The ‘Classical’ Treasury view of the 1920s and 30s was that extra government spending or tax cuts were not the solution to depression and mass unemployment. Instead, it would crowd out private expenditure if the money supply were not allowed to rise as it would drive up interest rates. But if money supply were allowed to rise, this would be inflationary. The solution was to reduce budget deficits to increase confidence in public finances and to encourage private investment. Greater price and wage flexibility were the answer to markets not clearing.
Keynes countered these arguments by arguing that the economy could settle in a state of mass unemployment, with low confidence leading to lower consumer expenditure, lower investment, lower incomes and lower employment. The situation would be made worse, not better, by cuts in public expenditure or tax rises in an attempt to reduce the budget deficit. The solution was higher public expenditure to stimulate aggregate demand. This could be achieved by fiscal and monetary policies. Monetary policy alone could, however, be made ineffective by the liquidity trap. Extra money might simply be held rather than spent.
This old debate has been reborn since the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the subsequent deep recession and, more recently, the lack of recovery. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The articles below consider the current situation. Many economists, but certainly not all, take a Keynesian line that austerity policies to reduce public-sector deficits have been counter-productive. By dampening demand, such policies have reduced national income and slowed the recovery in both investment and consumer demand. This has at best slowed the rate of deficit reduction or at worst even increased the deficit, with lower GDP leading to a reduction in tax receipts and higher unemployment leading to higher government social security expenditure.
Although monetary policy has been very loose, measures such as record low interest rates and quantitative easing have been largely ineffective in stimulating demand. Economies are stuck in a liquidity trap, with banks preferring to build their reserves rather than to increase lending. This is the result partly of a lack of confidence and partly of pressure on them to meet Basel II and III requirements of reducing their leverage.
But despite the call from many economists to use fiscal policy and more radical monetary policy to stimulate demand, most governments have been pre-occupied with reducing their deficits and ultimately their debt. Their fear is that rising deficits undermine growth – a fear that was given weight by, amongst others, the work of Reinhart and Rogoff (see the blog posts Reinhart and Rogoff: debt and growth and It could be you and see also Light at the end of the tunnel – or an oncoming train?.
But there is some movement by governments. The new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe is following an aggressive monetary policy to drive down the exchange rate and boost aggregate demand (see A J-curve for Japan?) and, more recently, the European Commission has agreed to slow the pace of austerity by giving the Netherlands, France, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia more time to bring their budget deficits below the 3% of GDP target.
Of course, whether or not expansionary fiscal and/or monetary policies should be used to tackle a lack of growth does not alter the argument that supply-side policies are also required in order to increase potential economic growth.
A Keynesian Victory, but Austerity Stands Firm The New York Times, Business Day, Eduardo Porter (21/5/13)
With Austerity Under Fire, Countries Seek a More Balanced Solution Knowledge@Wharton (22/5/13)
Keynes, Say’s Law and the Theory of the Business Cycle History of Economics Review 25.1-2, Steven Kates (1996)
Keynes’s Biggest Mistake The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (7/5/13)
Keynes’s Not So Big Mistake The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (7/5/13)
The Chutzpah Caucus The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (5/5/13)
Keynes and Keynesianism The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (14/5/13)
Japan Is About To Prove Keynesian Economics Entirely Wrong Forbes, Tim Worstall (11/5/13)
The poverty of austerity exposed Aljazeera, Paul Rosenberg (24/5/13)
Britain is a lab rat for George Osborne’s austerity programme experiment The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/5/13)
Eurozone retreats from austerity – but only as far as ‘austerity lite’ The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/5/13)
Europe’s long night of uncertainty Daily Times (Pakistan), S P Seth (29/5/13)
Abenomics vs. bad economics The Japan Times Gregory Clark (29/5/13)
European countries to be allowed to ease austerity BBC News (29/5/13)
U.K. Should Restore Growth, Rebalance Economy IMF Survey (22/5/13)
Now everyone is a Keynesian again – except George Osborne The Observer, William Keegan (2/6/13)
Austerity Versus Growth (III): Fiscal Policy And Debt Sustainability Social Europe Journal, Stefan Collignon (30/5/13)