04 January 2010

Ill-Timed Fiscal Responsibility

Imagine the kid least clear on the topic getting to deliver the lecture in class and you get a sense of what happens to economics in a modern democracy.

Democrats are talking fiscal responsibility now. They've heard from their districts that Americans are aghast at our level of deficit spending. And, of course, Republicans have been harping on deficits ever since spending plans have shifted from the military to health. This is terrible timing.

Geithner and Obama have both signalled that they're aware of the need to reduce deficits and that they dare not do it too soon at the risk of tilting us back into a recession.

When the economy was expanding, the Bush administration ran chronic deficits and hardly a word was said. This was ridiculous. Large deficits during good times guarantee huge deficits in bad. And deficits in good times just fuel speculation, price inflation, and new ventures that cannot be sustained. It is during good times that we ought to speak out against deficits but it is during good times that a people feel they can afford to take on such debt.

During bad times, there is a sense that we spent our way into financial trouble and this reckless spending ought to be stopped. Americans in particular have always been uneasy about credit. Few remember that commercial credit met as much opposition in the late 1800 and early 1900s as homosexuality meets today: the apostle Paul wrote more clearly and as often about avoiding debt as he did homosexuality. We get very moral about debt during bad times. This is unfortunate, like getting squeamish about blood during surgery.

Deficit spending is necessary during bad times and is - at best - an annoyance during good. Economics is, of course, continually subordinate to popular opinion in a democracy, so what makes for good policy matters little. Lots of people claim that medicine is a conspiracy but the individual who believes in modern science and medicine can still visit a doctor: if enough people see economic policy as a conspiracy rather than the best we know, all of us get banned from seeing the doctor. Talk show hosts who fell asleep during economic lectures will fume and sputter and callers will chime in with their outrage and these kinds of people will send letters, organize voters, and set policy.

Keynes was a genius but there are lots of coffee shop diners who understand economics better than he did (and, presumably, understand physics better than Einstein). For the record, Keynes recommend government surplus in good times and deficit in bad. Right wing talk show hosts recommend the opposite. You take a guess as to who can be trusted more.


dmorey said...

I don't think it is settled science that government spending is needed during bad times...

David said...

Happy New Year Ron-O. Two things: I heard plenty of screaming about deficits under Bush and a lot of it from right wing talk show hosts you don't listen to. Second you think Keynes is a genius but plenty of other economists don't. New Yorker said Posner switched sides and Posner says not so. You know the New Yorker; they'd cast me as a liberal for graduating from UCLA. Bad comparison with Einstein as the latter can prove E=MC2 and K's utterances are sheer speculation by comparison. My conclusion: you'll ultimately give up defending Obama.

Check in with you in 3 months. Hope all is well.

Lifehiker said...

I sent this to three of my conservative friends. One wrote back and said he would put you in his "favorites". Don't give up, my friend.

Regarding the two previous comments, I'd just ask them to post their college transcripts and professional certificates, just to demonstrate that they are not uneducated morons like Glenn Beck.