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Once More on the ‘Humbug of Finance’

Prabhat Patnaik ( is Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

While an expansionary monetary policy acts by respecting private rationality, an expansionary fiscal policy, involving larger government expenditure financed by a fiscal deficit or taxes on capitalists, implicitly highlights the limitations of private rationality. Finance capital not surprisingly opposes the latter, even though the proffered arguments for “fiscal responsibility” have no theoretical validity. Given the current world economic crisis, a spate of beggar-my-neighbour policies are on the horizon. 

The renowned economist Joan Robinson (1962) had referred to the view that the government’s budget should always be balanced, as the “humbug of finance,” namely, as a false proposition with no theoretical merit which was nonetheless promoted by finance capital. These days, of course, the insistence is not exactly on balancing the budget as was the case during the pre-second world war years. A certain amount of fiscal deficit relative to gross domestic product (GDP), usually 3%, is considered “permissible,” though it is not clear what is so sacrosanct about the figure 3 and why 3 is better than zero. But this shift from zero to 3% does not signify any change in theoretical position: it still invokes the same logic that underlay the insistence on balancing the budget. In Robinson’s words, it still constitutes “the humbug of finance,” though with a slightly, and inexplicably, different number for the percentage of fiscal deficit to the GDP.

The argument which the insistence on balancing the budget advances is that a fiscal deficit “crowds out” private investment. Now, for this to happen there must be a fixity of supply of some economic variable, so that the government taking more of it (via a fiscal deficit) leaves less for the private sector. What exactly is this variable? Pre-Keynesian theory believed that this given variable (assuming for simplicity, a closed economy) was the magnitude of “savings”: a fiscal deficit, by drawing more “savings” towards the government would leave less “savings” for the private sector, and hence reduce private investment via a rise in the interest rate. (Even if the rise in the interest rate itself contributed towards an increase in “savings” so that their magnitude was not exactly fixed, this would still mean a partial crowding out of private investment because of the rise in the interest rate.)

This argument, however, was obviously false, since “savings” depended not just on the interest rate but also upon the level of income (and on the distribution of income too, though we shall not go into the question of distribution of income here). Since a fiscal deficit in an economy that was demand-constrained—namely, had unemployed labour and unutilised capacity—raised the level of income, it also increased “savings.” In fact at any given interest rate (as Richard Kahn’s famous proposition on the multiplier showed), a fiscal deficit (in a closed economy) generated an amount of private “savings” in excess of private investment that was exactly equal to itself. Hence private investment did not get “crowded out;” additional private savings got generated. And to believe otherwise was to subscribe to Say’s Law—that there could never be a deficiency of aggregate demand—which was absurd.

The other economic variable whose fixity is invoked these days to argue the “crowding out” proposition (since none can seriously profess a belief in Say’s Law today) is money supply. A rise in the fiscal deficit raises income; but, if money supply is fixed, then the interest rate rises which “crowds out” private investment. But, even leaving aside the fact of the endogeneity of money supply—namely, the fact that in a modern economy money supply simply adjusts to the demand for it at a given interest rate—and accepting this assertion for argument’s sake, such a situation can only arise if a government that is pursuing an expansionary fiscal policy is simultaneously pursuing a tight monetary policy. This is a mistake in policy and not any inherent flaw of the fiscal deficit itself.

There is therefore no logical reason why in a situation of deficiency of aggregate demand the government should not resort to a fiscal deficit to boost demand and hence output and employment.1 To be sure, a fiscal deficit is not the best way to finance larger government expenditure for stimulating demand in such a situation. Larger government expenditure financed by a tax on profits even within a balanced budget is better than a fiscal deficit for overcoming a deficiency of aggregate demand, for one obvious reason, namely, that it keeps down wealth inequality. Since a fiscal deficit generates an amount of private savings in excess of private investment exactly equal to itself, taxing away this excess rather than leaving it in the hands of capitalists, who are primarily the savers, keeps down wealth inequality (as savings constitute addition to wealth). But increasing government expenditure financed by a fiscal deficit is better than keeping down government expenditure and balancing the budget, as the “humbug of finance” would advocate.

A new consideration however intrudes here. Even though there may be nothing wrong with a fiscal deficit, and the view that the budget must be balanced (or nearly balanced with at most a 3% fiscal deficit) is no more than the “humbug of finance,” since finance capital does not like fiscal deficits, whatever the reason, in an economy open to cross-border financial flows, running such a deficit would lead to an outflow of finance that is obviously harmful to the economy. Hence the fiscal deficit has to be controlled, even though the arguments advanced for doing so are wrong, simply in deference to the caprices of globalised finance. Let us explore the implications of this argument a little further.

Opposition to State Intervention

The basic proposition established by the Keynesian Revolution was that in a capitalist economy, where all economic agents acted “rationally” in the sense of maximising some objective function subject to certain constraints that are given, the overall outcome could be socially “irrational” in an obvious sense, namely, that it could be characterised by both unemployment and unutilised capacity. In such a case, the outcome, quite apart from the fact that it did not satisfy Pareto-optimality, would not even satisfy private “rationality.”

