A longer-term Keynesian approach to macro policy

Greg Hannsgen | July 29, 2011

Many influential mainstream Keynesian economists continue to support high deficits until the nation’s yawning jobs gap is closed. As Laura D’Andrea Tyson observes in a thorough and helpful blog entry posted this morning, this is not a fine-tuning problem requiring a careful weighing of priorities, given the current state of the job market:

Like many economists, I believe that the immediate crisis facing the United States economy is the jobs deficit, not the budget deficit. The magnitude of the jobs crisis is clearly illustrated by the jobs gap–currently around 12.3 million jobs.

That is how many jobs the economy must add to return to its peak employment level before the 2008–9 recession and to absorb the 125,000 people who enter the labor force each month. At the current pace of recovery, the gap will be not closed until 2020 or later.

In other words, we are not even close to full employment; moreover, as many have observed, inflation appears to be extremely low, with few signs that the stimulus measures taken up to now are bringing about an inflationary takeoff. Hence, it is straightforward to see the urgency of increasing job growth relative to worrying about rising prices, at least for the time being.

Parenthetically, while macroeconomists rightly devote a great deal of attention to these cyclical issues, there are numerous pressing matters other than inflation and unemployment that figure in the recent budget debates in Washington. Many of these issues are at stake in the individual spending cuts and tax-code changes now being debated. Some of the changes being contemplated involve very large amounts of money and programs that are crucial to many people. There is a great danger that these concerns will be lost in the rush to meet an artificial deadline that could after all be eliminated immediately by a single act of legislation, with or without “action” on the deficit.

With a near-consensus in the moderate camp on the need for temporary monetary and fiscal stimulus, I think it might be useful in a policy-oriented forum like this one to point out some of the potential contributions of more encompassing Keynesian approaches and of various post-Keynesian alternatives toward a better set of policies. One of the main issues dividing the mainstream Keynesian approach from these more-radical departures is the importance of the distinction between the short and long runs in deciding the role of macro policy in ending a recession or depression.

Throughout the debate, the moderate Keynesians, who have managed to carry the day many times, have argued that Keynesian stimulus should come before serious belt-tightening designed to reduce the federal debt over the long haul.  The rationale has been that “this too shall pass” in the longer run. But with weakening or mediocre economic data prevailing again recently, the long run appears to once again be the long run. The economy’s power to correct its own course is very much in doubt, but so also are the curative powers of modest stimulus bills in the medium and long runs.

A more helpful role for government might be open, once there was an admission that more-permanent action is needed to solve an unemployment problem that no longer seems to be purely cyclical in nature, but nonetheless to clearly implicate a lack of aggregate demand. Such measures could include longer-term employment opportunities, as well as the creation of new mechanisms designed to automatically stimulate the job market whenever the economy begins to falter. In any case, the thought must be of longer-term policy-planning for adequate stimulus to both supply and demand.

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