The Capture of Keynesianism

Communist revolutionary Che Guevara rapidly became an inspirational figure for revolutionary socialist change after his execution in Bolivia in 1967. Forty years later, Che lives on but his image now adorns t-shirts that have become popular fashion statements. This transformation reflects the extraordinary power of markets to capture and transform, turning an avowed enemy of the market system into a profit opportunity.

The process of capture also holds for economic policy, which has witnessed the conservative capture of Keynesianism. This capture is now on display as U.S. policymakers struggle to contain the effects of a collapsing house price bubble that was recklessly funded by Wall Street. The sting is that the full powers of Keynesian policies are being invoked to save an economy that no longer generates Keynesian outcomes of full employment and shared prosperity.

The political economic philosophy of Keynesianism emerged after World War II following the catastrophic experience of the Great Depression. The new paradigm advocated an economy with full employment and shared prosperity, and gave government the critical role of regulating markets and adjusting monetary and fiscal policy to ensure levels of demand sufficient to generate full employment.

These Keynesian tools are now being applied forcefully. The Federal Reserve has dramatically cut its interest rate target in response to financial sector weakness. Its goal has been to shore up asset prices, prevent further financial losses, lower mortgage rates to make houses more affordable and prevent further defaults, and to stimulate spending by lowering the cost of capital. Moreover, the Fed has done this despite consumer price inflation being above four percent.

Simultaneously, the Bush administration has pushed for fiscal stimulus, albeit with its usual preference for tax cuts benefiting business and the rich that deliver little bang for buck. The Democratically controlled Congress has also gotten in on the act with stimulus packages that are better designed, but still contain plenty of expensive and relatively ineffective tax cuts.

On one level, policymakers are absolutely right taking these measures, as the costs of a financial and economic meltdown are so large. But true Keynesian policy would also address the failure to generate full employment and shared prosperity. The current U.S. economic expansion looks like being the first ever in which median household income fails to recover its previous peak. Job growth has been tepid for much of the time, and the employment-to-population ratio has remained well below its previous peak. This dismal experience comes on top of three decades of wage stagnation during which household income only grew because of longer working hours and having both household heads work.

The capture of Keynesianism has been a gradual process. In the 1950s military Keynesianism became the hallmark of American policy, with defense spending becoming a huge and permanent component of government spending, to the benefit of the war industry. President Reagan continued the process of capture, pushing rhetoric and policies that undermined working families while simultaneously running budget deficits that kept the lid on unemployment. In the last recession of 2001, the Bush administration again invoked Keynesian stimulus for tax cuts that contained minimal stimulus and were closer to looting of government finances.

In 1971 President Nixon famously declared “We are all Keynesians now.” Nixon was half-right. Everyone recognizes the need and efficacy of Keynesian policy instruments, including conservatives who are happy to promote tax cuts and interest rate reductions to support asset prices. However, most have forgotten the Keynesian goals of full employment and shared prosperity.

The result is Keynesian policy instruments remain, but Keynesian policy goals have been abandoned. Both Democrats and Republicans are quick to push for Keynesian stimulus policies when financial stability is threatened, but most (including too many Democrats) are silent when the economy fails to deliver shared prosperity.

Keynesian full employment stimulus policies must be accompanied by Keynesian structural policies that ensure wages grow with productivity, thereby ensuring sustainable demand growth. These structural policies include labor and social insurance laws supportive of unions and worker bargaining power, and international economic policies that prevent inappropriate competition and unsustainable trade deficits. The conservative capture of Keynesianism has both obliterated these structural policies and put a brake on reaching for full employment.

Copyright Thomas I. Palley

2 Responses to “The Capture of Keynesianism”

  1. Barry Brooks Says:

    Dear Thomas,

    The many limits to growth make growth
    in consumption unwise. Your hope
    for “sustainable demand growth” is
    not justified. Even Keynes thought
    that other solutions would finally
    become necessary.

    It appears that the limits to growth
    will REQUIRE the world to adopt
    economic systems that can function
    without growth in consumption. Which
    systems can adapt to reduced
    consumption? Many people believe
    capitalism will not be able to end
    consumption growth.

    …click on grow or die.

    Barry Brooks

  2. Robert Johnson Says:

    This story in the 1950s and 60s has been told brilliantly by Robert Collins book “The Business Response to Keynes”