DRI-291 for week of 6-8-14: The (Latest) V.A. Scandal: So What Else is New?

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The (Latest) V.A. Scandal: So What Else is New?

The news media has covered the recent medical-care scandal involving the Veterans’ Administration with its usual breathless urgency. Veterans of political economy find this ironic, since no feature of the political landscape is more ritualistic than the administrative scandal. Its elements are by now as stylized as those of the Japanese kabuki dance.

It begins with the uncovering of shocking facts – perhaps by journalistic investigation, perhaps by revelation from an internal source such as a whistleblower, perhaps by random circumstance. The facts are greeted first by denials, starting at the administrative level and proceeding upward – typically to the cabinet level, sometimes ending in assurance by the President of the United States that reports are greatly exaggerated.

Observers generally realize that it is the administrators and politicians who are exaggerating, not the journalists and whistleblowers, since few scandals emerge full-blown without any previous hint of their existence. Eventually, the fundamental truth of the allegations cannot be denied any longer, and the administrators and cabinet secretary in charge of the erring agency must fess up. This is the confessional stage of the scandal. It is characterized by admission of grievous fault, abject apology and plea for forgiveness, or at least understanding. The confession flagrantly contradicts previous insistence that the whole thing was an overblown attempt by political opponents to smear the present administration.

The last phase is the Presidential phase. The President is shocked, shocked to discover that error and scandal have invaded the administration of government on his watch. His attitude toward his administrative subordinates in the executive department is that of the admonishing schoolmaster: fair but firm, reluctant to punish but determined to root out all evil, to banish forever this unaccountable blot on the escutcheon of his tenure. The administrators must go, of course, even though they are able, noble, kind, determined, brave, clean and reverent. There will be an investigation, and when all the details are known, we will proceed to wipe this disgraceful episode from our memories and move on, to greater and more glorious triumphs…

The ellipsis reflects the fact that the entire purpose of the ritual is to pass through the period of scandal with the least possible political damage inflicted on the administration. The collective attitude of that of a child caught in a misdeed. The child is fully conscious of guilt; every word and action is oriented toward escaping punishment and returning to the status quo ante. Neither truth nor justice has any bearing on the child’s behavior. Likewise, they have no effect on the administration’s actions, either.

The recent V.A. scandal contains the classic elements. Not only is it predictable, it was predicted in this space in our previous discussions of the economics of medical care and Obamacare. Now the other shoe has dropped. The utter familiarity of the ritual means that the political aspects can be subordinated to our real object. It is the economic features that claim our interest.

The Details of the Scandal

The V.A. scandal concerns the provision of medical care for discharged members of the armed forces by the Veterans’ Health Administration in Department of Veterans Affairs. This is only one of the functions performed by the Veterans’ Administration, the others being administration of veterans’ benefits and supervision of burials and memorials for veterans. The cost of medical care to veterans depends on the ability to pay – it is either free or accompanied by a co-pay. When a vet is discharged from the service, he must enroll in the V.A. system in one of three ways: by calling a toll-free number, going online or visiting one of the hundreds of V.A. clinics across the country. In order to complete the enrollment process, the vet must possess his DD214 discharge form. At enrollment, the vet is given a means test to determine qualification for a co-pay.

Once enrollment is complete and the vet is accepted within the system, new patients must be seen by a physician within 14 days. Existing patients (who have already been treated and, thus, have already seen a physician for evaluation) must see a doctor within 14-30 days. The failure to meet the stipulated deadlines for these initial appointments is the gravamen of the current scandal.

The head of the V.A.’s health affairs office, Robert Petzer, testified that he knew as early as 2010 that V.A. health clinics were “using inappropriate scheduling procedures” to defer these initial appointments. The deferrals were done because of need; the clinics were simply unable to meet the demand for initial appointments. The excess demand for appointments grew over time and the situation worsened until it reached the epidemic proportions now forming the basis for periodic new revelations. Scandals within the armed forces (and the government at large) are investigated by inspectors general (known as “IGs”). An interim report on the V.A. scandal by the V.A.’s IG called the practice of inappropriate scheduling “systemic.” It involved the use of false or phony waiting lists that were tailored to give the impression that the V.A. was meeting its initial-appointment goals rather than falling further and further short of them.

