Income Inequality Does Matter And It Makes Us Worse Off

There is viewpoint that asserts that income inequality and wealth inequality are necessary, that they are the differences that motivate people to work and get ahead.  This viewpoint often implies that without wide income disparities that our economy’s growth would slow.  Supporters of such a viewpoint seem to suggest that the only choices we have are either:  a society of dramatic differences in income distribution or a society where everybody is equal but also poor.  This viewpoint is wrong. Absolutely wrong.  A simple review of U.S. history in the 20th century demonstrates the wrongness.  US GDP real growth in the 3 decades of 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s was much stronger than the 3 decades since 1980.  In the high-growth decades, income distribution was more equal and more fair.  Income distribution since 1980 has gotten worse.  But there’s more data to disprove the idea of “income inequality is good”.

Richard Wilkinson is a British researcher who has spent his life studying income inequality and the consequences for societies.  I strongly urge you to view in it’s entirety his TED talk on this subject.


Here are some excerpts from the transcript:

You all know the truth of what I’m going to say. I think the intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive has been around since before the French Revolution. What’s changed is we now can look at the evidence, we can compare societies, more and less equal societies, and see what inequality does. I’m going to take you through that data and then explain why the links I’m going to be showing you exist.

…I want to start though with a paradox. This shows you life expectancy against gross national income –how rich countries are on average. And you see the countries on the right, like Norway and the USA, are twice as rich as Israel, Greece, Portugal on the left.And it makes no difference to their life expectancy at all. There’s no suggestion of a relationship there.But if we look within our societies, there are extraordinary social gradients in health running right across society. This, again, is life expectancy.

…Now I’m going to show you what that does to our societies. We collected data on problems with social gradients, the kind of problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder.Internationally comparable data on life expectancy,on kids’ maths and literacy scores, on infant mortality rates, homicide rates, proportion of the population in prison, teenage birthrates, levels of trust, obesity, mental illness — which in standard diagnostic classification includes drug and alcohol addiction — and social mobility. We put them all in one index. They’re all weighted equally. Where a country is is a sort of average score on these things.And there, you see it in relation to the measure of inequality I’ve just shown you, which I shall use over and over again in the data. The more unequal countries are doing worse on all these kinds of social problems. It’s an extraordinarily close correlation. But if you look at that same index of health and social problems in relation to GNP per capita, gross national income, there’s nothing there,no correlation anymore.

…What all the data I’ve shown you so far says is the same thing. The average well-being of our societiesis not dependent any longer on national income and economic growth. That’s very important in poorer countries, but not in the rich developed world. But the differences between us and where we are in relation to each other now matter very much.

…This is mental illness.

…This is violence.

…This is social mobility. .

The other really important point I want to make on this graph is that, if you look at the bottom, Sweden and Japan, they’re very different countries in all sorts of ways. The position of women, how closely they keep to the nuclear family, are on opposite ends of the poles in terms of the rich developed world. But another really important difference is how they get their greater equality. Sweden has huge differences in earnings, and it narrows the gap through taxation, general welfare state, generous benefits and so on. Japan is rather different though.It starts off with much smaller differences in earnings before tax. It has lower taxes. It has a smaller welfare state. And in our analysis of the American states, we find rather the same contrast.There are some states that do well through redistribution, some states that do well because they have smaller income differences before tax. So we conclude that it doesn’t much matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow.

I am not talking about perfect equality, I’m talking about what exists in rich developed market democracies. Another really surprising part of this picture is that it’s not just the poor who are affected by inequality. There seems to be some truth in John Donne’s “No man is an island.”

I should say that to deal with this, we’ve got to deal with the post-tax things and the pre-tax things.We’ve got to constrain income, the bonus culture incomes at the top. I think we must make our bosses accountable to their employees in any way we can.I think the take-home message though is that we can improve the real quality of human life by reducing the differences in incomes between us.Suddenly we have a handle on the psychosocial well-being of whole societies, and that’s exciting.

 

In Economics, the Zombies Walk Everyday, Not Just At Halloween

In economics the zombies are with with us year-around, not just at Halloween.

Zombie Economics

Zombie Ecnomics

Thanks to ACEMAXX-ANALYTICS for the graphic.   And thanks also to John Quiggin (who also writes at CrookedTimber) for authoring the book Zombie Economics, a must read for understanding how current “mainstream” economics got so far off track from reality.

