As a job-creating entrepreneur out here in the hinterlands, I am amazed at the Keynesian priests in Washington calling for more stimulus fueled by debt.
“The Rev.” Paul Krugman, “the Rev.” Robert Reich and their many cohorts argue that the stimulus was too small to offset falling aggregate demand and that the prescription for our laggard economy is another, bigger stimulus.
Those who talk about Keynesian economic theory think economic contractions are worsened and prolonged because consumers and businesses hunker down in caution, causing aggregate demand to fall. We can all agree this has happened.
According to the Keynesians, the remedy for today’s economic problem is for the federal government, as the single biggest actor, to “prime the pump.” As government money starts to ripple through the economy, consumers and businesses will be encouraged and cautiously respond with limited increases of their own. Vroom! The economic engine steadily revs up in billions of responsive steps until happy days are here again. This pump-priming reaction is termed the “multiplier effect.”
I think John Maynard Keynes would be horrified at the slavish adherence to this simplistic strategy by so many policymakers and economic thinkers, as his theory was much more complex. This thinking might be correct under circumstances other than those in which we find ourselves. If the ratio of our national debt to gross domestic product was low - say 25 percent - and the federal government had run surpluses before the downturn, this college freshman-level Keynesian analysis would have great weight. Put another way, if Uncle Sam were a rock-solid financial entity with low debt to value and he had judiciously used debt for capital improvements that were accretive in value, as the biggest dog on the porch, a stimulus might work.
But with a national debt of more than $14 trillion and unfunded, future “off the books” debt of Social Security and Medicare combined at $104 trillion in present value, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve, Uncle Sam ain’t the man he used to be. This in turn makes American businesses that are sitting on a pile of cash focus on deleveraging. The American consumer is doing the same. In fact, from where I sit, it appears as though everyone except Uncle Sam is working like mad to strengthen his balance sheets. The legitimate fear across the country is that Washington’s refusal to join our common-sense parade will result in higher taxes, more regulations, more inflation and Japanese-style stagflation. In other words, Washington’s attempts at stimulus through spending are having the opposite effect. Businesses and consumers stay hunkered down.
I know this is counterintuitive to the college-freshman Keynesian analysis from above, but as a business owner, I can tell you an additional stimulus would create more fear and further dampen demand in the private sector. Keynes was correct in focusing on aggregate demand as critical, but the confidence context and potential behavior responses have to be considered, and that requires real-world, Main Street knowledge - not just textbook theory. In this environment, if the federal government announced a real road map to fiscal soundness, the impact would be truly stimulating. If American businesses and consumers saw that Washington was really cutting, not just reducing future increases, there would be tremendous relief and an increase in confidence across the country. Job creators would sing “hallelujah”; they would get off their wallets, start hiring, and then you’d see that Keynesian multiplier kick in.
Modern Keynesians suffer from the misguided notion that government is the great engine that will restore our economy to prosperity. In fact, the great engine is a diverse system of private citizens anxious to go to work to provide for their families and build their businesses.
Mike Whalen is the founder of Heart of America Group, which owns and operates hotels and restaurants. He is a member of the Job Creators Alliance and is policy chairman for the National Center for Policy Analysis.