Friday, May 17, 2013

Kinsley and the platonic ideal of the Sistene chapel of villager conventional wisdom

Everyone's doing it. There is no need for another post criticizing Kinsley's wonderfully bad article

Paul Krugman's Misguided Moral Crusade against Austerity.  But I can't resist.

1. Is this a parody ?  I remember a wonderful late 80s article by Kinsley which started with a paragraph about how the Democrats have to control their McGovernite wing.  Then he noted that the first paragraph was a parody of lazy punditry and went on to both defend McGovern and note his absolute irrelevance to kids those days (memorable line was roughtly something like : the party which keeps apologizing for it's 1972 nominee is not the one which nominated Nixon).   The point is he pulled it off.  Maybe he's decided to put a week not a paragraph break between the parody and the critique of bad punditry.

(pulled back from the end to which no one will read).

OK betting is open.  Who bets that before 11:00 pm EST 5/22/2013, Kinsley will, write that his column is a deliberate parody of the epitome of very serious villager conventional wisdom and lazy punditry ? Use comments as a tote board.

2. As always, Kinsley does not make a policy proposal.  He critiques the arrogance contemptuousness and, if possible (as it isn't in Krugman's case) hypocricy and stupidity of others, but never presents an alternative theory or proposal.  How much money does Kinsley want congress to appropriate for fiscal 2014 ?  Does he think taxes to be paid on 2013 income and on 2014 should be cut increased or left the same?   There is no way to guess.

3. In commenting on an economist, Kinsley says nothing about the economy, economic theory of economic evidence.  The closest he comes is "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. "  Here the force of the argument is entirely in "put it off" where that is, by definition bad policy because a stitch in time saves nine and other so we better not repair any bridges now because .... shutup.  It is plainly obvious that we have to pay the price for past deficit spending in the form of interest on the debt (this is tautological if "we" refers also to the bondholders who lose if the Treasury defaults).  The claim that delay means a higher price is based on the fact that the short term TIPS real interest rate is negative so if we put off paying the debt for a while the lower the price will be.  Oooops.  There is a market price of delay and it is negative.  But to Kinsley that has nothing to do with the general rule that if you have to do something sooner or later it must be better to do it sooner, because ... shutup.

4. Kinsley seems to have forgotten that there is a world and not just words.  "When Krugman says he’s only worried about “premature” fiscal discipline, it becomes largely a question of emphasis anyway. "  The question is one about taxes and spending not emphasis.  Kinsley means "priorities" not "emphasis" the debate is words about deeds not words about words.   Also timing is not emphasis.  A disagreement between we should cut  next years' deficit and we should increase next years' deficit is not a disagreement about priorities.  

Look Krugman and the Austerians also agree that we shouldn't launch our nuclear missiles right now.  That doesn't mean that there disagreements are just disagreements about priorities.  

5: Who has courage ? First who cares.  Second the person who tells the majority that they are wrong shows more courage than the one who tells them they are right.  Most Americans say the deficit should be cut.  Saying it should be cut is safe and easy.  Actually cutting it is not so safe or easy, but Kinsley is writing about commentators and commentary. And again who cares.

6. austerity kills.    When writing about Krugman, Kinsley shifts to writing about someone else. This would be guilt by association if those others hadn't proved that their extremely important point is valid.  I can only guess that "Krugman" is in the title to maximize traffic as photos of naked women are on the cover of Italian political weeklies (note Kinsley didn't write the title and might have prefered "anti-austeria" in the place of "Krugman".  On whether austerity kills, Kinsley calls the op-ed a shocker then goes on to agree that, obviously, austerity kills.  Here I think we see the triumph of form over substance.  A paper on death rates is a discussion of what causes death or to save ink what "kills". But it is bad form to say that someone's policy caused deaths.  That's inflamatory rhetoric except for the fact that it is really  inflamatory arithmetic.  Evidently some calculations are moralistic, over the top, and just not gentlemanly.   Statistical calculations based on a natural experiment are just like a paranoid rant except for the paranoid part which is irrelevant.  