 

The Difference Between Physics and Mainstream Economics

Newspapers this morning were full of the story of how physicists at CERN in Geneva have demonstrated that a particle (sub-atomic one) could go faster than the speed of light.  I’m no physicist, (although I do make extensive use of the principles of gravity and inertia), but this appears to be a rather startling result – one of those things current accepted theory says can’t happen.  The Globe and Mail report:

 A fundamental pillar of physics – that nothing can go faster than the speed of light – appears to be smashed by an oddball subatomic particle that has apparently made a giant end run around Albert Einstein’s theories.

Scientists at the world’s largest physics lab said Thursday they have clocked neutrinos travelling faster than light. That’s something that according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity – the famous E (equals) mc2 equation – just doesn’t happen.

Mr. Gillies told The Associated Press that the readings have so astounded researchers that they are asking others to independently verify the measurements before claiming an actual discovery.

“They are inviting the broader physics community to look at what they’ve done and really scrutinize it in great detail, and ideally for someone elsewhere in the world to repeat the measurements,” he said Thursday.

Scientists at the competing Fermilab in Chicago have promised to start such work immediately.

“It’s a shock,” said Fermilab head theoretician Stephen Parke, who was not part of the research in Geneva. “It’s going to cause us problems, no doubt about that – if it’s true.”

Wow. What a difference. So when reality demonstrates something that theory says can’t happen, the physicists think it’s a problem and set out to: (a) verify the results, and (b) revise theory to account for it.  In mainstream macroeconomics as it’s been practiced since the 1970’s, they do just the opposite.  If something happens in reality that theory says or assumes can’t happen, mainstream macro-economists will just ignore facts. After all, an elegant mathematical theory is just too beautiful to abandon.  Why describe the workings of the real world when you can build models of hypothetical mathematical worlds that can never exist.   </end snarky sarcasm>

Obama’s So-Called Keynesian Stimulus Efforts Aren’t Very

The simple version of Keynesian economics suggests that if the economy is suffering from too little economic activity and high unemployment there are some policy options.  Specifically Keynes suggests there are three general kinds of policy options:

  1. The central bank (The Fed in the case of the U.S.) could lower interest rates and create money by buying bonds on the open market.  This is called stimulative monetary policy. It is supposed to work by making private sector borrowing more attractive and more profitable so that businesses in particular increase their spending on business investment goods like equipment and factories.
  2. The government could increase it’s budget deficit by borrowing more money and cutting taxes.  This is fiscal policy by tax cuts. It works by putting more cash in the hands of households and firms (increases their after-tax income) who then increase their spending.
  3. The government could increase it’s budget deficit by borrowing more money and directly spending the money itself, either by direct transfer payments to needy individuals, or by buying things like new dams or construction projects, or by hiring the unemployed itself. This is fiscal policy by spending.

There’s nothing to stop a country from pursuing all the above options simultaneously if it chose.  But not all of these options are equal in either effectiveness.

NOTE: This is old-style John Maynard Keynes style Keynesianism, not the  “New Keynesian” theories that have dominated some academic circles in the last couple decades. It’s also based on the real thing, not the caricature that it’s opponents paint which is usually without foundation. 

NOTE 2: It’s really not a good idea to try to simplify Keynes.  When you do, you’re likely to over-simplify and really miss powerful insights and nuances.  Nonetheless, I will plunge ahead with full knowledge of the risk.

The real richness of Keynesian theory though lies not just in these prescriptions, but the analysis of when to use which one, whether it is likely to work, and under what conditions.  The first option, monetary policy, is to be preferred in cases of  mild recessions when interest rates are “normal” and the slowdown is largely for mild, temporary factors such as an outside economic shock. Monetary policy is quick and easy to implement. It’s also relatively easy to reverse course when the time comes.

Keynes had two key insights about monetary policy though that are highly relevant to our present situation.  Monetary policy can be become impotent if interest rates drop to near zero and we get into a liquidity trap.  This is when people and firms become fearful of the future and come to expect continued weakness or even GDP declines and deflation.  In a liquidity trap, people just sit on money rather than spend or invest it.  Monetary policy is relatively ineffective in such cases. We have been in a liquidity trap since late 2008 and that’s why the record 3 years of a virtually zero Fed Funds interest rate and The Fed’s QE1 and QE2 programs haven’t worked. Liquidity traps aren’t common, but they do exist and they aren’t extinct.  We were in one in the 1930’s Great Depression and Japan has struggled with one for the last 15+ years.