What Keynes suggested, therefore, was that the state should intervene in the economy in order to realise social rationality, in the sense of an avoidance of what he called a state of “involuntary unemployment.” Implicit in this suggestion was the assumption that the state itself was free to act according to its own wisdom, unconstrained by the demands or pressures from any agency acting in accordance with its private rationality. The state, in other words, could fulfil its role of being an agency for realising social rationality only if it was external to the world of private rationality and was unconstrained by, and non-imitative of, the agents belonging to this world. (The Marxist critique of Keynesianism argued that this was not possible, but let us leave this aside for the present.)

The state’s being non-imitative of private agents, which is an obvious condition for its intervening successfully to achieve social rationality (for otherwise it will simply replicate the same result that is achieved through the mere agglomeration of private decisions), implies a fundamental break from a certain analogy that is often drawn. This analogy states that just as an individual cannot go on accumulating debt, likewise, the state too cannot simply go on piling up debt; that the state too has to tighten its belt in order to ensure that it does not fall irredeemably into debt. This analogy is doubly wrong: it is wrong in the sense that the state, because it has sovereign powers of taxation, is on a different footing from individuals; and it is also wrong in the sense that if the state acted like any individual does, then it would be incapable of achieving social rationality by overcoming the deficiency of aggregate demand.

Forcing the state to bow to the caprices of globalised finance, by making it “fiscally responsible” (namely, by keeping it within a fiscal deficit ceiling), makes it constrained by private rationality, and hence prevents it from being an instrument for the achievement of social rationality. Fiscal responsibility legislation enacted by the state, to which the state adheres, amounts therefore, to robbing capitalism of any means of achieving social rationality, particularly in the sense of overcoming “involuntary unemployment.”

The question immediately arises: since overcoming “involuntary unemployment” represents a Pareto-improvement in the sense that everybody stands to gain from it—the capitalists through obtaining higher profits and the workers through obtaining higher employment (and hence incomes)—why should finance capital be opposed to state intervention by fiscal means which serves this end? This opposition incidentally is not something that arises only in the age of globalised finance, it existed even before finance capital became globalised. The globalisation of finance only means that the demands of finance necessarily get accepted by the nation state, for fear that otherwise there would be a capital flight; but the demand for “sound finance” itself is characteristic of finance capital per se. This is the reason why Keynes’ proposal in 1929, put forward by Lloyd George, the leader of the Liberal Party to which Keynes belonged, for a scheme of public works financed by a fiscal deficit to alleviate unemployment in Britain, was turned down by the British Treasury under pressure from the City of London, the seat of British finance capital. The question therefore is, why is finance capital so opposed to fiscal deficits even when there are no palpable ill-effects of such deficits, other than those that might be caused by its own opposition to them?

The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that accepting the need for intervention by an agency entrusted with upholding “social rationality” undermines the social legitimacy of the economic system presided over by finance capital. Any demonstration that the universal pursuit of private rationality, which is what capitalism entails, leads to a socially irrational outcome, subverts the power of financial interests, which is why they vehemently deny the need for such direct state intervention. They would rather have the state intervening by creating a better situation for the play of private rationality. In short, indirect instead of direct intervention, or jogging private rationality instead of acting independently of it, is what they prefer.2

Monetary policy is the pre-eminent means for such indirect intervention, apart of course from other means like guaranteed rates of return, tax concessions to the capitalists (which also enlarge the fiscal deficit but which are not frowned upon by them). Monetary policy acts through inducing the capitalists to invest more (or generally through making the affluent who constitute the “creditworthy” segment of the population to spend more). Changes in monetary policy as the means of overcoming “involuntary unemployment” do not give the impression of there being something intrinsically wrong with the system; they rather give the impression of creating the right atmosphere for its smooth functioning.

Indeed a focus on monetary policy goes much further; it even suggests that if there is “involuntary unemployment” then the reason for it lies not with the system itself but with the central bank whose monetary policy happens to be out of sync with the needs of the situation. The culpability for involuntary unemployment is thus neatly shifted from the system itself whose functioning is flawed, to the shoulders of the central bank.

The absurdity of such inverted thinking becomes particularly clear in times like the present, when in the United States (US), for instance, the long-term rate of interest has been pushed down close to zero, and yet there is no sign of a recovery from a state of substantial involuntary unemployment. In Europe, the central bank is even charging negative interest rates on loans to banks, provided these are given out as credit for certain purposes by the banks; and yet there is no sign of a recovery from the crisis that afflicts Europe. So inadequate has monetary policy become for stimulating the economy that some authors are now saying that pervasive negative interest rates even on deposits (and not just on central bank lending to banks) are the need of the hour, and, for achieving this, there must be an abolition of cash altogether, since the possibility of holding cash in lieu of bank deposits puts a floor to the interest rate at zero (Rogoff 2016).

