The Keynesian Multiplier: Fiction vs. Fact

There are a few economic concepts that are widely cited (if not understood) by non-economists. Certainly, the “law” of supply and demand is one of them. The Keynesian (fiscal) multiplier is another; it is

the ratio of a change in national income to the change in government spending that causes it. More generally, the exogenous spending multiplier is the ratio of a change in national income to any autonomous change in spending (private investment spending, consumer spending, government spending, or spending by foreigners on the country’s exports) that causes it.

The multiplier is usually invoked by pundits and politicians who are anxious to boost government spending as a “cure” for economic downturns. What’s wrong with that? If government spends an extra $1 to employ previously unemployed resources, why won’t that $1 multiply and become $1.50, $1.60, or even $5 worth of additional output?

What’s wrong is the phony math by which the multiplier is derived, and the phony story that was long ago concocted to explain the operation of the multiplier.

MULTIPLIER MATH

To show why the math is phony, I’ll start with a derivation of the multiplier. The derivation begins with the accounting identity  Y = C + I + G, which means that total output (Y) = consumption (C) + investment (I) + government spending (G). I could use a more complex identity that involves taxes, exports, and imports. But no matter; the bottom line remains the same, so I’ll keep it simple and use Y = C + I  + G.

Keep in mind that the aggregates that I’m writing about here — Y , C , I , G, and later S  — are supposed to represent real quantities of goods and services, not mere money. Keep in mind, also, that Y stands for gross domestic product (GDP); there is no real income unless there is output, that is, product.

Now for the derivation (right-click to enlarge this and later images):

Derivation of investment-govt spending multiplier

So far, so good. Now, let’s say that b = 0.8. This means that income-earners, on average, will spend 80 percent of their additional income on consumption goods (C), while holding back (saving, S) 20 percent of their additional income. With b = 0.8, k = 1/(1 – 0.8) = 1/0.2 = 5.  That is, every $1 of additional spending — let us say additional government spending (∆G) rather than investment spending (∆I) — will yield ∆Y = $5. In short, ∆Y = k(∆G), as a theoretical maximum. (Even if the multiplier were real, there are many things that would cause it to fall short of its theoretical maximum; see this, for example.)

How is it supposed to work? The initial stimulus (∆G) creates income (don’t ask how), a fraction of which (b) goes to C. That spending creates new income, a fraction of which goes to C. And so on. Thus the first round = ∆G, the second round = b(∆G), the third round = b(b)(∆G) , and so on. The sum of the “rounds” asymptotically approaches k(∆G). (What happens to S, the portion of income that isn’t spent? That’s part of the complicated phony story that I’ll examine in a future post.)

Note well, however, that the resulting ∆Y isn’t properly an increase in Y, which is an annual rate of output; rather, it’s the cumulative increase in total output over an indefinite number and duration of ever-smaller “rounds” of consumption spending.

The cumulative effect of a sustained increase in government spending might, after several years, yield a new Y — call it Y’ = Y + ∆Y. But it would do so only if ∆G persisted for several years. To put it another way, ∆Y persists only for as long as the effects of ∆G persist. The multiplier effect disappears after the “rounds” of spending that follow ∆G have played out.

The multiplier effect is therefore (at most) temporary; it vanishes after the withdrawal of the “stimulus” (∆G). The idea is that ∆Y should be temporary because a downturn will be followed by a recovery — weak or strong, later or sooner.

An aside is in order here: Proponents of big government like to trumpet the supposedly stimulating effects of G on the economy when they propose programs that would lead to permanent increases in G, holding other things constant. And other things (other government programs) are constant (at least) because they have powerful patrons and constituents, and are harder to kill than Hydra. If the proponents of big government were aware of the economically debilitating effects of G and the things that accompany it (e.g., regulations), most of them would simply defend their favorite programs all the more fiercely.

WHY MULTIPLIER MATH IS PHONY MATH

Now for my exposé of the phony math. I begin with Steven Landsburg, who borrows from the late Murray Rothbard:

. . . We start with an accounting identity, which nobody can deny:

Y = C + I + G

. . . Since all output ends up somewhere, and since households, firms and government exhaust the possibilities, this equation must be true.

Next, we notice that people tend to spend, oh, say about 80 percent of their incomes. What they spend is equal to the value of what ends up in their households, which we’ve already called C. So we have

C = .8Y

Now we use a little algebra to combine our two equations and quickly derive a new equation:

Y = 5(I+G)

That 5 is the famous Keynesian multiplier. In this case, it tells you that if you increase government spending by one dollar, then economy-wide output (and hence economy-wide income) will increase by a whopping five dollars. What a deal!

. . . [I]t was Murray Rothbard who observed that the really neat thing about this argument is that you can do exactly the same thing with any accounting identity. Let’s start with this one:

Y = L + E

Here Y is economy-wide income, L is Landsburg’s income, and E is everyone else’s income. No disputing that one.

Next we observe that everyone else’s share of the income tends to be about 99.999999% of the total. In symbols, we have:

E = .99999999 Y

Combine these two equations, do your algebra, and voila:

Y = 100,000,000

That 100,000,000 there is the soon-to-be-famous “Landsburg multiplier”. Our equation proves that if you send Landsburg a dollar, you’ll generate $100,000,000 worth of income for everyone else.

The policy implications are unmistakable. It’s just Eco 101!! [“The Landsburg Multiplier: How to Make Everyone Rich”, The Big Questions blog, June 25, 2013]

Landsburg attributes the nonsensical result to the assumption that

equations describing behavior would remain valid after a policy change. Lucas made the simple but pointed observation that this assumption is almost never justified.

. . . None of this means that you can’t write down [a] sensible Keynesian model with a multiplier; it does mean that the Eco 101 version of the Keynesian cross is not an example of such. This in turn calls into question the wisdom of the occasional pundit [Paul Krugman] who repeatedly admonishes us to be guided in our policy choices by the lessons of Eco 101. [“Multiple Comments”, op. cit,, June 26, 2013]

It’s worse than that, as Landsburg almost acknowledges when he observes (correctly) that Y = C + I + G is an accounting identity. That is to say, it isn’t a functional representation — a model — of the dynamics of the economy. Assigning a value to b (the marginal propensity to consume) — even if it’s an empirical value — doesn’t alter that fact that the derivation is nothing more than the manipulation of a non-functional relationship, that is, an accounting identity.

Consider, for example, the equation for converting temperature Celsius (C) to temperature Fahrenheit (F): F = 32 + 1.8C. It follows that an increase of 10 degrees C implies an increase of 18 degrees F. This could be expressed as ∆F/∆C = k* , where k* represents the “Celsius multiplier”. There is no mathematical difference between the derivation of the investment/government-spending multiplier (k) and the derivation of the Celsius multiplier (k*). And yet we know that the Celsius multiplier is nothing more than a tautology; it tells us nothing about how the temperature rises by 10 degrees C or 18 degrees F. It simply tells us that when the temperature rises by 10 degrees C, the equivalent rise in temperature F is 18 degrees. The rise of 10 degrees C doesn’t cause the rise of 18 degrees F.

Similarly, the Keynesian investment/government-spending multiplier simply tells us that if ∆Y = $5 trillion, and if b = 0.8, then it is a matter of mathematical necessity that ∆C = $4 trillion and ∆I + ∆G = $1 trillion. In other words, a rise in I + G of $1 trillion doesn’t cause a rise in Y of $5 trillion; rather, Y must rise by $5 trillion for C to rise by $4 trillion and I + G to rise by $1 trillion. If there’s a causal relationship between ∆G and ∆Y, the multiplier doesn’t portray it.

PHONY MATH DOESN’T EVEN ADD UP

Recall the story that’s supposed to explain how the multiplier works: The initial stimulus (∆G) creates income, a fraction of which (b) goes to C. That spending creates new income, a fraction of which goes to C. And so on. Thus the first round = ∆G, the second round = b(∆G), the third round = b(b)(∆G) , and so on. The sum of the “rounds” asymptotically approaches k(∆G). So, if b = 0.8, k = 5, and ∆G = $1 trillion, the resulting cumulative ∆Y = $5 trillion (in the limit). And it’s all in addition to the output that would have been generated in the absence of ∆G, as long as many conditions are met. Chief among them is the condition that the additional output in each round is generated by resources that had been unemployed.