Keynes also had insights about the two fiscal policy approaches, tax cuts vs. increased spending.   In particular, tax cuts will only be effective to the degree that households and firms actually spend the money.  If they use the money to pay down debts or to save, then it really won’t improve conditions.  Later research in the 1950’s and 1960’s strengthened these insights. Later research showed that it also makes a big difference who gets the tax cuts and whether they think the tax cut is permanent.  Temporary tax cuts are much less effective than permanent ones because people tend to save them more.  Also, high-income individuals tend to save more of the tax cut (proportionally) than more desperate lower-income folks. Finally, later research showed that when a recession comes about because private debt got too high, then tax cuts are least effective.  Notice a pattern here?

The fiscal policy “stimulus” efforts that we have pursued since the Great Recession began have been very, very heavily tax-cut oriented.  Bush’s original stimulus effort in early 2007 in an effort to “nip the recession in the bud” was all tax cuts.  The Feb. 2009 stimulus bill of Obama (the ARRA) was between 40% and 50% tax cuts.  The meager effort passed in Dec 2010 was all tax cuts. And now, the proposal is again very tax cut heavy.  Not only have the fiscal stimulus efforts been heavily tax cut-based, but the cuts have temporary cuts targeted at either high-income folks or only offering a meager amount to low-income folks.  Further, we still have a huge private sector debt overhand that people want to pay down before they spend more. In sum, the dominant response which many have labeled as “Keynesian” really hasn’t been what John Maynard Keynes suggested. Many have asserted that “Keynesian policies don’t work” and cite our weak economy despite several fiscal policy stimulus attempts as proof.  But that’s not really a valid test.  It’s like claiming some physician is a total quack because you took pills like he recommended but you didn’t take the exact same pills as he recommended. You took something else. Now you’re still sick.  It’s not the physician’s prescription that failed, it’s your refusal to follow the prescription and the diagnosis that failed.

Critics will counter with a “yes, but there was still some spending stimulus in the Obama bills and our failure to fully recover is proof the fiscal spending as stimulus prescription is quackery.”  But have we really had an increase in government spending anywhere near large enough to fill the gap?   Let’s look at some trends (courtesy of Brad Delong):

We simply have not expanded government purchases as a share of potential GDP in this downturn:

FRED Graph  St Louis Fed 4

 

The graph shows the relative changes in share of GDP of four key portions of GDP: exports, business equipment investment, government purchases, and residential construction. (everything in the graph is scaled relative to 2005 -that’s why the lines all meet at o in 2005).  The whole Keynesian idea is that if exports, business equipment investment, or residential construction go down then government purchases should go up and vice versa.  That hasn’t happened at all.  Instead, government purchases has consistently declined since 1995!.  In other words, actual changes in government purchases have not only not been a stimulus, but they have been contractionary.  Government spending policy has been contractionary for over 15 years!  We didn’t notice it because strong increases in business equipment investment and housing were doing the stimulating prior to 2006. In the period 1995-2000, it was probably appropriate in a Keynesian sense to have declining government purchases and a contractionary policy – it was countercyclical to the dot-com boom and the housing boom.

But after 2007, residential construction collapsed. For awhile in 2009 both business equipment investment and exports declined sharply.  The only appropriate Keynesian response would have been a very, very large government purchases program.  But we didn’t do that.  Instead, the so-called 2009 stimulus bill was barely enough new spending at the federal level to offset the declines and cuts at the state and local levels. Overall, government spending did not increase. It went neutral for a couple years. But in late 2010, we resumed the march to contractionary policies.  The ARRA wound down.  State and local governments accelerated their budget cuts. And Washington became pre-occupied with imaginary threats of impossible debt crises at some point 10 years from now.

To continue the earlier physician and disease metaphor, we did try a little of the prescription but we took too little.  It’s as if we went to the doctor, the physician diagnosed a very severe infection and prescribed heavy doses of anti-biotics.  We went home took a lot of aspirin instead and only a couple of the anti-biotic tablets.  Now folks want to blame the doctor and his “failed prescriptions” when we didn’t take them.  None of this is what Keynes or 1960’s style Keynesians would have recommended. To conclude that Obama has tried Keynesian policies and they have failed is dead wrong.  The policies have largely failed to stimulate and re-ignite growth, but they weren’t Keynesian.

