by Frank Schnittger
Tue Apr 30th, 2013 at 05:02:33 AM EST
Paul Krugman is arguably becoming not just the most influential economic commentator on the planet, but also one of the more influential political commentators. That's partly because it's hard to gainsay the economic credentials of a Nobel Prize winning economist, but also because he has a way of putting often complex ideas quite simply. Here he gives a handy summary of his economic philosophy for the benefit of those economic simpletons who claim he is an out of touch "high fallutin'" intelectual:
The Ignoramus Strategy - NYTimes.com
1. The economy isn't like an individual family that earns a certain amount and spends some other amount, with no relationship between the two. My spending is your income and your spending is my income. If we both slash spending, both of our incomes fall.
2. We are now in a situation in which many people have cut spending, either because they chose to or because their creditors forced them to, while relatively few people are willing to spend more. The result is depressed incomes and a depressed economy, with millions of willing workers unable to find jobs.
3. Things aren't always this way, but when they are, the government is not in competition with the private sector. Government purchases don't use resources that would otherwise be producing private goods, they put unemployed resources to work. Government borrowing doesn't crowd out private borrowing, it puts idle funds to work. As a result, now is a time when the government should be spending more, not less. If we ignore this insight and cut government spending instead, the economy will shrink and unemployment will rise. In fact, even private spending will shrink, because of falling incomes.
4. This view of our problems has made correct predictions over the past four years, while alternative views have gotten it all wrong. Budget deficits haven't led to soaring interest rates (and the Fed's "money-printing" hasn't led to inflation); austerity policies have greatly deepened economic slumps almost everywhere they have been tried.
5. Yes, the government must pay its bills in the long run. But spending cuts and/or tax increases should wait until the economy is no longer depressed, and the private sector is willing to spend enough to produce full employment.
front-paged by afew
Of those who criticise his position, he has this to say:
Monetarism Falls Short (Somewhat Wonkish)
On the left are the Modern Monetary Theory types, who assert exactly what the austerians like to claim, falsely, is the Keynesian position - that budget deficits never matter (except for their direct effect on aggregate demand). On the right are the market monetarists like Scott Sumner and David Beckworth, who insist that the Fed could solve the slump if it wanted to, and that fiscal policy is irrelevant.
Now, there won't and can't be any current-events test of MMT until we get out of the slump, because standard IS-LM and MMT are indistinguishable when you're in a liquidity trap. But as Mike Konczal points out, we are in effect getting a test of the market monetarist view right now, with the Fed having adopted more expansionary policies even as fiscal policy tightens.
And the results aren't looking good for the monetarists: despite the Fed's fairly dramatic changes in both policy and policy announcements, austerity seems to be taking its toll. I would add that the UK experience provides a similar lesson. Mervyn King advocated fiscal consolidation - I'd say that he shares equal responsibility with Cameron/Osborne for Britain's wrong turn -- but more or less promised (pdf) that he would and could offset any adverse effects on growth with monetary policy. He didn't and couldn't.
I'm not claiming that there is nothing the central bank can do; but as I've tried to explain before, monetary policy can, for the most part, gain traction under current circumstances only by changing expectations about future actions (and changing them a lot). Meanwhile, fiscal policy has a direct, current effect on the economy, which easily trumps attempts to move the economy by changing the Fed's messaging.
Somewhat unusually for an academically respectable economist, Krugman is also not afraid to get down and dirty in the rough and tumble of economic debate. Here he is having a go at our very own Economics Commissioner, Olli Rehn:
Of Cockroaches and Commissioners - NYTimes.com
Kevin O'Rourke points me to the FT's Brussels blog, which passes on the news that various officials at the European Commission are issuing outraged tweets against yours truly. You see, I've been mean to Olli Rehn.
And the EC response perfectly illustrates why I do what I do.
What you would never grasp from those outraged tweets is that all my criticisms have been substantive. I never asserted that Mr. Rehn's mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries; I pointed out that he has been promising good results from austerity for years, without changing his rhetoric a bit despite ever-rising unemployment, and that his response to studies suggesting larger adverse effects from austerity than he and his colleagues had allowed for was to complain that such studies undermine confidence.
It's telling that what the Brussels blog calls a "particularly nasty attack" was in fact a summary of Paul DeGrauwe's work indicating that European austerity has been deeply wrong-headed, in the course of which I quoted Mr. Rehn asserting, once again, that old-time austerian faith.
Now, it's true that I use picturesque language -- but I do that for a reason. "Words ought to be a little wild", said John Maynard Keynes, "for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking." Exactly.
Kevin O'Rourke refers to the "cocooned elites in Brussels", which gets to the heart of the matter. The dignity of office can be a terrible thing for intellectual clarity: you can spend years standing behind a lectern or sitting around a conference table drinking bottled water, delivering the same sententious remarks again and again, and never have anyone point out how utterly wrong you have been at every stage of the game. Those of us on the outside need to do whatever we can to break through that cocoon -- and ridicule is surely one useful technique.
There's an especially telling tweet in there about how "unimpressive" I was when visiting the Commission in 2009. No doubt; I'm not an imposing guy. (I've had the experience of being overlooked by the people who were supposed to meet me at the airport, and eventually being told, "We expected you to be taller"). And for the life of me I can't remember a thing about the Commission visit. Still, you can see what these people consider important: never mind whether you have actually proved right or wrong about the impacts of economic policy, what matters is whether you come across as impressive.
And let's be clear: this stuff matters. The European economy is in disastrous shape; so, increasingly, is the European political project. You might think that eurocrats would worry mainly about that reality; instead, they're focused on defending their dignity from sharp-tongued economists.