In addition to the fact that the math behind the multiplier is phony, as explained above, it also yields contradictory results. If one can derive an investment/government-spending multiplier, one can also derive a “consumption multiplier”:

Derivation of consumption multiplier

Taking b = 0.8, as before, the resulting value of kc is 1.25. Suppose the initial round of spending is generated by C instead of G. (I won’t bother with a story to explain it; you can easily imagine one involving underemployed factories and unemployed persons.) If ∆C = $1 trillion, shouldn’t cumulative ∆Y = $5 trillion? After all, there’s no essential difference between spending $1 trillion on a government project and $1 trillion on factory output, as long as both bursts of spending result in the employment of underemployed and unemployed resources (among other things).

But with kc = 1.25, the initial $1 trillion burst of spending (in theory) results in additional output of only $1.25 trillion. Where’s the other $3.75 trillion? Nowhere. The $5 trillion is phony. What about the $1.25 trillion? It’s phony, too. The “consumption multiplier” of 1.25 is simply the inverse of b, where b = 0.8. In other words, Y must rise by $1.25 trillion if C is to rise by $1 trillion. More phony math.

CAN AN INCREASE IN G HELP IN THE SHORT RUN?

Can an exogenous increase in G spending really yield a short-term, temporary increase in GDP? Perhaps, but there’s many a slip between cup and lip. The following example goes beyond the bare theory of the Keynesian multiplier to address several practical and theoretical shortcomings (some which are discussed  “here” and “here“):

  1. Annualized real GDP (Y) drops from $16.5 trillion a year to $14 trillion a year because of the unemployment of resources. (How that happens is a different subject.)
  2. Government spending (G) is temporarily and quickly increased by an annual rate of $500 billion; that is, ∆G = $0.5 trillion. The idea is to restore Y to $16 trillion, given a multiplier of 5 (In standard multiplier math: ∆Y = (k)(∆G), where k = 1/(1 – MPC); k = 5, where MPC = 0.8.)
  3. The ∆G is financed in a way that doesn’t reduce private-sector spending. (This is almost impossible, given Ricardian equivalence — the tendency of private actors to take into account the long-term, crowding-out effects of government spending as they make their own spending decisions. The closest approximation to neutrality can be attained by financing additional G through money creation, rather than additional taxes or borrowing that crowds out the financing of private-sector consumption and investment spending.)
  4. To have the greatest leverage, ∆G must be directed so that it employs only those resources that are idle, which then acquire purchasing power that they didn’t have before. (This, too, is almost impossible, given the clumsiness of government.)
  5. A fraction of the new purchasing power flows, through consumption spending (C), to the employment of other idle resources. That fraction is called the marginal propensity to consume (MPC), which is the rate at which the owners of idle resources spend additional income on so-called consumption goods. (As many economists have pointed out, the effect could also occur as a result of investment spending. A dollar spent is a dollar spent, and investment  spending has the advantage of directly enabling economic growth, unlike consumption spending.)
  6. A remainder goes to saving (S) and is therefore available for investment (I) in future production capacity. But S and I are ignored in the multiplier equation: One story goes like this: S doesn’t elicit I because savers hoard cash and investment is discouraged by the bleak economic outlook. Here is a more likely story: The multiplier would be infinite (and therefore embarrassingly inexplicable) if S generated an equivalent amount of I, because the marginal propensity to spend (MPS) would be equal to 1, and the multiplier equation would look like this: k = 1/(1 – MPS) = ∞, where MPS = 1.
  7. In any event, the initial increment of C (∆C) brings forth a new “round” of production, which yields another increment of C, and so on, ad infinitum. If MPC = 0.8, then assuming away “leakage” to taxes and imports, the multiplier = k = 1/(1 – MPC), or k = 5 in this example.  (The multiplier rises with MPC and reaches infinity if MPC = 1. This suggests that a very high MPC is economically beneficial, even though a very high MPC implies a very low rate of saving and therefore a very low rate of growth-producing investment.)
  8. Given k = 5,  ∆G = $0.5T would cause an eventual increase in real output of $2.5 trillion (assuming no “leakage” or offsetting reductions in private consumption and investment); that is, ∆Y = [k][∆G]= $2.5 trillion. However, because G and Y usually refer to annual rates, this result is mathematically incoherent; ∆G = $0.5 trillion does not restore Y to $16.5 trillion.
  9. In any event, the increase in Y isn’t permanent; the multiplier effect disappears after the “rounds” resulting from ∆G have played out. If the theoretical multiplier is 5, and if transactional velocity is 4 (i.e., 4 “rounds” of spending in a year), more than half of the multiplier effect would be felt within a year from each injection of spending, and about two-thirds would be felt within two years of each injection. It seems unlikely, however, that the multiplier effect would be felt for much longer, because of changing conditions (e.g., an exogenous boost in private investment, private reemployment of resources, discouraged workers leaving the labor force, shifts in expectations about inflation and returns on investment).
  10. All of this ignores that fact that the likely cause of the drop in Y is not insufficient “aggregate demand”, but a “credit crunch” (Michael D. Bordo and Joseph G. Haubrich in “Credit Crises, Money, and Contractions: A Historical View”, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Working Paper 09-08, September 2009). “Aggregate demand” doesn’t exist, except as an after-the-fact measurement of the money value of goods and services comprised in Y. “Aggregate demand”, in other words, is merely the sum of millions of individual transactions, the rate and total money value of which decline for specific reasons, “credit crunch” being chief among them. Given that, an exogenous increase in G is likely to yield a real increase in Y only if the increase in G leads to an increase in the money supply (as it is bound to do when the Fed, in effect, prints money to finance it). But because of cash hoarding and a bleak investment outlook, the increase in the money supply is unlikely to generate much additional economic activity.

So much for that.

THE THEORETICAL MAXIMUM

A somewhat more realistic version of multiplier math — as opposed to the version addressed earlier — yields a maximum value of k = 1:

More rigorous derivation of Keynesian multiplier

How did I do that? In step 3, I made C a function of P (private-sector GDP) instead of Y (usually taken as the independent variable). Why? C is more closely linked to P than to Y, as an analysis of GDP statistics will prove. (Go here, download the statistics for the post-World War II era from tables 1.1.5 and 3.1, and see for yourself.)

THE TRUE MULTIPLIER

In fact, a sustained increase in government spending will have a negative effect on real output — a multiplier of less than 1, in other words.

Robert J. Barro of Harvard University opens an article in The Wall Street Journal with the statement that “economists have not come up with explanations … for multipliers above one”. Barro continues:

A much more plausible starting point is a multiplier of zero. In this case, the GDP is given, and a rise in government purchases requires an equal fall in the total of other parts of GDP — consumption, investment and net exports….

What do the data show about multipliers? Because it is not easy to separate movements in government purchases from overall business fluctuations, the best evidence comes from large changes in military purchases that are driven by shifts in war and peace. A particularly good experiment is the massive expansion of U.S. defense expenditures during World War II. The usual Keynesian view is that the World War II fiscal expansion provided the stimulus that finally got us out of the Great Depression. Thus, I think that most macroeconomists would regard this case as a fair one for seeing whether a large multiplier ever exists.

I have estimated that World War II raised U.S. defense expenditures by $540 billion (1996 dollars) per year at the peak in 1943-44, amounting to 44% of real GDP. I also estimated that the war raised real GDP by $430 billion per year in 1943-44. Thus, the multiplier was 0.8 (430/540). The other way to put this is that the war lowered components of GDP aside from military purchases. The main declines were in private investment, nonmilitary parts of government purchases, and net exports — personal consumer expenditure changed little. Wartime production siphoned off resources from other economic uses — there was a dampener, rather than a multiplier….

