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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Glasner: Barro on Keynesian Economics vs. Regular Economics

"I am sure that Professor Barro, very, very clever fellow that he is, will clear all this up":

Barro on Keynesian Economics vs. Regular Economics, by David Glasner: Readers ... may have guessed by now that I am not a fan of The Wall Street Journal editorial page. ... But I have to admit that even I was not quite prepared for Robert Barro’s offering in today’s Journal. You don’t have to be a Keynesian economist – and I have never counted myself as one – to find Barro’s piece, well, let’s just say, strange....

Barro ... draws the contrast ... between Keynesian economics and regular economics. Regular economics is the economics of scarcity and tradeoffs in which there is no such thing as a free lunch, in which to get something you have to give up something else. Keynesian economics on the other hand is the economics of the multiplier in which government spending not only doesn’t come at the expense of private sector spending, amazingly it increases private sector spending. Barro throws up his hands in astonishment:

If [the Keynesian multiplier were] valid, this result would be truly miraculous. The recipients of food stamps get, say, $1 billion but they are not the only ones who benefit. Another $1 billion appears that can make the rest of society better off. Unlike the trade-off in regular economics, that extra $1 billion is the ultimate free lunch.

Quickly composing himself, Barro continues:

How can it be right? Where was the market failure that allowed the government to improve things just by borrowing money and giving it to people? Keynes in his “General Theory” (1936), was not so good at explaining why this worked, and subsequent generations of Keynesian economists (including my own youthful efforts) have not been more successful.

Nice rhetorical touch, that bit of faux self-deprecation, referring to his own fruitless youthful efforts. But the real message is: “I’m older and wiser now, so trust me, the multiplier is a scam.”

But wait a second. What does Barro mean by his query: “Where was the market failure that allowed the government to improve things just by borrowing money and giving it to people?” Where is the market failure? Hello. Real GDP is at least 10% below its long-run growth trend, the unemployment rate has been hovering between 9 and 10% for over two years, and Professor Barro can’t identify any market failure? Or does Professor Barro, like many real-business cycle theorists (say, Charles Plosser, for instance?), believe that fluctuations in output and employment are optimal adjustments to productivity shocks involving intertemporal substitution of leisure for labor during periods of relatively low productivity?

Perhaps that is what Barro thinks now,... but about two and a half years ago, writing another op-ed piece for the Journal, Barro had a slightly different take on what is going on during a depression.

[A] simple Keynesian macroeconomic model implicitly assumes that the government is better than the private market at marshalling idle resources to produce useful stuff. Unemployed labor and capital can be utilized at essentially zero social cost, but the private market is somehow unable to figure any of this out. In other words, there is something wrong with the price system.

John Maynard Keynes thought that the problem lay with wages and prices that were stuck at excessive levels. But this problem could be readily fixed by expansionary monetary policy, enough of which will mean that wages and prices do not have to fall.

So in January 2009, Barro was at least willing to entertain the possibility that some kind of obstacle to necessary price and wage reductions might be responsible for the failure of markets to generate a spontaneous recovery from a recession, so that a sufficient monetary expansion could provide a cure for this problem by making wage-and-price reductions unnecessary. But ... it would be interesting to know if he thinks that monetary expansion ... is not somehow inconsistent with his conception of regular economics. I mean you print up worthless pieces of paper and, poof, all of a sudden all that output that private markets couldn’t produce gets produced, and all those workers that private markets couldn’t employ get employed. In Professor Barro’s own words, How can that be right? ...

Well,... if restoring full employment by printing money does not contradict regular economics, I have trouble seeing why restoring full employment by borrowing and government spending does contradict regular economics. But I am sure that Professor Barro, very, very clever fellow that he is, will clear all this up for us in due course...

[In a part I left out, he explains the similarity between the two types of policy in more detail.]

    Posted by on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 02:34 AM in Economics, Fiscal Policy, Market Failure, Methodology | Permalink  Comments (35)


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