This amounts to carrying the inversion of thought to an extreme degree: the flaws of the system are according to this argument blamed on the very existence of cash; and rather than having direct state intervention through fiscal means, including a fiscal deficit, as a way of achieving “social rationality,” what is advocated is “sound finance” combined with the very abolition of cash. The lengths to which reified thinking can be carried can be imagined from this.

What globalisation of finance has achieved, in short, is that the opposition of finance to fiscal deficits, or more generally to direct state intervention for increasing the level of activity, has become effective once again. This had been overcome, albeit temporarily, in the context of the changed correlation of class forces in the post-war period with the emergence of a militant (pre-Blairite) social democracy. The fact that finance is globalised while the state remains a nation state, ensures that the writ of finance runs; and this strips contemporary capitalism of any potential instrument for achieving even a semblance of social rationality.

There are only two possible ways that, even potentially, a semblance of social rationality can be achieved in contemporary capitalism. One is through a global state, or through a set of nation states globally coordinating their actions, providing a fiscal stimulus to the world economy by overcoming the opposition of globalised finance. The other is through individual states providing such a fiscal stimulus within their own particular economies by delinking themselves from the vortex of financial flows and thus withdrawing from the entanglements that contemporary globalisation entails. In either case, however, the opposition of globalised finance has to be overcome, and this requires a broad class alliance of working people which has to be organised in a manner appropriate to each case.

Whether such a class alliance can achieve a semblance of social rationality within the confines of capitalism itself, that is, whether capitalism will adapt itself to the new situation by making appropriate concessions, as it had done over large stretches of the capitalist world in the post-war years, or whether it will transcend capitalism in the process of introducing a semblance of social rationality, is a matter for the future. But the point is that until such an effort is made, world aggregate demand will remain constricted, and the world economic crisis will persist, apart from possible occasional “bubbles” that may cause temporary revivals, to be followed by collapses into crisis once more.

Legitimacy Crisis

Donald Trump’s economic strategy has to be understood in this context where he remains as tied to fiscal conservatism as other governments in advanced capitalist countries. Committed to increasing employment in the US, but unwilling to do so by expanding government expenditure, he is taking recourse to protectionism, which, in a situation where world aggregate demand is not increasing, amounts to a “beggar-my-neighbour” policy, that is, a policy of exporting unemployment to other countries.

True, Trump has said that he is not averse to increasing the fiscal deficit; but he is willing to do so only as a means of effecting a tax cut on the corporate sector (from 35% to 15%). This amounts to increasing the fiscal deficit for the sake of putting more purchasing power in the hands of capitalists. But putting more purchasing power in the hands of capitalists hardly increases aggregate demand: their marginal propensity to consume out of income is small, and they do not invest more, even if they have larger post-tax profits, as long as the market is not expanding. Hence, the Trump strategy really amounts not to an increase in aggregate demand in the US, but to a beggar-my-neighbour strategy imposed upon the rest of the world.

This strategy presupposes that the rest of the world would simply sit tight and tolerate an import of unemployment from the US: its success, in other words, depends upon the US action not facing any retaliation, that is, upon the US being able to impose “one-way free trade” upon the rest of the world, as Britain had done in the colonial period. But if other countries do retaliate, then competitive “beggar-my-neighbour” policies would ensue, which would increase uncertainties associated with investment, and hence aggravate the crisis.

But if the US individually or several (or all) countries on their own increased the fiscal deficit to expand government expenditure, and imposed protection only to the extent of preventing a leakage outwards of the additional demand so generated within their economies, without actually curtailing their imports in absolute terms, namely, without exporting any unemployment to other countries, then all countries would be Pareto-wise better off. No one country’s employment increase in such a case would be at the expense of some other country.

What comes in the way of such a move which would improve the employment situations in all countries without their adversely affecting one another, is the opposition of finance to fiscal deficits and to taxes on capitalists (taxes on workers would not raise aggregate demand as they already have a high propensity to consume). Unless finance capital’s hostility to fiscal deficits is overcome, which in turn requires that unless the hegemony of finance capital on the world economy is overcome, the world would remain mired in crisis.

Either way, therefore, world capitalism will be facing a legitimacy crisis in the coming days: on the one hand, if it remains committed to the “humbug of finance” then its legitimacy is threatened because of the persistence of the economic crisis, and with it of high unemployment; on the other hand, if it “permits” direct state intervention through fiscal means for overcoming the crisis, then its legitimacy is threatened because the flawed nature of the system gets exposed, thereby, opening the prospects of growing state intervention.


1 For an elaborate presentation of this argument see Patnaik (2003).

2 As Michal Kalecki (1971) had put it: “The social function of the doctrine of ‘sound finance’ is to make the level of employment dependent on the ‘state of confidence’.”


Kalecki, M (1971): “Political Aspects of Full Employment,” Selected Essays on the Dynamics of the Capitalist Economy 1933–1970, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Patnaik, P (2003): “The Humbug of Finance,” A Retreat to Unfreedom, Delhi: Tulika Books.

Robinson, J (1962): Economic Philosophy, London: C A Watts.

Rogoff, K (2016): The Curse of Cash, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Updated On : 7th Mar, 2017


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