To Spend or Not To Spend…

Most economists haven’t really been thinking about this issue, they haven’t really focused on it. It’s not their specialty. Most economists today, they haven’t really been thinking about this kind of multiplier issue… I don’t think most economists are focused on this, or that they’re familiar with the empirical evidence. I don’t think they’ve really worked on the theory. So I don’t know, maybe they have some opinion that they got from graduate school or something. — Robert Barro in The Atlantic Monthly

Even if by accident, you’ve probably noticed that there is an on-going debate on whether a massive government spending campaign is needed to “prime the pump” to stimulate the economy (the Keynesian route), or whether fiscal discipline (austerity) is in order. Last week, most members of the G-20 (but not the US) came down on the side of austerity.

As a trained economist, I know the basic institutional details and understand the basic arguments, but as Barro suggests, I have no great insight on the empirics or which side of the debate is likely to be correct.

Certainly, the primary mouthpiece for the pro-spend crowd is recent Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman.  In a recent column, he tears into those who promote “austerity”:

So the next time you hear serious-sounding people explaining the need for fiscal austerity, try to parse their argument. Almost surely, you’ll discover that what sounds like hardheaded realism actually rests on a foundation of fantasy, on the belief that invisible vigilantes will punish us if we’re bad and the confidence fairy will reward us if we’re good.

Of course, not all economists agree with Krugman’s assessment. In addition to our friend Hayek, Robert Barro is pretty clearly on the austerity side. This interview with Barro is a good place to see a sketch of the battle lines in the debate, and certainly indicates that he and Krugman are not on particularly friendly terms.  This week, Harvard professor Alberto Alesina is getting some press for his advocacy of austerity measures. And, as for the regime uncertainty argument that Krugman caricatures, I would recommend Robert Higgs as the central proponent of that idea.

As for me, I am not sure exactly what I learned in grad school that prepares me to take a side in this debate. What I find interesting is that most people who engage me in a discussion seem to think the Keynsian spending route is the way to go, and many of these folks invoke Krugman on this point as if Krugman is the voice of the profession. As today’s Krugman piece indicates, he seems to think that many in the profession are moving in quite the opposite direction. It’s not clear to me whether this boils down to pre-conceived ideology or not, but that is certainly his claim.

I guess I will leave it at that.

UPDATE: Keynes v. Hayek in print. Commentary here.

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