The scandal erupted after a doctor at the Phoenix, AZ V.A. clinic complained to the IG about treatment delays. It should be noted that this doctor waited until after his retirement to lodge these complaints. The complaints were made in letters written in December, 2013 but did not rise to the level of a public scandal until May, 2014. It transpired that some 1,700 vets were kept on waiting lists and the average vet waited for 115 days for his initial appointment. Meanwhile, official records were falsified to hide these delays.

On June 9, 2014, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs released preliminary results of an audit of 731 V.A. clinics that showed about 57,000 vets who have currently waited for their initial appointment for an average time span exceeding 90 days. Some 13% of V.A. schedulers say they have been ordered to falsify appointment-request logs to make them compliant with the rules. The IG calls the current 14-day goal for initial appointment “unattainable” due to the logistical obstacles posed by insufficient money and personnel.

The news from Phoenix triggered a chain reaction of similar revelations from V.A. hospitals and clinics across America. In Fort Collins, CO, clerks were specifically taught how to falsify records to paint a misleadingly favorable picture of initial appointments kept. A police detective found that in Miami, cover-ups were “ingrained into the hospitals’ culture” and drugs were routinely dealt out of hospital premises. In Pittsburgh, PA, an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease in 2011-12 was revealed to be the product of “human error” rather than the “faulty equipment” that had been blamed in Congressional testimony last year.

The delays in initial appointments are important because they represent a delay in the potential diagnosis and/or treatment of one or more medical conditions. Much has been made of the statement by IG Richard Griffin that “we didn’t conclude…that the delay[s] caused… death. It’s one thing to be on a waiting list; it’s another for that to be the cause of death.” But in the case of 52 patients seen by the Columbia, SC gastroenterology unit of the V.A., it certainly was determined that those patients had “disease associated with” treatment delays. We are urged every day to visit our doctor, not to put off visits or hide conditions in hopes that symptoms will disappear, reminded that cancer and other diseases are curable with early detection. Now, suddenly, delays in seeing the doctor are downplayed as a factor in actual incidence or severity of disease.

The medical facilities were not the only loci of dereliction. The War on Terror launched by the Bush Administration has produced an avalanche of disability claims filed by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. In order to claim a compensable disability, a veteran must show not only the existence of a disability but also a likelihood exceeding 50% that it is due to military service. He is not allowed to hire a lawyer (unless the lawyer works pro bono) before the disability determination is made, so as to preclude the lust for private profit from luring private-sector contingency lawyers into the Klondike of military disability determination. But this process of disability determination has been stalled by (you guessed it) a massive backlog of claims waiting to be heard. This backlog reached a high of 611,000 in 2013 before the resulting publicity triggered a mini-scandal that forced action by Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. It now stands at about 300,000 cases that so far have taken over 125 days to process.

One of the most highly publicized features of the scandal has been the bonuses received by upper-level V.A. administrators, tied to complying with V.A. rules for initial-appointment timeliness. These bonuses provided a clear-cut incentive for the falsification of records by lower-level employees operating under orders by their superiors.

The Economics of the V.A. System of Medical Care

Previous discussion of health care in this space touched on the V.A. system. Why should a separate system of medical care exist for military veterans?  Why should that separate system be administered by the federal government? If this separate system exists because it is superior to the one available to the rest of us, why not make it available to all? If it is not superior, why does it exist at all?

Some people have actually followed this logic to its ultimate conclusion. In 2011, the left-wing economist and political columnist Paul Krugman made the case that the V.A. does indeed constitute a superior system of medical care which should be broadened to the entire country. Part of his case rested on the V.A.’s success in meeting its initial-appointment guidelines. By doing so, he contended, it avoided the need for any rationing of care.