There are reasons to believe that the war-based multiplier of 0.8 substantially overstates the multiplier that applies to peacetime government purchases. For one thing, people would expect the added wartime outlays to be partly temporary (so that consumer demand would not fall a lot). Second, the use of the military draft in wartime has a direct, coercive effect on total employment. Finally, the U.S. economy was already growing rapidly after 1933 (aside from the 1938 recession), and it is probably unfair to ascribe all of the rapid GDP growth from 1941 to 1945 to the added military outlays. [“Government Spending Is No Free Lunch”, The Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2009]

This is from a paper by Valerie A. Ramsey:

… [I]t appears that a rise in government spending does not stimulate private spending; most estimates suggest that it significantly lowers private spending. These results imply that the government spending multiplier is below unity. Adjusting the implied multiplier for increases in tax rates has only a small effect. The results imply a multiplier on total GDP of around 0.5. [“Government Spending and Private Activity”, National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2012]

There is a key component of government spending which usually isn’t captured in estimates of the multiplier: transfer payments, which are mainly “social benefits” (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid). In fact, actual government spending in the U.S., including transfer payments, is about double the nominal amount that is represented in G, the standard measure of government spending (the actual cost of government operations, buildings, equipment, etc.). But transfer payments — like other government spending — are subsidized by directing resources from persons who are directly productive (active worker) and whose investments are directly productive (innovators, entrepreneurs, stockholders, etc.) to persons who (for the most part) are economically unproductive and counterproductive. It follows that real economic output must be affected by transfer payments.

Other factors are also important to economic growth, namely, private investment in business assets, the rate at which regulations are being issued, and inflation. The combined effects of these factors and aggregate government spending have been estimated:. I borrow from that estimate, with a slight, immaterial change in nomenclature:

gr = 0.0275 -0.347F + 0.0769A – 0.000327R – 0.135P

Where,

gr = real rate of GDP growth in a 10-year span (annualized)

F = fraction of GDP spent by governments at all levels during the preceding 10 years [including transfer payments]

A = the constant-dollar value of private nonresidential assets (business assets) as a fraction of GDP, averaged over the preceding 10 years

R = average number of Federal Register pages, in thousands, for the preceding 10-year period

P = growth in the CPI-U during the preceding 10 years (annualized).

The r-squared of the equation is 0.73 and the F-value is 2.00E-12. The p-values of the intercept and coefficients are 0.099, 1.75E-07, 1.96E-08, 8.24E-05, and 0.0096. The standard error of the estimate is 0.0051, that is, about half a percentage point.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that F rises while the other independent variables remain unchanged. A rise in F from 0.24 to 0.33 (the actual change from 1947 to 2007) would reduce the real rate of economic growth by 0.031 percentage points. The real rate of growth from 1947 to 1957 was 4 percent. Other things being the same, the rate of growth would have dropped to 0.9 percent in the period 2008-2017. It actually dropped to 1.4 percent, which is within the standard error of the equation. And the discrepancy could be the result of changes in the other variables — a disproportionate increase in business assets (A), for example.

Given that rg = -0.347F, other things being the same, then

Y1 = Y0(c – 0.347F)

Where,

Y1 = real GDP in the period after a change in F, other things being the same

Y0 = real GDP in the period during which F changes

c = a constant, representing the sum of 1 + 0.025 + the coefficients obtained from fixed values of A, R, and P

The true F multiplier, kT, is therefore negative:

kT = ∆Y/∆F = -0.347Y0

For example, with Y0 = 1000 , F =0 , and other things being the same,

∆Y = [1000 – (0)(1000)] = 1000, when F = 0

∆Y = [1000 – (-0.347)(1000)] = 653, when F = 1

Keeping in mind that the equation is based on an analysis of successive 10-year periods, the true F multiplier should be thought of as representing the effect of a change in the average value of F in a 10-year period on the average value of Y in a subsequent 10-year period.

This is not to minimize the deleterious effect of F (and other government-related factors) on Y. If the 1947-1957 rate of growth (4 percent) had been sustained through 2017, Y would have risen from $1.9 trillion in 1957 to $20 trillion in 2017. But because F, R, and P rose markedly over the years, the real rate of growth dropped sharply and Y reached only $17.1 trillion in 2017. That’s a difference of almost $3 trillion in a single year.

Such losses, summed over several decades, represent millions of jobs that weren’t created, significantly lower standards of living, greater burdens on the workers who support retirees and subsidize their medical care, and the loss of liberty that inevitably results when citizens are subjugated to tax collectors and regulators.

ADDENDUM: A REAL ECONOMIC EXPLANATION FOR THE INEFFECTIVENESS OF “STIMULUS” SPENDING

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 (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 (a) private credit markets wouldn’t finance new production and (b) new production would be forthcoming despite the adverse conditions implied by (a). 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, which actually prolonged the depression

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.


Related reading:

Robert Higgs, “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed after the War”, Independent Review, Spring 1997

Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian, “New Deal Policies and the Persistence
of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium Analysis”, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Working Paper 597, revised May 2001 (later published in the Journal of Political Economy, August 2004)

Casey B. Mulligan, “Simple Analytics and Empirics of the Government Spending Multiplier and Other ‘Keynesian’ Paradoxes”, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 15800, March 2010

Daniel J. Mitchell, “Data in New World Bank Report Shows that Large Public Sectors Reduce Economic Growth“, Cato at Liberty, February 9, 2012

Steven Kates et al., “Reassessing the Political Economy of John Stuart Mill”, Online Library of Liberty, July 2015

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
The Rahn Curve Revisited

Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism

A REISSUE (WITHOUT UPDATES) OF THE ORIGINAL POST DATED DECEMBER 4, 2011

Robert Higgs quite rightly disparages “vulgar Keynesianism”:

Most of the people who purport to possess expertise about the economy rely on a common set of presuppositions and modes of thinking. I call this pseudo-intellectual mishmash vulgar Keynesianism. It’s the same claptrap that has passed for economic wisdom in this country for more than fifty years and seems to have originated in the first edition of Paul Samuelson’s Economics (1948), the best-selling economics textbook of all time and the one from which a plurality of several generations of college students acquired whatever they knew about economic analysis. Long ago, this view seeped into educated discourse and writing in the news media and in politics and established itself as an orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, this way of thinking about the economy’s operation, particularly its overall fluctuations, is a tissue of errors of both commission and omission. Most unfortunate have been the policy implications derived from this mode of thinking, above all the notion that the government can and should use fiscal and monetary policies to control the macroeconomy and stabilize its fluctuations. Despite having originated more than half a century ago, this view seems to be as vital in 2009 as it was in 1949.

Higgs then dissects “the six most egregious aspects of this unfortunate approach to understanding and dealing with economic booms and busts.” These are the aggregation of myriad and disparate economic actions, failure to take into account changes in relative prices, misunderstanding of the meaning and economic role of interest rates, disregard for the importance of capital, blind “money pumping” as a “solution” to recessions, and disregard for the disincentivizing effects of government activism on the private sector.

I agree with everything said by Higgs, and I have said many of the same things (in my own way) at this blog and its predecessor.  However, GDP — an aggregate measure of economic activity — is a useful construct, as flawed as it may be. It is an indicator of the general direction and magnitude of economic activity. Other aggregate measures — such as employment, jobs added and lost, unemployment rate — are also useful in that regard. If, for example, constant-dollar GDP per capita was twice as high in 2010 than it was 40 years earlier, in 1970 (computed here), it indicates that most Americans enjoyed a significantly higher standard of living in 2010 than they and their predecessors did in 1970. Further, the difference is so significant that it overshadows the difficulty of aggregating the value of billions of disparate transactions and separating the effects of price inflation from quality improvements.

