By Mike Whitney
The economy operates on a simple principle: When people spend money, the economy grows. That means the goal of economic policy should be to maintain a level of spending that keeps the economy growing and minimizes the unavoidable peaks and valleys of the business cycle. This can’t be done without government intervention, mainly because free market capitalism tends to be too erratic (spending can fall sharply) and crisis prone. (See: Lehman Brothers 2008). Dramatic fluctuations in the markets, typically result in anemic business investment which leads to higher unemployment, slower growth and weaker demand. This problem was largely solved by British economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes understood that when private sector spending dropped off, public sector (government) spending had to increase or output would shrink, unemployment would rise, and the economy would begin to sputter.
Interestingly, all of the main players who are currently setting policy in the Obama administration and at the Federal Reserve have some understanding of Keynes’ theories and how they can be used to put the economy back on track. The fact that Keynes remedies have been rejected in favor of unconventional and ineffective theories like QE (Quantitative Easing), suggests that the supporters of these policies are less interested in reviving the economy and putting people back to work, then they are with rewarding powerful constituents. 5 years of experimentation, has resulted in chronic high unemployment, droopy consumer confidence, negative wage growth, sky-high foreclosures and personal bankruptcies, record food stamp usage, and a sharp increase in extreme poverty. At the same time, the 3 main stock indicies have more than doubled in value while financial institutions and corporations are raking in record profits. There’s no doubt that QE has served the interests of the few while hurting the interests of the many
The reason Keynes theories experienced a “comeback” in 2009 is not hard to grasp. Congress and the White House were afraid that the financial system was about to collapse. That’s why Obama’s team of economics advisors–led by Lawrence Summers–pushed through the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), because, when the chips were down, economists turned to the tried-and-true remedies of John Maynard Keynes. And they worked, too, the only drawback was that the amount of the stimulus was too small to produce the recovery that had been promised. (For the latest on the effectiveness of the stimulus, see: “Joe Scarborough’s Attack on Stimulus“, Dean Baker, CEPR)
Critics of Obama’s fiscal stimulus say that “It didn’t work”, but the claim is ridiculous. How could it not work? Stimulus is not some magic elixir that works on one subject and not on another. It’s spending. Spending is activity, spending is growth, spending is demand, spending is hiring, spending is stimulus. Spending is everything. When the government spends money, it has the same effect as when a consumer spends money or a business spends money. Therefore, the stimulus worked.
The economy is not a sentient being. The economy doesn’t care if private citizens do the spending or the government does the spending. It doesn’t care if the money comes from personal bank accounts or budget deficits. The economy doesn’t care if the money is spent on cancer research or pet rocks. It doesn’t matter, because all spending increases activity, strengthens demand, and leads to more hiring. Saving has the opposite effect. While saving may be the necessary and sensible choice for an individual, it’s poison for the economy. When people save, the velocity of money decreases, demand weakens and growth slows. This whole question of saving vs spending is basic to Keynes’ view of how the economy works. Here’s an example which helps to explain:
“Let’s imagine there are only two people in the world, you and your friend…..You make $100 a week by selling milk to your friend at $1 a bottle, and he makes $100 a week because you buy chocolate from him at $1 a bar. The entire income in this economy (its Gross Domestic Product or GDP) is $200, which corresponds to 100 bottles of milk and 100 bars of chocolate.
One day you make a decision to save $20 out of your $100 and hold it in cash. Consequently, my income falls to $80, and the sum income in the economy is now $180, and the economy produces 20 chocolate bars less than before. In the subsequent week, I only have $80 to spend, hence your takings also fall to $80, and you buy a smaller amount of my milk.
In the end, you and your friend’s incomes are smaller and you are producing and consuming less than is potentially possible. Your economy has fallen into recession.
So now we have a recession but how do we get out of it? Well the neoclassical free market thinking is that you simply do nothing and the forex market will correct itself. In our example you will reduce the price of milk until you are selling 100 bottles again. Your friend does the same and he is now selling 100 bars of chocolate again. The recession is over.