What a Liquidity Trap Looks Like in Pictures

I want to follow up a little on my discussion of the liquidity trap that we are have been in. Brad Delong has an excellent post today called “Four Years After the Wakeup Call”.  In it he shows some graphs which illustrate very well our the liquidity trap.

Delong first serves us two graphs on the Federal Funds rate since early 2007:

The daily gyrations of the usually-placid Federal Funds market starting in late 2007 told us all that banks were really worried that other banks had jumped the shark and turned themselves insolvent.

FRED Graph  St Louis Fed 7

 

The Federal Funds rate is the interest rate that banks pay to each other when they borrow reserves from each other.  Despite the name, the rate isn’t set by The Fed. It’s set by market supply-and-demand.  It’s a large and brisk market.  When the Fed Funds rate is high (or at least rising), we can infer that banks need and are desperate for reserves, typically because they have profitable opportunities to make loans based on those reserves. When The Fed Funds rate is low and/or dropping, it means that a lot of banks have excess cash on their hands and don’t see any useful or profitable ways to use that money. In other words, a low Fed Funds rate means banks are willing to lend their reserves to other banks because it’s better than nothing and they don’t see any good ways to loan out the money. At the same time, a low rate also shows that few banks are interested in borrowing – again because they don’t see much useful to do with it.  While The Federal Reserve doesn’t set the funds rate, it does set the interest rate for the alternative: direct borrowing from The Fed.

What we see from the first graph is that things were cruising along in early 2007 and then mid- to late 2007 (August to be exact), the rate starts dropping.  We’re moving toward a recession.  Banks are finding it harder to make good loans so they don’t want to borrow more reserves.  Banks start hoarding their cash and assets.  So instead of balance sheets that are full of loans, bonds, and securities, the banks decide they want/need more cash.  Their reserves grow in order to provide a cushion for what was then being seen as the inevitable losses on mortgages and mortgage securities.  Things appear to stablize and then in Sept 2008 comes the Lehman moment.  Fed Funds rate goes virtually to zero.  It’s been stuck there ever since.  Banks have plenty of reserves. They have the cash to lend.  There’s no willingness to lend (banks don’t see many credit-worthy borrowers) and there’s little interest or demand to borrow.

The Federal Reserve has responded during the same period by creating new base money like crazy.  [NOTE: Contrary to the fears of the inflation-fearful crowd, it’s not really “money” until it’s in circulation with the public. It’s only bank reserves – the monetary base.  It creates the ability to create money for the public, but that would necessitate having a bank lend it first. ]  Again Delong shows up graphically just how The Fed has been willing to create new monetary base:

And while the Federal Reserve has taken the monetary base to previously-unimaginable levels–up from $900 billion to $1.7 trillion in late 2008, up to $2 trillion in let 209, and up to $2.7 trillion in early 2011–it has never adopted Milton Friedman’s recommended policy that it start buying bonds for cash and keep buying bonds for cash until nominal spending is on the path that the Federal Reserve wants it to be on:

FRED Graph  St Louis Fed 5

We only need one more graph: GDP.  More precisely a comparison of GDP to an estimate of what GDP could be if we were at full employment and operating at our long-term trend.  Again Delong:

And so right now nominal GDP is $15 trillion/year when it ought to be $16.7 trillion/year:

FRED Graph  St Louis Fed 6

I’ll save inserting the employment graph here.  I’m sure you all know what it looks like. Same story.

And that story is that we had signs of trouble 4 years ago.  Three years ago things went really into the tank.  The economy seriously declined until mid-2009. Ever since then, it’s struggled to hold on.  There really isn’t any recovery.  It’s just going sideways.  We have, in effect, taken a huge chunk of the economy, a huge number of workers, put them on the sideline and said “we’re not interested in you participatin anymore.  We don’t want or need your contribution. We’re happy being smaller”.

So we’ve had monetary stimulus efforts, we’ve had low interest rates, we’ve had the central bank create base money.  There’s plenty of cash out there.  But it’s all in the banks. It’s in deposit accounts. It’s in reserves.  It’s not working. It’s not being used to buy things. It’s not being used for consumption or investment. It’s just sitting around impotent.  That’s a liquidity trap.

