Monday, January 12, 2015

Wren-Lewis and Krugman vs. Critics.


Simon Wren-Lewis (economics professor at Oxford University, a fellow of Merton College, see here) is annoyed. This gets him "really cross":

Internet troll commenting on SW-L's blog: "Unfortunately, this is what happens when you contaminate the GT [General Theory] with inter-temporal economics".

And

Internet troll: "Sachs is very much the quintessential Great Moderation New Keynesian".

Wren-Lewis doesn't think so; I have no dog in that hunt, so I won't take sides.

But, why would a troll's comments piss Wren-Lewis off? Well:
"However this comment (and others like it) makes me cross for the following simple reason. Many economists and non-economists of the right try and portray mainstream economics as naturally supportive of their political programme. Right wing think tanks name themselves after one of the pioneers of economics. It is normally nonsense: mainstream economics is all about market failure, diminishing marginal utility favours redistribution etc. Of course there are counter examples (Pareto optimality), so it would be wrong to say that economics leans to the left as well.
"However when some of those on the left say yes, mainstream economics is all the things that those on the right say it is, they share a mutual conspiracy to distort the truth. When you are trying hard to convince policy makers and journalists that what those on the right are arguing for is not implied by mainstream thought, people from the left pop up to undermine what you say."
In his weekly column, Paul Krugman makes the same point, much more briefly:
"Not that there's anything wrong with being heterodox in general; but a lot of what we've been seeing misidentifies the problem, and if anything gives aid and comfort to the wrong people."
There are many things in Wren-Lewis' quote, but in short: what annoys him (and Krugman) is the potential political implications of allegedly unfair criticism. In other words, consciously or not, both men are admitting that the economic organization of society is not a matter of polite discussion and scholarly reasoning among enlightened elites. Policy is not science by other means (I'd add, neither is science as clear cut).

They aren't the first to feel that way, but they did put it clearly enough. Both men sincerely believe what they preach and perceive the criticism as unfair. Worse: criticism may make it even harder to "convince policy makers and journalists" (and perhaps the public at large): it may "give aid and comfort to the wrong people".

No doubt they would never put things this way, but they seem to have in mind a sort of "united front", a kind of alliance, or at least academic non-aggression treaty between themselves and the diverse "heterodox": "us" against "the wrong people".

Their concern is understandable and it may even make some sense. At any rate -- and speaking on my behalf -- I'm rather sympathetic to them, even while I'm somewhat less enthusiastic about their immediate policies and certainly oppose their long-term, deeper theoretical views.

You see, us, Marxists, have experienced first-hand truly unfair, genuinely malignant, undeniably bad faith, demonstrably illiterate, stubborn, unthinking criticism and opposition (sabotage, in one word). Why, many of Wren-Lewis and Krugman's own mates (but not only them!) are really good at that. Their buddies don't seem too keen on a "united front": they want acolytes and whipping boys (or hippies to punch, if you prefer), not allies. For us (only us, this time) they are part of the "wrong people".

Given that, has a "united front" any chance?

Further, who can stop trolls from doing what trolls do? Could Wren-Lewis or Krugman promise to keep their buddies on a leash?

So, sorry professors, based on experience, there is no way of this ever changing. Personally, I feel no urge to criticize either of you, but the same need to win hearts and minds motivating you motivates your critics, as it motivates Marxists, and anti-Marxist jihadists (indeed, anyone with an interest in economics).

Frustrating as this may be, you guys better get used to it, as Marxists had to.

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