Brad DeLong uses a typically heady mix of brash partisanship, rough-and-ready characterizations, and schoolyard cheerleading in his latest attempt to discredit one who opposes his Keynesian ideals.
“Paul Krugman: 6-0, 6-0, 6-0”, he declares in his self-congratulatory conclusion (Krugman being the topic of Kinsley’s article).
Let’s take a look at DeLong’s points in detail, try to separate the reason from the ridicule, and see what holds up to rational analysis.
DeLong lists seven “howlers” from Michael Kinsley. The first two are immaterial – one pointing out that Krugman didn’t coin the term “Austerian”, and another about a typographical error which, at time of writing, no longer exists. DeLong himself admits that these are of no substance: “On to substance, rather than fact-checking and proofreading”.
As it turns out “Howlers” 3 and 4 are also of little substance and hinge on whether Kinsley himself knows exactly what “Austerian” policies are. It would seem to matter little whether he does or not. And since noone calls themselves “Austerian”, a term used simply as a name-calling device by proponents of government stimulus, any claim that “Austerian” policies are clearly delineated is undeniably open to question.
In propounding his own beliefs on what “Austerian” means, DeLong manages to include a point which few of his opponents would subscribe to: “even though interest rates–and thus the costs of carrying debt–are extraordinarily low as far into the future as the eye can see.”, is a claim no-one without a fully functional crystal ball can make.
DeLong may be on to something with “Howler 5” – Kinsley’s claim that “the lessons of Paul Volcker” are that “the Great Stagflation of the late 1970s” was caused by fiscal “Stimulus” which “is strong medicine–an addictive drug–and you don’t give the patient more than you absolutely have to.” If we take the government debt to GDP ratio as an indicator of stimulus, DeLong is right – there was none of any significance until after 1982. However, we need to be careful here. Rising debt to GDP may be an indication of inefficient investment by government over previous years or even decades. Economics is an extraordinarily complex art, it is dangerous to be dismissive when working from aggregates and assuming contemporary causes. Mere dismissal of one’s opponents risks polarizing the debate and prevents antagonists from seeking common ground.
When compiling lists with the purpose of discrediting a viewpoint, it is tempting to make the list as long as possible. The more “howlers”, the more you must be right, and they must be wrong, yes? Not really – it’s usually best to stick with just your strong points. Weaker points just dilute your argument. DeLong makes this mistake with “Howler 6”, which compounds the weakness of “Howlers” 1 thru 4. He quotes Kinsley: “I’m not sure how relevant the experiences of Greece and Iceland, as described in this paper, are to the United States”, and implies that this lack of certainty disqualifies Kinsley from writing on the topic. In fact, Kinsley is using vernacular to indicate that he thinks the experiences of Greece and Ireland are not highly relevant to the Unites States. This is clear from the ensuing paragraph, which DeLong does not quote.
And so we come to the crux of Kinsley’s article, which DeLong writes off as “Howler 7”. This is Kinsley’s contention that those who oppose further stimulus do not do so for moral reasons alone. I think DeLong’s position here is irrational, and another stretch. This is a point that is clearly open for debate, and cannot in any way be classed as a “howler”. Even if you agree with DeLong and Krugman that those who oppose further stimulus do so on moral grounds alone, I hope that you can see that the case is far from clear-cut.
In passing I note here also that DeLong applies a standard to Kinsley that he does not apply to himself: “But he doesn’t quote or link to any of them.”. DeLong himself fails to quote or link to any of the “Austerians advocating “Austerian” policies: that even the most credit-worthy sovereigns need to shift policy,starting right now, to…” earlier in the article.
DeLong finishes on some fairly high moral ground of his own when he declares: “If writing that the “great, deluded middle class–subsidized by the government and coddled by politicians” needs to experience a decade-long siege of high unemployment isn’t “get[ting] off on other people’s suffering”, I don’t know what “getting off on other people’s suffering” could possibly mean.”. DeLong here is implying that anyone who advocates short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain “gets off on suffering”. Surely long-term gain offers less total suffering than short-term gain followed by long-term pain? I’m sure DeLong would be highly offended though, if anyone accused him of “getting off on suffering”.
The article as a whole is a stretch, and adds little of substance to the debate. Most of the points made are not of great relevance and are more akin to cheap point-scoring. Delong picks up one potential error on Kinsley’s part – it would have been good to see this elaborated upon, with perhaps some balanced commentary on whether we should consider the 1970s to be a period of stimulus or not. DeLong’s argument against Kinsley’s main thesis is quite weak. If there is one thing that nearly all economists would agree on, it’s that people respond to incentives. Many of DeLong’s opponents would argue that we are in the mess we are in because of warped incentives. I look forward to an article in which DeLong at least accepts the possibility that the mess cannot be resolved without unwarping the incentives.