Mainstream economic theory, the stuff called “New Classical” or “New Keynesian” (never confuse “New Keynesian” as being “Keynesian”), says keeping interest rates this low for this long would /should fix everything by now.  For over 30 years now, the dominant, orthodox view in the academic and professional world of economists has been that monetary policy exercised by a wise central bank can fix all.  Any weakness in the economy can be solved via lowering interest rates and having the central bank create new bank reserves.  These “modern” theories told us that the concept of a “liquidity trap” was nonsense, a relic of some past era and/or the invention of some crank called Keynes.  These theories claimed that everybody was perfectly rational, all markets (particularly financial markets) were efficient, and uncertainty/risk about the future was unimportant.  They were wrong. We are left with the ideas of the mid-20th century, the stuff that we were told to forget about.  Again Delong:

Four years ago nearly all mainstream economists would have said that, even though the situation appeared serious, by now the economy would be back to normal. …

Very few of us thought that it would be long and nasty…

And as it turned out to be long and nasty, recent economic theories of macroeconomics have fallen like tropical rain forests. The–already implausible–claims that downturns had real causes? Fallen. The claim that downturns lasted only as long as workers misperceived their real wage? Fallen. The claim that the labor market cleared in a small number of years? Fallen. Those of us who believed that the long run came soon, that the cause of downturns was transitory price-level misperceptions, or that downturns had real causes need now to be looking for new jobs, or at least new theories.

And we are left with the live macroeconomic theories being those of the 1960s, at the latest. This is embarrassing for those of us who want to belong to a profession that is a progressive science, rather than an analogue of medieval barbering.

So what would the economic theories of the 1960s and before tell us to do?

  • Milton Friedman: monetary expansion, and more monetary expansion–quantitative easing as deep and as broad as necessary to get nominal GDP back to its trend.
  • John Maynard Keynes (or at least one of the moods of Keynes): have the government borrow and buy stuff, and keep buying stuff until real economic activity is back to some normal trend value.
  • Jacob Viner: Why choose? Do both! Print lots of money and have the government use it to buy stuff and hire people.

The odd thing is that none of those three recommended policies–all of which are sponsored by economists with the purest of purebred pedigrees–have been followed.

It’s time to do two things.  At the policy level we need to go back and try the policies that we understood back in the 50’s and 60’s (economy did pretty well back then, BTW).  Some serious, bold attempts at effective government spending would be nice instead of the weak, too-small, too-timid, niggling efforts dominated by tax cuts we’ve been doing.  And even on the monetary front, it would be more useful to do as Friedman suggested: actually have The Fed keep buying bonds for cash (real circulating money instead of just bank reserves) and keep it up until people start spending it.

On the economics side, we need to get past the perfect rationality and rational expectations stuff (and it’s absurd mathematics) that has dominated the profession.  It would be a good idea to take a more serious look at the heterodox ideas and theories that actually did foresee the crash, the ones based upon realistic models of human behavior and models instead of the perfectly rational, knows-the-future home economicus of the New Classical and New Keynesian models.  We need to seriously look at ideas of Modern Monetary Theorists (MMT), Minsky, the Post-Keynesians, and the behavioral economists.

 

 

Yep, This Is What A Liquidity Trap Looks Like

People, businesses, and banks simply aren’t investing in the sense of putting financial wealth to work in productive purposes with the intent to produce goods and thereby produce profits.  Instead, folks, the ones who have financial wealth that is, are just sitting on cash.  They’re putting it in the bank at record low interest rates. The banks don’t want the extra deposits and are trying to discourage it.  Meanwhile the banks are just turning around and putting the money on deposit at The Federal Reserve where it sits idle. This is called a liquidity trap.

Calculated Risk directs us to this report:

From Scott Reckard at the LA Times: Bank deposits soar despite rock-bottom interest rates

Americans are pumping money into bank accounts at a blistering pace this year, sending deposits to record levels near $10 trillion …

In the last three months, accounts at U.S. commercial banks have increased $429 billion, or 10%, almost double the increase for all of last year.

The large amount of cash only adds to expenses such as paying for deposit insurance premiums. … [banks] have slashed interest payments to discourage customers. Wells Fargo & Co. … halved its payments on one-year certificates of deposits to 0.1%; Citigroup … dropped its payment to a paltry 0.3%.

[Some banks are] stashing it in a safe but unrewarding place: Federal Reserve banks, which are paying them an interest rate of just 0.25% to tend the funds. Such deposits rose to more than $1.6 trillion at the end of August from about $1 trillion a year earlier, according to the Fed.