However, this doesn’t happen overnight and could take a while, months even years. So Keynes advocates intervention by the state. Say the state printed $20 and bought your unsold produce, then you would be back to a monthly income of $100 and so would your friend because your income is his income. Full production is immediate therefore no recession and no reduction in GDP.” (“The Basics of Keynesian Economics”, etoro.com)
While imperfect, this analogy helps us get a better fix on what’s going on in the economy today. Presently, output is below what it should be by more than $1 trillion per year, thus, unemployment is high and growth is weak. At the same time, personal savings have risen from near-zero in 2007 to almost 4 percent today. The increase in savings has decreased spending which, in turn, has reduced activity and demand. According to Keynes, the state should step in and boost its spending to employ more of the economy’s resources and put more people back to work. Then, as the recovery gains momentum, the state can reduce its contribution and trim the deficits.
The GOP deficit hawks in Congress want to do the exact opposite. They want to want to reduce the deficits by cutting public spending on popular social programs like Medicare and Social Security. This is a mistake that will only deepen the crisis and pave the way for another slump. It is fairly easy to see what’s wrong with this view by looking at last week’s Commerce Department report on GDP. On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that 4th Quarter growth (2012) had slipped into negative territory due to a sharp reduction in business inventories and defense spending. This sent off alarms across the country. Was the report a “one off” or is the economy really headed back into recession? That’s what everyone wants to know. (A recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth)
Now many people think that less money going to fatcat defense contractors is a good thing, and I agree. But as we said earlier, the economy doesn’t make value judgements like that. Spending is spending, and when government spending falls (as it did), the economy edges closer to recession. Now apply this same rule to the recommendations of the GOP deficit hawks. The hawks say they want “fiscal responsibility”, but what they’re opting for is another slump because the trillion dollar deficits (which represent $1 trillion of additional government spending) are the only thing keeping the economy from sliding back into recession. (See the breakdown of GDP report here).
So how do we reduce the deficits without pushing the economy back into recession?
Increase personal consumption? That seems like the logical choice, after all, if consumers go on another spending spree, then businesses will hire more workers, the economy will grow, federal revenues will balloon, and the deficits will vanish automatically. Problem solved, right?
The only thing is that–according to the data—personal consumption is just about back to normal now. That suggests that the problem isn’t consumption, the problem is that people are not spending as much as they did during the bubble years when residential construction was at its peak and homeowners were feeling flush due to rising housing prices. That hyper-spending was a result of fictitious equity, lax lending standards, low interest rates and massive fraud. The goal of policy should not be to create those same conditions again, (and increase the probability of another meltdown!) but to look for solutions elsewhere.
So, where do we look if not to more personal consumption? Business investment?
It’s unreasonable to expect businesses to make more products when demand is weak. They’d rather issue bigger dividends or buyback more of their own stock (which they have been doing) instead of building more widgets that will just sit on warehouse shelves.
So if neither consumers nor businesses can fill the gap (and reduce the deficits), then what about the government? In the short-term, that’s the best choice, especially since money is so cheap. Presently, the gov can borrow money at historic low rates–(10-year US Treasuries are currently below 2%). The administration should take advantage of these low rates and deploy more stimulus to kickstart the economy. As the economy gets back to full-steam, the deficits will shrink on their own and policymakers can work on a plan for long-term debt reduction.
So what should Obama be doing?
The Obama administration should launch an aggressive government-funded jobs program aimed at lowering unemployment by rebuilding the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure. The commitment of trillions of dollars in fiscal stimulus to the stated project would push the dollar lower which would reduce the trade deficit (US exports would become more competitive) while increasing domestic national savings. Full employment would put more money in the hands of people who would spent it quickly which would increase activity, demand and growth.
So the way to fix the economy is to use government resources to put people back to work. As Keynes opined in his masterpiece “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”: “I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest. I expect to see the State… taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment; since it seems likely that the fluctuations in the market estimation of the marginal efficiency of different types of capital…. will be too great to be offset by any practicable changes in the rate of interest.”
In other words, interest rates and monetary policy alone, won’t get the job done. (Isn’t that obvious after 5 years of zero interest rate policy, ZIRP, and QE??) The government has to take the lead in directing investment to produce a strong and sustainable recovery. That’s what Obama should be doing.
About the author: Mike Whitney
Mike Whitney writes on politics and finances and lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at [email protected]