The biographer of JM Keynes, Robert Skidelsky, writing in the Independent newspaper over the weekend, ponders what his economics hero might have done in the current environment. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Skidelsky argues that the economist would have advocated stimulating aggregate demand in some way, either through tax cuts, interest rate reductions or a combination of the two.
In the course of the article, he has a swipe at the “Austrian” school of free market economists who argued that Keynesian economics was – and is – quackery:
“However, his clinching argument in his 1930s debates with free market economists such as Friedrich Hayek was political. It was much too risky to allow economies to slide into deep depression. The example of Hitler was vivid in the minds of all democratic politicians. In 1928, at the height of Weimar Germany’s prosperity, the Nazis got 2 per cent of the vote. By 1930 they were up to 18 per cent. In 1933 Hitler was in power.”
The trouble with this argument is that when supposedly Keynesian stimulii were applied to economies in say, 1930s America, they did not work. Fact. As I pointed out here with reference to US official statistics, unemployment never fell much below the average levels for that decade until the outbreak of the Second World War. Paul Marks has also pointed out how FDR’s achievements were largely mythical, if not in fact the opposite. This woman has argued in a recent book that FDR’s policies made the situation worse. In the UK, the supposedly more fuddy-duddy governments of Baldwin and Chamberlain arguably presided over a less serious outcome by not adopting such “New Deal” policies. Meanwhile, in Japan during the 1990s and part of the ‘Noughties, a number of stimulus packages failed to revive the world’s second largest economy.
Now Mr Skidelsky presumably must be familiar with these statistics, and yet he argues that the reflationary policies of his hero, even though they have not been borne out by historical evidence, were somehow capitalism’s best defence against political fanaticism. He may be making the case that governments have to be seen to be “doing something”, even if it does not work much, to avoid the charge of callous neglect. But if policies don’t work, how is this supposed to calm political agitation? The German example is instructive: I would at the very least have thought that the destruction of the German middle class via the hyper-inflation of the 1920s was a major part of why Germany was so easily tipped over into extremism when economic problems hit home. And that reflation was caused by government, not the private sector. I also think that Skidelsky underestimates the extent to which people do, at a gut level, understand that the governments in power in the West bear some, if not all, responsibility for the present mess.
Meanwhile, I see the UK Labour government is going to take Britain down the wrong side of the Laffer curve by making tax hikes on “the rich” – including entrepreneurs and other wealth creators – a campaign pledge. And this despite evidence, which the government must surely realise, that higher marginal tax rates are destructive of revenues. Update: Fraser Nelson has a splendid, bullet-point take-down of Gordon Brown’s bare-faced lies on the economy and his supposed role in leading us to sunnier climes. It cannot be said too often what a complete shit the UK premier is.