Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Keynes’s Ghost Continues To Haunt Economics

Guest post by William Anderson

According to Keynesian economics, recession is not supposed to accompany inflation. So when the U.S. economy dipped into an inflationary recession in 1969, Murray Rothbard noted (in his introduction to the Second Edition of America’s Great Depression) that while the Keynesian paradigm could not explain that phenomenon, Austrian economics could.

If Rothbard was correct — and he was — then one might think Keynesian “economics” should have been deep-sixed permanently, given it could not explain what everyone saw happening.

Likewise, during the turbulent 1970s and 1980, the bouts of inflationary recessions grew worse, until even die-hard political liberals such as ABC News’ economics correspondence, Dan Cordtz, bemoaned the fact that the “rules of economics” no longer seemed to apply. Cordtz’s so-called “rules” were not laws of economics at all, but instead were dogma first delivered by John Maynard Keynes in his infamous work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.

At this advent of the “impossible” stagflation, bough about by two decades of monetary and fiscal irrectitude of precisely the type prescribed by John Maynard, economists such as Arthur Laffer, who espoused a form of what he and others called “Supply Side Economics,” joyously declared that Keynesian “economics” was discredited, perhaps for good. The advent of three more inflationary recessions, including the current downturn, should have resulted in the permanent death of Keynesianism.

Alas, however, it seems that the Keynesian paradigm is more influential than ever.

Exhibit A is President Barack Obama who, in 2009, shortly after taking office, declared that America would “spend its way out” of the current recession.

Exhibit B has been Obama’s recent announcement that he would nominate Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve System. Yellen, not surprisingly, is a True Believing Keynesian.

Exhibit C is the ongoing popularity of Paul Krugman, who has done more than any other person in the world to promote Keynesianism and to demand it be applied, chapter and verse, to the world economy.

Exhibit D has been the continuing Keynesian policies of the Federal Reserve and the central bank of Japan.

Academic economists who hold to the “market test” view of economics should be puzzled. Here is a paradigm that claims there cannot be an inflationary recession, yet all of the recessions that have wracked the U.S. economy in recent decades have been inflationary. Furthermore, despite the spending of more than a trillion dollars in the name of the Keynesian “stimulus,” the economy continues to founder, as unemployment rates remain stubbornly high and millions of workers either have abandoned their search for work or work in part-time jobs just to keep food on the table.

Given the fact that both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations (not to mention Congress) have followed the Keynesian playbook, the sorry results should be enough to discredit Keynesianism, this time for good. Either a theory explains and predicts phenomena or it does not, and it should be clear that Keynesian theory has failed.

Alas, the academic “market test” does not embrace the actual success or failure of a theory. It seems that many academic economists do not wish to be bothered by what happens in the real world. The vaunted “market test” is not about actual results, but is about what many economists are willing to accept as what they wish to be true and what politicians believe is good for their own electoral purposes.  In other words, the only “market” in which they are interested is the “market” for new theories in politics and academia.

The assumption that comes with attempting to apply Eugene Fama’s “Perfect Market Hypothesis” to academic economics presupposes that economists are interested only in what actually occurs. Furthermore, the belief presumes that when presented with a set of facts, academic economists will give the same analysis and not be influenced by partisan politics.

Given the interpretations that economists such as Krugman, Alan Blinder, and others have made in the aftermath of the disastrous first week of “ObamaCare,” not to mention their shilling for the Obama administration itself, the latter is clearly untrue. Furthermore, we see there are “gains from trade,” as politicians tend to flock to those economists who can offer the proverbial “quick fix” to whatever ails the economy, as being seen as doing something confers more political benefits than doing the right thing, which is to curb the power, scope, and influence of state power.

Even Krugman admits that the appearance of expertise has fuelled the Keynesian bandwagon:

In the 1930s you had a catastrophe, and if you were a public official or even just a layman looking for guidance and understanding, what did you get from institutionalists? Caricaturing, but only slightly, you got long, elliptical explanations that it all had deep historical roots and clearly there was no quick fix. Meanwhile, along came the Keynesians, who were model-oriented, and who basically said “Push this button” — increase G, and all will be well. And the experience of the wartime boom seemed to demonstrate that demand-side expansion did indeed work the way the Keynesians said it did.

In the past five years politicians have been pushing “button G” and all is not well.

Yet, in this age of unrestrained government, the Keynesian promise of prosperity springing from massive government spending is attractive to politicians, economists, and public intellectuals. That it only makes things worse is irrelevant and beside the point. If the economy falters, politicians and academic economists blame capitalism, not Keynesianism, and they get away with it.

Photo of William L.    AndersonEditor’s Note: Beginning today, William Anderson will be teaching the online course “The Ghost of Keynes” at the  Mises Academy. This six-week online course will examine how and why many economists and governments continue to ignore the numerous fallacies that accompany Keynesian thinking even as the Keynesian-influenced economies around the world continue to flounder in high unemployment and low growth.
Register to enrol for “The Ghost of Keynes,” here. [All lectures are archived, so even if you enrol late you won’t miss out.]

William Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University.


  1. If Austrians are correct, where has the inflation been in the US economy since 2008?

  2. nickgavey

    The US Fed has been inflating the US currency at the rate of $85 billion per month (call this QE infinity). Prior to that there were two huge tranches of currency inflation (QE1 and QE2). To give an idea of the size of the current operation consider that the Fed presently calls into existence more currency out of nothing annually than the entire debt of the US government from the War of Independence until 2007. What this has accomplished is to hold equities at far higher levels than they ought to be. Also assets like hourses are in bubble yet again. Then you have municipal and soverign debt bubbles steadily expanding. Then there is the derivatives bubble (that one is really deadly). This mess is building to a head. It aint going to end kindly. Sure hope you are ready for what is a coming.



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