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.



  1. What is this?! Is Michael Kinsley a relative or something? I doubt his wife spends this much time defending him!

    I read this article when DeLong posted it. I thought he was pushing it. DeLong was trying to be cute. I hate when he does that. But his major attacks on Kinsley are valid. DeLong is not a very good writer. But he is a great thinker. And one can learn a lot from him.

    But if you insist, Daniel W. Drezner wrote what I think is the best Kinsley attack:

    The worst piece of conventional wisdom you will read this year

    I eagerly await your article.

    1. Brad didn’t post a link (as far as I know) – I linked to it in a comment.

      Drezner’s article suffers from the same problem as Krugman’s. He misinterprets this statement:

      “I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be”

      This can be read as meaning bad policies have bad outcomes. The bad policies are in the past but the bad outcomes of them are in our future. It’s not that we have a choice, and one choice is bad outcomes, the other good outcomes. The choice is between bad outcomes and worse outcomes. The longer we take to correct the mistakes, the worse the outcomes will be.

      This, I think, is what Kinsley means (if I was related to him I could verify). And it’s a valid point.

      Krugman and Drezner jump on it as if Kinsley is some kind of cruel moral crusader who wants to inflict pain on sinners. On the contrary, by advocating short term pain for long term gain, he is advocating a strategy that minimizes total pain. The long term has many more people and years in it than the short term. Those who want to kick the can down the road to avoid pain now, merely magnify the pain later. People x years x pain is much higher if we mess up the long term.

  2. > 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.

    This is a Howler on its own. DeLong names names. Here are the policies supported by Alesina-Ardagna, Reinhart-Rogoff, Ryan. They are well defined. They are the quite different from the policies supported by Krugman. Kinsley hasn’t a clue what the debate is all about or why it matters.

    1. Can you provide links to works in which these people call themselves “Austerians”?

      1. What the austerians call themselves is not relevent. They have a well defined set of policies that involve cutting government spending based on spurious claims that we are headed for doom if we don’t. You stated that “any claim that “Austerian” policies are clearly delineated is undeniably open to question.” That statement is pure BS since the policies of this bunch are indeed very clearly deliniated.

        1. It seems you define “Austerian” as anyone who advocates cutting government spending, is that correct?

          If so, do you mean those who advocate cutting the rate of growth of government spending, or only those who advocate a decline in government spending?

          By spending do you mean just total spending, or the deficit: i.e. spending less revenues?

          Do you mean nominal spending, real inflation-adjusted spending, or spending as a percentage of GDP?

  3. Wonder how many monkeys on typewriters it took to come up with this. Howdja miss Kinsley calling the stakes small? And you’d think at least one monkey would stumble onto the correct spelling of “no one.”

    “In fact, Kinsley is using vernacular . . .”

    Reminds me of the joke about how economists escape from a locked room. First assume a window . . .

    1. Just the one!

      Yes the stakes are high, DeLong has a point there too. Overall though his “7 howlers” are weak, and a stretch.

      Your other points are trivial at best, which is the same problem that pervades DeLong’s article.

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