No Minister

Stagflation and pretty graphs?

For two decades after the end of WWII, economists, bureaucrats and politicians were pretty sure that they’d nailed the problems of controlling a capitalist economy.

The ruling theory was Keynesianism, named after the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, whose key insight in the 1930’s was that in times of economic recession, and especially depression such as The Slump of the 1930’s, governments should not cut back on their spending but increase it.

Prior to that governments had always taken the same attitude towards a shrinking economy that households and businesses did: you cut spending in line with your falling revenues, tax in the case of government. Keynes argued that this was the wrong thing for governments to do; they were different because they controlled the creation of credit so debt was not the same threat to them. They could go into debt, perhaps quite a lot of debt, and keep spending money to keep the economy afloat until the private sector came out of its shell and started investing and spending again. The idea was not so much to inflate the economy as to stop a blackhole effect where the shrinkage fed on itself.

At least in the USA under FDR from 1930 on, and here in New Zealand under the First Labour government, the theory seemed to work although there were a few problems with the argument in that period:

  • The NZ economy was already recovering by the time Labour gained power in 1935 and its Finance Minister Walter Nash, although pushing big increases in spending, never let NZ go into the sort of debt Keynes proposed.
  • The US recovery stalled completely in 1937, with unemployment rising to 17% again. FDR’s own Secretary of the Treasury was appalled at the result after so much money had been blown. In the end it was the industrial powering up for WWII that got the economy growing and flattened unemployment.
  • Australia and Britain simply never took the Keynesian approach, yet there was no evidence that their depressions were any worse, nor their recoveries any slower than those of the US and NZ.
  • In 1946 Keynesian economists were terrified at the prospect of eleven million military men returning home to a nation where the government was already cutting spending in the form of ending huge military contracts for tanks, planes and guns. Their fears grew when a newly installed Republican House and Senate promptly cut spending even further in 1947. And from a GDP approach you could also see their point as it contracted by an incredible 11.6% in 1946 and another 1% in 1947. By contrast it shrank by 12.9% in 1932. But far from a second Great Depression the post-war US economy took off and kept powering away, with only occasional mild recessions for more than twenty years.
  • The so-called “neo-Keynesians” of the Kennedy Administration, figured that if Keynes theory could reduce unemployment down to 5% there was no reason why more Keynesian stimulus couldn’t soak up that last portion. An economy running at 100% all the time. BZZZZZTT: hitting-the-edge-of-the-envelope time again and Hello, late 60’s US inflation.

Still, the Keynesian theory settled in as Western governments coped with those mild recessions by following the formula of increased spending during a recession, as well as Central Banks dropping interest rates. It all seemed to work, even as Western Economies started to get changed by all this government intrusion.

What is neo-liberalism? Who are Reagan and Freidman?

To be fair to Keynes he always made it clear that when the economy started growing again governments should ease up on the increased spending and start paying down their debt in preparation for the next economic downturn. Suffice to say that those aspects have been increasingly ignored.

From the mid 1960’s on, it all began to turn pear-shaped. In the USA inflation began to take off with the impact of all the spending on the Vietnam War and LBJ’s Great Society programs (also Kennedy’s neo-Keynesians mentioned earlier). The Federal Reserve tapped the interest rate brake, government spending under Nixon slowed slightly – and caused a mild recession in 1970. Releasing the brakes on both factors, the economy started growing again, but so did unemployment and inflation, something that was not supposed to be able to happen together. It got worse when recessions hit again and inflation and unemployment kept climbing through the 1970’s, with only occasional and temporary drops.

Thus was born the word “Stagflation”, followed by people paying less attention to Keynes and more to the monetary theories of Milton Friedman, as well as the economic control critiques of Friedrich Hayek from decades earlier, together with the associated politics of Reagan and Thatcher (and here in NZ, Roger Douglas, Australia with Bob Hawke) as they tried to reduce government influence in the economy.

It must be pointed out that despite all the privatisations, de-regulations and fighting over those issues, when it comes to the Big Basics of government spending and debt, it’s as though nothing has changed.

