The Problem with Keynesianism
By John Mauldin
March 9, 2014
Why Is Economic Theory Important?
The Problem with Keynesianism
Surprise: You Can’t Spend More Than You Make
Argentina, South Africa, Europe, and Rand Paul
“The belief that wealth subsists not in ideas, attitudes, moral codes, and mental disciplines but in identifiable and static things that can be seized and redistributed is the materialist superstition. It stultified the works of Marx and other prophets of violence and envy. It frustrates every socialist revolutionary who imagines that by seizing the so-called means of production he can capture the crucial capital of an economy. It is the undoing of nearly every conglomerateur who believes he can safely enter new industries by buying rather than by learning them. It confounds every bureaucrat who imagines he can buy the fruits of research and development.
“The cost of capturing technology is mastery of the knowledge embodied in the underlying science. The means of entrepreneurs’ production are not land, labor, or capital but minds and hearts….
“Whatever the inequality of incomes, it is dwarfed by the inequality of contributions to human advancement. As the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote, ‘Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances that permit this norm to be exceeded – here and there, now and then – are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of society, the people slip back into abject poverty. This is known as bad luck.’
“President Obama unconsciously confirmed Heinlein’s sardonic view of human nature in a campaign speech in Iowa: ‘We had reversed the recession, avoided depression, got the economy moving again, but over the last six months we’ve had a run of bad luck.’ All progress comes from the creative minority. Even government-financed research and development, outside the results-oriented military, is mostly wasted. Only the contributions of mind, will, and morality are enduring. The most important question for the future of America is how we treat our entrepreneurs. If our government continues to smear, harass, overtax, and oppressively regulate them, we will be dismayed by how swiftly the engines of American prosperity deteriorate. We will be amazed at how quickly American wealth flees to other countries….
“Those most acutely threatened by the abuse of American entrepreneurs are the poor. If the rich are stultified by socialism and crony capitalism, the lower economic classes will suffer the most as the horizons of opportunity close. High tax rates and oppressive regulations do not keep anyone from being rich. They prevent poor people from becoming rich. High tax rates do not redistribute incomes or wealth; they redistribute taxpayers – out of productive investment into overseas tax havens and out of offices and factories into beach resorts and municipal bonds. But if the 1 percent and the 0.1 percent are respected and allowed to risk their wealth – and new rebels are allowed to rise up and challenge them – America will continue to be the land where the last regularly become the first by serving others.”
– George Gilder, Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
– John Maynard Keynes
“Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview – nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.”
– Stephen Jay Gould
I think Lord Keynes himself would appreciate the irony that he has become the defunct economist under whose influence the academic and bureaucratic classes now toil, slaves to what has become as much a religious belief system as it is an economic theory. Men and women who display an appropriate amount of skepticism on all manner of other topics indiscriminately funnel a wide assortment of facts and data through the filter of Keynesianism without ever questioning its basic assumptions. And then some of them go on to prescribe government policies that have profound effects upon the citizens of their nations.
And when those policies create the conditions that engender the income inequality they so righteously oppose, they prescribe more of the same bad medicine. Like 18th-century physicians applying leeches to their patients, they take comfort in the fact that all right-minded and economic scientists and philosophers concur with their recommended treatments.
This week, let’s look at the problems with Keynesianism and examine its impact on income inequality.
But first, let me note that Gary Shilling has agreed to come to our Strategic Investment Conference this May 13-16 in San Diego, joining a star-studded lineup of speakers who have already committed. This is really going to be the best conference ever, and you need to figure out how to make it. Early registration pricing goes away at the end of this week. My team at Mauldin Economics has produced a short, fun introductory clip featuring some of the speakers; so enjoy the video, check out the rest of our lineup, and then sign up to join us.
This is the first year we have not had to limit our conference to accredited investors; nor are we limiting attendance from outside the United States. We have a new venue that will allow us to adequately grow the conference over time. But we will not change the format of what many people call the best investment and economic conference in the US. Hope to see you there. And now on to our letter.
Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. We started a series two weeks ago on income inequality, the current cause célèbre in economic and political circles. What spurred me to undertake this series was a recent paper from two economists (one from the St. Louis Federal Reserve) who are utterly remarkable in their ability to combine more bad economic ideas and research techniques into one paper than anyone else in recent memory.
Their even more remarkable conclusion is that income inequality was the cause of the Great Recession and subsequent lackluster growth. “Redistributive tax policy” is suggested approvingly. If direct redistribution is not politically possible, then other methods should be tried, the authors say. I’m sure that, given more time and data, the researchers could have used their methodology to ascribe the rise in teenage acne to income inequality as well.
So what is this notorious document? It’s “Inequality, the Great Recession, and Slow Recovery,” by Barry Z. Cynamon and Steven M. Fazzari. One could ask whether this is not just one more bad economic paper among many. If so, why should we waste our time on it?
(Let me state for the record that I am sure Messieurs Cynamon and Fazzari are wonderful husbands and fathers, their children love them, and their pets are happy when they come home. In addition, they are probably outstanding citizens who are active in all sorts of good things in their communities. Their friends and colleagues enjoy convivial gatherings with them. I’m sure that if I were to sit down to dinner with them [not likely to happen after this