Oct 29 2011

Amoral Economics 101

More Thoughts On Weaponized Keynesianism

Paul Krugman, The New York Times

October 29, 2011, 2:20 pm

Economics, as I say often, is not a morality play. As far as creating aggregate demand is concerned, spending is spending – public spending is as good as but also no better than private spending, spending on bombs is as good as spending on public parks. As I pointed out not long ago, a perceived threat of alien invasion, by getting us to spend on anti-invasion measures, would quickly restore full employment, even though the spending would be on totally useless object.

It’s also worth noting that one of the main sources of evidence that fiscal expansion really does stimulate the economy comes from tracking the effects of changes in defense spending. That’s true of Depression-era studies like Almunia et al, and also of several of the studies described in the Romer and Romer lecture on fiscal policy. Why the focus on defense? Two reasons, actually. One is that in practice defense spending is what moves: the fact is that large-scale stimulus programs consisting of domestic spending basically don’t happen, while wars and arms races do.

And the evidence clearly shows that weaponized Keynesianism works – which means that Keynesianism in general works.

(T)here’s the general fear on the part of conservatives that if you admit that the government can do anything useful other than fighting wars, you open the door to do-gooding in general; that explains why conservatives have always seen Keynesianism as a dangerous leftist doctrine even though that makes no sense in terms of the theory’s actual content. On top of that there’s the Kalecki point that admitting that the government can create jobs undermines demands that policies be framed to cater to all-important business confidence.

That said, there’s also the Keynes/coalmines point: there’s a strong tendency to take any spending that looks like a business proposition – building bridges or tunnels, supporting solar energy or mass transit – and demanding that it appear to be a sound investment in terms of its financial return. This makes most such spending look bad, since almost by definition a depressed economy is one in which businesses aren’t seeing good reasons to invest. Defense gets exempted because nobody expects bombs to be a good business proposition.

The moral here should be that spending to promote employment in a depressed economy should not be viewed as something that has to generate a good financial return; in effect, most of the resources being used are in reality free.

You may discuss more productive uses of government investment below, though you should be prepared for the argument that other activities which reduce the surplus population (plagues, famines, eating babies, etc.) also produce beneficial economic results.

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