Petros Giannakouris / AP
Last year the consensus opinion was that we are all Keynesians now. Virtually everyone in the commentariat believed that John Maynard Keynes’s solution for the Great Depression—heavy government spending to resuscitate the economy—was also the answer to today’s global downturn. The first cracks in the consensus appeared with the outbreak of the fiscal crisis in Greece earlier this year. Across the developed world, critics began to argue that government spending had reached the point of diminishing returns, and was producing an anemic recovery that mainly benefited special-interest groups. And the electorate listened. From Europe to the United States, as voters started to reward candidates focused on fiscal discipline and less government intervention, Keynesianism quickly fell out of favor.
One key exception was U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. Dissatisfied with the gradual recovery and a high unemployment rate, he let it be known that he thought more stimulus was in order, and realizing that was not in the congressional cards, he decided to take monetary activism to a new level by offering an open-ended commitment to pump as much money into the system as required to meet the Fed’s dual mandate of maximum employment and price stability. This is the first time a Fed chairman has explicitly stated that monetary policy can turbocharge an economic recovery. Bernanke says he is doing everything Milton Friedman would have had the Fed do. Friedman, the father of monetarism, argued that the Great Depression was largely the result of a major contraction in money supply, and that such a severe economic outcome could have been avoided had the Fed held the money supply stable.
The public doesn’t buy it. There’s a growing backlash against the Fed’s monetary activism, for two reasons. It is increasingly clear that the Fed can print all the money it wants to but has no control over where it ends up. Ever since the Fed stepped up talk of quantitative easing this summer, the prospect of easy money has driven up prices of commodities and emerging-market stocks, and Wall Street is abuzz with talk of the “next bubble.” Second, monetary activism suffers from the same fundamental flaw as Keynesianism, in that it protects inefficient players instead of injecting renewed vigor into the economy. In a telling statement of the Fed’s thinking, New York Fed member Brian Slack recently said that, with luck, quantitative easing will work by keeping “asset prices higher than they should be,” as that adds to household wealth. This is why stimulus can be so unpopular: it often benefits the rich (who own a disproportionate share of inflating assets such as stocks) at the cost of the poor (who are hurt most by the related rise in food and energy prices).
It seems that the US is now the only country clinging to Keynesianism... unfortunately austerity will come to the US as it has to other countries and the price for the wanton consumerism and entitlements of past years will be paid.