“The president’s team were fervent believers in the theories of a British economist called John Maynard Keynes,” wrote Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in his election-year manifesto, “Young Guns.” He’s right about that. Lawrence Summers, the former director of the National Economic Council, and Christina Romer, the former head of the Council of Economic Advisers, were two of the most influential Keynesian economists in the country. Obama didn’t just have a team of Keynesians. He had the Keynesian all-star team.
Perhaps the president’s team should have better explained their theories to Cantor. In his book, Cantor goes on to describe Keynesianism as the theory “that government can be counted on to spend more wisely than the people.” He’s wrong — and wrong in a way that’s making it harder to recover from this crisis, and could make it harder to respond to the next one.
“I think Keynes mistitled his book,” Summers says. “The correct title would have been ‘A Specific Theory of Collapsing Employment, Interest and Money’. What his book really was about was the proper understanding of the convulsive downturns to which a free-market economy is intermittently prone.”
The idea, in other words, is not about whether the government spends money better than individuals. After all, a lot of the policies advocated by the Keynesians, like the Making Work Pay tax cut, put money into the hands of individuals so that they can spend it. The idea is that the government has a role to play when, because of a “convulsive downturn,” a crisis begins feeding on itself.
Keynes — and others who later elaborated on his work, like Hyman Minsky — taught us that although markets are usually self-correcting, they occasionally enter destructive feedback loops in which a shock to, say, the financial system scares business and consumers so badly that they hoard money, which worsens the damage to the system, which further persuades other economic players to hoard, and so on and so forth.
In that situation, the role of the government is to break the cycle. Because businesses and consumers have stopped spending, the government breaks the cycle by spending. As clean as that theory is, it turned out to be a hard sell.
The first problem was conceptual. What Keynes told us to do simply feels wrong to people. “The central irony of financial crises is that they’re caused by too much borrowing, too much confidence and too much spending, and they’re solved by more confidence, more borrowing and more spending,” Summers says.