What is special about 1970? It marks a turning point in the economic history of the U.S., which I discussed in a post that is now two-and-a-half years old:

Can we measure the price of government intervention [in the economy]? I believe that we can do so, and quite easily. The tale can be told in three graphs, all derived from constant-dollar GDP estimates available here. The numbers plotted in each graph exclude GDP estimates for the years in which the U.S. was involved in or demobilizing from major wars, namely, 1861-65, 1918-19, and 1941-46. GDP values for those years — especially for the peak years of World War II — present a distorted picture of economic output….

The trend line in the first graph indicates annual growth of about 3.7 percent over the long run, with obviously large deviations around the trend. The second graph contrasts economic growth through 1907 with economic growth since: 4.2 percent vs. 3.6 percent. But lest you believe that the economy of the U.S. somehow began to “age” in the early 1900s, consider the story implicit in the third graph:

  • 1790-1861 — annual growth of 4.1 percent — a booming young economy, probably at its freest
  • 1866-1907 — annual growth of 4.3 percent — a robust economy, fueled by (mostly) laissez-faire policies and the concomitant rise of technological innovation and entrepreneurship
  • 1908-1929 — annual growth of 2.2 percent — a dispirited economy, shackled by the fruits of “progressivism” (e.g., trust-busting, regulation, the income tax, the Fed) and the government interventions that provoked and prolonged the Great Depression (see links in third paragraph)
  • 1970-2008 — annual growth of 3.1 percent –  [2.8 percent for 1970-2010] an economy sagging under the cumulative weight of “progressivism,” New Deal legislation, LBJ’s “Great Society” (with its legacy of the ever-expanding and oppressive welfare/transfer-payment schemes: Medicare, Medicaid, a more generous package of Social Security benefits), and an ever-growing mountain of regulatory restrictions.

Taking the period 1970-2010 as a distinctive era — that of the full-fledged regulatory-welfare state — it may be possible to discern some aggregate relationships that were stable during that era (and may well continue to hold). The relationship that I want to explore is suggested by Higgs’s discussion of the vulgar Keynesian view of aggregate demand and the role of capital in economic production:

Because the vulgar Keynesian has no conception of the economy’s structure of output, he cannot conceive of how an expansion of demand along certain lines but not along others might be problematic. In his view, one cannot have, say, too many houses and apartments. Increasing the spending for houses and apartments is, he thinks, always good whenever the economy has unemployed resources, regardless of how many houses and apartments now stand vacant and regardless of what specific kinds of resources are unemployed and where they are located in this vast land. Although the unemployed laborers may be skilled silver miners in Idaho, it is supposedly still a good thing if somehow the demand for condos is increased in Palm Beach, because for the vulgar Keynesian, there are no individual classes of laborers or separate labor markets: labor is labor is labor. If someone, whatever his skills, preferences, or location, is unemployed, then, in this framework of thought, we may expect to put him back to work by increasing aggregate demand, regardless of what we happen to spend the money for, whether it be cosmetics or computers.

This stark simplicity exists, you see, because aggregate output is a simple increasing function of aggregate labor employed:

Q = f (L), where dQ/dL > 0.

Note that this “aggregate production function” has only one input, aggregate labor. The workers seemingly produce without the aid of capital! If pressed, the vulgar Keynesian admits that the workers use capital, but he insists that the capital stock may be taken as “given” and fixed in the short run. And ― which is highly important ― his whole apparatus of thought is intended exclusively to help him understand this short run. In the long run, he may insist, we are, as Keynes quipped, “all dead”; or he may simply deny that the long run is what we get when we place a series of short runs back to back. The vulgar Keynesian in effect treats living for the moment, and only for it, as a major virtue. At any given time, the future may safely be left to take care of itself.

In fact, the Keynesian-Marxian view of capital is about 180 degrees from the truth:

1. A broad array of capital goods (e.g., metal presses and railroad cars) will produce the same outputs (e.g., auto body parts of a certain quality and a certain number of passenger-miles) despite wide variations in the intelligence, education, and motor skills of their operators.

2. That is to say, capital leverages labor (especially unskilled labor).

3. Rewards justifiably — if unpredictably — flow to those who invent capital goods, innovate improvements in capital goods, invest in the production of such goods, and take the risk of owning businesses that use such goods in the production of consumer goods and services.

4. The activities of those inventors, innovators, investors, and entrepreneurs constitute a form of labor, but it is a very special form. It is not the brute force kind of labor envisaged by Marx and his intellectual progeny. It is a kind of labor that involves mental acuity, special knowledge, a penchant for risk-taking, and — yes, at times — hard work.

Without capital, labor would produce far less than it does. Capital, by the same token, enables labor of a given quality to produce more than it otherwise would.

(By “invest in the production of capital goods,” I mean to include individuals whose saving — whether or not it goes directly into the purchases of stocks and corporate bonds — helps to fund the purchases of capital goods by businesses.)

With that in mind, look at the aggregate relationship between the stock of private non-residential capital and private-sector GDP (GDP – G) for the period 1970-2010:

GDP - G vs net private capital stock, 1970-2010
Notes:  Current-dollar values for GDP and G are from Bureau of Economic Analysis, Table 1.1.5. Gross Domestic Product (available here). Capital stock estimates are from Bureau of Economic Analysis, Table 4.1. Current-Cost Net Stock of Private Nonresidential Fixed Assets by Industry Group and Legal Form of Organization (available here). Current-dollar values for GDP – G and capital stock were adjusted to 1982-84 dollars by constructing and applying deflators from CPI-U statistics for 1913-present (available here).

Variations around the trend line indicate fluctuations in economic activity. I treat the difference between “actual” GDP and the trend line as a residual to be explained by factors other than the aggregate value of the private, nonresidential capital stock. Measures of employment or unemployment will not do the job; they are simply proxies for aggregate output. The best measure that I have found is the value of new investment in the current year, relative to the value of the capital stock at the end of the prior year:

Residual vs new invest per PY capital stock
Notes: Residual GDP – G derived from Fig. 1, as discussed in text. Estimates of new investment in private capital stock are from Bureau of Economic Analysis, Table 4.7. Investment in Private Nonresidential Fixed Assets by Industry Group and Legal Form of Organization (available here); adjusted for inflation as discussed in notes for Fig. 1.

Using the trendline equation from Fig. 2, I adjusted the estimates derived from the trendline equation of Fig. 1, with this result:

Adjusted GDP - G vs. net private capital stock

There is precious little for labor to do but to show up for work and apply itself to the tools provided by capitalism:

Change in priv emply vs change in real GDP

*   *   *

Knowledgeable readers will understand that I have taken some statistical liberties. And I have done so as a way of satirizing the view that prosperity depends on labor and its correlate, consumption spending. But my point is a serious one: Capital should not be denigrated. Those who denigrate it give aid and comfort to the enemies of economic growth, that is, to the “progressives” who are the real enemies of the poor, of labor, and of liberty.

Making a Worse “Mess”

Obama and his pet grinning baboon VP like to claim that the economy is still in bad shape because of the “horrific mess” that they inherited from Bush. That the mess wasn’t Bush’s is lie number 1. That Obama’s policies would have “worked” but for Republican intransigence is lie number 2. There are many more lies lying around the Obama White House, but a distaste for nausea prevents me from detailing them.

I will give Obama the benefit of the doubt by measuring the effectiveness of his “stimulus” not by the current state of the economy, but by how far it has advanced the economy since the depth of the Great Recession. As it happens, the Great Recession bottomed in the second quarter of 2009. The latest estimates of real GDP, 12 quarters later, indicate real growth since the bottom of 2.2 percent a year. How does that stack up against previous post-WWII recessions? Here’s how:

Even the short-lived recoveries from the 1958 and 1980 recessions were more robust than the Obama recovery of 2009-2012. Enough said.

Related posts:
Economic Growth Since World War II
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective
Where We Are, Economically
Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause

Where We Are, Economically

UPDATED (10/26/12)

The advance estimate of GDP for the third quarter of 2012 has been released. Real growth continues to slog along at about 2 percent. I have updated the graph, but the text needs no revision.