“Rationing” is the operative word applying to government provision of medical services. The whole purpose of designating government as the “single payer” for medical care is to sell the concept as “free medical care for all regardless of ability to pay.” Private producers cannot distribute goods for free but this is a specialty of government. As always, the big problem government faces is bridging the gap between its expansive claims and its inability to deliver what it claims. A free good is one for which there is no opportunity cost of provision, hence no scarcity. Saying that a good is free doesn’t make it free; it merely causes people to try to maximize their efforts to acquire it. Maximizing the demand for something is the worst possible way to deliver it free to everybody because it places the biggest possible burden on the supply apparatus.

The V.A. headlines its medical services to veterans as free, but upon reading the fine print veterans discover that they will be subjected to a means test and requested to pony up a co-pay. Of course, this is not the same thing as a unit price to an economist, but it does involve a sacrifice of alternative consumption. But this is small potatoes compared to the real shock in store for any veteran who thinks that his military status entitles him to health care in perpetuity.

Reading current newspaper accounts of the scandal would leave the impression that discharged vets enroll for medical benefits on a first-come, first-served basis. This is not so. Upon applying for benefits, vets are assigned to one (or more) of 8 “eligible priority groups.” The word “priority” hints at the purpose of these groups; they decide whose applications get processed first and in what order. In other words, medical care for veterans is rationed by the Veterans Health Administration from the instant of application for enrollment.

To erase any doubts about the veracity of this statement, we have the word of the V.A. itself. “Unfortunately, the Veterans Health Administration does not have enough resources to provide care to all veterans who need it. To address this issue, the VA has created eight priority groups for enrollment.” There we have it – the dirty little secret of VA medical benefits. Veterans are lured into the system with the promise of free benefits. Before they are even accepted, they find out that the benefits aren’t free and they may not even get them – or, if they do, the effective price may include a hefty upcharge for waiting time. At worst, that upcharge may be the loss of their life.

Each of the 8 eligible priority groups contains multiple subcategories of prioritization. Any connection to medical need or severity is tenuous at best. Group 1, the highest priority for enrollment, includes vets who are 50% or more disabled due to service-connected disability, then picks up those who are unemployed due to service-connected disability. Of course, it could be true that a 50% disability carries with it an immediate need to see a physician. It could also be utterly untrue; it depends on the specific medical circumstances.

Right away, we see that the criteria governing rationing are political and bureaucratic. Political because a disabled vet is a highly visible and ongoing political liability, much more so than a vet who dies awaiting treatment. In a free-market system, decisions about medical treatment are made by you and your doctor in consultation. You know your economic capabilities and your doctor knows you and your medical needs; together you can compare the value you would receive from each incremental bit of medical treatment with its cost. But in the VA, your medical decisions will ultimately be made by bureaucrats who know little or nothing about medicine. That is why criteria like “50% disabled” are necessary; they provide a pseudo-objective basis upon which medically untutored bureaucrats can affirm or deny treatment.

Group 2 includes 30-40% disabled vets. Group 3 is headlined by former prisoners of war, Purple-Heart holders, holders of the Medal of Honor, vets with lower disability status and those who disability was actually caused by treatment or rehabilitation. Again, politics is evident in this ranking with the inclusion of POWs and medal-winners. Why should medical care be turned into a popularity contest? Then again, once we have excluded the free market from consideration, any other system of allocating benefits would be arbitrary.

The lower-ranking Groups introduce other arbitrary criteria like service in Vietnam and exposure to atomic radiation at Hiroshima, Nagasaki or test sites. Low-income vets receive precedence over high-income vets; willingness to fork over a co-pay buys the vet a higher place in line.

When we combine the economics of the V.A. system with the known facts of the current V.A. scandal, the latter becomes easier to understand but harder to stomach.

