John Maynard Keynes said if the People aren’t Buying then the Government Should Be
Keynesian economics is pretty complex. So is the CliffsNotes version. So this will be the in-a-nutshell version. Keynesian economics basically says, in a nut shell, that markets are stupid. Because markets are full of stupid people. If we leave people to buy and sell as they please we will continue to suffer recession after recession. Because market failures give us the business cycle. Which are nice on the boom side. But suck on the bust side. The recession side. So smart people got together and said, “Hey, we’re smart people. We can save these stupid people from themselves. Just put a few of us smart people into government and give us control over the economy. Do that and recessions will be a thing of the past.”
Well, that’s the kind of thing governments love to hear. “Control over the economy?” they said. “We would love to take control of the economy. And we would love to control the stupid people, too. Just tell us how to do it and our smart people will work with your smart people and we will make the world a better place.” And John Maynard Keynes told them exactly what to do. And by exactly I mean exactly. He transformed economics into mathematical equations. And they all pretty much centered on doing one thing. Moving the demand curve. (A downward sloping graph showing the relationship between prices and demand for stuff; higher the price the lower the demand and vice versa).
In macroeconomics (i.e., the ‘big picture’ of the national economy), Keynes said all our troubles come from people not buying enough stuff. That they aren’t consuming enough. And when consumption falls we get recessions. Because aggregate demand falls. Aggregate demand being all the people put together in the economy out there demanding stuff to buy. And this is where government steps in. By picking up the slack in personal consumption. Keynes said if the people aren’t buying then the government should be. We call this spending ‘stimulus’. Governments pass stimulus bills to shift the demand curve to the right. A shift to the right means more demand and more economic activity. Instead of less. Do this and we avoid a recession. Which the market would have entered if left to market forces. But not anymore. Not with smart people interfering with market forces. And eliminating the recession side of the business cycle.
Keynesians prefer Deficit Spending and Playing with the Money Supply to Stimulate the Economy
Oh, it all sounds good. Almost too good to be true. And, as it turns out, it is too good to be true. Because economics isn’t mathematical. It’s not a set of equations. It’s people entering into trades with each other. And this is where Keynesian economics goes wrong. People don’t enter into economic exchanges with each other to exchange money. They only use money to make their economic exchanges easier. Money is just a temporary storage of value. Of their human capital. Their personal talent that provides them business profits. Investment profits. Or a paycheck. Money makes it easier to go shopping with the proceeds of your human capital. So we don’t have to barter. Exchange the things we make for the things we want. Imagine a shoemaker trying to barter for a TV set. By trading shoes for a TV. Which won’t go well if the TV maker doesn’t want any shoes. So you can see the limitation in the barter system. But when the shoemaker uses money to buy a TV it doesn’t change the fundamental fact that he is still trading his shoemaking ability for that TV. He’s just using money as a temporary storage of his shoemaking ability.
We are traders. And we trade things. Or services. We trade value created by our human capital. From skill we learned in school. Or through experience. Like working in a skilled trade under the guidance of a skilled journeyperson or master tradesperson. This is economic activity. Real economic activity. People getting together to trade their human capital. Or in Keynesian terms, on both sides of the equation for these economic exchanges is human capital. Which is why demand-side economic stimulus doesn’t work. Because it mistakes money for human capital. One has value. The other doesn’t. And when you replace one side of the equation with something that doesn’t have value (i.e., money) you cannot exchange it for something that has value (human capital) without a loss somewhere else in the economy. In other words to engage in economic exchanges you have to bring something to the table to trade. Skill or ability. Not just money. If you bring someone else’s skill or ability (i.e., their earned money) to the table you’re not creating economic activity. You’re just transferring economic activity to different people. There is no net gain. And no economic stimulus.
When government spends money to stimulate economic activity there are no new economic exchanges. Because government spending is financed by tax revenue. Wealth they pull out of the private sector so the public sector can spend it. They take money from some who can’t spend it and give it to others who can now spend it. The reduction in economic activity of the first group offsets the increase in economic activity in the second group. So there is no net gain. Keynesians understand this math. Which is why they prefer deficit spending (new spending paid by borrowing rather than taxes). And playing with the money supply.
The End Result of Government Stimulus is Higher Prices for the Same Level of Economic Activity
The reason we have recessions is because of sticky wages. When the business cycle goes into recession all prices fall. Except for one. Wages. Those sticky wages. Because it is not easy giving people pay cuts. Good employees may just leave and work for someone else for better pay. So when a business can’t sell enough to maintain profitability they cut production. And lay off workers. Because they can’t reduce wages for everyone. So a few people lose all of their wages. Instead of all of the people losing all of their wages by a business doing nothing to maintain profitability. And going out of business.
To prevent this unemployment Keynesian economics says to move the aggregate demand curve to the right. In part by increasing government spending. But paying for this spending with higher taxes on existing spenders is a problem. It cancels out any new economic activity created by new spenders. So this is where deficit spending and playing with the money supply come in. The idea is if the government borrows money they can create economic activity. Without causing an equal reduction in economic activity due to higher taxes. And by playing with the money supply (i.e., interest rates) they can encourage people to borrow money to spend even if they had no prior intentions of doing so. Hoping that low interest rates will encourage them to buy a house or a car. (And incur dangerous levels of debt in the process). But the fatal flaw in this is that it stimulates the money supply. Not human capital.
This only pumps more money into the economy. Inflates the money supply. And depreciates the dollar. Which increases prices. Because a depreciated dollar can’t buy as much as it used to. So whatever boost in economic activity we gain will soon be followed by an increase in prices. Thus reducing economic activity. Because of that demand curve. That says higher prices decreases aggregate demand. And decreases economic activity. The end result is higher prices for the same level of economic activity. Leaving us worse off in the long run. If you ever heard a parent say when they were a kid you could buy a soda for a nickel this is the reason why. Soda used to cost only a nickel. Until all this Keynesian induced inflation shrunk the dollar and raised prices through the years. Which is why that same soda now costs a dollar.
Tags: ability, aggregate demand, aggregate demand curve, business cycle, consumption, deficit, deficit spending, demand, demand curve, economic activity, economic exchanges, economic stimulus, Economics, economy, government spending, higher prices, human capital, inflation, interest rates, John Maynard Keynes, Keynes, Keynesian, Keynesian economics, market forces, markets, money, money supply, prices, recession, skill, smart people, sticky wages, stimulus, stupid people, taxes, trade, traders, value