The truth is that whatever you might say about economic policy in the 1970s, it had nothing to do with Keynesian fiscal policy — and did not involve increasing debt. People on the right tend to use “Keynesian” to mean “liberal stuff I don’t like”, but aside from that definition, the 70s tell us nothing about the issues we’re discussing right now. You can argue that monetary policy was too loose, that the Fed was too expansionary in 1972 (when Arthur Burns was trying to reelect Richard Nixon) and that it failed to tighten in the face of oil-shock-driven inflation. But again, the idea that this experience has any relevance to expansionary fiscal policy in the face of a liquidity trap is totally bogus.This chart is also nice:
But I guess I should have expected this; after all, it’s also standard to argue that the troubles of the 70s somehow proved that the welfare state is the root of all economic evil, which makes equally little sense.
The 70s were important for economics. They did kill the notion of a stable Phillips curve that doesn’t depend on expected inflation, and convinced Keynesian as well as non-Keynesian economists that there is a minimum level of unemployment that can’t be reduced with demand-side policies (although we learned that lesson too well; recent experience shows that there is a lot of nominal stickiness at low inflation rates).
Now to all this, add this passage from Buchanan's "Democracy in Deficit":
“We are all Keynesians now.” This was a familiar statement in the 1960s, attributed even to the likes of Milton Friedman among the academicians and to Richard Nixon among the politicians. Yet it takes no scientific talent to observe that ours is not an economic paradise. During the post-Keynesian, post-1960 era, we have labored under continuing and increasing budget deficits, a rapidly growing governmental sector, high unemployment, apparently permanent and perhaps increasing inflation, and accompanying disenchantment with the American sociopolitical order.
This is not as it was supposed to be. After Walter Heller’s finest hours in 1963, fiscal wisdom was to have finally triumphed over fiscal folly. The national economy was to have settled down on or near its steady growth potential, onward and upward toward better things, public and private. The spirit of optimism was indeed contagious, so much so that economic productivity and growth, the announced objectives for the post-Sputnik, post-Eisenhower years, were soon abandoned, to be replaced by the redistributionist zeal of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and by the no-growth implications of Ralph Nader, the Sierra Club, Common Cause, and Edmund Muskie’s Environmental Protection Agency. Having mastered the management of the national economy, the policy planners were to have moved on to quality-of-life issues. The “Great Society” was to become real.
What happened? Why does Camelot lie in ruin? Viet Nam and Watergate cannot explain everything forever. Intellectual error of monumental proportion has been made, and not exclusively by the ordinary politicians. Error also lies squarely with the economists.Whenever I read from Democracy in Deficit I always have the same reaction that I do reading Hayek on "scientism". I think "how could someone who was otherwise so brilliant go so terribly wrong?". It happens I suppose.
The academic scribbler of the past who must bear substantial responsibility is Lord Keynes himself, whose ideas were uncritically accepted by American establishment economists. The mounting historical evidence of the effects of these ideas cannot continue to be ignored. Keynesian economics has turned the politicians loose; it has destroyed the effective constraint on politicians’ ordinary appetites. Armed with the Keynesian message, politicians can spend and spend without the apparent necessity to tax. “Democracy in deficit” is descriptive, both of our economic plight and of the subject matter for this book."
Notice the strange conflation of everything liberal he doesn't like with Keynesianism. Notice the bizarre characterization of fiscal irresponsibility as the origin of the problems of the 1970s (this was written in 1977).
I especially like the line about Camelot in ruins and Vietnam. For international readers that may not know, "Camelot" is a reference to Kennedy. The ironic thing here is that despite the tepid semi-embrace of Keyesian ideas by Roosevelt, Kennedy is usually the president most associated with a deliberate application of Keynesian principles due to his Keynesian advisors, not Johnson - who had other priorities. But apparently the loss of Camelot to the Great Society is some kind of Keynesian problem? The other guy that applied Keynesian principles pretty decently (aside from 2009 Obama) was Bill Clinton, consolidating our fiscal position in the growth years of the 1990s.
Of course, Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama don't fit as nicely into Buchanan's narratives about Keynesians abandoning prudent fiscal policy. To get Buchanan's answer you have to fabricate what went on in the 1970s (like Holtz-Eakin), redefine Keynesianism, and somehow make the argument that politicians who were not Keynesian at all were somehow enabled to do what they did because Keynes was just so awful and killed any sense of fiscal responsibility (as if politicians need an economic theorist to give them license to behave badly, and as if it even makes sense to talk about Keynes as a potential source of such license).