Keynesian Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 14th, 2013

Economics 101

(Originally published February 20th, 2012)

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.

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The Chicago School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 5th, 2012

Economics 101

Monetarists believe in Laissez-Faire Capitalism and Fiat Money

Keynesian economics supports hands-on government management of the economy.  Using fiscal and monetary policy to move the aggregate demand curve at will to end business cycles.  The boom bust cycles between inflation and recession.  Leaving only the inflationary boom times.   Using tax and spend fiscal policies.  Or simply printing money for government expenditures.  For in Keynesian economics consumption is key.  The more of it the better.  And when people stop buying things the government should step in and pick up the consumption slack.

The Austrian school is a more hands-off approach.  The markets should be free.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  And the business cycle should remain.  For it is a necessary part of the economy.  Part of the automatic pricing mechanism that adjusts supply to meet demand.  When people demand more prices go up.  Encouraging businesses to expand production to sell at these higher prices (inflationary expansion).  Then when supply exceeds demand businesses have excessive inventory that they can’t sell anymore at those higher prices.  So they cut their prices to sell off this excessive supply (deflationary recession).  Also, that hands-off approach means no playing with monetary policy.  Austrians prefer a gold standard to prevent central bank mischief that results in inflation.

The Chicago school of economics takes a little from each of these schools.  Like the Austrians they believe that government should take a hands-off approach in the economy.  Markets should be free with minimum government intervention.  But unlike Austrians, they hate gold.  And blame the gold standard for causing the Great Depression.  Instead, they believe in the flexibility of fiat money.  As do the Keynesians.  But with a strict monetary policy to minimize inflation (which is why proponents of this school were also called monetarists).  Unlike the Keynesians.  For monetarists believe only a government’s monetary policy can cause runaway inflation.

(This is a gross simplification of these three schools.  A more detailed and comprehensive study would be a bit overwhelming as well as extremely boring.  But you get the gist.  At least, for the point of this discussion.)

We used Gold and Silver for Money because it was Durable, Portable, Divisible, Fungible, Scarce, Etc.

At the heart of the difference between these schools is money.  So a refresher course on money is in order.  Money stores wealth temporarily.  When we create something of value (a good or a service) we can use that value to trade for something we want.  We used to barter with other creative people who made value of their own.  But as the economy got more complex it took more and more time to find people to trade with.  You had to find someone who had what you wanted who also wanted what you had.  If you baked bread and wanted shoes you had to find a shoemaker who wanted bread.  Not impossible.  But it took a lot of time to find these people to trade with.

Then someone had a brilliant idea.  They figured they could trade their good or service NOT for something THEY wanted but something OTHER people would want.  Such as tobacco.  Whiskey.  Or grain.  These things were valuable.  Other people would want them.  So they could easily trade their good or service for one of these things.  And then later trade it for what they wanted.  And money was born.  For various reasons (durable, portable, divisible, fungible, scarce, etc.) we chose gold and silver as our money of choice.  Due to the inconvenience and danger of carrying these precious metals around, though, we stored our precious metals in a vault and used ‘receipts’ of that deposit as currency.  And the gold standard was born.

To understand the gold standard think of a balance scale.  The kind where you put weights on one side to balance the load on the other.  When the scale balances the weight of the load equals the sum of the weights needed to make the scale balance.  Now imagine a scale like this where the VALUE of all goods and services (created by talented people) are on one side.  And all the precious metal in the gold standard are on the other.  These must be in balance.  And the sum of our currency must equal the amount of precious metal.  (Because they are ‘receipts’ for all that gold and silver we have locked up someplace.)  This prevents the government from creating inflation.  If you want to issue more money you have to put more precious metal onto the scale.  You just can’t print money.  For when you do and you don’t increase the amount of precious metal on the scale you depreciate the currency.  Because more of it equals the same amount of precious metal.  For more currency to equal the same amount of precious metal then each unit of currency has to be worth less.  And when each unit is worth less it takes more of them to buy the same things they bought before.  Thus raising prices.  If a government prints more currency without adding more precious metals on the scale they increase the value of that precious metal when MEASURED in that currency.  It becomes worth more.  In other words, you can trade that precious metal for more of that depreciated currency than before they depreciated it.  You do this too much and eventually people will prefer the precious metal over the currency.  They’ll lose faith in the currency.  And when that happens the economy collapses.  As people move back towards a barter system.

Milton Friedman wanted the Responsibility of the Gold Standard without Gold’s Constraint on increasing the Money Supply

A healthy economy needs a stable currency.  One that people don’t lose faith in.  Imagine trying to shop without money.  Instead, taking things to trade for the groceries you need.  Not very efficient.  So we need a stable currency.  And the gold standard gives us that.  However, the thing that makes gold or silver a stable currency, its scarcity, creates a liability.  Let’s go back to that balance scale.  To the side that contains the value of all goods and services.  Let’s say it increases.  But the precious metal on the other side doesn’t.  Which means the value of that precious metal increases.  The currency must equal the value of that precious metal.  So the value of the currency increases.  And prices fall.  It takes less of it to buy the same things it bought before.  Not a bad thing for consumers.  But it plays havoc with those who borrowed money before this appreciation.  Because they now have to repay money that is worth more than when what is was worth when they borrowed it.  Which hurt farmers during the 1920s.  Who borrowed a lot of money to mechanize their farms.  Which helped to greatly increase farm yields.  And increased food supplies while demand remained unchanged.  Which, of course, lowered farm prices.  The supply increased on the scale.  But the amount of gold didn’t.  Thus increasing the value of the gold.  And the currency.  Making prices fall.  Kicking off the deflationary spiral of the Great Depression.  Or so say the monetarists.

Now the monetarists wanted to get rid of the gold supply.  The Keynesians did, too.  But they wanted to do it so they could print and spend money.  Which they did during the Seventies.  Creating both a high unemployment rate and a high inflation rate.  Something that wasn’t supposed to happen in Keynesian economics.  For their solution to fix unemployment was to use inflation to stimulate aggregate demand in the economy.  Thus reducing unemployment.  But when they did this during the Seventies it didn’t work.  The Keynesians were befuddled.  But not the monetarists.  Who understood that the expansion of the money supply (printing money to spend) was responsible for that inflation.  People understood this, too.  And had rational expectations of how that Keynesian policy was going to end.  Higher prices.  So they raised prices before the stimulus could impact unemployment.  To stay ahead of the coming inflation.  So the Keynesian stimulus did nothing to reduce unemployment.  It just caused runaway inflation.  And raised consumer prices.  Which, in turn, decreased economic activity.  And further increased unemployment.

Perhaps the most well known economist in the Chicago school was Milton Friedman.  Who wanted the responsibility of the gold standard.  But without gold’s constraint on increasing the money supply to meet demand.  The key to monetarism.  To increase the money supply to match the growth in the economy.  To keep that scale balanced.  But without gold.  Instead, putting the money supply directly on the scale.  Printing fiat money as needed.  Great power.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  And if you abuse that power (as in printing money irresponsibly) the consequences of that abuse will be swift.  Thanks to the rational expectations of the people.  Another tenet of the Chicago school.

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Keynesian Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 20th, 2012

Economics 101

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.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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