- Explain the Keynesian perspective on market forces
- Analyze the role of government policy in economic management
Ever since the birth of Keynesian economics in the 1930s, controversy has simmered over the extent to which government should play an active role in managing the economy. In the aftermath of the human devastation and misery of the Great Depression, many people—including many economists—became more aware of vulnerabilities within the market-oriented economic system. Some supporters of Keynesian economics advocated a high degree of government planning in all parts of the economy.
However, Keynes himself was careful to separate the issue of aggregate demand from the issue of how well individual markets worked. He argued that individual markets for goods and services were appropriate and useful, but that sometimes that level of aggregate demand was just too low. When 10 million people are willing and able to work, but one million of them are unemployed, he argued, individual markets may be doing a perfectly good job of allocating the efforts of the nine million workers—the problem is that insufficient aggregate demand exists to support jobs for all 10 million. Thus, he believed that, while government should ensure that overall level of aggregate demand is sufficient for an economy to reach full employment, this task did not imply that the government should attempt to set prices and wages throughout the economy, nor to take over and manage large corporations or entire industries directly.
Even if one accepts the Keynesian economic theory, a number of practical questions remain. In the real world, can government economists identify potential GDP accurately? Is a desired increase in aggregate demand better accomplished by a tax cut or by an increase in government spending? Given the inevitable delays and uncertainties as governments enact policies into law, is it reasonable to expect that the government can implement Keynesian economics? Can fixing a recession really be just as simple as pumping up aggregate demand? Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy will probe these issues. The Keynesian approach, with its focus on aggregate demand and sticky prices, has proved useful in understanding how the economy fluctuates in the short run and why recessions and cyclical unemployment occur. In The Neoclassical Perspective, we will consider some of the shortcomings of the Keynesian approach and why it is not especially well-suited for long-run macroeconomic analysis.
The Pandemic-Induced Recession and the Keynesian Perspective
The pandemic-induced recession of 2020 was unique. Unlike the Great Recession of 2007–2009 discussed in most of this chapter, it was not started by the burst of a housing bubble. It was started by a virus that caused sickness and death for millions of people worldwide and required substantial social policy in order to control its spread.
In some ways, the latest recession was influenced by fluctuations in aggregate demand. At its depth in April 2020, over 20 million people were unemployed, causing a massive decline in consumption and aggregate demand. As businesses were forced to shutter or move their operations online, many were pessimistic or uncertain about the future state of the economy, causing investment to decline. The federal government attempted to correct this aggregate demand shock through small business loans, direct aid to state and local governments, expanded unemployment insurance, and stimulus checks. As a result of all these measures, the economy was able to bounce back somewhat over the remainder of 2020. However, even at the start of 2022, millions of people remained out of work as new variants threatened to upend the economy once again.
The Keynesian perspective would have economic policy continue to focus on aggregate and restoring confidence in the economy. President Biden’s proposals largely reflect these goals, but with millions of workers still out of the labor market and a virus that is still not contained, it remains to be seen whether those policy prescriptions will be enough “medicine” to bring the economy back to normalcy.