Paradox of Thrift, the Deficit Debate and Virtue Ethics

An economist friend of mine pointed out to me that my post on the intersection of ethical dynamics and economics omitted to mention the “paradox of thrift” brought to the attention of 20th Century economists and theoretically elaborated by John Maynard Keynes.  In fact, my friend felt that the post was mostly about the paradox of thrift yet I had neglected to mention it or credit Keynes.  While it may have been a significant oversight on my part, I disagreed with his premise that that post or my position was largely about that paradox.  I explained to him and will explain here the differences between a simple observation of the paradox of thrift as it operates in contemporary economics and my approach.

The Paradox of Thrift Summarized

The paradox of thrift is a phenomenon whereby if everybody in an economy attempts to increase savings (thrift) and these savings are not in investments but in liquid assets, overall savings and economic growth goes down;  individual virtue collides with overall social well-being.  There are many good explanations of the paradox of thrift which, as Wikipedia includes in its entry on the subject, goes back to biblical injunctions against a propensity to save rather than spend.  Various pre-Keynesian economists including Bernard Mandeville commented on the paradox.  During the Depression, Keynes elaborated the paradox by introducing the notion that governments should stimulate demand by government deficit spending on projects that put money back into the economy.  The stimulation of aggregate demand would counteract the tendency of individual economic actors to save out of fear during an economic downturn.  Richard Koo’s “balance sheet recession” is an example of the paradox of thrift.

The Paradox is based on Keynes’s observation that people have a propensity to prefer liquid assets over commitment to investments that “tie up their money”.  The liquidity preference is a fundamental problem for economics, where overall wealth is based on longer-term investments in productive goods and in the demand by consumers for the products produced by capital goods.  Under conditions of uncertainty and fear including in economic downturns, this liquidity preference is enhanced.  We appear now again in a “paradox of thrift world” according to Paul Krugman and others.

Anti-Keynesians, Deficit Hawks View the Acknowledgement of the Paradox as Itself a Vice

While Keynesians accept the paradox of thrift as a fact or periodic objective condition of the economy, especially in an economic downturn, the struggle between economic schools inside economics has meant that this observation is not accepted universally as a fact of life.  From a Keynesian or Keynes-influenced perspective, the deficit hawks, who of necessity must overlook or downgrade the Paradox, are simply out to lunch, ignoring a fact of life (if everybody tries to increase savings under conditions of weak demand, total savings and wealth goes down).

However there are those anti-Keynesians of various stripes, including followers of the Austrian school, who believe that Keynesianism and its acknowledgement of the paradox are essentially incitement to violate the economic virtue of saving.  They see this, whether in honesty or as a political pose, as a moral war between two conceptions of virtue or rather to them, a war between a virtue and a vice.  Mandeville in the 18th Century and Keynes in the 20th century were faced with scandalized reactions to this observation, though in the case of Mandeville, a fairly consistent anti-moralism and commitment to self-interest helped inflame the reaction to what might have been sound economic advice.

Thrift is Not the Only Economic Virtue

While thrift is considered, in a post-Calvinist world, to be a primary economic virtue, and was praised by Adam Smith the founder of modern economics, and Ben Franklin, it is not the only virtue.  As implied above, anti-Keynesians think of Keynesians as promoting spending as a virtue, though as I will argue below this is only ambiguously the case.  Giving to charity is considered by many to be an economic virtue, and corporations and individuals often display their charitable giving to gain benefit from the perception of this virtue.  Nowadays, “going green” or efforts to work towards ecological sustainability are considered to be virtues, which many show off to others, as a means, in part, of gaining social status, as well as an educational tool.

