Robert Samuelson says the economy isn’t allowed to have the Keynesian cures it needs because of … Keynesians (from the 1960s)
Robert Samuelson’s Washington Post column today is, to be charitable, baffling. He mostly agrees that Keynesians have it right about what the economy needs today: more stimulus, or fiscal support, or spending, or whatever you want to call it. But in a desire to tell us that it is actually Keynesians’ own fault for why we can’t have it, he blames … John F. Kennedy for destroying the nation’s fiscal norms so completely that we somehow can’t afford economic stimulus five decades later.
To be clear, I buy none of this argument that anything keeps us from pursuing more expansionary policy today except for today’s policymakers (and I particularly don’t buy the part of Samuelson’s argument about some magical and well-defined “threshold” of public debt above which we just can’t afford more stimulus and the economy tanks). And, even if there was some reason to think that rising debt/GDP ratios do hamper future policymakers’ response to recessions, the notion that public debt rapidly shrank as a share of overall GDP during the 1960s really should give Samuelson at least some pause about his thesis.
But even if I did believe that some past president had destroyed the historic norm of fiscal probity that preceded their inauguration, I have to ask: Why Kennedy, when there’s much clearer suspects in our more-recent past? The figure below shows net lending by the federal government for the six quarters before the inaugurations of Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, as well as what happened during their two terms in office (why six quarters before? I wanted some measure of the alleged fiscal “norms” they inherited, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis data that the chart is based on starts in the middle of 1959, so this simplified my choice).
Again, I actually think concern about budget deficits per se is way overblown in policy debates (for lots of reasons—for example, the budget is affected by the business cycle, which ran differently for all three presidents compared—though, strikingly, all had recessions early in their terms and saw the economy either back in recession (Bush) or within one (Kennedy) or two years (Reagan) of reentering recession by the time their tenures ended. Oh, and wars—wars affect budget deficits).
But if you’re making the argument that running deficits that are larger than the historic norms you inherited is some mammoth economic sin, I ask again: Why Kennedy and not Reagan or Bush?
The point of Samuelson’s column is pretty obviously to blame Keynesians for today’s troubles even though they are exactly right about how to solve them.