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Keynes’s Ghost Continues To Haunt Economics

November 6, 2013

When the U.S. economy dipped into an inflationary recession in 1969, Murray N. Rothbard in his introduction to the Second Edition of America’s Great Depression wrote that the Keynesian paradigm could not explain that phenomenon, but Austrian economics could explain what was happening. If Rothbard was correct — and he was — then one might believe 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 and 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. Those so-called rules were not laws of economics at all, but rather were dogma first given by John Maynard Keynes in his infamous work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.

Joyous economists such as Arthur Laffer, who espoused a form of what he and others called “Supply Side Economics,” 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, but, alas, 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” really 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.

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 fueled 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.


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