Anything that can be said to be a stable or inherent characteristic of a person or a corporation can be taken by some economic actors to be a virtue or vice and either compel attraction or repulsion.  Thus a structure of a virtue ethics involves the evaluation of these presumed stable or inherent characteristics as either positive (promoting attraction or approbation) or negative (promoting repulsion or condemnation).  Unfortunately, and this may seem a stretch to some, the use of racial preferences and prejudices works very similarly to virtue ethics in this regard:  people do business with people from one or two ethnic groups as a preference over others or avoid doing business with one or two or more other members of other ethnic groups.  Virtues, of course, are subjectively evaluated, so for some, a preferred ethnic group may be a shunned one, but nevertheless the same structure of attaching value in both positive and negative form to an inherent, though not necessarily lifelong, characteristic of an individual or organization is occurring.

Virtue Ethics Is a Way of Seeing the World

The foregoing is an effort to show that virtue ethics is a meta-ethical way of seeing the world that in turn shapes more specifically economic paradigms and is highly influential within professional economics.  A paradigm, as defined by Thomas Kuhn the historian and theorist of science, is a way to look at the world that frames that world so as to be meaningful to scientists or other observers.  For Kuhn observations of the world entail or imply some form of a framework.  Some facts or features of the world will appear to be unimportant or even invisible from within one or another paradigm.

Those economists who see their jobs as the inculcation of virtuous habits in people and groups of people, will tend to look for and praise characteristics of people, governments or organizations that to them exemplify these virtues while criticize or even excoriate the same actors who do not exhibit these virtues or display their opposites.  They may view their task as objective observers and interpreters of the world, but where there is uncertainty, ambiguity, and the need to evaluate or project into the future they are likely to view the economy as something like a morality play between good and less good or even bad actors.

Thus in the struggle over deficit spending and the paradox of thrift, defining the economy as largely enacted by people with varying levels of virtue, especially as regards the virtue of thrift, emphasizes inherent or supposedly inherent characteristics over what might be systemic and situational issues.   The various deficit commissions and other organizations that are creating or trying to create an atmosphere in which statements of personal virtue or the economic virtue of entities (using the value of thrift and the responsible borrower as primary virtues) are signs of “responsibility”, are almost exclusively wedded to a virtue ethical way to parse the world.  Critics of their perspective usually point to a system or specific history which they are misinterpreting or missing altogether.

What Isn’t a Virtue Ethics in Economic Meta-Ethics?

As I noted in the previous post , economists have the choice of at least three meta-ethical frameworks to organize and evaluate the social data which they collect and organize into a perhaps part-scientific, discourse that applies valuations to its findings:  these valuations implicitly use some admixture of utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethical frameworks.

Keynesianism, which is itself a broad and unsystematized climate of opinion, does not build itself up as a virtue ethics, and, in fact with Keynes’s observations of the effects of virtue ethics in the paradox, shuns the ascription of stable inherent characteristics in economic actors, to which values are attached.  The meta-ethics of Keynesianism might be construed as a “systemic, behaviorially-based utilitarianism with a varying deontological commitment to full employment”.  Keynesians attempt to weigh and measure various human attributes that effect economic behavior and attempt to figure out how economic policy can be designed to achieve full employment at any given juncture.

While the broadness of Keynesianism (if we include post-Keynesianisms, neo-Keynesians, new Keynesians, etc. in this category) is a scientific and political problem across the board, those Keynesians that remain most “technocratic” run particular political risks in avoiding the emotive cores of virtue ethics and deontological commitment to universal or popular rights.  A systemic utilitarianism based on numerical representations of utility is a particularly “dry” affair for most non-economists; in the case of the deficit debate standing up for continued deficit spending in the interests of maintaining “aggregate demand” is not particularly inspiring rhetoric.  On the other hand, a “left” Keynesianism, which is mostly absent from the center of the public debate, draws on deontological commitments to “decent jobs” or environmental integrity as a means of inspiring at least some political support for its agenda.

In the current political climate, which is dominated by neo-liberal values that tend to place responsibility on the individual rather than society, it is easier to evoke and maintain a political consensus around an individualized virtue ethics.   Concerted efforts would need to be made by Keynesians to defend themselves politically, most probably evoking some form of a deontological commitment to overall social welfare and to good work with adequate wages.  Though there are exceptions, the declaration of commitment to this type of values with manifest emotive basis has not, for the most part, been forthcoming from either the economic profession nor political elites.

