The most remarkable thing about this piece from 2011 is that Robert Barro does not seem to feel under any pressure at all to provide an account of why it was that real GDP per capita was 52,049 dollars in the fourth quarter of 2007 and yet only 49,318 dollars in the second quarter of 2009—and did not surpass its 2007Q4 level again until 2013Q3.

Other adherents than Barro to what Barro calls "normal economics" have put forward three theories:

  • that there was a huge sudden change in American workers' utility functions that made them much less eager to work,
  • that there was a huge sudden forgetting of a great deal of knowledge about how to manipulate nature and organize production, and
  • that there was a great and well-founded fear that Obama was about to impose taxes to turn America into a Venezuela or that Bernanke was about to follow a monetary policy that would turn the U.S. into a Zimbabwe.

They were laughed at.

So Barro prefers to have no explanation at all for why production per capita was lower than it had been in 2007Q4, and yet maintains unshaken confidence that he has a deep and correct understanding of what determines the level of production. You can't do that—hold that you have the correct theory, and yet not explain how it applies to the world in which you live: Robert Barro (2011): Keynesian Economics vs. Regular Economics: "The overall prediction from regular economics is that an expansion of transfers, such as food stamps, decreases employment and, hence, gross domestic product (GDP). In regular economics, the central ideas involve incentives as the drivers of economic activity. Additional transfers to people with earnings below designated levels motivate less work effort by reducing the reward from working. In addition, the financing of a transfer program requires more taxes—today or in the future in the case of deficit financing. These added levies likely further reduce work effort—in this instance by taxpayers expected to finance the transfer—and also lower investment because the return after taxes is diminished...

...This result does not mean that food stamps and other transfers are necessarily bad ideas in the world of regular economics. But there is an acknowledged trade-off: Greater provision of social insurance and redistribution of income reduces the overall GDP pie. Yet Keynesian economics argues that incentives and other forces in regular economics are overwhelmed, at least in recessions, by effects involving "aggregate demand." Recipients of food stamps use their transfers to consume more. Compared to this urge, the negative effects on consumption and investment by taxpayers are viewed as weaker in magnitude, particularly when the transfers are deficit-financed.... If valid, this result would be truly miraculous. The recipients of food stamps get, say, $1 billion but they are not the only ones who benefit. Another $1 billion appears that can make the rest of society better off. Unlike the trade-off in regular economics, that extra $1 billion is the ultimate free lunch. How can it be right? Where was the market failure that allowed the government to improve things just by borrowing money and giving it to people?...


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