In The Washington Times, businessman Mike Whalen (who's associated the free-market think tank NCPA) writes up an interesting take on why various federal stimulus program have tanked like the Titanic (while causing few ripples on the way down).
His points are worth thinking about.
According to the Keynesians, the remedy for today's economic problem is for the federal government, as the single biggest actor, to "prime the pump." As government money starts to ripple through the economy, consumers and businesses will be encouraged and cautiously respond with limited increases of their own. Vroom! The economic engine steadily revs up in billions of responsive steps until happy days are here again. This pump-priming reaction is termed the "multiplier effect."
There are many reasons to doubt that the multiplier exists at all and if it does, it certainly isn't at the levels the Obama administration has claimed. As Reason's economics columnist Veronique de Rugy has pointed out, the administration claimed that one dollar of government spending would create as much as four dollars in economic activity while other economists were coming in with multipliers of between 0.8 and 1.2, meaning that each dollar of government spending might yield just 80 cents to $1.20 in activity. Even if accurate, that buck-twenty is nothing to write home about, especially given the fact that government spending has to be pulled out of some other part of the economy via current or future taxes or borrowing. Which casts huge doubt on the possibility of any stimulus to work.
But Whalen isn't simply dumping on Keynesianism, he's bent on pointing out that even its latter-day adherents are straying far from their master's theory. And in this, he's surely correct. As Allen Meltzer has argued, Keynes was against the very sort of large structural deficits that characterize contemporary federal budgets and policy, believing instead that deficits should be "temporary and self-liquidating." And Keynes believed that any sort of counter-cyclical spending by government should be directed toward increasing private investment, not simply spending current and future tax dollars on public works projects.
Or, to put it another way: If the federal government had a strong track record of responsible spending, it would mean one thing if it went into hock for a short period of time to goose the economy (again, whether this would work is open to question). It means something totally different when a government that spent all of the 21st century piling on debt and new, long-term entitlement programs responds to an economic downturn first by creating yet another gargantuan entitlement (Obamacare) and taking on even more debt in the here-and-now. This cuts in a Milton Friedmanesque, monetarist direction too. If the Federal Reserve had not been keeping money artificially cheap for the past couple of decades and it worked to lower interest rates and increase the availability of money in a given moment, that would mean one thing. Promising to keep rates low for the next couple of years - after years of loose money and statements that all those bubbles weren't bubbles at all - doesn't mean the same thing.
I think John Maynard Keynes would be horrified at the slavish adherence to this simplistic strategy by so many policymakers and economic thinkers, as his theory was much more complex. This thinking might be correct under circumstances other than those in which we find ourselves. If the ratio of our national debt to gross domestic product was low - say 25 percent - and the federal government had run surpluses before the downturn, this college freshman-level Keynesian analysis would have great weight. Put another way, if Uncle Sam were a rock-solid financial entity with low debt to value and he had judiciously used debt for capital improvements that were accretive in value, as the biggest dog on the porch, a stimulus might work.
But with a national debt of more than $14 trillion and unfunded, future "off the books" debt of Social Security and Medicare combined at $104 trillion in present value, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve, Uncle Sam ain't the man he used to be. This in turn makes American businesses that are sitting on a pile of cash focus on deleveraging. The American consumer is doing the same. In fact, from where I sit, it appears as though everyone except Uncle Sam is working like mad to strengthen his balance sheets. The legitimate fear across the country is that Washington's refusal to join our common-sense parade will result in higher taxes, more regulations, more inflation and Japanese-style stagflation. In other words, Washington's attempts at stimulus through spending are having the opposite effect. Businesses and consumers stay hunkered down.
If the federal government announced a real road map to fiscal soundness, the impact would be truly stimulating. If American businesses and consumers saw that Washington was really cutting, not just reducing future increases, there would be tremendous relief and an increase in confidence across the country. Job creators would sing "hallelujah"; they would get off their wallets, start hiring, and then you'd see that Keynesian multiplier kick in.
Except, of course, that it wouldn't be Keynesian at all. Which I don't think anyone would care about.