by John Mauldin
In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes wrote:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
I think Lord Keynes himself would appreciate the irony that he has become the defunct economist under whose influence the academic and bureaucratic classes now toil, slaves to what has become as much a religious belief system as an economic theory.
Men and women who display appropriate skepticism on other topics indiscriminately funnel facts and data through a Keynesian filter without ever questioning the basic assumptions. Some go on to prescribe government policies that have profound effects upon the citizens of their nations.
And when those policies create the conditions that engender the income inequality they so righteously oppose, they often prescribe more of the same bad medicine. Like 18th-century physicians applying leeches to their patients, they take comfort that all right-minded people will concur with their recommended treatments.
This is an ongoing series of a discussion between Ray Dalio and myself (read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) . Today’s article addresses the philosophical problem he is trying to address: income and wealth inequality.
Last week I dealt with the equally significant problem of growing debt in the United States and the rest of the world. The Keynesian tools much of the economic establishment wants to use are exacerbating the problems. Ray would like to solve it with a blend of monetary and fiscal policy, what he calls Monetary Policy 3.
The Problem with Keynesianism
Let’s start with a classic definition of Keynesianism from Wikipedia, so that we can all be comfortable that I’m not coloring the definition with my own bias (and, yes, I admit I have a bias). (Emphasis mine.)
Keynesian economics (or Keynesianism) is the view that in the short run, especially during recessions, economic output is strongly influenced by aggregate demand (total spending in the economy). In the Keynesian view, aggregate demand does not necessarily equal the productive capacity of the economy; instead, it is influenced by a host of factors and sometimes behaves erratically, affecting production, employment, and inflation.
The theories forming the basis of Keynesian economics were first presented by the British economist John Maynard Keynes in his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936 during the Great Depression. Keynes contrasted his approach to the aggregate supply-focused “classical” economics that preceded his book. The interpretations of Keynes that followed are contentious, and several schools of economic thought claim his legacy.
Keynesian economists often argue that private sector decisions sometimes lead to inefficient macroeconomic outcomes which require active policy responses by the public sector, in particular, monetary policy actions by the central bank and fiscal policy actions by the government, in order to stabilize output over the business cycle. Keynesian economics advocates a mixed economy—predominantly private sector, but with a role for government intervention during recessions.
Central banks around the world and much of academia have been totally captured by Keynesian thinking. In the current avant-garde world of neo-Keynesianism, consumer demand—consumption—is everything. Federal Reserve policy is clearly driven by the desire to stimulate demand through lower interest rates and easy money.
And Keynesian economists (of all stripes) want fiscal policy (essentially, government budgets) to increase consumer demand. If the consumer can’t do it, the reasoning goes, then the government should step into the breach. This of course requires deficit spending and borrowed money (including from your local central bank).
Essentially, when a central bank lowers interest rates, it is encouraging banks to lend money to businesses and telling consumers to borrow money to spend. Economists like to see fiscal stimulus at the same time, as well. They point to the numerous recessions that have ended after fiscal stimulus and lower rates were applied. They see the ending of recessions as proof that Keynesian doctrine works.
The Flaws of Keynesian Stimulus
First, using leverage (borrowed money) to stimulate spending today must by definition reduce consumption in the future. Debt is future consumption denied or future consumption brought forward.
Keynesian economists argue that bringing just enough future consumption into the present to stimulate positive growth outweighs the future drag on consumption, as long as there is still positive growth.
Leverage just equalizes the ups and downs. This has a certain logic, of course, which is why it is such a widespread belief.
Keynes argued, however, that money borrowed to alleviate recession should be repaid when growth resumes. My reading of Keynes does not suggest he believed in the unending fiscal stimulus his disciples encourage today.
Secondly, as has been well documented by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, there comes a point at which too much leverage becomes destructive. There is no exact way to know that point.
It arrives when lenders, typically in the private sector, decide that borrowers (whether private or government) might have some difficulty repaying and begin asking for more interest to compensate for their risks.
An overleveraged economy can’t afford the higher rates, and economic contraction ensues. Sometimes the contraction is severe, sometimes it can be absorbed. When accompanied by the popping of an economic bubble, it is particularly disastrous and can take a decade or longer to work itself out, as the developed world is finding out now.
Every major “economic miracle” since the end of World War II has been a result of leverage. Often this leverage has been accompanied by stimulative fiscal and monetary policies. Every single “miracle” has ended in tears, with the exception of the current recent runaway expansion in China, which is still in its early stages.
Insufficient Income Causes Recessions
I would argue (along, I think, with the “Austrian” economist Hayek and other economic schools) that recessions are not the result of insufficient consumption but rather insufficient income.
Fiscal and monetary policy should aim to grow incomes over the entire range of the economy. That is best accomplished by making it easier for entrepreneurs and businesspeople to provide goods and services. When businesses increase production, they hire more workers and incomes go up.
Without income, there are no tax revenues to redistribute. Without income and production, nothing of any economic significance happens. Keynes was correct when he observed that recessions are periods of reduced consumption, but that is a result and not a cause.
Entrepreneurs must be willing to create a product or offer a service in the hope there will be sufficient demand for their work. There are no guarantees, and they risk economic peril with their ventures, whether we’re talking about the local bakery or hairdressing shop or Elon Musk trying to compete with the world’s largest automakers. If government or central bank policies hamper their efforts, the economy stagnates.
The Reason Keynesianism Sticks
Many politicians and academics favor Keynesianism because it offers a theory by which government actions can become decisive in the economy. It lets governments and central banks meddle in the economy and feel justified.
It allows 12 people sitting in a board room in Washington DC to feel they are in charge of setting the most important price in the world, the price of money (interest rates) of the US dollar and that they know more than the entrepreneurs and businesspeople who are actually in the market risking their own capital every day.
This is essentially the Platonic philosopher king conceit: the hubristic notion that a small group of wise elites is capable of directing the economic actions of a country, no matter how educated or successful the populace has been on its own.
And never mind that the world has multiple clear examples of how central controls eventually slow growth and make things worse over time. It is only when free people are allowed to set their own prices of goods and services and, yes, even interest rates, that valid market-clearing prices can be determined. Trying to control them results in one group being favored over another.
In today’s world, savers and entrepreneurs are left to eat the crumbs that fall from the plates of the well-connected crony capitalists and live off the income from repressed interest rates. The irony of using “cheap money” to drive consumer demand is that retirees and savers get less money to spend, and that clearly drives their consumption down.
Why is the consumption produced by ballooning debt better than the consumption produced by hard work and savings? This is trickle-down monetary policy, which ironically favors the very large banks and institutions.
If you ask Keynesian central bankers if they want to be seen as helping the rich and connected, they will stand back and forcefully tell you “NO!” But that is what happens when you start down the road of financial repression. Someone benefits. So far it has not been Main Street.