Friday, September 30, 2011

Economics as a Morality Play

Here is an excellent bit from a post by Paul Krugman on his NY Times blog:
And it has been an awesome spectacle watching the VSPs [Very Serious People] search, obsessively, for reasons not to fight mass unemployment. Fiscal policy must tighten to appease the invisible bond vigilantes and please the confidence fairy. Interest rates must rise because, well, um, inflation, well, no, low rates cause moral hazard — yes, that must be it.

And we’re not (just) talking about ignorant politicians. This stuff has been coming from the European Central Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Bank for International Settlements.

I don’t fully understand it. But a large part of it, it seems obvious, is the intense desire to see economics as a morality play of sin and punishment, where the sinners are, of course, workers and governments, not the bankers. Pain is not an unfortunate consequence of policies, it’s what is supposed to happen.

How obsessive are these people? So obsessive that when the financial doom they predict fails to materialize, they consider this a bad thing: punishment must be administered, so what are the markets waiting for? Here’s Alan Greenspan a while back:
Despite the surge in federal debt to the public during the past 18 months—to $8.6 trillion from $5.5 trillion—inflation and long-term interest rates, the typical symptoms of fiscal excess, have remained remarkably subdued. This is regrettable, because it is fostering a sense of complacency that can have dire consequences.
Gosh, it’s regrettable that the markets aren’t confirming my warnings! ...

Just to reiterate a point I’ve made before, none of this reflects actual economic theory. Throughout this crisis, people like Adam Posen and yours truly have been basing our arguments on standard textbook macroeconomics, whereas the Very Serious People have been making up stories on the fly to justify their calls for pain. As Wolf, who really seems to have eaten his Wheetabix, puts it,
The waste is more than unnecessary; it is cruel. Sadists seem to revel in that cruelty. Sane people should reject it. It is wrong, intellectually and morally.
And this cruelty rules our world.
As through all of history, it is the bottom 90% who pay the price for the idiocy of the top 1%. The know-it-alls at the top see the world through their ideological glasses that just happen to see things the way that suits them fine. That it hurts the bottom 90% doesn't bother them one whit.

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