The Economics of the Scandal

Note the fundamental difference between scarcity as it exists in a free-market context and in the command-and-control context of a politically motivated bureaucracy. Economists define scarcity as the condition in which we cannot have all that we wish to consume and must choose the things we value most. Nobody is automatically or inherently excluded from consumption; price tells us the value that people place on a good and its cost in alternative (or foregone) output. People choose how much to buy based on their incomes and tastes; they can buy small, medium or large quantities and vary their consumption as their incomes change and prices vary. At the V.A., the government chooses what to give you and how much to give you based on (mostly) arbitrary criteria that ignore price and cost. It frankly admits that some people will be excluded – once more based on arbitrary criteria.

Economic logic tells us that the government system is wildly inefficient. Moreover, its inefficiencies will get worse and worse over time because it encourages customers to demand more medical care than can be supplied.

There is nothing remotely surprising or shocking about the current scandal. And as the Washington Post points out, “President Obama has been talking for years about fixing the system.” According to Press Secretary Jay Carney, “This is not a new issue to the President.” Here is one sure sign that Krugman, et al, have missed the boat analytically; you don’t fix a system that is working brilliantly.

Everybody is acting as if the scandal is the result of something going terribly wrong with the system. But this is merely the system working as we expect a system of rationing to work – by excluding some people from service altogether. The V.A. itself says it is designed to do this and explains how it does it – just how surprised should we be when that is exactly what happens? The scandal is not that something has gone wrong with the system; the scandal is the system.

Economic logic tells us that the system is designed to ration care by excluding vets from medical benefits, thereby reducing the amount of medical care provided. This exclusion by rationing takes several forms. First, the vet may be excluded by not qualifying at all. Second, he may fall in the last (8th) eligible priority group, get tired of waiting to be processed and accepted and simply seek out paid care in the private sector. This relieves the V.A. of the burden of serving him. Third, he may die while waiting to be seen, as vets have done and continue to do. The larger the number of vets who face delays in acceptance and processing, the greater the likelihood that this will happen. And the longer the delays, the greater the likelihood that this will happen. Once more, this relieves the V.A. of the necessity of serving him. Fourth, the longer the delay faced by the vet, the worse (on net balance) will be his condition when he is finally accepted, seen and treated. This will shorten his life span and reduce the total amount of medical care the V.A. will be required to give him. (In this shorter time span, however, it will increase the need for greater spending on him, which will give the V.A. leverage to demand larger budget allocations in Congress. This is politically valuable to bureaucrats and their political sponsors.)

Of course, the V.A. can haul out testimonials from some vets who crow about the outstanding medical treatment they have received. In any bureaucracy – police, fire, public education, even the federal government itself – some individuals will stand out by ignoring the lack of incentives for performance and adhering to their own personal standards. And the fact that the V.A. picks and chooses who it treats, when it treats them – “we will treat no veteran before his time” – and how it treats them will allow the agency to provide good service to some vets. But claims of competitive superiority for the V.A. are a mockery considering that it is able to rig the game through rationing and, we now belatedly realize, rig its own statistics internally.

Claims by Krugman and others that the V.A. is a model for health care in general are false on their face. What little success the V.A. has enjoyed depends on the failures highlighted here. The V.A. cannot exist in its present form without the concurrent existence of a private-sector (or public-sector) alternative where its rejects can be dumped and where consumers can seek out consistently higher-quality treatment at a price. An attempt to impose the V.A. model on the country at large simply produces the kind of socialist, “national health service” health care found in countries such as Great Britain and Canada. These are characterized by long waits for care, lower-quality care, poorer medical technology and almost no new drug development. According to Krugman, we should be clamoring for access to the superior medical care provided by the V.A. Americans should be “health tourists,” traveling to Great Britain, France and Canada for their health care. Instead, though, the flow of health tourists runs the other way – into the U.S.

Democrats insist that the Bush Administration caused the V.A. scandal by overloading the system with applicants through its foreign wars. They cannot have it both ways. How can their system be superior if it falls apart when the demand for its product increases, which is the average business’s idea of paradise? Free-markets use flexibility of prices and quantities to handle variations in demand; they use higher prices to attract more resources into the system to handle the larger demand. It is command-and-control rationing systems, deprived of vital pricing tools, which crumble under the pressure of demand increases.