The Case for a Metaeconomics Pt. 5: Tracing the Origins of Demand and Economic Preferences

In the previous post in the “Case for a Meta-economics” series, I explored the possibility that the interface between economics and ethics has a significant impact on economic arguments and the division of economics into schools.  Ethics is supposed to contain, develop, and communicate our higher and better selves.  Crucially, though, economics is also supposed to account for the effects of our more basic or amoral drives, for which there are not necessarily traditional ethical justifications.  Economists are tasked to explain how human wishes, no matter how trivial or “primitive”, become economically important and shape economic institutions like money and “demand”.

Neoclassical Economics and Demand

Neoclassical economics, the dominant school of economics in most of the world, assumes that one of the prime drivers of economic activity is “demand” along with its complement “supply”.  Within this paradigm, demand is thought of as the result of the search of individuals and organizations to maximize their “utility” through a rational process of calculation of the relative benefits of one consumption or investment option over another.    Utility is a “black box” of wants and needs which is supposed to remain inscrutable to economists though is best observed by its behavioral effects after the fact:  what maximizes utility is that which compels monetary transactions to occur.  While everybody can imagine and infer what they think constitutes the basics of utility (the satisfaction of recognizable wants), economists are wary of defining what actually drives people to want one product or service over another.  Instead, the argument remains the rather circular and somewhat limited notion that what people want is what they want (to buy).  Like many aspects of neoclassical economics, the notion of “demand” suggests that it is a dynamic force but in its actual measurement it is an outcome rather than the force itself.

While in underdeveloped or pre-consumer societies, demand for essential goods is more likely to “chase after” supply, in affluent societies, supply tends to chase after demand making demand the more powerful of the two main economic entities in neoclassical economics.  Economic success depends, in consumer societies, on being able to figure out what people want or might want then being able to supply those wants at an affordable price.  Occasionally in consumer societies, either a monopolist or a highly successful market leading company (like Apple) can shape to some degree what people should want by creating new appetites and leading in product design; sometimes supply can create its own demand.

Marketing and Demand

While within the “high church” of conventional economics, demand can be represented as a “demand function” or “demand curve“, theories of how demand itself actually arises are pushed outside the main body of theory into fields like marketing or consumer psychology, within which numerous ideas about people’s wishes and how to address them compete.  Neoclassical economic theories of demand therefore have not much to offer businesspeople in the way of guidance about how to figure out what the market wants and need to turn to the diverse and sometimes confusing toolkits of marketing and related social sciences.

Marketing then might be considered the craft and/or science of demand, either assessing its pre-existing form or creating demand by sending messages to potential buyers of a product or service.  Furthermore, more on the supply side, marketing can help in product design and refinement by embarking on an iterative process of improvement by continual communication with existing and potential buyers.  Even though marketing can be credited with many of notable business successes in the last century, marketing, like other business economics disciplines, is not in regular communication with the abstract formulations found in academic economics.

Despite its location outside the “High Church” of neoclassical economics, many human activities critical to the functioning of the economy fall under the rubric of marketing.  So a meta-economics or a more complete economic theory would need to be able to incorporate both the domains of human experience associated with marketing as well as shed some light on the techniques themselves that are used in marketing.  Splitting off marketing as either slightly “sub-rosa” and entirely unproductive or as an art beyond economic theory does this critical domain a disservice.

Keynesianism and Demand

Though John Maynard Keynes did not break decisively with neoclassical economics on all issues, he did formulate theories which suggest that there are qualitative as well as quantitative dimensions to demand.  Keynes suggested in his General Theory, that “animal spirits”, presumably their tone and energy, were key in determining how willing people are to engage in economic activity.  These emotional states kept people in the Great Depression and other economic crises from spending money, when in fact, if people as a group did spend, the economy would recover sooner.  The theory of “animal spirits” is thus linked to another concept revived by Keynes, the paradox of thrift.  Furthermore Keynes pointed to the insufficiencies in overall measurable (aggregate) demand after an economic crisis, pointing to the need by governments to step in to stimulate or substitute for the weakening of private demand after a financial crisis.

