Clive Crook of the FT and the Atlantic has sounded a welcome note of civility to the blogosphere. (If it’s all cacaphony, it won’t be useful.)
Blogs Gone Wild
by Benn Steil
“Many of the most successful economics blogs promote communication within political groupings, not across them. On the web you best build an audience by organising a claque and stroking its prejudices. Extend elaborate courtesy to people you agree with and boorish contempt to those who do not get it. Celebrate exasperation and incivility as marks of intellectual authenticity – an attitude easier to tolerate in teenagers under hormonal stress than in professors at world-class universities” (Clive Crook, FT: 8 February).
Two days before Clive’s column appeared, I experienced firsthand the econoblog treatment he describes. On 6 February, I published an op-ed in the FT (“Keynes and the triumph of hope over economics”) criticizing the tendency of economists to invoke Keynes, rather than logic and evidence, in support of any and all forms of new deficit spending, which are now massed together under the cozy umbrella of “stimulus” – a term that closes discussion by simply assuming the merits it claims. This provoked a call for my dismissal from blogger Brad DeLong (a California state employee with lifetime employment). Fellow blogger Paul Krugman, who is apparently too busy to read what he criticizes, then parroted DeLong’s description of me as a “wingnut”, and reprinted DeLong’s curious misstatement of what I’d written, together with a link to DeLong’s blog entry (rather than to my article, of course).
According to DeLong and Krugman, my article says that Jacques Rueff (1896-1978), whom DeLong dismisses as a “French crank,” demolished the foundations of Keynesian economics. Despite my admiration for Rueff, a renowned economist, statesman, and judge at the European Court of Justice, I never gave him such credit. What I wrote was that Rueff had demolished the Keynesian foundations of Krugman’s claim that a trillion dollars of new deficit spending would “employ . . . money that would otherwise be sitting idle.” For those interested in what Rueff actually wrote, it can be found here: “The Fallacies of Lord Keynes General Theory,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 61, No. 3, May 1947, pp. 343-367.
Krugman’s claim, I argued, is manifestly false. Institutions are not hoarding dollar bills, awaiting the issuance of stimulus bonds. Any funds they choose to make available to the government, beyond their current holdings of Treasurys, will have to be withdrawn from the banking system or the market for corporate securities. DeLong retorted that the evidence that Krugman is right is apparent in the fall in monetary velocity. But this is a non-sequitur, since if Krugman had actually been using the word “idle” to mean circulating at low velocity, he would then have been assuming the very thing he needs to establish – that by outbidding the banks and corporate securities markets for funds, and then spending such funds, the government necessarily increases velocity and stimulates private consumption or investment more than it reduces it by withdrawing the funds from the market. This could, of course, be true. The burden, however, is on Krugman and DeLong to make an argument that it is true. They cannot just assert it. This is, after all, what the entire debate is about.
Harvard’s Robert Barro, writing in the 22 January Wall Street Journal, provides logic and offers evidence supporting the case that it is not true. Krugman, naturally, waves off Barro’s views as “boneheaded”.
I cannot help but think what Keynes and Hayek, friends who engaged in profound and respectful private and public debate about economic policy for decades, would make of the ugly and childish econoblog culture which Krugman and DeLong have helped create.
Benn Steil is director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, and co-author of Money, Markets, and Sovereignty (Yale University Press).