Beating dead horse?
from Peter Radford
I am not sure I understand the point of Alexander Kaufman’s column in the Huffington Post. In it he takes Paul Krugman to task for being repetitive and talking about just there things: austerity is bad, inflation fears are overblown, and Keynes was right.
Whether or not we have disagreements with Krugman – and I know many of you do – those disagreements pale in comparison with those we all have with the arguments of the people Krugman is targeting in his columns. Yes Krugman can be annoying with his emphasis on his version of the Hicks version of Keynes. But if it serves to get a vital message across to a public largely unaware of the internecine struggles within economics, so what? I don’t care. Nor should you.
And if he sounds repetitive, then we should ponder the reason: far too many policy makers are still stubbornly clinging to disproven theories. Yes, disproven. So are far too many academics.
Policy makers, I think, may be less culpable because they are trapped within the political whirl that constrains rapid movement. That is, by the way, as far as I would go. Professional ethics have to come into play sometime. In a profession unique for its disavowal for the adoption of any formal ethical standards – the market will sort out the unethical? – we have to rely on the personal standards of the people involved in policy making. We thus remove from the public’s arsenal one very important weapon in ensuring that the economics profession serves it well.
And we are left with a more public version of the academic bun fight that characterizes economics more generally.
Economics doesn’t exist in any coherent form. It is simply a long established and ongoing discussion about various ideas many of which have been kicking around for centuries. Indeed many of the profession’s core ideas were established long before our contemporary economy emerged, and sometimes they have to be bashed into shape to remain relevant.
Given the enormous egos involved it is thus hardly surprising that economists whose ideas have suffered defeat in the real world don’t abandon them, but simply crank up the volume and shout loudly about those ideas they don’t like.
Worse, since economics supports many and often diametrically opposed narratives, and since we appear to be stuck in a long war of deep ideological significance, it cannot shock anyone that the many sides of economics are played and replayed many times. These the repetition that Krugman is accused of.
I have often used World War I trench warfare metaphorically when talking about economics. The entire enterprise seems stuck in trenches lobbing diatribe back and forth determinedly with no side going much ground if any at all.
But perhaps a better version would be that economic ideas are part of the ammunition being flung across the field from trench to trench. Economics is just one aspect of the great ideological battle. And economists are driven, not by a sense of science, but by their own ideological perspectives.
Thus the quaint libertarian refrain: “markets good, governments bad”. Or the willingness of the Marxists to see the world in terms of a teleological historical narrative despite the modern emergence of democracy and the apparent error at the center of their vision.
Pragmatists will always be squeezed from either side by their more zealous peers. They don’t, after all, subscribe as deeply to the various utopias that so motivate the zealots, and they can be called craven for daring to change their minds periodically. I put Krugman in this more pragmatic category. He seems quite comfortable with slipping from idea to idea depending on the circumstances. That’s his strength. Quite a few people don’t like it because it smacks of a lack of ideal or principle. But flexibility is a principle. One that I quite like.
So when someone like Krugman gets stuck in a rut and appears to be repetitive in his commentary, I think it quite likely that it is because the context for his thinking remains similarly stuck.
And so it is.
Even after all these years since the great crisis, and even after the evident failure of so much policy, we are still mired in the same debate.
It is juvenile to think that we need to stop saying the same things just because the public might get tired of listening. What else are we supposed to do?
When we are stuck in the trenches we have to keep slogging away. Because to stop is be defeated. Yes I would prefer more movement and progress. But given the stubborn and committed nature of our opponents all we can do is match their stubbornness with ours.
And so it goes.
Austerity is still wrong. Inflation fears are still overblown. And Keynes is still right.
So why not keep repeating that?