While economists since Keynes have been more accepting of his observations about aggregate demand (though these are still disputed by conservative economists who wish to reduce the role of government in management of the economy), his ideas about animal spirits are other qualitative dimensions of demand are sometimes treated as “sui generis” musings of a great mind but not part of what came to be called Keynesian (as well as neo and new Keynesian) theory.  In general Keynesian economics has been characterized overall as “demand-side” rather than “supply-side” economics.  “Supply-side economics“, a now somewhat out-dated term, focuses on whether investors have enough money after taxes to invest in productive assets (therefore “supply”) and is used as a justification for cutting taxes on the wealthy and on businesses.

Wants, Needs and Economics

Attempts to translate the experience of “demand” in terms of utility and utility maximization has presented a problem for the dominant neoclassical economics in that the political actors who help shape economic policy have been unable to take such a distanced view of their own subjective experience of wants and/or needs.   Folk or popular economics of almost every kind must draw in the vernacular to relate economics to lived experience and as I have posited in an earlier post, all schools of economics have to in some way grapple with the interaction of their abstractions with how people feel and think about the economy.  Economics students might think of themselves as “maximizing their utilities” by satisfying their wants but very few others will relate to this language.

The part of English vernacular that addresses the experience of “demand” (and there are close analogues in other languages I know) deals with “wants”, “needs”, and “desires”, most of which are used to describe what presumably is an internal or a social experience of needing and wanting things and experiences.  In addition to these subjective experiences, technically “demand” involves an additional component, the ability and readiness to pay for a good or services that addresses the perceived need or want.

While the collection of human material strivings in “demand” papers over the distinction between wants and needs, the latter distinction has extremely important political economic effects that motivate conflicts between economic schools despite their nominal commitment to the neutral language of “demand”.  Wants or desires are subjectively experienced states but needs are a subset of wants that are socially sanctioned and recognized by others.  Paradoxically “needs” though they contain this additional component are usually more primitive wants without which we would not survive.   So “wishes” are analytically simpler (a wish is a component of a need) but “needs” are a complex combination of phylogenetically and biologically more basic strivings within a social web of relationships.  Needs, which evoke the dependence of children in childhood, imply a web of social interdependence while wants can be ascribed to the individual, self-responsible social “atoms” of neoclassical theory.

Laissez-faire or neoliberal economics tends to emphasize that all of “demand” is individual wants or freely chosen selections from a variety of wishes, which an unregulated market is supposed to supply.  These economists make an exception for national defense and criminal law which they think of as vital social needs, especially in defense of property rights.  Meanwhile Keynesian and leftward economic commentators operate with a both a conception of optional wants and an implicit or explicit concept of individual human and social needs, which most often are being insufficiently served by the market for at least the more vulnerable parts of the population.  In left-of-center economics, there is the implication or statement of social responsibility for partially or completely fulfilling certain basic wants, i.e. needs.  By contrast, neo-liberal economists subscribe in theory to a doctrine of individual responsibility for one’s personal wishes.

An instance of this conflict between economists who conceive of individual needs being primary versus economists who believe that wants are primary is found in the recent conflict between “deficit hawks” and that group of economists that oppose them, mostly from left of center.   The more leftward group of economists and their supporters who oppose the efforts of deficit hawks seem to be operating with an implied socially-validated concept of needs, which their opponents in the US like to call, “entitlements”.  They believe that the moral imperative to care for the needy as well as provide some level of universal social benefits is threatened by the drive to cut deficits at all costs.  For example, James Galbraith has recently stated that the fulfillment of human needs as the ultimate purpose for economics and government fiscal policy in both the US and in Europe.  Other opponents of deficit hawkery might disown the idea that they are operating with a concept of human needs, perhaps to continue to be included in a mainstream economic discourse that is inimical to the idea of needs. In fact, most opponents of immediate action to cut deficits are operating with a political-economic hypothesis that the primary reason that deficit hawks have started their assault on deficits is to undermine government support for needs.  In fact, some deficit hawks have shown inconsistent support for the idea of cutting deficits (by insisting on maintaining tax cuts), apparently tipping their hand that cutting social services is the prime objective of their campaign.

