The Passionate Politics of Paul Krugman's Apolitical Economics

Like the president, Krugman seems firmly caught in the paradox of countercyclical macroeconomic politics. The intermediate-level textbook theory says that at times like these we need a certain kind of policy to steady the economy's nerves and lubricate consumption and investment. The economics says we need confidence. But political reality says we need panic. So we try to induce panic so that we can later induce confidence. This seems an extremely awkward and implausible approach, but that doesn't keep anyone from trying it. 
The deeper problem, I think, is that the textbook theory doesn't have any politics in it. In macroeconomics textbooks, government is a benevolent central planner beyond politics. It is assumed, for simplicity's sake, that governments can act in perfect compliance with theory. It is also assumed that theory is settled before coming to a policy problem, that motivated disagreement over theory is not an essential element of democratic policymaking. But of course, there is politics, which trashes hope of either consensus on or compliance with theory. And that's how we ended up with the legislative monstrosity actually under consideration in Congress. As Harvard's Robert Barro puts it:

This is probably the worst bill that has been put forward since the 1930s. I don't know what to say. I mean it's wasting a tremendous amount of money. It has some simplistic theory that I don't think will work, so I don't think the expenditure stuff is going to have the intended effect. I don't think it will expand the economy. And the tax cutting isn't really geared toward incentives. It's not really geared to lowering tax rates; it's more along the lines of throwing money at people. On both sides I think it's garbage. So in terms of balance between the two it doesn't really matter that much.

The economists can duke it out over the possibility of successful fiscal stimulus. But is there any reason based in up-to-date economic theory to believe that this trillion dollar deficit-spending bill is not, as Barro says, garbage?
Krugman is plumping for it anyway. Hard. So what can one say about Krugman? That he is a creature of extraordinary double consciousness. Perhaps more than any economist of his caliber, Krugman understands that policy is largely determined by the outcome of the public opinion shoutfest. Yet this recognition seems to have no effect on Krugman's ideas. Rather than bring inside his models disagreement over economic theory and the lack of political incentive to faithfully apply them, which would lead him to radically revise his prescriptions, Krugman leaves his textbook theory untouched and simply tries to win the shoutfest. Krugman's often unbearable stridency seems to reflect an attempt to overcome the problems of democratic disagreement and incentive compatibility through sheer force of will–as if the deep reality of politics is no match for the rhetorical gifts and gold-plated reputation of Paul Freaking Krugman. It is as if his own imagined ability to singehandedly overwhelm the opposition is part of Krugman's implicit model of how a politics-free macoeconomic theory can be made politically relevant in a time of perceived crisis, which is to say, a time of rank political opportunism.  
One can see this attitude reflected in Krugman's advice to Obama, who he says “made a big mistake” by failing to mercilessly bully his opponents into submission: 

It’s time for Mr. Obama to go on the offensive. Above all, he must not shy away from pointing out that those who stand in the way of his plan, in the name of a discredited economic philosophy, are putting the nation’s future at risk.

As Krugman sees it, the big problem here is Obama, who lacks Krugman's intransigent will to mercilessly crush any who would dare keep cartoon Keynesianism from coming to life.

Keep in mind this is legislation that Krugman admits would do little more than “improve our odds.” 


Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

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