Of course calling our Economics Commissioner a cockroach might be deemed to be unkind - to cockroaches - but what has characterized official political responses to the economic crisis has been to deny all the hard evidence of what is actually happening to real people in the real economy, and then to blame economists who point this out for being mean to them - and chasing away the confidence fairy that was supposed to come to everyone's aid. It is not surprising that the "Very Serious People" that Krugman constantly lambasts should find him "deeply unimpressive" because the only people who seem to impress them are people like Reinhart and Rogoff who tell them what they want to hear.
Very Sensitive People
When it comes to inflicting pain on the citizens of debtor nations, austerians are all steely determination - hey, it's a tough world, and hard choices have to be made. But when they or their friends come under criticism, suddenly it's all empathy and hurt feelings.
We saw that in the case of Olli Rehn, whose friends at the European Commission were outraged, outraged when I pointed out, using slightly colorful language, that he was repeating an often-debunked claim about economic history. And today we see it in Anders Aslund's defense of Reinhart and Rogoff against what he calls a "vicious" critique by Herndon et al.
Aslund praises R-R for providing
an important corrective to the view that fiscal stimulus is always right - a position that is common across the Anglo-American economic commentariat, led by Paul Krugman in the New York Times.
This is a curious thing for him to say, because it's an outright lie; as anyone who has been reading me, Martin Wolf, Brad DeLong, Simon Wren-Lewis, etc. knows, our case has always been that fiscal stimulus is justified only when you're up against the zero lower bound on interest rates. I can't believe that Aslund doesn't know this; why, then, would he discredit himself by repeating an easily refuted falsehood?
But then, why would he describe Herndon et al as "vicious"? Their paper was a calm, reasoned analysis of how R-R came up with the famous 90 percent threshold; it came as a body blow only because of the contrast between the acclaim R-R received and the indefensible nature of their analysis.
What I think is happening is that austerians have put themselves in a box. They threw themselves - and their personal reputations - completely behind the various elements of anti-Keynesian doctrine: expansionary austerity, critical debt thresholds, and so on. And as Wolfgang Munchau says, the terrible thing was that their policy ideas were actually implemented, with disastrous results; on top of which their intellectual heroes have turned out to have feet of clay, or maybe Silly Putty.
As I see it, the sheer enormity of their error makes it impossible for them to respond to criticism in any reasonable way. They have to lash out any way they can, whether it's ad hominem attacks on the critics or bitter complaints about bad manners.
And by such pettiness the world is governed.
Krugman has been pointing out that the emperor has no clothes for quite some time now, but what is also striking is how little influence he and others like him have had on actual policy formulation as opposed to academic debate. Criticizing Obama for proposing a stimulus that was too small in 2009 when all has been retrenchment since puts you on the very fringes of mainstream political debate in the USA and popular commentators have often delighted in portraying him as one of a very small band of malcontents who don't realize what everyone knows: that public borrowing and the national debt is the big problem that has to be fixed, and that it has to be fixed by cutting "entitlements" for the poor rather than raising taxes on the rich. Krugman is aware of his influence deficit and has tried to explain it thus:
The 1 Percent's Solution - NYTimes.com
Part of the answer surely lies in the widespread desire to see economics as a morality play, to make it a tale of excess and its consequences. We lived beyond our means, the story goes, and now we're paying the inevitable price. Economists can explain ad nauseam that this is wrong, that the reason we have mass unemployment isn't that we spent too much in the past but that we're spending too little now, and that this problem can and should be solved. No matter; many people have a visceral sense that we sinned and must seek redemption through suffering -- and neither economic argument nor the observation that the people now suffering aren't at all the same people who sinned during the bubble years makes much of a dent.
But it's not just a matter of emotion versus logic. You can't understand the influence of austerity doctrine without talking about class and inequality.
What, after all, do people want from economic policy? The answer, it turns out, is that it depends on which people you ask -- a point documented in a recent research paper by the political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright. The paper compares the policy preferences of ordinary Americans with those of the very wealthy, and the results are eye-opening.
Thus, the average American is somewhat worried about budget deficits, which is no surprise given the constant barrage of deficit scare stories in the news media, but the wealthy, by a large majority, regard deficits as the most important problem we face. And how should the budget deficit be brought down? The wealthy favor cutting federal spending on health care and Social Security -- that is, "entitlements" -- while the public at large actually wants to see spending on those programs rise.
You get the idea: The austerity agenda looks a lot like a simple expression of upper-class preferences, wrapped in a facade of academic rigor. What the top 1 percent wants becomes what economic science says we must do.
Does a continuing depression actually serve the interests of the wealthy? That's doubtful, since a booming economy is generally good for almost everyone. What is true, however, is that the years since we turned to austerity have been dismal for workers but not at all bad for the wealthy, who have benefited from surging profits and stock prices even as long-term unemployment festers. The 1 percent may not actually want a weak economy, but they're doing well enough to indulge their prejudices.
And this makes one wonder how much difference the intellectual collapse of the austerian position will actually make. To the extent that we have policy of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent, won't we just see new justifications for the same old policies?
I hope not; I'd like to believe that ideas and evidence matter, at least a bit. Otherwise, what am I doing with my life? But I guess we'll see just how much cynicism is justified.
Indeed. What are we all doing with our lives when only what the 1% want seems to matter. The longer story of the liberal economic globalization of the third millennium to date has been the degree to which all our democracies have been undermined - to be replaced by the rule of money thinly disguised as economic efficiency and free market choice. We may criticize Krugman for his relative lack of impact on actual economic policy in the US, but how have our critiques of Olli Rehn et al been doing here in Europe?