Monthly Archives: July 2010

The future of fiscal policy was intensely debated in the FT last week. In this Exchange, I want to examine what is going on in the US and, in particular, what is going on inside the Republican party. This matters for the US and, because the US remains the world’s most important economy, it also matters greatly for the world.

My reading of contemporary Republican thinking is that there is no chance of any attempt to arrest adverse long-term fiscal trends should they return to power. Moreover, since the Republicans have no interest in doing anything sensible, the Democrats will gain nothing from trying to do much either. That is the lesson Democrats have to draw from the Clinton era’s successful frugality, which merely gave George W. Bush the opportunity to make massive (irresponsible and unsustainable) tax cuts. In practice, then, nothing will be done.

Indeed, nothing may be done even if a genuine fiscal crisis were to emerge. According to my friend, Bruce Bartlett, a highly informed, if jaundiced, observer, some “conservatives” (in truth, extreme radicals) think a federal default would be an effective way to bring public spending they detest under control. It should be noted, in passing, that a federal default would surely create the biggest financial crisis in world economic history.

To understand modern Republican thinking on fiscal policy, we need to go back to perhaps the most politically brilliant (albeit economically unconvincing) idea in the history of fiscal policy: “supply-side economics”. Supply-side economics liberated conservatives from any need to insist on fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. Supply-side economics said that one could cut taxes and balance budgets, because incentive effects would generate new activity and so higher revenue.

The political genius of this idea is evident. Supply-side economics transformed Republicans from a minority party into a majority party. It allowed them to promise lower taxes, lower deficits and, in effect, unchanged spending. Why should people not like this combination? Who does not like a free lunch? 

Update: Read Martin Wolf’s conclusions on the debate

Something strange happened to economics about a century ago. In moving from classical to neo-classical economics — the dominant academic school today — economists expunged land — or natural resources. Neo-classical value theory — based on marginalism and subjective valuation — still makes a great deal of sense. Expunging natural resources from the way economists think about the world does not.

In classical economics, land, labour and capital were the three factors of production. With neo-classical economics, the standard production function had just two factors of production: capital and labour. Land — by which we mean the totality of natural resources — was then incorporated into capital.

All thinking about the world involves a degree of abstraction. Economics has taken this principle further than any other social science. This is a fruitful intellectual procedure. But it is also risky. The necessary process of abstraction may end up leaving essential aspects of the world out of the analysis. That can be intellectually crippling. I believe that that is exactly what has happened, in this case.