Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Reactionary Keynesianism

Under Donald Trump we might get what some have called Reactionary Keynesianism. But a stimulus is a stimulus, right, and for those of us who think most OECD economies should be ‘run hot’ to try and make up some of the ground still lost from the Great Recession any fiscal stimulus should be welcomed? So Martin Sandbu writes
“it is hypocritical of anyone to warn that Trump’s promised tax cuts will endanger the public finances if they called for fiscal stimulus under Obama and his putative Democratic successor. …. While the composition of tax cuts and spending increases may matter, the overall size of any deficit increase matters at least as much.”

If by this he means don’t worry too much about the composition, the overall size of the deficit is more important, I think this is terrible macroeconomics. It is foolish to believe that anything that raises the deficit will stimulate.

We know that a part of any Trump stimulus will be large tax breaks for the very rich. The very rich will almost certainly consume virtually none of this tax break in the short term. It is the one part of the population where Ricardian Equivalence almost holds. You might think that therefore it does at least do no harm to short term aggregate demand. But this could be wrong, because the logic of the intertemporal budget constraint still operates. Those tax cuts will not be paid for by higher activity in the short term, so they may mean higher taxes down the road. Now if people who are not very rich think that these might be their taxes that are increased down the road, they will reduce their consumption today. The net effect could be a drop in demand.

You may think that consumers may not be so foresighted, so demand will not actually fall. But the logic of the intertemporal budget constraint still holds. If tax cuts for the rich just raise the deficit with almost no short run demand boost, then that is a transfer to the rich today from the non-rich tomorrow. If tax cuts for the rich were paid for by tax increases on everyone else today many politicians would be up in arms. Delaying the tax increase on everyone else by borrowing is a trick that should be seen straight through.

Yet I fear this is still not the case, and talking about tax cuts for the rich as part of a stimulus just helps confuse politicians. Those on the right understand this: tax cuts for the rich are nearly always part of a general stimulus: when Nigel Lawson did this it helped bust the UK economy. We should just repeat again and again: tax cuts for the rich paid for by borrowing are really tax increases for everyone else.

The example of tax cuts for the rich is the example that refutes the general proposition that the composition of any fiscal stimulus matters less than the overall size of any increase in the deficit.

Trump has also said he wants more investment in public infrastructure. That is something the US desperately needs, but remember that Trump will usher in an era of crony capitalism and politics like never before. The infrastructure that you might get could be far from the infrastructure the US actually needs, and instead may be whatever buys votes or other kinds of deals that help a Trump administration. Now if that infrastructure was produced entirely by those who otherwise would be out of the workforce but would like the jobs involved, then aggregate welfare would still increase: it is Keynes’s famous digging holes example. But in practice that seems unlikely to be completely or even mainly true, and so these white elephants may in practice crowd out better projects. In that case US citizens would not be better off in the short term as a result of this fiscal stimulus, even if GDP did rise. And the stimulus would not pay for itself, so once again other people should worry about the government’s intertemporal budget constraint.

If the economics of Reactionary Keynesian is bad, I think the politics is even worse. Quite simply, by achieving very little beyond redistributing to the rich and unworthy, it gives Keynesian policy a bad name. But we can avoid that, when we can, by not calling every increase in the deficit a stimulus. And by saying tax cuts for the rich paid for by borrowing are really tax increases for everyone else.


  1. As Paul Krugman put it, Republicans having opposed fiscal stimulus when it WAS NEEDED, are now promoting it when it's not needed. How much dumber can you get?

  2. Excellent post that highlights the very real dangers to the economy that the Trump presidency may lead to.


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