By contrast, deficit hawks suggest that a show of responsibility for one’s wants is required to reassure bond markets or other lenders to the US government by either denying those wants, or it seems, less frequently, raising taxes to pay for the fulfillment of those wants.  Their idea is that the need/want for social services needs to yield (soon) to some form of scarcity, be that a scarcity of tax revenues or a scarcity of the ability of government to run budget deficits.  The troubling aspect of this insistence on an apparent universal rule of individual responsibility and management of scarce resources is that, as mentioned above, the vulnerable are those who are supposed to yield to the principle of scarce resources, while the wealthy (and most of the deficit hawks are personally wealthy) will seemingly keep both their personal wealth (via continued low tax rates) plus the public services that they value and use, including a government that will bailout the well-connected and powerful.

Demand, Sustainability and Growth

Another area of challenge for understanding the current economy as well as some future economy is how such an economy would deal with a net zero material growth state, an economic steady-state.  Most rational observers of the growth of humanity both in terms of number but also in terms of consumption put some hard limit on the size of the human footprint on the world.  Those who assume our continuing propensity to grow exponentially as an immutable fact sometimes turn to idea of the colonizing of other worlds as a means to continue humanity’s current rate of growth and consumption, though how this would happen in physical and biological terms currently resides almost entirely in the realm of science fiction.

Moving simply by successive approximation to a no-growth state from where we now stand however is also unworkable.  The set of tools upon which our current economy would be unsustainable under any conditions because of their dependence on the irreversible conversion of depleting fossil fuels into their constituents some of which additionally undermine the sustainability of the biosphere.  Thus certainly in the next several decades there will and should be robust economic growth in the sector of developing sustainable alternatives in the area of energy as well as industrial production.  Further along in this process, facing the hard choices associated with achieving a steady state economy would seem to be inevitable.

Demand, our wants and needs, is one of the key drivers of our economic system.  If our wants and needs, are, as some claim or imply, rigid and hard-wired in their objectives and intensity, we will be unable to move to a society where most economic activity is focused on either maintenance of material well-being or the development of cultural and non-material products and goals.  If our wants and needs are responsive to (elastic) the encroaching externalities of our ways of consumption and production, then it should be possible for human beings to evolve towards the next stage of our species’ “wild ride” on this planet.  A comparative anthropological perspective indicates that an economy that grows meteorically and then plunges is not necessarily part of our genetic code.  A meta-economic perspective will enable the relevant portions of philosophy, comparative economics and economic anthropology to at least inform such Big Picture theorizing about “what’s next” for humanity.

Needed: A Multi-disciplinary View of “Demand”

I hope the foregoing has suggested to readers that a view of demand as simply a quantitative record of past expenditures and investments or a projection of those numbers into the future compresses what is a more complex and dynamic reality.  I am proposing that a meta-economic framework can bring to bear insights from biology, biophysics, psychology, and philosophy to capture some of the causal factors that drive purchasing and investment behavior in both the private and public sectors.  Additionally such a framework can help explain or at least clarify the existing divides in economic theory and popular economic debates.

The Case for Meta-Economics Pt.1: Fiscal Austerity as Prudence…or Madness

The most immediate and obvious case to be made for (something like) a meta-economics, or the equivalent, is the lack of a consensus among respected economists about what to do about the sovereign debt crises in Europe and the push for fiscal austerity that has emerged this year in the US and in many other countries.  We have many politicians as well as economists on the one hand claiming that now is the time to cut budget deficits by cutting spending (mostly on social programs) and on the other hand we have economists and some politicians who are calling this the equivalent of madness, urging steady or higher levels of government spending to stimulate weak economies.

