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Keynes and Keynesianism

Was Keynes naive in assuming that economic policy should be, and would be,

carried out in the public interest?

If we can characterize Keynes’s view as such, I would say yes, although I

think that your question oversimplifies his view.

In Roy Harrod’s 1951 biography of Keynes he argued that Keynes tended to

think of important decisions being taken by ‘intelligent people’ and gave little

consideration to the political constraints placed on this vision by ‘interfering

democracy’.

If one reads beyond the General Theory, for instance the pamphlet How To

Pay For The War, I think that one can see that Keynes was aware of the

subtleties of policy making. I agree that in his main scientific work he did not

consider the effects of political distortions on policy making. You can’t expect

everything from the same economist. He did quite a lot as it is!

Do you think that Keynesian economics, with its emphasis on discretionary

fiscal policy, has fundamentally weakened the fiscal constitutions of Western

industrial democracies?

No. In my opinion this point has been overemphasized. Italy, for instance, has

accumulated a very large debt for several reasons. The adoption of Keynesian

policies is not one of them.

Have Italy’s fiscal problems stemmed from its political system?

Yes, from its fragmented political system, over-powerful unions, lack of a

strong party committed to fiscal discipline and an overextended and entrenched

bureaucracy.

Why are some countries more prone to budget deficits than others? Why is

deficit reduction such an intractable problem?

In my paper with Roberto Perotti [1995a] we conclude that it is difficult to

explain these large cross-country differences using economic arguments alone.

Politico-institutional factors are crucial to understanding budget deficits in

particular, and fiscal policy in general. While the economies of the OECD

countries are relatively similar, their institutions, such as electoral laws, party

structure, budget laws, central banks, degree of centralization, political stability

and social polarization, are quite different. In a companion paper examining

fiscal adjustments in OECD countries [Alesina and Perotti, 1995b] we find

that coalition governments are almost always unsuccessful in their adjustment

attempts, being unable to maintain a tough fiscal stance because of

conflicts among coalition members. We also find that a successful fiscal

adjustment is best started during a period of relatively high growth, does not

raise taxes, but rather cuts transfer programme and government wages and

employment. Politicians and their advisers must stop thinking of just about

everything on the expenditure side of the government budget as untouchable.

What do you regard as being the most important contribution made by Keynes

to our understanding of macroeconomic phenomena?

The idea that aggregate demand policy matters because of lack of complete

price flexibility.