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7.2 A Keynesian Resurgence

Lucas’s obituary of Keynesian economics can now be seen to have been

premature because Robert Barro’s ‘bad guys’ have made a comeback (Barro,

1989a). By the mid-1980s Howitt (1986) was commenting on ‘The Keynesian

Recovery’, and Blinder was discussing ‘Keynes After Lucas’ (1986) and ‘The

Fall and Rise of Keynesian Economics’ (1988b). By the early 1990s Blinder

had announced that ‘A Keynesian Restoration is Here’ (1992b), Mankiw

(1992) proclaimed that Keynesian economics had been ‘reincarnated’ and

Thirlwall (1993) enthusiastically discussed the ‘Keynesian Renaissance’. While

in the late 1980s the Keynesian promised land was not yet in sight, Blinder

(1988a) believed that ‘we may at long last be emerging from the arid desert

and looking over the Jordan’.

In answering his own (1977) question about the ‘death’ of Keynesian

economics, Tobin (1987) later provided an unequivocal answer in his essay,

‘The Future of Keynesian Economics’:

One reason Keynesian economics has a future is that rival theories of economic

fluctuations do not … I hazard the prediction that neither of the two species of

business cycle theory offered by new classical macroeconomics will be regarded

as serious and credible explanations of economic fluctuations a few years from

now. Whatever cycle theory emerges in a new synthesis will have important

Keynesian elements … Yes, Keynesian economics has a future because it is

essential to the explanation and understanding of a host of observations and

experiences past and present, that alternative macroeconomic approaches do not

illuminate.

Tobin (1996) was particularly critical of the ‘elegant fantasies’ of the ‘Robinson

Crusoe macroeconomics’ of real business cycle theory because it ignores the

coordination question in macroeconomics (see Chapter 6). To economists

such as Akerlof, Stiglitz, Tobin and Leijonhufvud, an essential task for macroeconomic

theory is to explain in what circumstances the invisible hand

does, and does not, efficiently coordinate the economic behaviour of numerous

diverse agents. Leijonhufvud (1992) has succinctly summed up this

issue:

The co-ordination question, simply stated, is this: Will the market system ‘automatically’

co-ordinate economic activities? Always? Never? Sometimes very well,

but sometimes pretty badly? If the latter, under what conditions, and with what

institutional structures, will it do well or do badly? I regard these questions as the

central and basic ones in macroeconomics.

Certainly the persistence of high unemployment in Europe during the 1980s

and 1990s also called into question the plausibility of equilibrium explanations

of the business cycle while also providing increasing ‘credibility to

Keynesian theory and policy’ (Tobin, 1989; Arestis and Sawyer, 1998).

We have seen in Chapter 5 and 6 how new classical macroeconomists

resolved the tension between neoclassical microeconomics and Keynesian

macroeconomics by abandoning the latter. An alternative approach to this

problem has been put forward by those economists who feel that the neoclassical

synthesis contained some fundamental truths and that, suitably modified,

Keynesian economics could once again dominate macroeconomics. The central

analytical message of the orthodox Keynesian school comprised the

following main propositions (Greenwald and Stiglitz, 1987, 1993a; Tobin,

1996; Lindbeck, 1998):

1. an unregulated market economy will experience ‘prolonged’ periods of

excess supply of output and labour in contradiction to ‘Say’s Law’ of

markets; that is, in Keynes’s terminology, market economies will exhibit

‘unemployment equilibrium’;

2. aggregate macroeconomic instability (business cycles) are mainly caused

by aggregate demand disturbances;

3. ‘money matters’ most of the time, although in very deep recessions

monetary policy may be ineffective (Blanchard, 1990a; Krugman, 1998);

4. government intervention in the form of stabilization policy has the potential

to improve macroeconomic stability and economic welfare.

While ‘new’ Keynesian economists would agree with these ‘old’ Keynesian

propositions, we shall see that the new Keynesian models are very different

in many aspects from their distant (1960s) cousins. While new Keynesians

disagree with the new classical explanations of instability, they do share two

new classical methodological premises. First, macroeconomic theories require

solid microeconomic foundations. Second, macroeconomic models are

best constructed within a general equilibrium framework. However, as

Greenwald and Stiglitz (1993a) point out, real business cycle theorists adopt

microfoundations that describe a world of perfect information, perfect competition,

zero transactions costs, and the existence of a complete set of markets.

Problems associated with asymmetric information, heterogeneous agents and

imperfect and incomplete markets are assumed away. The essence of the new

Keynesian approach is to recognize the importance of a whole variety of realworld

imperfections (Stiglitz, 2000; 2002). By rebuilding the microfoundations

of Keynesian economics utilizing the findings of modern microeconomic

theory, new Keynesian theorists have established a research programme aimed

at rectifying the theoretical flaws which permeated the supply side of the

‘old’ Keynesian model (see Snowdon and Vane, 1995). Because the typical

market economy is riddled with numerous imperfections, aggregate supply

does respond to changes in aggregate demand.

For a detailed and critical discussion of the new Keynesian literature, we

refer the reader to McCallum (1986); Greenwald and Stiglitz (1987, 1993a);

Rotemberg (1987); Fischer (1988); Barro (1989a); Blanchard (1990a); Gordon

 (1990); Phelps (1990); Colander et al. (1992); Hargreaves-Heap (1992, 2002);

Stiglitz (1992); King (1993); D. Romer (1993); Tobin (1993); Davidson

(1994); Dixon (1997); Snowdon and Vane (1997a); Lindbeck (1998). Most of

the important papers are collected in the twin volumes edited by Mankiw and

Romer (1991), who also provide an excellent tour of the early literature in

their introductory survey.