Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Keynesianism Is So Nuanced

[This will be a multi-part series that discusses inflation, what money is and why it has value. We begin with some basics through the lens of Keynesianism's "attractiveness".]

I was on an email string recently about The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Uri Dadush. I made the statement that Dadush is simply a Keynesian, albeit one that is well connected and understands there are many difficult challenges that need to be addressed. In response to my email, a long-time friend of TILB and fellow liberty loving free marketer - though he is still finding his legs with regards to understanding the implications of his beliefs - responded to me that he has spoken at length with Dadush and that he's more nuanced and "complex" than being simply called a Keynsian. Here's a quote from Dadush's recent FT OpEd:
There are ways to mitigate the pain. For example, Germany and other countries could adopt more expansionary fiscal policies for a while. Or, more powerfully, the wider euro area could adopt more expansionary monetary policies for several years. Today, this second option is anathema as the “inflation fundamentalists” will have none of it.
Nuanced? I guess.

Here's what my friend said (mind you, he's an avowed libertarian - though he's still figuring himself out so to speak) - light editing for privacy reasons or clarification:
I met with the guy for 2 hours, and I would not classify him as such [a "strong Keynesian with fairly mainstream opinions"]. If anything, he is complex – and clearly what he says on CNBC and in NY Times oped is not what he can say behind closed doors. While Keynesian, he is not a classically academic Keynesian, sitting in a library dealing with only theory. He counsels governments facing massive social unrest and high unemployment, and he approaches his work with a much deeper appreciation for the human situation than we can. So while espousing money creation below, he was also very pragmatic with me about the moral hazard of this choice, the continued low interest rates, our over-reliance on debt, etc.

I am sympathetic with his situation. We often throw around our ideas without considering the reality of what will inevitably happen – at least in the short term – if our ideas were implemented. I know you will vehemently disagree with me on this, but the fact is that – again, in the short term – what you and I want ideally is economically wishful thinking and politically impossible. Yes, the opposite will bankrupt the world, and we are largely already insolvent. There’s no argument there. Should we suddenly balance our budget, shrink government dramatically, stop stimulus, war, and over-regulation, the result could be 50-60-70% unemployment rates – in the short run. I do believe the LT benefits of Austrian economics are obviously far superior to the Keynsian ponzi scheme.

However, no one talks about the transition, and what it would really mean for us. If you take a heroin addict, and suddenly “reform” him with complete withdrawal and going cold turkey, he will often die from this. His body cannot handle the shock.

Uri had just met with the Italian Finance Minister prior to seeing me – I can imagine that conversation. How do you convince someone like that that what he really needs is to leave the EU, get on the gold standard, balance his budget, cut taxes – and face assassination b/c 100 million are thrown into convulsions?

My point is that Uri deals with the reality of our current situation, while we do not. We read letters and books, then pontificate and rant without a good understanding of what it really means. It will kills us eventually, yes. But it will be a long, slow death probably instead of a quick one.

Lastly, I’ve read Ron Paul, Murry [sic] Rothbard, etc. They all talk about how wrong things are – and I agree with them. I have yet to see a transition plan, so if you know of anything they have written on how to get off the system we are currently addicted to, I’d love to read it.
I decided not to send him a reply by email. Instead, I decided to bring the discussion to TILB, as it's a more productive forum for this sort of thing. To be direct, I disagree with a number of his assertions.
In my opinion, what you described is in fact classic Keynesianism. No self respecting Keynesian would claim that running large deficits and printing money is a long-term viable solution or economically healthy approach. That is simply the tag line non-Keynsians use to belittle the Keynsian approach. It's the politicization the word "Keynesian" but not the reality. Dadush is a classic, behind-the-desk academic Keynesian. He provides advice based in theory as does every other economist, Austrian or otherwise.

