Monday, February 9, 2009

Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar Keynesians II

by the Sandwichman

In the previous post, the Sandwichman concluded that Humpty-Dumpty hookah-smoking Caterpillar Keynesianism is not as daft, at least, as the alternatives offered by the likes of Niall Ferguson and Peter Schiff. It remained to wring a bit more daftness out of political Keynesianism.

Keynes, it has been pointed out, was not a Keynesian. What passes for Keynesianism these days is a hodge-podge of public-spending agendas upheld by opportunistic textual exegesis. The New Deal functions as a flexible exemplar for public spending. The New Deal was both Keynesianish and yet not Keynesian enough. Actually, it was ("hey, hey") LBJ and Tricky Dick, not the sainted Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who put full-fledged political Keynesianism to the test.

At the end of A Living Wage, Lawrence Glickman offered an interpretation of the New Deal that challenges traditional assumptions. Instead of viewing the focus on sustaining consumption as originating with the New Deal and Keynes, Glickman traced it back to the "living wage" ideology of labor that had evolved over the final three decades of the 19th century. It wasn't the ideas that were new, it was only their (relative) respectability.

Glickman's account of that evolution in labor ideas centered on the distinction between a traditional "producerist" ideology and the emerging consumerist ideology that characterized Samuel Gompers' American Federation of Labor. When asked the question, "what does labor want?" Gompers famously replied,
"We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright."
This is sometimes abbreviated as "More!" or "More, more, more..." The New Deal thus incorporated labor movement ideas about an American 'standard of living'. Organized labor, in turn, appropriated a technocratic, "Keynesian" language regarding 'purchasing power' and 'aggregate demand'. Even big business got into the act with the National Association of Manufacturer's billboard campaign trumpeting the world's highest wages and standard of living and the world's shortest working hours.

All this is saying is that the actual political constituency for fiscal stimulus is quite a different matter than adherence to an intellectual construct. As World War II drew to a close there was near unanimity among economists, politicians and the general public in favor of doing whatever needed to be done to maintain full employment (which is not to say economic growth).

If the goal of Keynesianism was to "save capitalism from the stupidity of its managers", who would spare the saviors from the hubris of their expertise? According to Fred Hirsch:
...Keynes's interpretation of managed capitalism retains a vital importance precisely because of its unquestioning reliance on obligations and instincts deriving from an earlier preindustrial culture. It is in the complete Keynesian system that we can best observe the limits of the guided market, because Keynes took for granted supportive characteristics that his own system could not preserve but that the purer system of his successors in economic liberalism ignored.
The Sandwichman's crucial amendment to Hirsh's view is to point out that the cultural ground for those non-market obligations and instincts need not be "preindustrial" but can as readily be extra- or counter- industrial, as in the 19th century labor movement's notion of a living wage. What is important, though is that these obligations and instincts operate outside any "laws of the market", even as modified by the intervention of the state. This means you, 'aggregate demand' and 'multiplier'.

The Achilles heel of Political Keynesianism resides not in the pseudo-economic objection that "the money has to come from somewhere" but in the fuzzier notion that the motivating obligations and instincts have to come from somewhere other than the market. Keynesianism cannot succeed -- as its modern day adherents delude themselves it can -- as a technocratic exercise in estimating multipliers and shortfalls in capacity utilization. The technocratic, mathematical defense of fiscal stimulus policy consents to a rhetorical deck of cards where the reactionary clowns hold all the jokers.

"To live outside the law, you must be honest." That includes living outside the metaphorical "laws" of classical political economy.

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