So why is this really significant?  Simple. Neo-classical/neo-liberal macro theories, the theories that conservatives have been relying on, basically say this can’t happen. It’s irrational and according to those models, people and firms never act irrationally.  So who or what theories say a liquidity trap is possible?  Keynesian theory.  Yes, the whole idea of a liquidity trap in which macro circumstances are such that firms and households would rather hold cash than put it to some productive investment purpose comes from Keynes.

A liquidity trap is also significant because it means that monetary policy, the raising/lowering of interest rates and the purchase/sale of bonds by the central bank, isn’t very effective in a liquidity trap. The Federal Reserve can make funds available for investment, but it can’t force banks to lend or firms to invest or households to spend.  Monetary policy in times of a liquidity trap has been likened to pushing on a string.  The string doesn’t really move much.  Again, neo-classical models don’t allow for the possibility of a liquidity trap.  Indeed they start with assumptions that pretty much exclude the possibility of there ever being one.  Models and theories that start with the assumption that “A” can never happen aren’t of any use in trying solve “A” when it really does show up.

Why do people seek money instead of useful investment in a liquidity trap?  Simple. There are two reasons why firms and people would seek to hold financial wealth as money instead of useful, profitable investments.

  • First, profitable investments require a growing economy and expectations of a growing economy.  If firms and people have no confidence that the economy will grow or that any growth will last, then they don’t invest. No need to expand capacity at the business if you won’t need the extra capacity.
  • Second, if you expect the economy to get worse and/or have deflation happen, then it makes enormous sense to be cash instead of things.  Cash actually is profitable and gains in real purchasing power when deflation happens.  So I would interpret from the above data that people, banks, and firms are expecting more deflation and not expecting inflation.

What to do in a liquidity trap?  Theoretically (and Krugman/Delong push this idea)  you could have the central bank (Federal Reserve) make some sort of commitment to higher future inflation.  But that’s in theory only.  It’s not been proven.  What’s experience say?  We have a choice.  Suffer through it, experience a prolonged depression that could easily last a generation, and make do with lower living standards for the vast majority but see the really wealthy become even more wealthy.  This is the story of the Long Depression in the late 1800’s.   Or, we could turn to aggressive fiscal policy. Keynesian style spending for job creation.  That’s been proven.  It worked in the 1930’s until it was abandoned in 1937, it worked in 1939-1940 with the start of WWII (not my choice of spending priorities), and it worked quite well in the 1950’s through the 1970’s in achieving a higher average annual growth rate in GDP than has been achieved since.

Unfortunately, too many economists, and the politicians that follow them, are so married to their ideologically-based models that they persist in the theory even when the facts contradict it.

Politics and Job-Creation Policies – Disagreements and The Theories Behind Them

Blogging time has been in short supply lately.  To compound things, I’ve had a bunch of inter-woven ideas bouncing around in my head that I want to explain, but  I’ve been struggling to figure out how to do it.  I’ve been stuck in the “can’t explain this until I explain that which in turn needs this explained” circle.  Uggh.  So I’m going to just start taking a shot at it and write some posts that all relate one way or other.

What I want to talk about is why there’s so much disagreement among economists about policies, particularly when it comes to macroeconomic policies.

Few people, regardless of political ideology, dispute the idea that the U.S. economy needs to create more jobs.  It’s obvious to nearly all that persistent unemployment rates over 9% and an economy that month after month fails to create enough net new jobs to keep pace with population growth is problem in need of solution. Likewise, few dispute the idea that the solution will rely upon some sort of policy change.  Even the far-right wing, conservative economists and Austrian school economists argue for policy change. Virtually nobody argues that current policies are ideal.  The issue, then, is how to change policy.  In what direction should policy change so that the government can encourage job creation?

Like many things in political economy, there’s a range or spectrum of recommendations.  I personally don’t like the simple “right vs. left-wing” or “conservative vs. liberal progressive”* terminology. I think things are more complex and positions are richer than that.  But, for purposes of exposition here, I’ll go with it today.

If there are n politicians, there are probably at least n+1 different specific proposals of what to do to change policy to encourage job creation.  But today I’m not looking at specific proposals. Today I want to look at patterns, types, or categories of proposals.  I’m interested in the essence of the logic and economic models/ideas behind the proposals, the thinking that leads people to believe they’ll work.