Certainly with the rise to power in the 2000’s of the likes of Bush, Blair and others, plus the shocks of things like the NASDAQ crash of ’99/00, the 9/11 attacks and of course the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, the world of Big Government spending has returned in full force.

The Great Chinese Sinus AIDS pandemic of 2020 just added rocket fuel to it all.

Amidst all this – and I’ve covered much of it already in these posts…

This is not going to get better – Feb 2019

The Great Crash of 2034 – June 2020

$5,630,859,000,000 – August 2020

… the fact was that in each of these situations in the last twenty years inflation did not take off, and while the economy recovered far more slowly than the stimulus spenders of Obama’s time had hoped for, it did at least grow, and unemployment kept going down while inflation was nowhere to be seen. These happy times became even happier under Trump as the economy boomed through 2018/19 before hitting the Covid lockdowns.

With the slow (too slow) unlocking of the economy many people figured that things would get back to normal rapidly. Yes, the Cassandra’s were still harping on about the fantastic increases in government spending, government debt and government credit creation – but we’d heard all that before.

In the case of the GFC it appears that much of that credit creation did not get into the pockets of consumers, being swallowed up by the banks instead – who did actually manage to pay Uncle Sam back for the TARP program, with interest too. Noted Keynesian economist Paul Krugman was angry that the 2008-9 stimulus programs were so small: he argued for programs in the range of $2-3 trillion and for it to go straight into the pockets of consumers.

It took a decade but that’s exactly what the $2.2 trillion CARES Act did in early 2020, followed by smaller ($900 billion) spending programs in late 2020. Then came the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan under Biden.

There may be more to come, with the proposed $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan and the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan.

Krugman must be beyond joy at this moment.

Of course the thing about Cassandra was that she was telling the truth, and so in the Year of Our Lord 2021…

CNBC

Dow Jones estimates had been for 1 million new jobs and an unemployment rate of 5.8%.

New jobs were 266,000 and unemployment rate rose to 6.1%.

NASDAQ news:

The consumer sentiment index unexpectedly crashed to 82.8 in May from 88.3 in April. The decrease surprised economists, who had expected the index to rise to 90.4.

“Unexpectedly”! I always love that. Perhaps if those economists had paid a visit to a US timber yard or looked at the incredible increases in commodity prices across the board they might not have been so surprised about consumer confidence. Massive and rapid increases in prices tend to do that, of which the M2 chart above is merely one indicator. Here’s a better one.

Too much money chasing too few goods: supply vs demand. The oldest rule in the economic theory book. The only question is whether the US is going to add to the demand with those spending programs?

Of course, looking at this history of the last twenty years, it may not actually make any real difference to the path the USA is on, except possibly to act as a trigger point. As always the question is whether we’ll know that the trigger has been pulled. Mixing metaphors, we can be certain that a fuse has been lit.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 17, 2021 at 10:43 am

4 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Utopia, you are standing in it!.

    Jim Rose

    May 17, 2021 at 1:03 pm

  2. Just as a matter of interest Jim, you might also include in your blog the likely kick-on effects of inflation in the Fed lifting interest rates to try and choke it off.

    In 1985, the US government used almost 20% tax dollars merely to service the interest on the national debt – that was when the debt was less than one-third of current US debt value in relation to the total national income.

    If the US government is forced to pay double-digit interest rates again, it would see a federal budget all but consumed by interest payments. Even a return to the long-run (80 years) average of Federal Debt interest rates of about 5% would be a hell of shock to the system.

    Either one would mean drastic cuts to spending, starting with the US military but also the social services of Medicare/Medicaid and other stuff.

    Tom Hunter

    May 17, 2021 at 2:11 pm

  3. The second biggest lie (after Trump’s “we wuz robbed”) is that a government deficit is always a bad thing. It is not. More often than not, government debt is a good thing.

    When the government issues a bond, it has created a debt for the government, and it has also created an asset for the bondholder. That asset may be traded by the bondholder and can be leveraged as collateral for a loan.

    Little Dorrit

    May 17, 2021 at 7:03 pm

    • Asset?

      Tom Hunter

      May 17, 2021 at 7:09 pm


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