Les faits de société à travers le prisme de l'économie…

Ce qu’on ne peut savoir des politiques keynesiennes

Voici un article très intéressant (de E. Glaeser, New York Times) pour comprendre l’incertitude qui baigne les politiques économiques aujourd’hui.

What We Don’t Know, and Perhaps Can’t

What have we learned from this recent recession?

We have been reminded that the global economy is fragile, and we know that the banking sector needs reform. But on the fundamental question of how to reduce recessions and unemployment, I’m not sure we’re any more knowledgeable than we were five years ago – and that means we’re not very knowledgeable.

Like a 19th century doctor, we are better at diagnosing the illness than delivering a reliable cure.

No one can still think that we live in an age of “great moderation,” and it is good to have learned that lesson. But while it’s helpful to learn that the world is delicate, it would be better to know how to improve things. In this case, there is the usual split between those problems that are subject to microeconomic analysis, where we have some hope of consensus, and those that require the tools of macroeconomics, where intellectual wars still rage.

Banking reform can be understood with basic microeconomic tools, and the logic of economics pushes quite clearly in the direction of reform. The government has proven that it will step in and protect banks and other financial institutions in the case of a crisis. (Note that there is no consensus that such intervention is wise, because that’s a macroeconomic issue, just about what to do given that the government will intervene.) Public intervention comes at a significant cost, and so when banks take risks, they are imposing costs on the rest of us. Microeconomics 101 says that this is anexternality and that something needs to be done to limit the risk-taking of implicitly insured institutions.

There is certainly a healthy debate about the appropriate nature of the remedy. Are higher capital requirements enough? Should banks be charged a risk tax based on their portfolios? Should the biggest banks be broken up so that they are no longer too big to fail? But all these interventions move in the same direction, and most economists agree that this is the right course for the ship of state to sail.

There is no equivalent consensus about fighting unemployment and economic downturn. For decades, the economics profession had been moving away from Keynes, but when the recession hit, no one had much of a viable alternative to Keynesian countercyclical spending. We’ve had a $787 billion recovery act — a great burst of Keynesian activity — and unemployment remains at 9.9 percent.

Does that mean that recovery spending was a waste or just that we didn’t do enough of it? Is public spending just crowding out private employment? Or is each public employee spending more on private goods, thereby creating an employment multiplier? We don’t really know.

Little clarity comes from state-level data either. The chart below shows a plot of the change in unemployment between January 2009 and March 2010 on per capita Federal Recovery Act funds received in each state.This relationship is negative and almost statistically significant at the 5 percent level, which lends a bit of support to the view that the recovery spending reduced unemployment. But that negative relationship is driven entirely by three states with very few people — Alaska and the Dakotas. If I weight by population, or eliminate those three states, or even control for state unemployment as of January 2009, there is no longer any significant relationship between spending and change in unemployment. I’m not suggesting that spending did or didn’t reduce unemployment; I am asserting that we can’t tell anything with any degree of certainty.


To add more complexity to the mix, even if we found that recovery funds did significantly reduce unemployment, that wouldn’t necessarily justify their cost. If you hire thousands of people on make-work jobs, then you are wasting their time. That cost needs to be weighed against the benefits of countering the recession.

Our knowledge of microeconomic policies comes from repetition and randomization. We have a lot of examples of rent control, and so economists can give pretty reliable advice about its impact. Plenty of smaller interventions – housing vouchers, giving students incentives to read – can be allocated with randomized trials, which produces far more reliable results. The John Bates Clark Medal, given every other year to a particularly distinguished economist under 40, was just awarded to Esther Duflo, who has been a pioneer at using this experimental approach in the developing world.

The fundamental problem with acquiring certainty about Keynesian intervention is that anti-recessionary spending is just not very amenable to clean, compelling empirical evaluation. Recessions aren’t that common, and there are too many moving parts. Times change, so it isn’t obvious that the lessons of the 1930s – not that we can agree on those, either – are applicable today.

And so we are left wading in ignorance. It is a great tragedy that the most important area of economic decision-making is also the area where we will always know the least.

Pour voir l’article sur son site original, c’est ici


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