Edmund Phelps Raises Doubts About Keynesian Remedies

Edmund Phelps, a Nobel Prize winner, casts doubts on Keynesian remedies because Keynes himself came to question them.

This Financial Times piece provides no answers but raises some interesting questions. But sadly, there may be no answer for the first question he asks:

What theory can we use to get us out of the impending slump quickly and reliably? … The thoughts of some have turned to John Maynard Keynes. His insights into uncertainty and speculation were deep. Yet his employment theory was problematic and the “Keynesian” policy solutions are questionable at best.

Banks spoke of the downturn in house prices as an effect of some sort of shock….The prime cause was forecasting with badly mistaken models. Speculators and home buyers, thinking that rentals or building costs would go up, bet on higher house prices in future, which also raised the price of existing houses. But over the years neither rentals nor costs (in real terms) budged. If they did not rise, (real) prices would sooner or later have to go back down.

This was Keynes’s world. At Cambridge, he showed how an investor might allow for unknown contingencies in his Treatise on Probability. In London, he ran a hedge fund with O. T. “Foxy” Falk and grew rich, only to get caught in a collapse of commodity prices in early 1929. He concluded that investors’ beliefs were “flimsy”. As one investor, then others, desert, the asset price, previously rising, may merely falter at first but finally collapses sharply along with the conventional belief.

Keynes put asset prices at the centre of employment determination in his 1936 General Theory. If a change in sentiment causes steep declines in valuations of business assets (along with share prices and house prices), business investing is cut back and employment contracts – unemployment rises – mostly in capital goods industries.

Unfortunately nothing went well after that. Keynes made a huge mistake in not distinguishing between a drop in asset prices springing from monetary causes – an exogenous, or autonomous, increase in the demand for money – and one springing from causes having nothing to do with supply and demand for money – say, diminished expectations about future returns on business assets or houses. The former phenomenon could be solved by monetary means: the central bank could boost the money supply (by purchasing public debt, say), which would drive asset prices back up without driving up other prices and wages equally in a pointless spiral.

The recent collapse of speculation on houses, however, is a non-monetary phenomenon: there has to be a drop of the money price of (a basket of) houses relative to the money price of (a basket of) consumer goods. Keynes argued that a boost of the money supply would work here too: workers would be unaware that wages in competing jobs elsewhere had jumped as much as their own, so they would be afraid to require as high a real wage as before; thus hiring would be stimulated and employment would go back up. But sustaining that recovery would surely require endless wage inflation at a rate always a step ahead of expectations – an unappealing policy. Increasingly, Keynes focused on non-monetary measures to change the new non-monetary equilibrium following a loss of investor confidence.

Keynes always felt that consumer demand too drives employment. An increase in demand encourages companies to raise production and hire more workers – at first. But in an open economy with its own currency, the stimulus would mostly go abroad. In the global economy, increased consumer demand would ultimately do little more than raise interest rates, thus setting off declines in real asset prices, investment and real wages.

Keynes emphasised investment demand as a lever to increase employment. By that theory, one might stimulate private investment through an investment tax credit or subsidies for new companies or new hires. Keynes favoured investment by the state or state enterprises.

Americans – their airports nightmarish and their bridges falling down – would welcome “infrastructure”. Yet it must be asked whether a massive shift from private to state investment would not damp the conception, development and adoption of new commercial ideas for innovation. Capitalism theory stresses diversity in sources of new commercial ideas, in the pool of entrepreneurs available for their development, in sources of finance – angel investors, venture capitalists and the rest – and in the array of end users. It also stresses how important it is that owners of financial and business enterprises be accountable to no one (except their own consciences) – thus free to use their intuition – in contrast to the strict accountability rightly required of state employees. Thus a greatly increased presence of the central government in a country’s investment sector could constrict innovation and lower the quality of the innovations that are made. We would be left still in a slump.

At the end of his life Keynes wrote of “modernist stuff, gone wrong and turned sour and silly”. He told his friend Friedrich Hayek he intended to re-examine his theory in his next book. He would have moved on. The admiration we all have for Keynes’s fabulous contributions should not sway us from moving on.