Public shock over the incentive bonuses paid to V.A. administrators for initial-appointment compliance not actually attained is likewise naïve. After all, critics of free markets and corporations scream bloody murder when CEOs are not paid for performance. The V.A. was simply trying to curry favor with the public by mimicking the private sector’s performance incentives. The problem is, of course, that the V.A. is not the private sector. In a free market, a firm couldn’t get away with faking its performance because you can’t fake the bottom line; failure to perform will reduce profits. But there is no bottom line at the V.A. and no way (short of audit) to detect the kind of fakery that went on at the V.A. for years and years. Sure, veterans complained, but nothing happened because vets did not control the bureaucracy and had no political clout. The only reason the scandal was uncovered was that the doctor who blew the whistle had recently retired and no longer had to fear bureaucratic retaliation for his actions.

Speaking of political clout…

Cui Bono?

Why has a federal agency so inimical to the interests of a beloved constituency persisted – nay, thrived – since its inception in 1930? The great myth of big government is that it serves the interests of its constituents. But as we have seen, this is hardly true.

The real beneficiaries of big government are government employees, bureaucrats and politicians. The V.A. has metastasized into a cabinet-level bureaucracy with over 330,000 employees, including thousands of mid-level bureaucrats. Most of its employees belong to a powerful public-sector union. Employees and bureaucrats vote for the politicians who vote the appropriations that pay their salaries and lucrative benefits.

These people are invisible in the current scandal, except for the passive role they play as order-takers and functionaries. But they are the reason why the system is not “reformed.” There is no reforming this kind of system, only tinkering around the margins. Genuine reform would disband the V.A. altogether since its rationale is utterly misguided.

That will not happen. The falsity of the V.A.’s guiding premise is irrelevant. It is not really intended to serve veterans, so its failure to do so does not really matter to politicians. Its real purpose is to win votes by conferring benefits on employees and bureaucrats and it is fulfilling that purpose just as well, if not better, by failing veterans as it would by serving them.

That is why the stern promises to “fix the problem” are so much hypocritical cant. There will be no fix and no reform – only the next scandal.

Cant Rules in Public Discussions of the V.A.

Why do we watch numbly as the V.A. scandal unfolds – the latest in a never-ending series? By now, we know the ritual by heart. What is that has us hypnotized?

Human beings mix reason with emotion, and we apparently remain enthralled by the cant that surrounds the V.A. “We love and revere our veterans – so much that we cannot entrust their physical well-being to the mundane ministrations of marketplace medicine. Veterans deserve only the very best. So, naturally, we put their welfare in the hands of the federal government, because it handles all our most important jobs and never fails to satisfy us. We will never rest until veterans are well-cared for, because their happiness and security is our first priority.”

In one part of our mind, this rationale reigns supreme. In the other part, we store all that we know about how the V.A. – and the federal government – actually operates. If those two parts ever commingled, they would probably short-circuit our mental processes indefinitely. We have not yet outgrown our fantasy of government as benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent parent.

In reality, the failures of government are all too painfully obvious. It is not that government has anything special against veterans, other than the fact that they keep showing up at the door expecting to be medically treated. No, government double-crosses and fails veterans just as it does the rest of us. When its failures become manifest, it lies about them. And the people who have placed their ideological and occupational bets on government lie, too.

DRI-201 for week of 1-12-14: No Bravos for Bernanke

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No Bravos for Bernanke

Last weekend’s Wall Street Journal featured an op-ed by the former Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, Austan Goolsbee. Goolsbee’s tenure obviously familiarized him with the chief requirement for policymaking success in a Democrat regime; namely, the ability to define success down. His op-ed, “Brave for Bernanke and the QE Era,” is a spectacular example of the art.

