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Anti-Logic and the Keynesian “Stimulus”

Mises Daily: Monday, March 03, 2014 by

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American political culture always seems to be “celebrating” the anniversary of something, be it JFK’s assassination (we just passed the 50th anniversary of that sad event) or the signing of some (mostly bad) legislation. The latest political activity to be enshrined with an anniversary is the so-called stimulus, the $800 billion monstrosity passed five years ago ostensibly to “put America back to work.”

Not surprisingly, the New York Times has editorialized that any criticism of the spending bill — at least any criticism which says “too much” was spent — is a Republican “myth and falsehood.” Not only was the “Stimulus” a legitimate piece of legislation, sniffed the NYT, but it also:

prevented a second recession that could have turned into a depression. It created or saved an average of 1.6 million jobs a year for four years. (Where are the jobs, Mr. Boehner.) It raised the nation’s economic output by 2 to 3 percent from 2009 to 2011. It prevented a significant increase in poverty — without it, 5.3 million additional people would have become poor in 2010.

Like all examples of the Broken Window Fallacy, the spirited defense of this spending bill is based upon “accounting” methods that count the people hired through “stimulus” spending as “new jobs” but fail to note how others might have lost their own means of employment. Now, this was a bill that, among other things, had workers rolling sod into the grass median of I-68 (which is near my home) in an area where runoff collected from tons of salt thrown onto roads by state highway crews (our area receives a lot of snowfall). Not surprisingly, within a year, all of the new grass was dead.

I liken the “stimulus” to throwing a bit of lighter fluid onto a pile of soaking wet wood. The flames pop up for a few seconds, but then disappear as the effects from the fluid go away. (No, repeated douses of “stimulus” fluid do not ultimately gain traction and then lead to a miraculous economic recovery.)

If Beltway political culture permits any criticism of the Holy Stimulus, it is this: “the stimulus wasn’t big enough.” Intones the NYT: “The stimulus could have done more good had it been bigger and more carefully constructed.”

The rest of the editorial is a compilation of near-plagiarism from Paul Krugman’s columns and blog posts, and it reflects how Keynesian anti-wogic works. The “logical” narrative goes as follows:

  • “Enough” government spending during a recession will bring the economy to “full employment.”
  • The economy is not at full employment.
  • Therefore, there wasn’t enough government spending.

Should one question the Keynesian premises of this awful syllogism, the standard answer is: America had “full employment” during World War II. (Robert Higgs has thoroughly debunked this enduring myth.) But, then, so did Germany and the U.S.S.R., according to Keynesian standards, but no one envies what people there experienced!

The problem that occurs when one wishes to interpret the results of the Stimulus is not due to bad politics. To put it another way, Stimulus spending always will confer political benefits, given that the money is transferred from taxpayers to preferred political constituents. Those footing the bill include both present and future taxpayers, since they will have to pay later for the public debt incurred to pay for present stimulus spending.

I make this point because the stimulus always has been presented as a government action that improved general or overall economic conditions, as opposed to being a political wealth-transfer scheme. The NYT editorial drips with what only can be a religious faith in the whole system, as though politicians seeking votes are going to “carefully” construct a process that is aimed at making certain political constituencies better off — but at the expense of other constituencies.

In reality, the government-based stimulus is based upon bad economics or, to be more specific, one of bad economic logic. To a Keynesian, an economy is a homogeneous mass into which the government stirs new batches of currency. The more currency thrown into the mix, the better the economy operates. One only needs to read Krugman’s writings to see that belief in full bloom.

Austrian economists, on the other hand, recognize the relationships within the economy, including relationships of factors of production to one another, and how those factors can be directed to their highest-valued uses, according to consumer choices. The U.S. economy remains mired in the mix of low output and high unemployment not because governments are failing to spend enough money but rather because governments are blocking the free flow of both consumers’ and producers’ goods and preventing the real economic relationships to take place and trying to force artificial relationships, instead. (Green energy and ethanol, anyone?)

Simply put, the stimulus could work only if it were directing factors of production from lower-valued uses to higher-valued uses as determined ultimately by consumer choice. If that actually were the case, then the government would not have to force consumers to use stimulus-funded ethanol and electricity created by wind power.

Austrians arrive at their position through logic, but logic that is based in what we already know about human action. Unlike Keynesian “logic,” the premises of Austrian economics are sound, so the conclusions derived from them also are sound. No wonder the Austrian position is banned from the NYT editorial page!