7. The claim that austerity kills is only partly true because "Austerians believe, sincerely, that their path is the quicker one to prosperity in the longer run."  No a statement about the effect of policy on deaths is not a statement about what people believe in their hearts -- its a statement about which hearts keep beating.  No matter what Austerians believe, the evidence supports the view that austerity in a depressed economy in a liquidity trap kills now and also in the future do to it's long term economic costs which are smaller than its short term costs but still costs.  Kinsley could argue that we don't know about the long term effects of x (e.g. austerity) on y (eg death rates) and that it could possibly reduce y  in the long run even though exogenous shifts in x were immediatly followed by increases in y.  This argument is valid for any x and any y.  We can never know that something will never happen so we can't know that nothing good will come of current austerity.  Similarly we can't know for sure whether, on balance it was a good idea to invade Iraq, or fight Hitler or anything. But Kinsley says that the unamed authors of the op-ed are only right in one sense.  He carelessly asserted that they are partly wrong when he should have asserted that some people think they are partly wrong and that there is no final proof closing the debate.

8.  "Austerians believe, sincerely". Who cares ? If St Peter exists and austerians show up at the gate of heaven he will have a decision to make about their sincerity.  We have to decide what to do with our country.   What matters are the effects of policies not the emotional state of commentators.  Also he presents a false dichotomy the most common error in thought which is more common than any valid method of thought.  Kinsley writes about a vaguely defined group "austerians" and asserts that they are all sincere.  He is confident that there isn't one insincere austerian.  Or maybe he thinks that Krugman never asserted that there is at least one deeply sincere austerian "The latest case in point is Italy, where Mario Monti — a good guy, deeply sincere"

8. The dread inflation of the 70s.  "This doesn’t mean that they have forgotten the lessons of Keynes and the Great Depression. It means that they remember the lessons of Paul Volcker and the Great Stagflation of the late 1970s. “Stimulus” is strong medicine—an addictive drug—and you don’t give the patient more than you absolutely have to."  Here Kinsley conflates fiscal stimulus which Krugman proposes and monetary stimulus which Burns and Miller imposed.  I think that's not a big deal. But he also asserts that stimulus is addictive. He means that governments find it hard to stop.  But this just isn't true of fiscal stimulus in the USA.  Fiscal stimulus has been used rarely and always briefly.  Here Kinsley is making a plainly false claim about history.

He treats  high inflation in the 70s and the great depression a roughly equally bad.  Does inflation kill ? The data are available aren't they.  I don't recall evidence that 10 % inflation is associated with higher suicide rates (or maybe deaths due to influenza or kidney failure) than 2% inflation.

More importantly he treats the analogy with the 70s and with the 30s as equally useful.  But Krugman doesn't just invoke the depression because it is convenient to do so.  He considers data collected when the safe short term interest rate is similar to the current rate.  They came from the 30s but he explains why he considers those data useful.  In contrast the reference to the 70s is based on picking a decade in which something bad happened, which wasn't caused by austerity, just because it is convenient for austerians to prove that they are not the only cause of human suffering.  Kinsley makes no argument that the situation is analogous. No such argument is possible.   Here Kinsley notes only that both sides refer to history and not that one makes an coherant argument and the other just tosses out the word "stagflation".

9. "the problem" Sure let’s raise taxes on the rich. But that’s not going to solve the problem."  Here Kinsley assumes that there is only one problem -- long term fiscal sustainability.  He has just assumed that 7.5% unemployment is not a problem. I think I am actually being fair to Kinsley.  He is so eager to cut entitlements that he considers any other policy proposal to be just a distraction.  He has Not quite reached the point that when asked about say, closing Guatanamo, he writes "Sure .... But that’s not going to solve the problem. The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians."  However, I don't see why not.  

He's done this before.  He had a horrible blog post critiquing Obama's speech about inequality in which he wrote "A second big problem with Obama’s philosophy, as revealed in this speech, is really the biggest economic problem facing the U.S. in general. That is, the middle-class sense of entitlement. "  Obama gave a speech in which he didn't propose sacrifices for the middle class, so it wasn't a great speech, because that this the only thing one should say.  Kinsley is a pain-caucus fundamentalist.  he opposes talking about anything but cutting middle class entitlements (or raising middle class taxes or both).  I reall think that, tho him, this is The One Truth and all other discussion is just a distraction.

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