Two Opposed Schools of Thought

The debate can be viewed either from the point of view of individual economists, who show some variability in their opinions, or as a clash of two schools of economic thought with regard to the value and use of fiat (paper) currencies and government spending.  Keynesian economists believe that government (fiscal) deficit spending is necessary in economic downturns to make up for reductions in demand from a troubled private sector.  In the case of our current economic crisis, households and businesses are either loaded down with existing debt and/or cannot get access to credit to buy goods and services.   With a fiat currency (where the government can print money), governments can choose to go into more debt and/or risk inflation of the currency by spending more than they collect in taxes to spur the economy.  The priority for Keynesian economists is to boost employment and spur demand for goods and services by the means available to make up for the slump in private spending.  Keynesian economists point to the relative economic stability of the period 1940 to 1980, as well as the lack of a clear association between government debt and economic prosperity at least in countries that control their own currency, to make the case for deficit spending.

Opponents of deficit spending, deficit “hawks”, many of whom share the assumptions of neoliberal/neoclassical economics, are concerned about how lenders in financial markets will view governments’ apparent disregard for the debts they are running up to stimulate their economies and will impose more stringent credit conditions on lending to these governments.   In general, these proponents of fiscal austerity as a cure to what currently ails us, represent a “hard money” position, in that they fear inflation more than Keynesians, who might even recommend “inflating away” national debts.  Fiscal austerity that cuts government spending and activity has the critical “side benefit” for neoliberals in that it cuts government regulation of industry as well as reduces the role of government as a competitor in the provision of goods and services to the private sector (Social Security competes with investment managers for instance).

A related but subsidiary issue is the type of government deficit spending in a recession based on what Keynes called the multiplier effect.  Some types of spending will circulate more quickly in the economy based on people’s propensity to save or spend.  Spending on wages and social welfare programs will circulate more quickly in the economy producing larger effects, multiplying the economic effects of the initial spending.  The neoclassical school objects to or questions the multiplier effect on the assumption that people will not spend the money assuming that higher taxes are coming to pay off the government debt generated by deficit spending.

For the purposes of this short post, I am going to assume that the dispute is fiscal austerity or no, but a reasonable case can be made that the fundamental dispute between these two groups is about the type of government spending rather than the amount of that spending.  As we shall see below those in the fiscal austerity camp differentially favor cutting social spending rather than defense spending or other programs favored by the political right-wing.

Individual Economists

Paul Krugman,  Brad DeLong, Dean Baker and others who occupy more of a Keynesian position on fiscal spending, are most scathing in their indictments of the calls for fiscal austerity that can be heard now around the world.  Krugman points out, as does Dean Baker and others that measures of what lenders think of the creditworthiness of the US government indicate that there is no current concern about the US’s fiscal health (low CDS spreads).  Krugman and other in the Keynesian camp, like Brad DeLong, point out how deficit hawks tend to blur the distinction between countries that control their own currency (the US, Great Britain, etc.) and the countries of the Euro-zone who are constrained by Euro-wide currency policy.   There are differences in the degree to which Keynesians pay attention to the question of budget deficits:  some think that raising deficits is a temporary fix while others are relatively indifferent to the amount of the deficit.

On the other side of the fiscal austerity debate are also many respected economists, some of whom did predict the financial crisis of 2008.  Ragu Rajan reads a number of macroeconomic signals, including increased employment in Brazil, as indicating that the Fed might think about raising interest rates, which is an anti-inflationary measure and a sign of pulling back on monetary stimulus of the economy.   Krugman lambastes Rajan and others as submitting to a climate in which pain infliction on the economy and especially the poor is considered to be a way to “reassure markets”.  Jeffrey Sachs, also a highly respected economist is caught by Brad DeLong assuming that Obama’s stimulus spending raised interest rates that private lenders charged the government when it didn’t.   Both Krugman and DeLong feel their opponents are ignoring data on the ground and imposing upon and reading into reality their prescriptive model for how the economy should have, is and will behave.

