After the Obama stimulus seemed to fail, a Washington Post headline gibed: John Maynard Keynes, the GOP’s Latest Whipping Boy. On the left, of course, he’s still our guy, even if, like some “Keynesians,” we have never read a word of Keynes. Some pundits say that in the 2012 presidential election, the real candidates will be Keynes and Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist who raged against all forms of state planning (though Hayek liked national health insurance). If that’s the real presidential election, wouldn’t it behoove some of us true believers to ask, in this moment of double-dip despair, “My God, what would Keynes do?”
If we consult his writing, the scripture left by Keynes himself, we might be surprised to find that it would be a lot more than “prime the pump”—i.e., just run up the federal debt. For Keynes, the problem would be not just getting people into stores, or even getting employers to hire but getting our plutocracy to invest. It’s not just our jobless rate but our huge trade deficit that would appall him. He’d be aghast to see the United States bogged down in so much debt to the rest of the world.
I know: that’s not what people think. “Wait, wasn’t Keynes the one trying to get us into debt?” Yes, but not that kind of debt—in fact, as his biographer writes, Keynes personally hated debt. Especially in a recession, he hated to see a country with a trade debt, or trade deficit, which arises when a country’s imports exceed exports. Indeed, when the trade deficit is as jaw-dropping as the US trade deficit is now, it is harder to use Keynesian deficit spending to push employment back up. Keynes, unlike some of his disciples today, was quick to see this problem.
In 1936, when Keynes wrote his classic—The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money—he was emphatic on this point: no country, ever, should run up any kind of trade deficit, much less the trade deficit on steroids we are running. Of course, in 1936 and for years after, the United States was the biggest creditor country in the history of the world. So Keynes never worried about our being a debtor country—rather, he spent much of his last days begging the United States to get other countries out of debt. If he came back and saw the colossal external debt we run now, he would be pushing for a serious plan to bring it down just as hard as he’d be pushing a stimulus for full employment.
I admit, Nation readers, that standing in line at Whole Foods, I occasionally pick up The Economist, if only to go to the back page and see the merchandise trade deficit the United States and other countries have been running in the past twelve months. It’s scary: $680.9 billion as of July 9. That puts us near $0.7 trillion in the red. But in the chart, much of the world is in the black. OK, the two US wannabes, Britain and Spain, have trade deficit disasters. And some have too much. “Low-wage” China has a surplus of $172.5 billion. “High-wage” Germany beats out China, with a surplus of $188.4 billion. But when I run my finger up this chart to the US deficit, it’s a shock. It’s as if I’m pressing on the sucking chest wound in the world economy.