been spent to preserve these dysfunctional institutions. Nothing has been done even to address their perverse incentive structures, which encourage short-sighted behavior and excessive risk taking. With private rewards so markedly different from social returns, it is no surprise that the pursuit of self-interest (greed) led to such socially destructive consequences. Not even the interests of their own shareholders have been served well.