Why is $13 Trillion not enough?

I read Paul Krugman’s columns on a regular basis. A frequent topic of his columns is his perceived need to pursue Keynesian solutions to our current economics problems. Keynsesian solutions propose that government should spend liberally during times of economic troubles in order keep the economy operating efficiently until such time that private segment spending and investment can “get back in the game.” Public spending should act as a governor to business cycles, spending more in times of recession, and spending less during economic booms. This article (and this one and this one) suggests that the Obama administration erred in not being more aggressive in their stimulus efforts, and that the economy will suffer without more deficit spending by the government.

It may be an extreme act of hubris to critically comment on the rhetoric of a Nobel Prize winner in Economics. However, he seems to ignores the fact that public stimulus can come in two forms, one through direct government spending (e.g. spending on infrastructure) and transfer payments (e.g. unemployment benefits), and the other through the monetary policy of the federal reserve.

There are several problems with direct governmental spending to support Keynesian goals. First, is that it takes a long-time to get bills through Congress, so by the time the money actually starts flowing, the economy has typically worked through its issues. Second, Congressional priorities are typically not the same as those priorities required to get the economy back on its feet. Thus, the money is inefficiently spent with respect to helping the economy. Third, a true Keynesian spending program would be reduced when the economy is doing well. However, Congress has yet to reduce real spending during any period since 1960 (see chart.)

Real Total Governmental Spending (constant 2000 dollars)

A much better approach to stimulate the economy is through the monetary operations of he Federal Reserve. As this previous post suggests, the Federal Reserve has made a huge bet on monetary stimulus, to the tune of $13 trillion, far in excess of that requested by Mr. Krugman. This stimulus continues today, and is not just through low interest rates (which may be leading to asset inflation in other countries through the dollar carry-trade), but also through direct purchases of mortgages from Freddie Mae and Fannie Mac (and here). This stimulus is huge. In addition to the direct Federal Reserve purchases for these bonds, the government guaranteed 98% of the residential mortgages in the third quarter, providing an “off-the-balance sheet” stimulus that is not included in any of the accounting for governmental or federal reserve actions.

Mr. Krugman obviously knows the importance of the continued easy money policy of the Federal Reserve. However, it is not clear to me why Mr. Krugman continues to write on the importance of another direct stimulus effort from the government, which would only be a small fraction of what the Federal Reserve and off-the-balance-sheet efforts have already committed to the economy. An expansion of direct spending seems to be more of a political desire for increased top-down control of the economy, than any true desire for more economic stimulus.

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