*  *   *

It occurred to me that the trend line in the second graph of “The Economy Slogs Along” is misleading. It is linear, when it should be curvilinear. Here is a better version:


Derived from the October 26, 2012 release of GDP estimates by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. (Contrary to the position of the National Bureau of Economic Research, there was no recession in 2000-2001. For my definition of a recession, see “Economic Growth Since World War II.”)

The more descriptive regression line underscores the moral of “Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective,” which is this:

The claims by Obama and his retinue about O’s supposed “rescue” of the economy from the abyss of depression are ludicrous. (See, for example, “A Keynesian Fantasy Land,” “The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty,” “Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate,” “Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession,” The Real Multiplier,” “The Real Multiplier (II),”The Economy Slogs Along,” and “The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment.”) Nevertheless our flannel-mouthed president his sycophants insist that he has done great things for the country, though the only great thing that he could do is to leave it alone.

Obama is not to blame for the Great Recession, but the sluggish recovery is due to his anti-business rhetoric and policies (including Obamacare, among others). All that Obama can rightly take “credit” for is an acceleration of the downward trend of economic growth.

Related posts:
Are We Mortgaging Our Children’s Future?
In the Long Run We Are All Poorer
Mr. Greenspan Doth Protest Too Much
The Price of Government
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Rationing and Health Care
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Commandeered Economy
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
The Price of Government Redux
As Goes Greece
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
More about the Perils of Obamacare
Health Care “Reform”: The Short of It
The Mega-Depression
I Want My Country Back
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Understanding Hayek
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”
The Commandeered Economy
Stocks for the Long Run?
We Owe It to Ourselves
Stocks for the Long Run? (Part II)
Bonds for the Long Run?
The Real Multiplier (II)
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective

The Great Recession Is Barely Over … Maybe

UPDATED 12/22/11

The third estimate of real GDP for the third quarter of 2011 (3Q2011) is $15 billion lower than last month’s advance estimate. The annualized rate of $13,331.6 billion (in chained 2005 dollars) is only $5.6 billion above the estimate for the fourth quarter of 2007 (4Q2007), the last pre-recession quarter.

Based on the third estimate, real GDP grew at an annual rate of 0.011 percent — 11/1000 of one percent — between 4Q2007 and 3Q2011. In other words, real GDP in 3Q2011 is the same as it was in 4Q2007. Whether or not the Great Recession has ended is still up in the air and will not be known (possibly) until the release of GDP estimates for 4Q2011.

Related posts:
The Great Recession is Not Over
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession

The Real Multiplier

In truth, the Keynesian multiplier is a mathematical fiction, as explained here, and government spending is in fact destructive of economic growth, as discussed here and in some of the posts listed at the end.

GRAPH UPDATED 12/01/13

The Keynesian multiplier is bogus, for reasons spelled out in “A Keynesian Fantasy Land.” By bogus, I do not mean that government spending (G) has no effect on gross domestic product (GDP). What I mean is that the effect of G on GDP is (1) overrated and (2) irrelevant.

The effect of G on GDP is overrated because, contrary to the assertions of quacks like Paul Krugman, an increase in G does not cause an increase in GDP. For example, Robert Barro writes:

For annual data that start in 1939 or earlier (and, thereby, include World War II), the defense-spending multiplier that applies at the average unemployment rate of 5.6% is in a range of 0.6-0.7. A multiplier less than one means that, overall, other components of GDP fell when defense spending rose.

My own analysis of post-WWII statistics (for 1947-2010) yields a multiplier for G of 0.8. [UPDATE: A more authoritative estimate is 0.5.] That is to say, every additional dollar of government spending has led to a 20-cent reduction in non-government spending. To put it another way, the real effect of additional government spending is the shrinkage of the private sector. (Which makes sense, when you stop to think about it.) Thus the irrelevance of the multiplier: What good is more government spending if it shrinks the private sector, where real products and services are produced?

It is quite true that private investment in business capital (buildings, equipment, technology, etc.) rises and falls with the business cycle. The elasticity of new investment with respect to private-sector GDP (GDP – G) during the period 1947-2010 was about 3.3; that is, every 1-percent change in private-sector GDP resulted in a 3.3-percent change (in the same direction) in new investment. (Kevin Hassett clearly discusses the causes and effects of these fluctuations in “Investment,” at the Library of Economics and Liberty.)

But no matter the level of investment, it yields positive returns in the aggregate and most of the time. That is the reason for positive, real interest rates on corporate debt, and for the rising real value of stock prices over the long run. The average rate of return on net capital investment (i.e., after depreciation) for 1947-2010 was about 10 percent. However, there was a marked downward trend until the early 1980s, followed by what seems to be a leveling off. The average since the “Reagan recovery” of the mid-1980s has hovered below 8 percent.

Pretax returns on net business assets 1929-2012
Source: Derived from BEA Table 4.1 Current-Cost Net Stock of Private Nonresidential Fixed Assets by Industry Group and Legal Form of Organization, Table 1.3.5. Gross Value Added by Sector, and Table 1.15. Price, Costs, and Profit Per Unit of Real Gross Value Added of Nonfinancial Domestic Corporate Business.

In sum, the real multiplier on government activity is markedly negative. Government activity has resulted in an ever-deepening Mega-Depression.

Related reading:
Vulgar Keynesianism on Steroids
Four Reasons Keynesians Keep Getting It Wrong
How Do You Do the Voodoo of the Spending Multiplier?

Related posts:
Economic Growth since WWII
The Price of Government
The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
The Real Burden of Government
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
I Want My Country Back
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession

Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate

This post examines practical reasons for the failure of “stimulus” to stimulate and the “multiplier” to multiply. The deeper truth is that the Keynesian multiplier is a mathematical fiction, as explained here, and government spending is in fact destructive of economic growth, as discussed here and in some of the posts listed at the end.

I spell out the reasons in “A Keynesian Fantasy Land.” There are six of them, including the timing-targeting problem (number 3).

[In an earlier version of this post, I also mentioned Ricardian equivalence, which is an aspect of reason number 2, the disincentivizing aspects of government borrowing and spending. I referred to a post by Steven Landsburg, which I had read hastily and misinterpreted as a discussion of Ricardian equivalence. When Dr. Landsburg graciously pointed out that I had the wrong end of the stick, I deleted the brief discussion of Ricardian equivalence from this post.]

A key component of the timing-targeting problem is the strong possibility that “stimulus” money will be spent on already-employed resources, thus bidding up their prices but doing little or nothing to stimulate real economic activity. Tyler Cowen recaps two papers that document the misdirection of “stimulus” money:

My colleagues Garett Jones and Daniel Rothschild conducted extensive field research (interviewing 85 organizations receiving stimulus funds, in five regions), asking simple questions such as whether the hired project workers already had had jobs.  There are lots of relevant details in the paper but here is one punchline:

…hiring people from unemployment was more the exception than the rule in our interviews.

In a related paper by the same authors (read them both), here is more:

Hiring isn’t the same as net job creation. In our survey, just 42.1 percent of the workers hired at ARRA-receiving organizations after January 31, 2009, were unemployed at the time they were hired (Appendix C). More were hired directly from other organizations (47.3 percent of post-ARRA workers), while a handful came from school (6.5%) or from outside the labor force (4.1%)(Figure 2).

One major problem with ARRA was not the crowding out of financial capital but rather the crowding out of labor.  In the first paper there is also a discussion of how the stimulus job numbers were generated, how unreliable they are, and how stimulus recipients sometimes had an incentive to claim job creation where none was present.  Many of the created jobs involved hiring people back from retirement.  You can tell a story about how hiring the already employed opened up other jobs for the unemployed, but it’s just that — a story.  I don’t think it is what happened in most cases, rather firms ended up getting by with fewer workers.

There’s also evidence of government funds chasing after the same set of skilled and already busy firms.  For at least a third of the surveyed firms receiving stimulus funds, their experience failed to fit important aspects of the Keynesian model.

