Losing the Argument
12/06/2013 Leave a comment
I read Phillip Inman’s piece in The Guardian last weekend entitled, “9 reasons Keynesians aren’t winning the argument”. I always feel a little bit uncomfortable with how the term “Keynesian” is used, as it makes it sound like a bit of a cult rather than a mainstream view but anyway, for now lets go along with it.
So, as someone who falls into the category about which Inman is talking, let’s see how his arguments apply to me.
1. They think policymakers refuse to change course because they don’t understand
I disagree. Inman’s first reason implies that there are two possibilities – either policymakers don’t understand or they do understand and are doing something else anyway. My position is far simpler – whether policymakers “understand” or not is entirely irrelevant. Policymakers’ refusal to change course has nothing to do with the theory or evidence because they are not interested in the theory or the evidence. Policymakers don’t ever consider changing course because changing course is considered political suicide. Their “understanding” has no bearing on this argument.
2. They think that everyone agrees austerity is wrongheaded
I disagree. If that were the case then policymakers would probably have no option but to change course. The fact is that plenty of people still believe (in large part due to policymakers’ propaganda) that the UK’s economy works like that of an indebted household who must pay down their debt immediately in order to recover. Wrong as that is, I don’t think Keynesians believe that that isn’t a commonly held belief.
3. They think Brussels and the IMF have changed their tune
I disagree. Brussels has clearly not changed its tune and I haven’t said otherwise. Mario Draghi (President of the ECB) may not be as bad as Jean-Claude Trichet (his predecessor) but there is still plenty to criticise and I don’t recall too many people holding back. The IMF’s position has clearly moved though. Although they are not now throwing themselves unequivocally behind fiscal stimulus, they have nonetheless, amongst other things, admitted that fiscal multipliers are much higher than they initially thought, that George Osborne is “playing with fire” and most recently their admission that they had hugely underestimated the damage that austerity would do to the Greek economy. It is not in any way a total reversal of their position but to refuse to acknowledge a noted change is a bit silly.
4. They make out that a spending boost with borrowed money is risk-free
Inman doesn’t really explain what the mysterious risks are that I’m ignoring. Austerians say that the risk is that markets would lose confidence and interest rates would soar. I do strongly dispute that but that’s not a risk that Inman mentions. Inman’s risk seems to be that we might be the next Japan and that is pretty lazy journalism to be honest. I haven’t, (and I don’t think any Keynesian has), been singing the praises of Japanese economic policy over the past 20 years. A Keynesian view on Japan would be something like they should pursue higher expected inflation in conjunction with a significant and temporary fiscal stimulus. I don’t recall them doing that at any point in the last 20 years (although it looks like Abe might be starting to do that now.)
5. They think central banks can carry on printing money with no risk
Hold on a moment, why are the argument-losing Keynesians getting the blame for central banks printing money? That’s being done at the moment anyway. My take on QE has always been that the benefits have been and will always be hard to measure and that it’s almost certainly far less effective than fiscal stimulus. Of course a central bank can’t print money forever without consequence – I’ve never said that. I think all I ever said on it was that while we’re in a liquidity trap it wouldn’t be inflationary (and it hasn’t been.)
6. They think quantitative easing can be switched off and normality will return
Hold on again. In point 5 I’m ignoring the risks of carrying on printing money and now I’m ignoring the risks of not carrying on printing money? Ok, I’ll address it anyway.
It would be a bad idea if tomorrow The Bank of England decided to dump all of the debt they have accumulated back into the bond market. I don’t think any Keynesian has ever suggested they should do that though. When things are good again should we drip it back in slowly or should we just let it mature? To be honest I don’t think there is a massive problem either way but irrespective of that I don’t really understand why this is a reason I’m losing the argument – austerians have exactly the same decision to make.
7. They argue that no one should fear inflation
This is just not true. Higher inflation is bad for lots of people. If I’m a wealthy pensioner with lots of savings and inflation is higher than the interest rate I get, then that’s clearly a worry for me. In that situation I would “fear inflation”. What I’m saying is that while higher inflation has problems, it also has benefits and the benefits of higher inflation are often ignored. When interest rates are at the zero lower-bound and the economy remains depressed then what we need is a negative real interest rate and that means higher inflation. No one is saying that it’s going to be better for everyone but we should all be sensible here and understand that a 2% inflation target is not going to be the perfect rate in all economic circumstances.
8. They argue that stock market and house price rises are benign
Really? I seem to recall that I wrote a fairly damning post about the latter’s role in the economic crisis. “The London stock market recently neared its all time high”, warns Inman. Not when you take inflation into account it didn’t, and let’s be clear here – the potentially catastrophic effect of bubbles are well known and well appreciated by Keynesians. Paul Krugman spent five years before the crisis warning that the dotcom bubble had been replaced with a housing bubble.
9. They believe politicians can be trusted to spend stimulus funds in the best way
This really is a load of poo. When have I, or any other proponent of fiscal stimulus ever said, “the government should borrow money and I don’t care what they spend it on because they’ll know best”? I think a more familiar argument is, “the government should borrow money and spend it on those infrastructure projects that will increase employment, boost growth and need to be done anyway”. Rebuilding old schools, investing in renewable energy, replacing old bridges and roads that are falling to bits – that’s money that we need to spend soon anyway – all the Keynesians are saying is let’s spend it now when the economy is suffering from a lack of demand and borrowing is really cheap rather than after a recovery when unemployment is low and borrowing is more expensive.
Inman’s article really isn’t very good. It contains a couple of validish arguments that are badly represented but mostly it’s a list of things that really aren’t important in understanding why the argument is where it is. We can of course faff around, quibbling about what happens when quantitative easing is switched off but do you really think that this is the reason that public opinion has not unanimously fallen behind Keynesian policies? No.
As I mentioned earlier, our politicians have rejected reasoned arguments, economic theory, and the damning evidence that followed because to them, these things just weren’t relevant. Our politicians wanted low public spending and so they cut public spending. They then misrepresented the situation in order to make it look like their policies were good and with their charming little analogy about how we were just like an indebted household, they did a very effective job of perpetuating this fallacy within the masses. That is the important point and it’s one that Inman completely misses. The Keynesians have been trying to fight an economic battle but they are doing so against politicians who, with their weapons of spin, misdirection and misrepresentation, are simply too strong.
Inman doesn’t just misunderstand what the argument is he also misunderstands where the argument is. Keynesians are not losing this argument – Keynesians lost this argument a long time ago.
For three years we have pursued austerity. For three years we have failed to deliver economic growth. We have created the longest depression since the 1800s. We have created a society in which people unnecessarily lost their jobs and their houses. We have created a society in which people who want to work are forced to sit at home because there are no jobs for them to go to. We have created a society in which our school-leavers and university graduates go forth into a job market that has no use for them.
That is what Keynesians predicted that austerity would give us and this is what austerity has given us but winning the argument wasn’t about being able to stand around afterwards saying, “I told you so.” Winning the argument was about preventing this disaster from ever happening and we didn’t and therefore we lost.
To those of you who think I’m being overly defeatist, I ask this – take a good look at the state of our country today and then tell me that austerity hasn’t already won.