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The Keynesian Perspective on Market Forces


By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Explain the Keynesian perspective on market forces
  • Analyze the role of government policy in economic management

Ever since the birth of Keynesian economics in the 1930s, controversy has simmered over the extent to which government should play an active role in managing the economy. In the aftermath of the human devastation and misery of the Great Depression, many people—including many economists—became more aware of vulnerabilities within the market-oriented economic system. Some supporters of Keynesian economics advocated a high degree of government planning in all parts of the economy.

However, Keynes himself was careful to separate the issue of aggregate demand from the issue of how well individual markets worked. He argued that individual markets for goods and services were appropriate and useful, but that sometimes that level of aggregate demand was just too low. When 10 million people are willing and able to work, but one million of them are unemployed, he argued, individual markets may be doing a perfectly good job of allocating the efforts of the nine million workers—the problem is that insufficient aggregate demand exists to support jobs for all 10 million. Thus, he believed that, while government should ensure that overall level of aggregate demand is sufficient for an economy to reach full employment, this task did not imply that the government should attempt to set prices and wages throughout the economy, nor to take over and manage large corporations or entire industries directly.

Even if one accepts the Keynesian economic theory, a number of practical questions remain. In the real world, can government economists identify potential GDP accurately? Is a desired increase in aggregate demand better accomplished by a tax cut or by an increase in government spending? Given the inevitable delays and uncertainties as governments enact policies into law, is it reasonable to expect that the government can implement Keynesian economics? Can fixing a recession really be just as simple as pumping up aggregate demand? Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy will probe these issues. The Keynesian approach, with its focus on aggregate demand and sticky prices, has proved useful in understanding how the economy fluctuates in the short run and why recessions and cyclical unemployment occur. In The Neoclassical Perspective, we will consider some of the shortcomings of the Keynesian approach and why it is not especially well-suited for long-run macroeconomic analysis.

The Great Recession

The lessons learned during the 1930s Great Depression and the aggregate expenditure model that John Maynard Keynes proposed gave the modern economists and policymakers of today the tools to effectively navigate the treacherous economy in the latter half of the 2000s. In “How the Great Recession Was Brought to an End", Alan S. Blinder and Mark Zandi wrote that the actions taken by today’s policymakers stand in sharp contrast to those of the early years of the Great Depression. Today’s economists and policymakers were not content to let the markets recover from recession without taking proactive measures to support consumption and investment. The Federal Reserve actively lowered short-term interest rates and developed innovative ways to pump money into the economy so that credit and investment would not dry up. Both Presidents Bush and Obama and Congress implemented a variety of programs ranging from tax rebates to “Cash for Clunkers” to the Troubled Asset Relief Program to stimulate and stabilize household consumption and encourage investment. Although these policies came under harsh criticism from the public and many politicians, they lessened the impact of the economic downturn and may have saved the country from a second Great Depression.

Key Concepts and Summary

The Keynesian prescription for stabilizing the economy implies government intervention at the macroeconomic level—increasing aggregate demand when private demand falls and decreasing aggregate demand when private demand rises. This does not imply that the government should be passing laws or regulations that set prices and quantities in microeconomic markets.

Self-Check Questions

Does Keynesian economics require government to set controls on prices, wages, or interest rates?


Keynesian economics does not require microeconomic price controls of any sort. It is true that many Keynesian economic prescriptions were for the government to influence the total amount of aggregate demand in the economy, often through government spending and tax cuts.

List three practical problems with the Keynesian perspective.


The three problems center on government’s ability to estimate potential GDP, decide whether to influence aggregate demand through tax changes or changes in government spending, and the lag time that occurs as Congress and the President attempt to pass legislation.

Review Questions

How did the Keynesian perspective address the economic market failure of the Great Depression?

Critical Thinking Questions

Return to the table from the Economic Report of the President in the earlier feature titled “The Phillips Curve for the United States.” How would you expect government spending to have changed over the last six years?

Explain what types of policies the federal government may have implemented to restore aggregate demand and the potential obstacles policymakers may have encountered.


Blinder, Alan S., and Mark Zandi. “How the Great Recession Was Brought to an End.” Last modified July 27, 2010.