Economic Advocacy Organizations

Driving the debate within and outside the academy are the work of advocacy organizations that, apparently, believe that social spending should be cut instead of targeting military or other budgetary items.  The billionaire and former Secretary of Commerce under Richard Nixon, Pete Peterson has had a major influence in inspiring the Obama Administration’s deficit commission through his funding of numerous foundations, economists and advocacy organizations.  Peterson, through his great wealth and political influence has been able to create a climate of economic opinion within which he has insistently attempts to create concern about government budget deficits while favoring only one of many possible solutions.  As can be seen in this 2003 interview with Bill Moyers, Peterson decries tax cuts and other signs of profligacy by both parties yet almost uniformly prescribes cutting social spending over either cuts in other discretionary programs or tax hikes on people like himself.  Peterson’s perspective is also premised on a theory of political behavior by policymakers who he assumes will never raise tax rates to deal with what he bemoans as a great evil, the imposition of debt upon future generations.  The assumption of this type of political behavior by Peterson does agree with the anti-tax prejudice of Peterson’s political milieu.

Making Sense of the Conflict

In broad terms the conflict in systemic terms is between two economic theories with opposing interpretations of that subsection of the data that they both address and also in this case some variance with regard to how much or which parts of the data are accounted for by the “story” that each side tells.  Furthermore, even if there is or would be some partial agreement on interpretations, the solutions offered are at odds (which part of the deficit to reduce or cut and when).   On the one side we have people who see government spending as a tool that now because of slumping economic conditions must be deployed, despite the negative impact on budget deficits.  On the other side we have people who place a higher negative value on budget deficits and the risk of inflation relative to the potential positive impact of spending on employment and current demand for goods and services.  For the latter group, the tradeoff is so, seemingly, frightening (or they wish to inspire fear in others) that they appear to imagine or invoke the prospect of events for which there is currently little or no data.  Alternatively they may be seeking to inspire “retribution” by private markets on the debts of governments, prospectively, by painting a negative picture of how these governments manage their budgets.

To me, as may be apparent from the way I am presenting the data, the case is better argued from the Keynesian side.  In this case, DeLong and Krugman seem to be presenting more apposite and solid data but the counterfactual “worries” of Sachs and Rajan are not to be entirely dismissed given their positions of authority and the reflexivity of financial markets, where opinion can become reality through the action of powerful and/or motivated stakeholders.  It is not unknown that powerful financial market actors can create chaos because of antipathy towards a government or because they simply want to achieve a higher return.  Claims of fiscal imprudence by authoritative voices can be invitations to markets for attacks on the currency.

While the point of recounting this debate may elude people who are not economic policy “wonks”, the stakes in what passes for an intellectual debate here could not be more immense:  if the austerity group prevails we may see, as in 1937, a very deep second dip to this recession, though these advocates would deny that this would be the outcome.  If the apparent wishes of economic advocates like Pete Peterson are achieved, we will see an undoing of the social and economic stabilizers created by the New Deal and Great Society in the period from the 1930’s to the 1960’s.  Furthermore, and more assuredly, choosing fiscal austerity, especially those who wish to cut social and other domestic spending rather than military spending and not raise any taxes, will bring much of the movement towards a green and oil-independent economy to a halt.  While some politicians and voters may be able to salvage some portion of existing social programs, the “new arrivals” in the areas of climate and energy that may require some deficit spending to be jumpstarted will almost certainly fall by the wayside.

