Further Thoughts about the Keynesian Multiplier

In “The True Multiplier,” I argue that the upper limit of the Keynesian multiplier is 1. That is, real economic output can’t be increased by more than the amount of an exogenous increase in demand. If there are unemployed resources, for example, and government tries to employ them by printing money and spending it on those unemployed resources, the real output of the economy will increase only by the amount of real output produced by those hitherto unemployed resources. The real output of the economy will not – and cannot – increase by a multiple of the amount spent by government to employ unemployed resources.

A Keynesian would disagree. He would say that if the marginal propensity to consume is 0.8, the theoretical multiplier is 5. (See “The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math” for the derivation.) The Keynesian would probably agree that the actual multiplier is less than 5 because for at least some of the reasons discussed in “A Keynesian Fantasy Land,” but would insist that it’s greater than 1. But it can’t be, for the reasons given in “The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math” and “The True Multiplier.”

There’s another reason; thus this post.

Consider a static, full-employment economy, in which the same goods and services are produced year after year, yielding the same incomes to the same owners of the same factors of production, which do not change in character (though capital goods are maintained and replaced in kind). The owners of the factors of production spend and save their incomes in the same way year after year, so that the same goods and services are produced year after year, and those goods and services encompass the maintenance and in-kind replacement of capital goods. Further, the production cycle is such that all goods and services become available to buyers on the last day of the year, for use by the buyers during the coming year. (If that seems far-fetched, just change all instances of “year” in this post to “month,” “week,” “day,” “hour,” “minute,” or “second.” The analysis applies in every case.)

What would happen if there were a sudden alteration in this circular flow of production (supply), on the one hand, and consumption and investment (demand), on the other hand? Specifically, suppose that a component of the circular flow is a bilateral exchange between a gunsmith and a dairyman who produces butter: one rifle for ten pounds of butter. If the gunsmith decides that he no longer wants ten pounds of butter, and therefore doesn’t produce a rifle to trade for butter, the dairyman would reduce his output of butter by ten pounds.

A Keynesian would describe the situation as a drop in aggregate demand. There is no such thing as “aggregate demand,” of course; it’s just an abstraction for the level of economic activity, which really consists of a host of disparate transactions, the dollar value of which can be summed. Further, those disparate transactions represent not just demand, but demand and supply, which are two sides of the same coin.

In the case of the gunsmith and the dairyman, aggregate output drops by one rifle and ten pounds of butter. The reduction of output by one rifle is voluntary and can’t be changed by government action. The reduction of output by ten pounds of butter would be considered involuntary and subject to remediation by government – in the Keynesian view.

What can government do about the dairyman’s involuntary underemployment? Keynesians would claim that the federal government could print some money and buy the dairyman’s butter. This would not, however, result in the production of a rifle; that is, it would not restore the status quo ante. If the gunsmith has decided not to produce a rifle for reasons having nothing to do with the availability of ten pounds of butter, the government can’t change that by buying ten pounds of butter.

But … a Keynesian would say … if the government buys the ten pounds of butter, the dairyman will have money with which to buy other things, and that will stimulate the economy to produce additional goods and services worth at least as much as the rifle that’s no longer being produced. The Keynesian would have to explain how it’s possible to produce additional goods and services of any kind if only the gunsmith and dairyman are underemployed (one voluntarily, the other involuntarily). The gunsmith has declined to produce a rifle for reasons of his own, and it would be pure Keynesian presumption to assert that he could be lured into producing a rifle for newly printed money when he wouldn’t produce it for something real, namely, ten pounds of butter.

Well, what about the dairyman, who now has some newly printed money in his pocket? Surely, he can entice other economic actors to produce additional goods and services with the money, and trade those goods and services for his ten pounds of butter. The offer of newly printed money might entice some of them to divert some of their production to the dairyman, so that he would have buyers for his ten pounds of butter. Thus the dairyman might become fully employed, but the diversion of output in his direction would cause some other economic actors to be less than fully employed.

Would the newly printed money entice the entry of new producers, some combination of whom might buy the dairyman’s ten pounds of butter and restore him to full employment? It might, but so would private credit expansion in the normal course of events. The Keynesian money-printing solution would lead to additional output only where (1) private credit markets wouldn’t finance new production and (2) new production would be forthcoming despite the adverse conditions implied by (1). And the fact would remain that economic output has declined by one rifle, which fact can’t be changed by deficit spending or monetary expansion.

This gets us to the heart of the problem. Deficit spending (or expansionary monetary policy) can entice additional output only if there is involuntary underemployment, as in the case of the dairyman who would prefer to continue making and selling the ten pounds of butter that he had been selling to the gunsmith. And how do resources become involuntarily underemployed? Here are the causes, which aren’t mutually exclusive:

  • changes in perceived wants, tastes, and preferences, as in the case of the gunsmith’s decision to make one less rifle and forgo ten pounds of butter
  • reductions in output that are occasioned by forecasts of lower demand for particular goods and services
  • changes in perceptions of or attitudes toward risk, which reduce producers’ demand for resources, buyers’ demand for goods and services, or financiers’ willingness to extend credit to producers and buyers.

I am unaware of claims that deficit spending or monetary expansion can affect the first cause of underemployment, though there is plenty of government activity aimed at changing wants, tastes, and preferences for paternalistic reasons.

What about the second and third causes? Can government alleviate them by buying things or making more money available with which to buy things? The answer is no. What signal is sent by deficit spending or monetary expansion? This: Times are tough, demand is falling, credit is tight, In those circumstances, why would newly printed money in the pockets of buyers (e.g., the dairyman) or in the hands of banks entice additional production, purchases, lending, or borrowing?

The evidence of the Great Recession suggests strongly that printing money and spending it or placing it with banks does little if any good. The passing of the Great Recession — and of the Great Depression seventy years earlier — was owed to the eventual restoration of the confidence of buyers and sellers in the future course of the economy. In the case of the Great Depression, confidence was restored when the entry of the United States into World War II put an end to the New Deal.

In the case of the Great Recession, confidence was restored (though not as fully) by the end of “stimulus” spending. The lingering effort on the part of the Fed to stimulate the economy through quantitative easing probably undermined confidence rather than restoring it. In fact, the Fed announced that it would begin to raise interest rates in an effort to convince the business community that the Great Recession is really coming to an end.

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Related reading:

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Related posts:

A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Economics: A Survey (also here)
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
The True Multiplier
The Real Burden of Government
Obamanomics in Action
The Unemployment Rate Isn’t 5.3 Percent, and It Didn’t Drop in June