The Keynesian model is deeply flawed because it is a simplistic model based on simplistic assumptions about the behavior of human beings and human institutions. I say in “A Keynesian Fantasy Land,” models are supposed to mirror reality, not the other way around. The Keynesian model — or the version embraced by Paul Krugman and his fellow leftists — is a version of the reality that they would prefer: a reality in which government runs the economy.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Price of Government
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
How the Great Depression Ended
Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Experts and the Economy
We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help You
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Our Enemy, the State
Competition Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word
The Stagnation Thesis
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
“Tax Expenditures” Are Not Expenditures
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty

Does “Pent Up” Demand Explain the Post-War Recovery?

Russ Roberts wonders about the meaning of “pent up” demand:

The usual way that Keynesians explain the post-[World War II] expansion despite the huge cut in government spending is to say, well of course the economy boomed, there was a lot of pent-up demand. What does that mean? There is always pent-up demand in the sense there is a stuff I wish I could have but can’t. But the standard story is that people couldn’t buy washing machines or cars during the war–they were rationed or simply unavailable or unaffordable. So when the war ended, and rationing and price controls ended, people were eager to buy these things. But the reason these consumer goods were rationed or unavailable is because all the steel went into the tanks and planes during the war. So when the war ended, there was steel available to the private sector. That’s why cutting government activity can stimulate the private sector. Fewer resources are being commandeered by the public sector.

Roberts refers to an earlier post of his, in which he rightly ridicules Keynesians for believing in the magical multiplier:

One of the most mindless aspects of the multiplier is to treat is as a constant, such as 1.52. It can’t be a constant, not in any meaningful way. If the government conscripted half of the US population to dig holes all day and conscripted the other half to fill them back in, and paid each of us a billion dollars a day for the task, and valued holes that were dug and holes that were filled in at a trillion dollars a hole, then GDP would be very very large, unemployment would be zero and there would be no stimulating effect and we would soon be dead from starvation.

Priceless.

I share Roberts’s disdain for the multiplier. (See this and this.)

Nevertheless, the availability of resources for private use after the war ended is only half the story. Consumers and businesses had to demand things — not just want them, but demand them with money in hand. That is where pent-up demand comes into play, as I explain here:

Conventional wisdom has it that the entry of the United States into World War II caused the end of the Great Depression in this country. My variant is that World War II led to a “glut” of private saving because (1) government spending caused full employment, but (2) workers and businesses were forced to save much of their income because the massive shift of output toward the war effort forestalled spending on private consumption and investment goods. The resulting cash “glut” fueled post-war consumption and investment spending.

Robert Higgs, research director of the Independent Institute, has a different theory, which he spells out in “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War” (available here), the first chapter his new book, Depression, War, and Cold War. (Thanks to Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek for the pointer.) Here, from “Regime Change . . . ” is Higgs’s summary of his thesis:

I shall argue here that the economy remained in the depression as late as 1940 because private investment had never recovered sufficiently after its collapse during the Great Contraction. During the war, private investment fell to much lower levels, and the federal government itself became the chief investor, directing investment into building up the nation’s capacity to produce munitions. After the war ended, private investment, for the first time since the 1920s, rose to and remained at levels sufficient to create a prosperous and normally growing economy.

I shall argue further that the insufficiency of private investment from 1935 through 1940 reflected a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns. This uncertainty arose, especially though not exclusively, from the character of federal government actions and the nature of the Roosevelt administration during the so-called Second New Deal from 1935 to 1940. Starting in 1940 the makeup of FDR’s administration changed substantially as probusiness men began to replace dedicated New Dealers in many positions, including most of the offices of high authority in the war-command economy. Congressional changes in the elections from 1938 onward reinforced the movement away from the New Deal, strengthening the so-called Conservative Coalition.

From 1941 through 1945, however, the less hostile character of the administration expressed itself in decisions about how to manage the warcommand economy; therefore, with private investment replaced by direct government investment, the diminished fears of investors could not give rise to a revival of private investment spending. In 1945 the death of Roosevelt and the succession of Harry S Truman and his administration completed the shift from a political regime investors perceived as full of uncertainty to one in which they felt much more confident about the security of their private property rights. Sufficiently sanguine for the first time since 1929, and finally freed from government restraints on private investment for civilian purposes, investors set in motion the postwar investment boom that powered the economy’s return to sustained prosperity notwithstanding the drastic reduction of federal government spending from its extraordinarily elevated wartime levels.

Higgs’s explanation isn’t inconsistent with mine, but it’s incomplete. Higgs overlooks the powerful influence of the large cash balances that individuals and corporations had accumulated during the war years. It’s true that because the war was a massive resource “sink” those cash balances didn’t represent real assets. But the cash was there, nevertheless, waiting to be spent on consumption goods and to be made available for capital investments through purchases of equities and debt.

It helped that the war dampened FDR’s hostility to business, and that FDR’s death ushered in a somewhat less radical regime. Those developments certainly fostered capital investment. But the capital investment couldn’t have taken place (or not nearly as much of it) without the “glut” of private saving during World War II. The relative size of that “glut” can be seen here:

Derived from Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts Tables: 5.1, Saving and Investment. Gross private saving is analagous to cash flow; net private saving is analagous to cash flow less an allowance for depreciation. The bulge in gross private saving represents pent-up demand for consumption and investment spending, which was released after the war.

World War II did bring about the end of the Great Depression, not directly by full employment during the war but because that full employment created a “glut” of saving. After the war that “glut” jump-started

  • capital spending by businesses, which — because of FDR’s demise — invested more than they otherwise would have; and
  • private consumption spending, which — because of the privations of the Great Depression and the war years — would have risen sharply regardless of the political climate.

The post continues with an exchange between Higgs and me. The bottom line is the same.

What is the answer to the title question, then? It is that a period of forced, nominal saving can create pent-up demand, which can result in the employment of resources that had theretofore been unavailable. The pent-up demand at the end of World War II was, in great measure, responsible for the post-war recovery.

This rare phenomenon has nothing to do with the multiplier, and probably has nothing to do with the current economic situation. Government has commandeered a large chunk of the American economy, but so gradually that Americans have not acquire a “glut” of nominal savings, as they did in World War II.

The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty

In “A Keynesian Fantasy Land,” I gave six reasons for the failure of “stimulus” spending to stimulate the economy, despite the insistence of leftists and left-wing economists that economic salvation is to be found in bigger government. The reasons, which I elaborate in the earlier post, are these:

1. “leakage” to imports

2. disincentivizing effects of government borrowing and spending (regime uncertainty)

3. timing and targeting problems (spending that is too late and misdirected)

4. reversed causality (lower aggregate demand as symptom, not cause)

5. the negative consequences of bail-outs

6. the unaccounted for complexity of human behavior

An article by Casey B. Mulligan, “Simple Analytics and Empirics of the Government Spending Multiplier and Other ‘Keynesian’ Paradoxes,” underscores the futility of “stimulus” spending. These are among Mulligan’s conclusions:

From a partial equilibrium perspective, it would be surprising if government purchases did not crowd out at least some private consumption, and that a reduction in factor supply did not result in less output. Yet some “New Keynesian” models, not to mention much public policy commentary, claim that today’s economy has turned this partial equilibrium reasoning on its head, even while it might have been historically valid. Among other things, individual firms and the aggregate private sector are alleged to leave their production invariant to changes in factor supply conditions during this recession. This paper shows how the government spending multiplier and the “paradox of toil” are related in theory, and examines evidence from this recession on the output effects of factor supply…

This paper does not contain a numerical estimate of the government purchases multiplier. However, its examination of data exclusively from the 2008-9 recession suggests that sectoral and aggregate employment and output vary with supply conditions in much the same way they did before the recession. The results contradict Keynesian claims that the government purchases multiplier would be significantly greater during the recession than it was before 2008, suggesting instead that historical estimates of the effects of fiscal policies are informative about fiscal policy effects in more recent years. Moreover, the supply incentives created by government spending cannot be ignored merely because 2008 and 2009 were recession years; rather incentives mattered as much as ever. Government purchases likely moved factors away from activities that would have supported private purchases. Unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other expanding means-tested government programs likely reduced employment and output during this recession, in much the same way they did in years past.