Class Interests and Government Spending

While I am treating this here as a problem of systemic theories of the economy, many imply or state that this is a class conflict between economic groups.  The accusation leveled at Pete Peterson by his opponents can be parsimoniously stated as that he is waging “class war from above” by differentially targeting those social programs that stand in the way of financial capital in maximizing its profits.   Even more insidiously, the effort to stir hysteria about fiscal spending can be seen as effort to create a “balance of terror” by actors from the financial sector to guard its huge profits and downplay its culpability in the 2008 financial crash (“we weren’t the imprudent ones, you were”).  On the other side, deficit spending and social spending combined with progressive taxation redistributes income downward, leading the “haves” to feel that they are supporting the “have-lesses” and the “have nots”.   The implication by the “haves” is that they represent economic virtue while the “have-lesses” and “have nots” have not been prudent and are asking for a hand-out.

Alternatively, if we accept that there are economic classes with different and conflicting interests, the conflict is over a renegotiation of the social contract between those classes.  The post-New Deal, post-WWII consensus was that the “haves” owed a portion of their income to the society at large and to the less fortunate.  The idea was that everybody has an obligation to society and that individual success contains an element of luck.  The Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal criticism of the post-War consensus was that each person earned according to what he or she is due and that the society-at-large did not represent an economically important entity.  Redistribution of income via governmental spending and progressive taxation was and is opposed by neoliberals because it violates this principle and does not reward economic success.  This schematic view overlooks complexities of either position.

If this is a matter of economic class conflict two basic solutions are possible:  either one allies oneself with one or the other class or one attempts to stand apart and negotiate some compromise between those class interests.

Resolving the Conflict:  Three Strategies

I can see at the moment three basic strategies for economists and policymakers in dealing with this critical challenge and the yawning gap between the two positions as regards immediate action.

Strategy 1:  Make Better Arguments for Each Position

Advocates for one position or the other have good reasons, if they believe that what they represent is true, right and good, to make better arguments for each position.  I have a strong bias in favor of the Keynesian position at this point in time because of my concerns both about our overall economic health in the short and medium term as well as long-term environmental sustainability:  I see, at the least in the US, no significant moves to reduce oil dependency and address climate change without some deficit spending.  I am also persuaded by the relevance of the data presented by Keynesians to the questions being asked by both sides, in particular the phantom nature of market “concerns” about the security of lending to the US government at this point in time.  By both sides making clearer arguments, we may see clarification of the issue.  One danger without a strong meta-economic framework is that one side or the other would make arguments that are emotionally persuasive in nature but not well-reasoned and/or would use its considerable financial means to broadcast the less well-grounded argument in emotionally compelling but fallacious terms over the airwaves.

Strategy 2:  Political Compromise Between the Two Positions

While a bipartisan deficit commission and similar bodies may need to engage in compromise to reach consensus, this strategy may only serve to confuse the scientific and intellectual issues involved.  Some items from one “side” will be adopted and some proposals from the other “side” will be adopted in a melange of proposals.  While one sides’ arguments may be popular with politicians but wrong they will appear to be given equal or greater weight to  positions that are well grounded in reality.   If on the other hand there is an implicit recognition that there is no systemic economic theory that works but simply a class compromise between two interest groups, then adopting a political compromise which reflects the balance of power or the outcome of the discussion is the only possible outcome.  Either the compromise between systemic views or the compromise between classes would postpone clarity on the issue, though might prevent a disastrous outcome.

Strategy 3:  Develop a meta-economic framework for evaluating claims of both positions

The final strategy requires more time and preparation but I believe it will ultimately lead to better results: create a meta-economic framework for evaluating as much of the relevant data and positions involved as possible.  Such a framework would be able to weigh the benefits of economic stimulus, perceptions of government debt by private financial markets, other risks associated with debt, inflation costs and benefits, group/class interests and overall social welfare projections that are associated with an number of different scenarios.  I am calling this a “meta-economic” because it would straddle both the Keynesian and the neo-liberal or “hard money” position but create a new and better scientific framework rather than a melange of both positions as would “Strategy 2”.  New factors may be introduced from within economics or from a related discipline like political science, psychology, the natural sciences, etc to create new perspectives on hardened positions rather than to mix perspectives up as part of a political compromise.

None of these three strategies is mutually exclusive.  In upcoming posts here, I will look into this issue as well as other questions that would lead one to build a meta-economics.