Published on Wednesday, August 10, 2011 by The New York Times
To be an economist of my stripe these days — basically a Keynes-via-Hicks type, who concluded as soon as Lehman fell that we were in a classic liquidity trap with all that implied — is a bittersweet experience, with the bitter vastly greater than the sweet.
Economists and public commentators Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and Joseph Stiglitz have all railed against the failed economic policies pursued by the White House and Congress. They are not alone in their critiques, but their voices certainly feel lonely as the dominant political culture continues to avert its eyes from their prescriptions.
The good news, such as it is, is that our underlying model has performed very well. Interest rates have stayed low despite large government borrowing; crowding out has been totally absent; huge increases in the monetary base have not been highly inflationary.
The bad news is that policy makers almost everywhere have failed dismally, and seem determined not to take on board the lessons of experience, either historical or what we’ve learned the past few years. As Joe Stiglitz says,
'When the recession began there were many wise words about having learnt the lessons of both the Great Depression and Japan’s long malaise. Now we know we didn’t learn a thing. Our stimulus was too weak, too short and not well designed. The banks weren’t forced to return to lending. Our leaders tried papering over the economy’s weaknesses – perhaps out of fear that if we were honest about them, already fragile confidence would erode. But that was a gamble we have now lost. Now the scale of the problem is apparent, a new confidence has emerged: confidence that matters will get worse, whatever action we take. A long malaise now seems like the optimistic scenario."
Robert Reich, talking to people in the administration, says that there has been a deliberate decision to focus on the wrong issues, knowing that they’re the wrong issues:
"So rather than fight for a bold jobs plan, the White House has apparently decided it’s politically wiser to continue fighting about the deficit. The idea is to keep the public focused on the deficit drama – to convince them their current economic woes have something to do with it, decry Washington’s paralysis over fixing it, and then claim victory over whatever outcome emerges from the process recently negotiated to fix it. They hope all this will distract the public’s attention from the President’s failure to do anything about continuing high unemployment and economic anemia."
And in Europe, says Kantoos Economics, a low inflation target has become a sacred icon even though all evidence – including the experience under the gold standard! — says that this will be fatal:
'I sincerely do hope that I read the wrong newspapers and missed all those European economists and commentators screaming all these things (or even better: that I am wrong). But whenever I try to hear something, there is just silence – or Axel Weber lashing out at Olivier Blanchard. Meanwhile, European policy makers and central bankers are wrecking one of the most fascinating projects in human history, the unity and friendship among the countries of Europe. This is beyond depressing. Way beyond."
I’m still trying to make sense of this global intellectual failure. But the results are not in question: we are making a total mess of a solvable problem, with consequences that will haunt us for decades to come.
© 2011 The New York Times