A lot of people have been getting all worked up about Paul Krugman’s acerbic takedown of Robert Barro for suggesting in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2011 that increased government spending would not stimulate the economy. Barro’s target was a claim by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that every additional dollar spent on food stamps would actually result in a net increase of $1.84 in total spending. This statement so annoyed Barro that, in a fit of pique, he wrote the following.
Keynesian economics argues that incentives and other forces in regular economics are overwhelmed, at least in recessions, by effects involving “aggregate demand.” Recipients of food stamps use their transfers to consume more. Compared to this urge, the negative effects on consumption and investment by taxpayers are viewed as weaker in magnitude, particularly when the transfers are deficit-financed.
Thus, the aggregate demand for goods rises, and businesses respond by selling more goods and then by raising production and employment. The additional wage and profit income leads to further expansions of demand and, hence, to more production and employment. As per Mr. Vilsack, the administration believes that the cumulative effect is a multiplier around two.
If valid, this result would be truly miraculous. The recipients of food stamps get, say, $1 billion but they are not the only ones who benefit. Another $1 billion appears that can make the rest of society better off. Unlike the trade-off in regular economics, that extra $1 billion is the ultimate free lunch.
How can it be right? Where was the market failure that allowed the government to improve things just by borrowing money and giving it to people? Keynes, in his “General Theory” (1936), was not so good at explaining why this worked, and subsequent generations of Keynesian economists (including my own youthful efforts) have not been more successful.
Sorry to brag, but it was actually none other than moi that (via Mark Thoma) brought this little gem to Krugman’s attention. In what is still my third most visited blog post, I expressed incredulity that Barro could ask where Is the market failure about a situation in which unemployment suddenly rises to more than double its pre-recession level. I also pointed out that Barro had himself previously acknowledged in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that monetary expansion could alleviate a cyclical increase in unemployment. If monetary policy (printing money on worthless pieces of paper) can miraculously reduce unemployment, why is out of the question that government spending could also reduce unemployment, especially when it is possible to view government spending as a means of transferring cash from people with unlimited demand for money to those unwilling to increase their holdings of cash? So, given Barro’s own explicit statement that monetary policy could be stimulative, it seemed odd for him to suggest, without clarification, that it would be a miracle if fiscal policy were effective.
Apparently, Krugman felt compelled to revisit this argument of Barro’s because of the recent controversy about extending unemployment insurance, an issue to which Barro made only passing reference in his 2011 piece. Krugman again ridiculed the idea that just because regular economics says that a policy will have adverse effects under “normal” conditions, the policy must be wrongheaded even in a recession.
But if you follow right-wing talk — by which I mean not Rush Limbaugh but the Wall Street Journal and famous economists like Robert Barro — you see the notion that aid to the unemployed can create jobs dismissed as self-evidently absurd. You think that you can reduce unemployment by paying people not to work? Hahahaha!
Quite aside from the fact that this ridicule is dead wrong, and has had a malign effect on policy, think about what it represents: it amounts to casually trashing one of the most important discoveries economists have ever made, one of my profession’s main claims to be useful to humanity.
Krugman was subsequently accused of bad faith in making this argument because he, like other Keynesians, has acknowledged that unemployment insurance tends to increase the unemployment rate. Therefore, his critics argue, it was hypocritical of Krugman to criticize Barro and the Wall Street Journal for making precisely the same argument that he himself has made. Well, you can perhaps accuse Krugman of being a bit artful in his argument by not acknowledging explicitly that a full policy assessment might in fact legitimately place some limit on UI benefits, but Krugman’s main point is obviously not to assert that “regular economics” is necessarily wrong, just that Barro and the Wall Street Journal are refusing to acknowledge that countercyclical policy of some type could ever, under any circumstances, be effective. Or, to put it another way, Krugman could (and did) easily agree that increasing UI will increases the natural rate of unemployment, but, in a recession, actual unemployment is above the natural rate, and UI can cause the actual rate to fall even as it causes the natural rate to rise.
Now Barro might respond that all he was really saying in his 2011 piece was that the existence of a government spending multiplier significantly greater than zero is not supported by the empirical evidenc. But there are two problems with that response. First, it would still not resolve the theoretical inconsistency in Barro’s argument that monetary policy does have magical properties in a recession with his position that fiscal policy has no such magical powers. Second, and perhaps less obviously, the empirical evidence on which Barro relies does not necessarily distinguish between periods of severe recession or depression and periods when the economy is close to full employment. If so, the empirical estimates of government spending multipliers are subject to the Lucas critique. Parameter estimates may not be stable over time, because those parameters may change depending on the cyclical phase of the economy. The multiplier at the trough of a deep business cycle may be much greater than the multiplier at close to full employment. The empirical estimates for the multiplier cited by Barro make no real allowance for different cyclical phases in estimating the multiplier.
PS Scott Sumner also comes away from reading Barro’s 2011 piece perplexed by what Barro is really saying and why, and does an excellent job of trying in vain to find some coherent conceptual framework within which to understand Barro. The problem is that there is none. That’s why Barro deserves the rough treatment he got from Krugman.