Compounding the futility of “stimulus” spending is the general climate of economic fear that Obama’s policies have engendered; for example:

Thanks to Regulatory Burdens, We’ve Got Both A Creditless Recovery and A Jobless Recovery (at Carpe Diem)

Why aren’t we seeing a jobs recovery? Maybe it’s ObamaCare’s fault (at Questions and Observations)

Home Depot Founder: Obama’s Regulations Are Killing Businesses (at Commentary)

As John Steele Gordon points out,

[t]he greatest periods of American economic growth came when taxes were very low—such as in the 19th century—or being lowered and simplified, as in the 1920s, 60s, and 80s. Inescapably, to tax wealth creation is to discourage it. But there is a large and politically potent segment of the population that, because its interests are now aligned with those of the government, seek to promote dependency through entitlements. This segment favors ever higher taxes (although they disguise the fact by demanding that only “the rich” pay their “fair share.”) But, as with regulation, high taxes inevitably produce low growth—and low growth threatens entitlements in the long term. If the United States remains in the doldrums for several more years without hope of a real turnaround, Medicare as it is currently constituted will go bankrupt in 2019. Raising taxes to prevent that will only slow overall growth, and that will actually defeat the purpose of saving Medicare.

So there is really no alternative to pursuing policies that encourage economic growth through private action by liberating the forces of the free market. A presidential candidate who finds a way to ground his economic policies in this core truth—and harnesses the idea to a larger and more optimistic understanding of the United States, both past and future, and resists the take-your-medicine tone that dominates the conservative policy discussion of the present moment—will be able to draw a sharp and effective contrast with the failures of the Obama years. (“Growth: The Only Way out of This Mess,” Commentary, July 2011)

But there is no point in cutting taxes unless government spending is cut — and cut drastically — for government spending, along with regulation, is the real drag on the economy. Only in the left’s magical thinking is government spending a good thing. In reality, it is a destructive force — even during recessions and depressions.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Price of Government
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
How the Great Depression Ended
Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Experts and the Economy
We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help You
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Our Enemy, the State
Competition Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word
The Stagnation Thesis
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations

A Keynesian Fantasy Land

This post examines practical reasons for the failure of “stimulus” to stimulate and the “multiplier” to multiply. The deeper truth is that the Keynesian multiplier is a mathematical fiction, as explained here, and government spending is in fact destructive of economic growth, as discussed here and in some of the posts listed at the end.

“Liberal” economists and pundits complain incessantly that the recovery from the Great Recession is weak, and in jeopardy, because the federal government hasn’t spent “enough” money. (See this for some examples of the “liberal” view.) How much is “enough” for Paul Krugman et al.? It is always more than the government spends, of course.

Why should that be? The blindingly obvious answer — but not obvious to Krugman and company — is that demand-side fiscal policy (i.e., government “stimulus” spending) is ineffective. If the economy depends on government spending, how does one explain the decades after the Civil War, when government spent less than 10 percent of GDP (vs. today’s 40 percent), while America’s economy grew faster than at any time in its history? It took World War II and regime change (the disruption of the New Deal by the war) to end the Great Depression. Mr. Roosevelt’s adoption of Mr. Keynes’s hole-digging prescription (the Civilian Conservation Corps and similar make-work projects) had nothing to do with it. Mr. Roosevelt may have been an excellent marketeer, but he was a dismal economic engineer.

This is not to reject supply-side fiscal policy: tax-rate reductions. When tax-rate reductions are prospectively permanent — as opposed to one-time tax rebates and “holidays” — they can and do spur economic growth. Christina Romer, former chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, once proved it — though she developed a convenient case of amnesia when she became a proponent of “stimulus.”

As any reputable economist will tell you, however, the best that one can expect of a temporary increase in government spending is a temporary increase in economic activity; it is a stop-gap until the economy recovers on its own. (And a reputable economist, unlike Krugman, will also tell you that a permanent increase in government spending diverts resources from productive uses — uses that yield economic growth and satisfy actual economic wants — toward less-productive and counter-productive ones, including the creation of paper-shuffling, regulatory bureaucracies.)

Despite the promises of Obama, Romer, and company, the “stimulus” has evidently failed to do much — if anything — to alleviate the Great Recession and its lingering aftermath. (See this, this, and this, for example.) Thus the wailing and gnashing of teeth by Krugman and company — who want to replicate the failure on a grander scale.

WHY THE “STIMULUS” FAILED TO STIMULATE: GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

What went wrong? Anthony de Jasay offers a piece of the explanation:

…In Keynesian parlance there is the multiplier effect and it is greater than 1. As long as there is spare capacity (unemployment) in the economy, the government ought to go on spending more, working through the multiplier, because the extra private saving takes care of the government dissaving and the extra consumption is, so to speak, a welcome windfall gain. Timidly refusing to generate it is criminal waste.

Despite truculent voices to the contrary, the Keynesian logic is faultless in that the conclusions do follow from the assumptions. Why it does not really work and why it singularly failed to work in 2009-2010 and maybe beyond, is that other things do not remain equal. Part of the extra spending stimulus fails to stimulate domestic income because as much as 0.3 of the multiplier might leak out through extra imports. Much of the rest may be offset by industry taking fright of the rising budget deficit and reducing investment, and consumers striving to reduce their indebtedness producing some saving to balance the government’s dissaving. The total effect of higher imports and lower investment might be a multiplier barely higher, or maybe even lower, than 1 and the stimulus stimulating nothing except the national debt. This is not the fault of Keynes but of those whose macro-economics exist in a fantasy land. (Library of Economics and Liberty, “Micro, Macro, and Fantasy Economics,” December 6, 2010)

Generally,

[t]he available empirical evidence does not support the idea that spending multipliers typically exceed one, and thus spending stimulus programs will likely raise GDP by less than the increase in government spending. (Robert J. Barro and Charles J. Redlick, “Stimulus Spending Doesn’t Work,” WSJ Online, October 1, 2009)

(For more on the subject see Barro’s “Government Spending Is No Free Lunch,” WSJ Online, January 22, 2009.)

WHY “STIMULUS” FAILS: SPECIFIC REASONS

Altogether, there are six reasons for the ineffectiveness of Keynsesian “stimulus.”

1. The “leakage” to imports, as indicated by de Jasay.

2. The disincentivizing effects of government borrowing and spending, to which de Jasay alludes.

As de Jasay suggests, industry (and the high-income earners who finance it) are being cautious about the implications of additional government debt. As I say here,

the sophisticat[ed] … institutions and persons who have the greatest interest in government’s actions [are] large corporations and persons in high-income brackets. They will react to government borrowing as if it would affect them and their heirs (corporate and individual).

That is to say, even if additional debt does not crowd out private-sector borrowing to finance business expansion, it will nevertheless inhibit investments in business expansion. This inhibiting effect is compounded by the reasonable expectation that many items in a “stimulus” package will become permanent fixtures in the government’s budget.

3. The timing-targeting problem.

The lag between the initial agitation for “stimulus” and its realization. In the extreme, the lag can be so great as to have no effect other than to divert employed resources from private to government uses. But even where there is a relatively brief lag, “stimulus” spending is essentially wasted if the result is simply to divert already employed resources from private to government uses.

The timing-targeting problem is one that strident Keynesians and their unsophisticated disciples in the media seem not to understand or care about. (They are happy as long as government “does something,” regardless of the cost.) The problem arises from the fundamental flaw in the Keynesian analysis: Economic output is portrayed as a homogeneous commodity, one that can be characterized  in terms of aggregate demand (AD) and aggregate supply (AS). Accordingly, in the Keynesian orthodoxy, all it takes to stimulate AD is to pump in some additional government spending (dG), and the rest takes care of itself.