The Keynesian argument is always more nuanced or "complex". The argument is generally that goverment needs to implement aggressive and targeted public spending policies during difficult economic periods because taking the hard medicine in the middle of a recession would (they believe) be too painful and counterproductive. By putting it into human terms it becomes very powerful (for obvious reasons) even if - in my opinion - the Keynsian trade is to attempt to avoid some human pain today in exchange for accepting much more human pain in the future.

What's here is tangible and it matters more to voters than tomorrow's pain.

So if we can just take a few easy money bong hits and confuse our body into thinking it's healthy, we can take the hard medicine then. We'll do what needs to be done, but just not yet. Tomorrow. Always some day in the future.

As you know, the issue is that the recession is not the problem, the recession is the cure. It's the cure to profligacy; a recession is simply a period of excess savings that offsets periods of excess spending and consumption.

Switching from a societal bias toward spending to one of savings is painful because society was confused by the profligacy into setting up a structure that serves society's apparent "needs" as if the profligate period is normal. The profligacy is full of false/unsustainable demand signals that trick people into creating/investing in the wrong kinds of businesses or in the wrong amount. The longer the cure is postponed by inflicting more easy money and socialist disease (e.g., Dadush's prescription), the more painful the necessary recession will be because the imbalances are greater and become more depended on.

It's not just imbalances as defined as switching from spending/borrowing to saving/investing. It's that entire industries were created to serve an unsustainable consumptive demand rather than productive advancement. It requires more than just saving new capital, but shifting existing capital from entire industries and possibly geographies to others. A human toll is left in the wreckage of these corrections. It is, however, unavoidable.

What is avoidable is compounding the problem through continued interference with the needed correction.

Bernanke/Bush/Obama's current postponement means the next recession (assuming we are - in fact - past "this one") will feel worse than this one. Their fight of postponement is really an attempt to induce even more capital to become malinvested toward less productive industries and to have us become even more dependant on unsustainable behaviors. So there will never be a period in which the hard medicine can be comfortably consumed because the hard medicine IS the recession and the imbalances it wants and needs to address continue to grow in the meantime. So avoiding taking the hard medicine means avoiding curing the disease; allowing it to metasticize, take root, grow and spread.

You know me well and you are correct: I do vehemently disagree with your statement. Short of a major North American landwar, there is virtually no scenario in which a society as productive as ours would experience anything like "50-60-70%" unemployment rates, even if one mistakenly changes the whole system in one yank.

Ron Paul and others have addressed transition plans. They logically begin with the easiest part: balancing the budget while cutting taxes. By taxing less and borrowing less, capital remains in private (productive) hands and out of public (unproductive) hands. Sounds hard, but if you are of the opinion that most of government is value-destructive, it's actually easy. First, bring the troops home and end the American military empire abroad (foreign military bases). Those two actions are somewhere in the $500 billion to $750 billion annually of savings (1/3 to half of our expected deficit this year and 100% of our deficit from three years ago). Other than for providing a platform for safe living and investment, military is a non-productive expense, by definition. Then end most of the "Department ofs", as I call them. Dept of Education, Dept of Interior, Dept of Energy, Dept of Homeland Security, etc. and slash the size of those you keep, emphasizing of course a strong defense (not offense - defense). This is key, bringing home the military does not mean having a weaker defense. It means changing the nature of it and allowing us to invest in true defense rather than wasting investment on overseas bases.

These cuts are - importantly - phased in but transparent and forecast so that the change is digestible.

That's the easy part. The harder part (though made much, much easier by having already shifted to a smaller government that runs a balanced budget) is moving to a harder currency. This involves ending the Fed and installing free banking, which means a banking system that doesn't "create" money with customer deposits. My personal view is the only way to do that is a slow, planned, well understood phase-in. It might take two decades to let happen so that the adjustment is manageable. I believe the huge benefits reaped from freeing capital from government hands would unleash such a lollapalooza of positives on society that shrinking the banking system would actually shift from an economic headwind to a tailwind by the latter years of the process.

As a final aside, in contrast to your assertion, I am not actually a government-installed-gold-standard man, because it relies on government to be well behaved. I am for market-based money, but that's a discussion for another day.