Right now let’s say there are 4 different categories or generalized views, ranging from what might be called extreme right-wing or libertarian views through conservative views through mildly progressive views and finally a more radical or activist progressive view.  Let’s look at each one, the types of policies advocated and some comments on the economic thinking behind them.  I’ll offer my views afterward.

First, let’s take what we can call the far-conservative view or libertarian (economic libertarian, not necessarily social libertarian).  In the U.S. today, this is represented by the Tea Party positions.  The view here is that it’s  government interference with the free market, private property, and private wealth that causes unemployment in the first place.  Therefore, what’s needed, they argue, is for minimal government with minimalist taxes and as little regulation as possible.  They argue that only the private economy creates jobs at all and that the government cannot by it’s nature create any jobs.  Their proposals will typically take the form of calls for tax cuts, government spending cuts, and repeal of regulations. They will oppose any government programs they see as “welfare” or “redistributionist” such as Social Security or Medicare. Their rhetoric will typically include phrases about “unleashing the private sector”.  In terms of economic theory, supporters of this view find support from what we call Austrian-school economists and the more strict Neo-classical macroeconomists (think University of Chicago school).   These schools of macroeconomics in many ways aren’t about macroeconomics at all.  The theories are heavily based on microeconomics, in particular, the models of pure utility-maximizing rational people interacting in unrestricted markets.  Much of this view in macroeconomics has been called rational expectations schoolefficient markets theory and real business cycle theory.

Next is a the conservative view.  Until the last few years, the milder conservative view was what was espoused mostly by Republican candidates such as both Bushes and Reagan.  In more recent years the Republicans (in general) have moved further toward the far-conservative/libertarian view.  The conservative view is likewise grounded in traditional microeconomic-based neoclassical models.  In many ways, the conservative view is very similar in thinking to the far-conservative libertarian.  They both derive their conclusions from a reliance and embrace of pure-utility maximizing rational micro models of markets.  Both will tend to advocate tax cuts, especially for high-income earners and for corporations. The idea is that high-income earners and corporations would normally create enough new jobs but that taxes discourage them from creating jobs by making business and investment look unprofitable.  The assumption is that if you eliminate or reduce the taxes, investment will naturally look profitable and attractive.  Private sector investment spending will then drive growth in the economy.  This view has also been called supply-side economics. The conservative view typically relies upon rational expectations, efficient markets, and real business cycle theory also, but it also takes a lot from the monetarist views of Milton Friedman and his disciples.

The major point of disagreement between regular conservatives and the far-conservative/libertarian views is really in the area of monetary policy.  Far-conservatives or libertarians dislike central banks (seen as government agencies) and often call for a return to some form of commodity-based money such as gold.  The regular conservative view instead believes that an independent central bank, like the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, if it follows anti-inflation policies, can usually manage monetary policy and interest rates to encourage growth when needed.  In effect, far-conservative/libertarians believe that no type of government or central bank actions can achieve high employment and high growth by policies.  In effect, recessions are simply events we have to live through -they can only be made worse, not better by government policy.  Regular conservative-types favor using monetary policy, in particular interest rates, to manage the economy. And, if monetary policy is ineffective, then they advocate using tax cuts to stimulate the economy.  They have a strong bias against government spending, or at least spending that is used to stimulate the economy (spending for military and wars is usually OK though).

Next we move to views that owe a greater heritage to John Maynard Keynes, though Keynes is far from the only theorist contributing to the views.  We’ll call the next group of policy recommendations Keynesian.  Not surprisingly, this view owes a lot to Keynes.  But Keynesian theory and models have evolved a lot since Keynes’ time.  Some historians of economic thought have argued that, were he alive today, Keynes might not agree with what much of what today’s “Keynesians” argue.  Nonetheless, standard Keynesian models/theories differ from classical/neo-classical/supply-side theories (the ones that conservatives like) in that it focuses on aggregates in the economy like total demand and total spending.  Keynesian models also try to explain why in aggregate, the total economy doesn’t always behave as if it were a simply made of purely rational micro-markets.  Keynesian theory allows for more situations where markets don’t behave rationally all of the time.  Even more significantly, Keynesian theory observes that if we simply assume the economy is the sum of whatever happens in a bunch of micro-markets, we can commit the fallacy of composition.  Keynesian theory points out the cases where the paradox of thrift takes over or when monetary policy is not likely to be effective.