Notice how Keynes expected employment to fall in capital goods industries. We have no version 2.0 for an economy so heavily dependent on financial services. I also wonder, even though the US badly needs infrastructure, if any of these newfangled theories allow for how specialized labor has become. One of the reasons that employment didn’t fall sooner is that even seemingly mundane jobs now require employer specific knowledge (computer systems, internal procedures) that make it more costly to bring a new person on board and deters firing.

Put more simply, how is creating jobs in repairing infrastructure going to help unemployed bank workers? Even if they were willing, many will prove not to be able, and will also be living at a remove from where the jobs would be. In an advanced economy, labor is not terribly fungible.

Originally published at Naked Capitalism and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

5 Responses to "Edmund Phelps Raises Doubts About Keynesian Remedies"

  1. Demand Side   November 5, 2008 at 10:58 am

    This characterization of Keynes and his remedies is as flimsy as it could be. Markets are not self-correcting, aggregate demand determines output and in times of underemployment the private sector and the public sector are complements, not substitutes.Would Keynes have focused on private investment in a time when the consumer is dead? Likely not. To suggest that back-door subsidies through the tax code are Keynesian is … nonsense. Empirical evidence from Reagan through Bush demonstrates companies are not persuaded by tax give-aways, but by the prospect of making a profit, i.e., demand.The final paragraph of the FT article that is quoted is just scurrilous and wrong. At a time when Keynes thinking should be vindicated, we don’t need this pap.

  2. JohnRyskamp   November 5, 2008 at 11:34 am

    This whole discussion is antiquated. Keynes knew absolutely NOTHING about the importance of individually enforceable rights in sustaining the facts on the ground. We need a stand in place order. Never mind building bridges to nowhere–let’s concentrate on where people live right now.Did Keynes ever advocate a ban on housing evictions as a means of stabilizing the economy? Never. He didn’t have the education or insight to understand the importance of rights in the economic equation. Indeed, he was an old police-state guy: WE know better than you, WE know better than the facts.NO ONE knows better than housing. If you will shut up, housing will speak. If you keep babbling, housing will shut up, and YOU will be the loser by its silence.When we shut up, the facts speak. When we talk, they shut up.BAN HOUSING EVICTIONS NOW.And for more wonderful insight into this question, read John Ryskamp, The Eminent Domain Revolt.Try growing up and taking a look at the facts.But don’t expect this from the “liberal” Obama (assuming he isn’t indicted in the Rezko investigation). He’s simply there to loot whatever can be looted for the Syrian mafia.

    • Anonymous   November 6, 2008 at 1:17 pm

      Get a life dude, your dribble is both incoherent and off topic.

  3. Anonymous   November 6, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    In the late 1990s US and European firms moved jobs to China at the same time that they imported low priced goods made in China.Phelps won a Nobel Prize by noticing that after the mid-1990s US firms boomed without US labor rates inflating which went against the Phillips curve, and he had ideas for why this happened which were related to managed expectations about inflation.I think it happened because US workers had lost their jobs but were still able to increase consumption because loose lending and securitization allowed them to borrow savings locked in their homes. So you had an economic boom because consumption continued despite flat or falling US labor wages. Somehow the economists have not yet noticed that this was the reason the Phillips curve no longer worked. Maybe someday another genius will get a Nobel prize for noticing that exporting jobs to cheap labor areas in combination with borrowing and spending home equity likely had a lot to do the Phillips curve no longer working.

  4. Peter Principle   November 15, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    I don’t ordinarily argue with people who win Nobel prizes, but I have to agree with the first commenter above: Phelps’s take on The General Theory is so off base I have to wonder if we read the same book.At no point did Keynes make the “huge mistake” of failing to distinguish between declines in aggregate demand caused by monetary shocks and those caused by a decline in expected returns on investment. It would have been odd if he had, in a book written in the middle of the Great Depression. Indeed, he devoted the entire second half of the book to the latter problem, and the limits of monetary policy as a remedy.Likewise, Phelps simply appears to be babbling when he complains that traditional Keynesian countercylical policies interfere with the need for “diversity in sources of new commercial ideas,” or subvert the virtues of having capitalists who are “accountable to no one.”Does anyone seriously believe that an excess of accoutability is at the root of the current crisis? Or that our most desperate need is for a more diverse set of investment ideas??Considering that the house is burning to the ground around us, these are long run considerations — at best. And we all know what Keynes said about the long run.