Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Mean-Spirited Ideas.

Zach Carter:
“Politicians don’t generally turn to economists for new insight into how the world works. Economists instead serve as a kind of credibility shield - experts who can be trotted out to assure the public that there are very complex and sophisticated reasons political leaders should be doing the things they do. A big part of any Washington economics job is providing a sense of scientific certainty to political judgments that are, by their very nature, uncertain. This is true for big policy changes as well as straightforward tasks like projecting growth rates and government revenue.
“The job, in other words, is to back up your team.”
John Maynard Keynes:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.”
Call me cynical, but I think someone was bullshitting us, and that someone isn’t Carter.


Zach Carter’s “Stephanie Kelton has the Biggest Idea in Washington” (Huffington Post, May 20) has caused a bit of a stir in the blogosphere and Twitterverse. Corey Robin’s tweet was a tiny part of that.
Judging by the opening quote above, however, it was most insightful, I’d say.


Carter does his best to portray the Job Guarantee as a non-threatening, respectable, Very Serious, technocratic idea, something even the US Democratic Party can commit itself to. The problem is that he may have been excessively successful. To put it plainly: he doesn’t make it sound good -- to me at any rate. In fact, the absence of a very prominent name in that article is something that caught my attention rather powerfully.

Anyway, Carter shows how and why policies are adopted and, once adopted, why economists stick to them (it also suggests why mainstream economists tend to act like jerks). It turns out -- surprise, surprise -- good ideas are just a small part of the story: they need powerful and influential and wealthy backers happy to back charismatic proponents with the support of the commentariat and media.

You see right there the kind of constraints that places on even the most sincere reformist Left. A very delicate balancing act, yes? As a Commie I can say I don’t envy well-meaning reformists.

I’ll haste to add that this, of course, is not meant as a criticism of Professor Kelton or the other leading MMTers, of whom I, for what it might be worth, have high views. Nor does this imply a judgement on the technical merits of the Job Guarantee and in particular its relative desirability compared to the Universal Basic Income.


One thing I enjoyed enormously in that article:
“Usually, being on the losing end of a lefty Democratic Party presidential run is a career blow. But [Hillary] Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump exploded the existing hierarchy of party experts. Her team of economists, which had expected to be running various government agencies, is instead plugging away at think tanks and universities just like the Sanders crew.”
I can imagine some bona fide geniuses “sulking in their tents like Akhilleus on a bad day”: on whose hands are Fate and the Olympians going to place the “planning department of the human race”? I’d bet my ass to nothing liberal capitalism never looked so crap to them.

As that other Greek demigod used to say: “Ha, Ha!”

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