Monday, August 29, 2011
The Economic Role of Government
As I tell my students, it is a legitimate and defensible position to argue that the government should not try to manage the macroeconomy. For a variety of reasons (such as corruption, incompetence, and the influence of special interests), it is conceivable that policy makers and implementers will make things worse, not better. If one chooses this position, however, then one cannot complain about high unemployment, high inflation, or a lack of economic growth.
Prior to the Great Depression, the predominant school of economic thought, classical economics, suggested that macroeconomic problems would correct themselves. If unemployment increased, the response would be a decrease in wages until employers were willing to hire them again. Similarly, inflation (a general increase in the level of prices) would cause people to buy less (as prices rose). Reduced demand for products then would cause prices to fall. The biggest problem with classical economic thought, however, is that it is based on assumptions that are rarely true. (For example, it assumes people have full information, which is almost never the case.) Several decades of subsequent economic thought have been devoted to explanations of flaws in the simplistic classical rationale. (The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel has been awarded 42 times to 67 Laureates between 1969 and 2010 to highlight and honor those achievements.)
John Maynard Keynes, a British economist, popularized the notion that the government can and should play an active role in managing the macroeconomy. Keynes acknowledged that classical thought might have applicability over an extremely long time period, but “in the long run we are all dead.” If people wait for the macroeconomy to correct itself, they may not live long enough to see the changes. The severity and prolonged duration of the Great Depression convinced most people of the validity of Keynes’ insights. During the Great Depression, prices were falling, but that did not motivate an increase in purchases and employment as classical economics predicts. Even if people had income, they were reluctant to spend it because of uncertainty about the future.
Mainstream economics since the Great Depression is Keynesian economics. The overwhelming majority of economists around the world believe it is appropriate for the government to take actions to promote economic growth and to maintain low unemployment and low inflation. The debate in the United States is not whether the government should try to achieve these goals. Instead, the discussion is about what the government should do. Essentially, Republicans argue that public policies should primarily benefit businesses and the wealthy because they are the job creators. Democrats respond that making the wealthy richer will not cause them to hire more workers unless there is a significant increase in the demand for goods and services. Democrats favor policies with broader benefits because they believe increasing the overall demand for products will increase employment. Very few people argue that the government should do nothing to reduce unemployment, maintain stable prices, and promote economic growth. Indeed, the mood of the country is “they have not fixed the economy, so throw the bums out.”
If President Obama loses the 2012 election, it will be because he did too little to improve the economy, not because he did too much. Reports from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a government agency whose professional economists provide non-partisan analysis to legislators, consistently confirm that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the much criticized stimulus spending program, created jobs, increased employment, and reduced the unemployment rate from what would have occurred in its absence. It is a fair criticism to say some politicians steered ARRA funds away from the most economically beneficial projects toward other favored objectives. But that is a failure of the political system and the implementation of the suggested policies, not of Keynesian economic theory.