Despite the allegations of many critics, standard Keynesian theory allows for monetary policy to be effective.  But typically standard Keynesian theory says that when the crisis is big or when interest rates are very, very low, then only fiscal policy, increased deficits, will do the job.  Those deficits could be created by either tax cuts or increases in government spending. But, they won’t be equally effective in creating jobs. Basically what’s needed is more spending (demand for goods) in the economy. People need to be motivated to spend more money.  Tax cuts provide money for households and firms to spend, but they do so weakly.  First, people might not spend all the tax cut – they might save some.  Increased savings won’t increase total demand and therefore won’t create the need for new jobs. Further, firms will only spend if they expect future increases in demand.  They won’t spend and invest just because they have more cash in their hands.  Since we have no assurance that a tax cut will result in enough new spending in the economy, Keynesians are more likely to argue for increased government spending because government spending directly creates demand for goods and services.  Contrary to critics’ claims, Keynesian policies are not based upon any ideological desire for socialism or government control.

So what do Keynesian policy proposals for creating more jobs look like?  Increased government spending is the answer.  In particular, while any spending will help, the most desirable forms of spending are public goods, things like infrastructure and schools, and also on social safety nets, things like unemployment compensation, social security, and Medicare. If a proposal calls for more infrastructure spending or extensions/increases in unemployment compensation, it is clearly inspired by theories/models with Keynesian roots.

Finally, there’s proposals that are inspired by the most progressive branches of modern macroeconomics.  Let’s call these proposals the Progressive proposals. Proposals in this area would involve would build upon the ideas of Keynesian group, but go further.  The spending would be greater and on a larger scale. Proposals in this area would call for programs where the government doesn’t just fund projects and buy goods, it actually creates programs that directly hire the unemployed.  Typically such programs are proposed to be temporary or designed in a way to only hire when the private sector won’t (see Bill Mitchell & Randy Wray’s Jobs Guarantee proposals).  These are not socialist or communist proposals.  That’s a whole different thing.  Often Progressive jobs-creation proposals include having the government initiate and fund large-scale infrastructure projects during periods of high unemployment.   This group, which has little popular voice among modern U.S. politicians, is inspired by what’s called Post-Keynesian and Modern Monetary Theories.   In many ways, the original Keynesian proposals for dealing with unemployment are closer to this group than to what we call Keynesian today.  Today’s Keynesians are actually pretty conservative when compared to historical policies.

So there we have it.  Four schools of thought and proposals for how to create jobs in the economy.

Despite the labels attached and misused by politicians, the reality is that the political discussion and policy recommendations of today, the ones with supporters in Congress or the White House, are actually quite conservative.  Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930’s was actually rather Progressive.  In the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, the dominant thinking in Washington was Keynesian.  In fact  a”centrist” politically in that era would have still been somewhat Keynesian on our scale above.  In the 1980’s though today, the “center” of mainstream politics has increasingly moved towards conservative thinking.  Today, for example, President Obama is actually pretty conservative.  He is certainly more conservative than the Republican Richard Nixon was in the 1970’s.

Let’s look at the latest proposal from the Obama administration for stimulating the economy to create jobs. It’s actually quite conservative and it’s not very Keynesian at all.  In fact, of the proposed $447 billion effort, less than 1/4 involves more spending for infrastructure or unemployment benefits.  That’s less than 1/4 of the proposal is basic Keynesian.  Instead, it’s overwhelmingly focused on tax cuts and business tax credits/incentives.  These are the policy proposals of a conservative.  Even the original 2009 “stimulus bill” was heavily oriented towards tax cuts and tax incentives.  Despite what critics said, less than half of it was traditional Keynesian stimulus. It’s a sign of how the U.S. political dialogue has shifted towards the conservative/far-conservative end that the Obama proposals have been challenged as “Keynesian” and Obama himself accused of being “socialist”.

* The word “liberal” is particularly problematic. The positions argued by today’s “conservatives” in the U.S. are in fact the positions that were historically identified as “liberal” going back to the 1800’s.  In the 1800’s “liberal” meant anti-government and pro-free market.  Yet, thanks to the power of talk radio and Republican presidential campaigns since the 1980’s, the word liberal has come to be used an epithet to describe opponents of conservatism.  I’ll stick with progressive to label this more left-wing end of the political spectrum to avoid the emotional taint that liberal carries these days.