Goolsbee contrasts the enthusiastic reception given to Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke’s farewell address to the American Economic Association convention with the wide-ranging criticism directed at Bernanke from across the political spectrum. He briefly summarizes the Fed’s policies under Bernanke, confining himself to the last 3 ½ years of the so-called QE (quantitative easing) Era. Bernanke’s imminent departure and the start of the “exit-strategy countdown” signaled by QE tapering mean that “it is time to take stock of the QE Era – and time for the critics to admit they were wrong.”

Partisan divisions being what they are, it is a foregone conclusion that Goolsbee’s call will not resonate with many on both sides of the political spectrum. But it is not necessary to invoke partisan politics to criticize it. Bernanke’s policies – and Goolsbee’s – are anathema to free-market economists. But one need not espouse laissez faire in order to gaze askance at Goolsbee’s case for Bernanke’s actions. Bernanke’s tenure should be viewed as a disaster regardless of one’s political preference or economic philosophy.

Indeed, the propriety of Bernanke’s policy choices is not up for debate at this point. They are what economists would call a sunk cost; their costs have been incurred (or are unavoidable) and can’t be changed or escaped. No doubt Bernanke should have chosen differently and we would be better off if he had done so. But the question before the house is: What were the actual results of his choices? Goolsbee finds those results to be very good and purports to explain why. We can and should quarrel with his verdict and his explanations.

Bernanke and Stimulus

“…Looking back…it is clear that the Fed was right to try to help improve the [economy] and the critics were wrong [about inflation].” Goolsbee assigns Bernanke’s policies a grade of A for activism.  The implication is that it is better for a Federal Reserve Chairman to do something rather than nothing, even if activism requires a program of unprecedented scope and unknown impact.

“Think back to the days before the 2008 crisis or recession. If confronted with the scenario that would follow – five years of GDP growth of only around 2% a year, five years of unemployment rates around or above 7%, core inflation consistently below 2% – the near-universal response of economists would have been for the Fed to cut interest rates.” But would economists have reacted that way knowing that all of these effects accompanied a policy of zero interest rates? It’s one thing to say “we should have cut interest rates and all these bad things wouldn’t have happened,” but quite another to say “all these bad things happened anyway in spite of our interest rate cuts.” An objective observer would have to consider the possibility that the interest rate cuts were the wrong medicine. Of course, Goolsbee pretends that this is unthinkable; that the only possible action in the face of adversity is cutting rates. But if that were really true, his review of Bernanke’s reign is a mere formality; Bernanke’s decisions were right by definition, regardless of result. In reality, of course, the zero-interest-rate policy was not a foregone conclusion but rather an evaluative action subject to serious question. And its results do not constitute a ringing endorsement.

To appreciate the truth of this, ponder the wildly varying conclusions reached by Keynesian economists who are not ideologically hostile to Bernanke and Goolsbee. Larry Summers considers macroeconomic policy under Obama a failure because the U.S. suffers from “secular stagnation.” He prescribes a cure of massive public spending to replace the structural collapse of private investment and private over-saving. While Bernanke cannot take the blame for the failings of fiscal policy, Summers criticizes him for not doing more to provide liquidity and increase (!) inflation. Summers’ colleague Paul Krugman is even more emphatic. Bernanke should crank up the printing press to create bubbles because wasteful spending by government and the private sector is necessary to create employment. Without waste and profligacy, unemployment will persist or even rise. Alan Blinder has the temerity to point out what free-market economists noticed years ago – that the money created by Bernanke was mostly sitting idle in excess bank reserves because the Fed had chosen to pay interest on excess reserves. But Blinder is too gentlemanly to ask the obvious question: If the money creation is supposed to be “economic stimulus,” why has Bernanke prevented the money from actually stimulating?

These Keynesian economists are the farthest thing from free-market, laissez faire doctrinaires. But they are not about to give Ben Bernanke a passing grade merely for showing up, trying hard and looking very busy.

