Sunday, March 13, 2011

Going beyond Keynesianism to avoid another global crisis

High income countries are facing a “new normal” (a combination of low growth, high unemployment and low returns on investment). Some of the European countries are facing sovereign debt crisis and may require restructuring. Middle-income countries are experiencing short-term capital inflows, putting appreciation pressure on currency and equity and real estate markets prices. Surge of food, fuel and commodity prices is hurting the poor. With these economic problems what can be done to avoid another global crisis?

Justin Lin argues that “a global push for investment along the line of Keynesian stimulus is the key for a sustained global recovery; however, the stimulus needs to go beyond the traditional Keynesian investment.” But the problem lies in avoiding the Ricardian trap—a situation where the government spending fails to boost aggregate demand as people expect increases in taxes in the future (and save now) to pay for existing deficit that funds government spending. Lin suggest:

To avoid the Ricardian trap, it is important to go beyond conventional Keynesian stimulus of “digging a hole and paving a hole” by investing in projects which increase future productivity. So the investment will increase jobs and demands for capital goods now and increase the growth and government’s revenue in the future. The increase in revenue can pay back the cost of investment without increasing household’s future tax liability.

Krugman argues that this still misses the point:

It’s one thing to have an argument about whether consumers are perfectly rational and have perfect access to the capital markets; it’s another to have the big advocates of all that perfection not understand the implications of their own model.

So let me try this one more time.

Here’s what we agree on: if consumers have perfect foresight, live forever, have perfect access to capital markets, etc., then they will take into account the expected future burden of taxes to pay for government spending. If the government introduces a new program that will spend $100 billion a year forever, then taxes must ultimately go up by the present-value equivalent of $100 billion forever. Assume that consumers want to reduce consumption by the same amount every year to offset this tax burden; then consumer spending will fall by $100 billion per year to compensate, wiping out any expansionary effect of the government spending.

But suppose that the increase in government spending is temporary, not permanent — that it will increase spending by $100 billion per year for only 1 or 2 years, not forever. This clearly implies a lower future tax burden than $100 billion a year forever, and therefore implies a fall in consumer spending of less than $100 billion per year. So the spending program IS expansionary in this case, EVEN IF you have full Ricardian equivalence.