Arnold Kling calls it “hydraulic” macroeconomics:

Once upon a time, Joe lived in Keynesiana, where he was a representative agent.

Joe worked in a GDP factory, making GDP. Every Monday morning, he went to work, and he worked five days a week. He was paid $1 for every 24-minute segment he worked, and he worked 100 segments (40 hours), so he earned $100 a week. Every Friday afternoon, Joe cashed his paycheck and went to the GDP factory outlet, where he spent it all on GDP.

One day, Joe decided that he needed to accumulate some savings. He made up a rule for himself. Knowing that he needed to consume at least $40 of GDP each week, he decided that his rule would be to save 20 percent of everything he earned over and above that $40. So the first week, that meant saving 20 percent of $60, or $12. So he cashed his $100 paycheck, but that Friday afternoon he only spent $88.

Next Monday, morning, Joe’s boss had some news. “A funny thing happened last week. We sold 12 percent less GDP than usual. So this week, we’re gonna put you on a short week. You work 88 segments, instead of 100.”

Joe was disappointed, because this meant he would only be paid $88 this week. Sticking to his new rule, he resolved to save 20 percent of $48, or $9.60. So that Friday afternoon, he cashed his $88 paycheck and spent $78.40.

Next Monday morning, Joe’s boss said. “Well, golly, it looks like we sold even less GDP last week. I’m afraid we’ll have to cut you back to 78.40 segments this week.” Still following his rule, Joe resolved to save 20 percent of $38.40, or $7.68. So he spent only $70.72 at the GDP factory outlet that Friday.

Seeing where this was going, the country asked Krug Paulman, the famous economist, what to do. He said, “The stupid people are saving too much. We need government to spend what the idiots are not spending.” So the government borrowed $29.28 from Joe and spent it at the GDP factory outlet.

Now, when Joe came to work on Monday morning, his boss said, “Good news, we sold 100 percent of what we used to sell, so you can work 100 segments this week.” Sticking to his rule, Joe saved $12 on Friday afternoon. But the government borrowed the $12 and spent it at the GDP factory outlet. They all lived happily ever after. (Library of Economics and Liberty, “Hydraulic Macro: A Fable,” August 30, 2009)

But in reality, economic activity is far more complex than that. One very important part of that reality the vast variety of goods and services changing hands, in response to constantly shifting tastes, preferences, technologies, and costs. The real economy bears no resemblance to the “hydraulic” one in which the homogeneous “fluid” is units of GDP. For “stimulus” — an increase in government spending (dG) — to generate an real increase GDP significantly greater than dG, several stringent conditions must be met:

a. dG must lead directly to the employment of resources that had been idled by a downturn in economic activity (or newly available resources that otherwise would lay idle), therefore eliciting the production of additional goods for delivery to consumers and businesses.

b. Accordingly, government functionaries must be able to distinguish between unemployment that occurs as a result of normal (and continuous) structural changes in the economy and unemployment that occurs because of a general slowdown in economic activity.

c. To the extent that the preceding conditions are satisfied, dG may be used to restore employment if government functionaries do the following things:

  • Ensure that dG is used to purchase goods and services that would have been produced in the absence of a general slowdown in economic activity.
  • Ensure that dG is used by those persons, businesses, and governmental units that have become unable to buy those goods and services because of a general slowdown in economic activity.
  • Allowing for shifts in tastes, preferences, technologies, etc., adjust the issuance, allocation, and use of dG so that goods and services are produced in accordance with those shifts in taste, etc.
  • Reduce dG as the demand for unemployed resources rises, in order to avoid the distorting and disincentivizing effects of inflation.

To the extent that dG is less than on-time and on-target, there is “leakage,” which causes the multiplier to recede toward a value of 1. It can easily slide below 1 — as Barro has found — because of the “leakage” to imports and the disincentivizing effects of government borrowing and spending.

4. Causality: Inadequate AD as symptom, not cause.

The fourth reason for the failure of the “stimulus” to stimulate is that it is does not address the cause of the drop in AD. A drop in AD usually is caused by an exogenous event, and that exogenous event usually is a credit crisis. Pumping money into the economy — especially when it results in the bidding up the prices of already employed resources — does not reinflate the punctured credit bubble that caused the slowdown.

If a credit crunch arises from a sharp rise in the rate of home-mortgage defaults — as in the case of the Great Recession — the obvious way to “solve” the problem is to prop up the defaulting borrowers and their lenders, and to do so quickly.

But, in practice, the propping up is hit-and-miss, and the misses have drastic consequences. Consider, for example, the decision not to bail out Lehman Brothers and the effects of that decision on financial markets.

Which leads into the fifth reason…

5. Inequity, moral hazard, and their consequences.

Any kind of “stimulus” that targets particular individuals and firms, in an effort to rectify their failures of judgment, has adverse political and economic effects.

Favorable treatment of defaulters and failing companies generates considerable popular resentment, which — in the present instance — has found a vocal and politically potent outlet in the Tea Party movement. Favorable treatment of defaulters and failing companies also creates moral hazard; that is, it encourage unwise risk-taking that can (and probably will) spark future crises, leading the government to assume more obligations and impose more regulations, in a futile effort to change human nature.

All of this adds up to a climate of political contention and financial pessimism — conditions that militate against consumer confidence and business expansion.

6. The human factor.

The preceding five reasons for the ineffectiveness of Keynesian “stimulus” point to a sixth, fundamental reason: the human factor.

Models are supposed to mirror reality, not the other way around. Those who cling to the Keynesian multiplier would like the world to comply with it. But the world does not because it is filled with people, whose behavior is not determined (or described) by a simplistic model but by their responses to incentives, their political predispositions, their informed and reasonable skepticism about the consequences of government intervention in economic matters, and — above all else — their fallibility. And, believe or not, government officials and bureaucrats are no less fallible than the “ordinary” citizens whose lives they would like to organize.

The human factor is an inconvenient truth. But “liberals,” in their usual arrogance and ignorance prefer magical thinking to reality. Belief in the Keynesian multiplier is a prime example of magical thinking.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Price of Government
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
How the Great Depression Ended
Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Experts and the Economy
We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help You
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Our Enemy, the State
Competition Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word
The Stagnation Thesis
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations

Does World War II “Prove” Keynesianism?

In “How the Great Depression Ended,” I say that

World War II did bring about the end of the Great Depression, not directly by full employment during the war but because that full employment created a “glut” of saving. After the war that “glut” jump-started

  • capital spending by businesses, which — because of FDR’s demise — invested more than they otherwise would have; and
  • private consumption spending, which — because of the privations of the Great Depression and the war years — would have risen sharply regardless of the political climate.

That analysis is by no means an endorsement of simple-minded Keynesianism (as propounded by Paul Krugman, for example), which holds that the government can spend the economy out of a recession or depression, if only it spends “enough” (which is always more than it actually spends). But there is no point in pumping additional money into an economy unless the money elicits productive endeavors: business creation and expansion, leading to net capital formation and job creation.

Pumping additional money into government programs results in the misdirection of resources, at best, and in the discouragement of productive private activity, at worst. Discouragement takes two forms: crowding-out and active interference (usually through regulatory inhibitions).

The answer to the question of this post’s title is that World War II has nothing to do with Keynes or Keynesianism, as it is widely understood. Employment and output (measured in dollars) rose sharply during World War II, but most of the additional output was devoted to the war effort. Huge increases in government spending did not lead to huge increases in the material well-being of Americans, most of whom were working harder while being deprived of the fruits of their labors, through rationing.

If anything, the post-war recovery “proves” the folly and wastefulness of efforts to stimulate an economy through government spending. It was not government spending that re-started the U.S. economy after World War II, it was private spending on capital investments and consumer goods. Some of that private spending was encouraged by the end of regime uncertainty. That end was brought about by the curtailment of New Deal initiatives (until the 1960s) because of the war and FDR’s death. Private spending — which was boosted by wartime saving — would have been purely inflationary had businesses not been willing and able to create jobs and expand output.