Keynesian Multiplier

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 3rd, 2012

Economics 101

At the Heart of Keynesian Stimulus Spending is the Keynesian Multiplier

Key to Keynesian economics is spending.  That’s the reason why governments everywhere embrace it.  Because Keynesian economics say government MUST spend money.  And that’s the kind of economics politicians like.  “I must spend?  Well, okay.  If you say so.  Forgive me, my constituents, for spending money I don’t have.  But it’s not me.  It’s our Keynesian economists saying we must spend.  And they’re smart.  Real smart.  They even have Ivy League degrees.  So who are we to question them?”

And it’s not just any kind of spending.  Well, actually, it is.  There’s nothing special about it.  You could pass a trillion dollar stimulus bill to pay people to dig holes with a shovel.  Fill them back in with the dirt they just shoveled out.  And then repeat.  Again and again.  Accomplishing nothing beneficial with these efforts.  But a Keynesian economist will approve of this spending and call it a good thing.  Why?  Because of trickle-down economics.  But of the Keynesian kind.

At the heart of Keynesian stimulus spending is the Keynesian multiplier.  That’s the ‘trickle down’ part.  But before we get to that we must discuss one other thing.  Savings.  Keynesians hate it.  They call money that leaks out of the economy into savings accounts wasted money.  Just as if you flushed it down the toilet.  This brings up another Keynesian concept.  The marginal propensity to consume (MPC).  Note the word ‘consume’.  This is what all that government spending is about.  Consumption.  Consumer spending.  Which is why Keynesians hate savings.  Because if people save their money they’re not spending it.  And not creating economic activity.

Politicians prefer Government Spending over Tax Cuts because People may Save Part of a Tax Cut

Now back to the multiplier.  When people receive money they do two things.  They save some of it.  And spend what they don’t save.  This is where the MPC comes in.  An MPC 0f 80% means that people will spend 80% of an amount of money they receive (paycheck, government benefit, etc.) and save 20% of it.  So they use 80% of that money to generate economic activity.  By spending it.  But it doesn’t end there.  Because what they spend other people receive as money.  And these people then save some of it.  And spend what they don’t save.  And so on.  At a MPC of 80% if a person receives $100 they will spend $80 and save $20.  Those who receive that $80 will spend $64 and save $16.  Those who receive $64 will spend $51.20 and save $12.80.  And on and on until people are only spending pennies.  In the end that original $100 will create a total of $500 in new economic activity.  Or five times the original amount.  So the Keynesian multiplier is five.  Or, mathematically, 1/(1-MPC) where MPC = 0.80.

Think of the multiplier as a pyramid of champagne glasses at a wedding.  As you pour champagne in the top glass it overflows into the next layer of glasses down.  When these glasses fill they overflow into the next layer of glasses below them.  The multiplier is kind of like that.  Starting by pouring into one glass.  By the time the champagne bottle is empty champagne fills many glasses.  And spilt champagne represents savings.  Or leakage.  That’s how the multiplier works.  Trickle down.  And the less champagne spilled the more champagne fills glasses.  As shown by the multiplier formula.  The larger the MPC is (as in the more people spend) the larger the multiplier.  In fact if they spent all of their money (an MPC = 1) the formula reduces to 1/0.  And what happens when you divide by zero?  You get infinity.  That’s right, according to the Keynesian multiplier equation if everybody spent all of their money and saved none there would be an infinite amount of economic activity.

In the Keynesian world it doesn’t matter what the money is spent on as long as it’s spent.  Even digging worthless holes is good enough to make this miracle of economic activity out of nothing work.  That’s why their advice is always for the government to tax, borrow or print money to spend.  Because spending is good.  And they prefer government spending over tax cuts to stimulate private spending.  Why?  When the government spends money that top champagne glass will have an MPC of 1.  The government will spend it all.  Less the administrative costs, of course.  Whereas an equivalent amount of money given to the people via a tax cut (letting them keep more of their earnings to spend) will not have an MPC of 1.  Because these people may do something foolish like save their money.  Or pay down debt.  Which is leakage.  Leakage reduces the multiplier.  And a lower multiplier reduces economic activity.

Governments Embrace Keynesian economics because it tells them to Always Spend More Money

It all seems too good to be true.  And there’s a reason for that.  Because it IS too good to be true.  And the proof is in the pudding.  The Seventies was the decade of unrestrained Keynesian economics.  And it didn’t work.  They spent like there was no tomorrow in the Seventies.  But all that Keynesian spending failed to pull the economy out of recession.  All it did was create high inflation.  So there was high unemployment AND high inflation.  Something that was impossible in the Keynesian universe.  But it happened.  Why?  Because they make a lot of assumptions to make their formulas work.  Like that MPC.  And their war on savings.  Their thinking is flawed.  Because savings ARE spending.  Someone’s savings is someone else’s investment.  And investments are spending.  Ever see It’s a Wonderful Life when the people were asking for their deposits back?  The savings and loans had some money.  But they didn’t have everyone’s money.  Then George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) told his depositors where their money was.  And he ran down a list of all the new houses their savings built.  Thanks to their loans to those new homeowners.  Building those houses generated a lot of economic activity.  So savings are good.  They’re not leakage.  They cause real economic activity.

Let’s return to that pyramid of champagne glasses.  Let’s say it takes 3 bottles of champagne to fill all the glasses in the pyramid.  If you pour the champagne back from the glasses into the bottles you will not have three full bottles of champagne.  Because of all that spillage.  Or leakage.  This is the same with Keynesian stimulus spending.  Stimulus money has to come from somewhere.  Whether government raises it with taxes, borrows it or prints it.  And like that champagne it just moves from one place in the economy to another.  With no net change in economic activity.  Higher taxes mean we have less money to spend.  If they borrow money they reduce private investment.  Because investors are buying government bonds instead if investing in businesses or entrepreneurs.  If they print money they cause inflation.  Which makes our money worth less and prices higher.  Which buys us less after the inflation than before it.  So whatever government spends there is a corresponding reduction in economic activity elsewhere in the economy.  Worse, when the government redistributes this money there is leakage.  Like the spillage of champagne.  For administrative costs.  Because politicians and government bureaucrats don’t work for free.

Printing money is especially harmful to the economy.  For it can cause a short-term boom in economic activity.  But by the time that new money works its way through the economy prices begin to rise.  Raising the cost of businesses.  Who have to raise their prices.  As they do their sales fall.  And they have to lay people off.  So the Keynesian stimulus spending to end a recession results in a new recession.  Which tends to be more painful than the first one.  So eventually a recessionary bust follows the artificial boom in economic activity.  Which brings those artificially high prices back down to normal market prices.  The greater the stimulus spending the higher those prices go.  The farther they have to fall.  And the more painful the recession.  Making the multiplier nothing but smoke and mirrors.  But governments still embrace Keynesian economics.  Because it is the only economic system that tells them to spend more money.  And they are always looking for something to justify more spending.

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