(This article first appeared in Liberal Democrat Voice)
Firstly, we do need to ask if Keynes did suggest that. There are arguments either way on this point. Keynes’ view unfolded and developed starting in the bleak 1920’s in Britain. There was no “roaring twenties” for the UK economy as the government deflated the economy to try to fit the Pound back on to its pre war Gold Standard. Keynes then did argue that governments should run deficits if private spending declined and reduce those deficits when future growth was strong enough. This has been interpreted by many that his intent was that the budget was to be more or less balanced over the business cycle. If anyone is keen to research into his thinking they might like to start with his 1924 publication “A Tract on Monetary Reform”.
A better approach might be to try to understand why Keynes should made a break from tradition and start to advocate that budgets should at times be unbalanced. If we consider an economy which is neither a net exporter nor a net importer and in which everyone spends what they earn within the economy, Government spending and taxation must balance. This is true regardless of the level of taxation imposed (providing it is finite) and so regardless of the level of inflation within the economy. It has to, according to the principle of sectoral balances
originally developed in the 60’s and 70’s by the late Prof Wynne Godley at Cambridge University.
If the participants of the economy don’t spend all they earn, ie when private spending declines, we can have a tendency to recession. Keynesian economists would point out that prices and wages tend to be “sticky” and so don’t respond quickly to changing circumstances as more classically minded economists suggest they should. Therefore, Keynes was quite right to suggest that the Government should spend more, or tax less, to prevent recession from occurring. The government needs to borrow money from the savers and spend it on their behalf. Later, when the savers withdraw their money from the bank, or empty their piggy banks, and spend it, the Government needs to run a surplus in its budget to prevent the economy from overheating and inflation occurring. So the budget does indeed end up balanced over the cycle. It ends up being an approximately symmetrical pattern when expressed graphically.
This relatively simple model may have been adequate for the UK economy in the 1920s. However in recent times the extent of saving and desaving hasn’t been symmetrical over the business cycle. When times are good people may borrow and spend more but equally they may put more aside for their retirement. So if the spending/saving/borrowing pattern of the population isn’t symmetric over the business cycle, neither can we expect the government to run a balanced budget over the business cycle. Instead of imports and exports balancing, our economy has something like an annual 5% of GDP deficit in its current account. Our trading partners seem happy to supply more real things to us than we supply to them. They take our IOUs in the form of treasury bonds or gilts to make up the difference. In effect they are like a big net saver within the economy. As Keynes pointed out, if people are saving more, and that includes our trading partners, the Government has to be spending more or taxing less.
The ‘balanced budget over the cycle’ is really just a special case which does not apply to our own 21st century economy. If we try to force the Government budget into balance, at the same time ignoring the trading position and the willingness or otherwise of the economy’s participants to net save then we are courting economic disaster. The budget will not balance, no matter how hard we try, and we will end up like a dog chasing its own tail as the economy spirals ever deeper into recession.