To be sure, Goolsbee does make a case that Bernanke actually succeeded in stimulating the U.S. economy. He names two of his colleagues, fellow attendees at the AEA convention, whose “research indicates that [Bernanke’s] Fed policies have helped the economy, albeit modestly… they lowered long-term Treasury rates by about 30 basis points and a bit more for mortgage spreads and corporate bond yields…Americans were able to refinance their homes at more affordable rates, and the drop led to an increase in consumer spending on automobiles and other durables.” Fifty years ago, John Maynard Keynes’ picture appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as an avatar of the end of the business cycle. Now, our Fed prosecutes a policy characterized by a leading English central banker as “the greatest government-bond bubble in history,” and economists have to do research in order to dig up “modest benefits” of the policy that would otherwise go unnoticed. And Goolsbee offers them up with a straight face as the blessings that justify our gratitude to Ben Bernanke.

Bernanke and Inflation

“The QE Era did not create inflation. Not even close. The people who said it would were looking only at the growth in the monetary base… the people arguing that QE means simply printing money (it doesn’t, really) didn’t recognize that the policy was simply offsetting the reverse printing of money resulting from the tight credit channels in the damaged financial system.” Milton Friedman devoted the bulk of his career to refuting the claims of this type of thinking; it would require a lengthy article to review his insights and a book-length analysis to review the economics issues raised by Goolsbee’s nonchalant assertions. But one sentiment popularized by Friedman suffices to convey the concern of “the people” Goolsbee dismisses so condescendingly: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”

At no point in human history has a monetary expansion like Bernanke’s occurred without leading to hyperinflation. So Bernanke’s critics are not a gaggle of tinfoil-hat-sporting, tennis-shoe-wearing conspiracy theorists. They have history on their side. Goolsbee’s confident assurance that Bernanke leaves office with inflation under control is based on a planted axiom the size of an iceberg; namely, that Bernanke’s successor(s) can somehow corral the several trillion dollars of excess reserves still loitering around the financial system before they emerge into circulation in the form of expenditures chasing a limited stock of goods and services. But that’s only the beginning; the Fed must also conduct this money wrangling in such a way as to keep interest rates from rising too greatly and thereby dealing the economy a one-two death blow of overwhelming government debt service and private-sector constriction of economic activity. It is not immediately obvious how this might be accomplished.

Friedman made a case that the Great Depression began in the early 1930s with bank failures that had a multiple contractionary effect on the U.S. money supply. Like generals always fighting the last war, the Fed has since been grimly determined not to be hung for monetary tightness. As F.A. Hayek pointed out, a central bank that always errs on the side of loose money and inflation and never on the side of tight money or deflation will inevitably bias its policy toward inflation. That is the status quo today. Japan’s longtime low inflation is miscalled “deflation,” thereby providing a rhetorical justification for revving up the inflationary printing press. A similar boomlet is building here in the U.S.

Presumably, this explains Goolsbee’s reference to QE credit creation as an offset to credit destruction. But whether you accept Friedman’s analysis or not, Goolsbee’s rationale doesn’t hold water. The bank bailouts of 2008-09 – which were forced on sound banks and shaky ones alike by the Fed and the Treasury – were explicitly sold as a means of guaranteeing financial liquidity. QE did not come along until mid-2010. By then, banks had already repaid or were repaying TARP loans. Thus, Goolsbee cannot sell the QE Era as the solution to a problem that had already been solved. Instead, the evidence favors QE as the palliative for the financial problems of the U.S. Treasury and the spending addiction of the U.S. Congress – matters that Goolsbee delicately overlooks.

Bernanke and Greenspan: The Perils of Premature Congratulation

When Alan Greenspan left office, he had presided over nearly two decades of economic prosperity. The news media had dubbed him “The Maestro.” It is not hard to understand why he was showered with accolades upon retirement. Yet within a few short years his reputation was in tatters. Bernanke gave us an industrial-strength version of Greenspan loose-money policies. But the economy spent most of Bernanke’s tenure in the tank. And Bernanke leaves office having bequeathed us a monetary sword of Damocles whose swing leaves our hair blowing in its breeze.

With the example of Greenspan still fresh in mind, we can justifiably withhold judgment on Bernanke without being accused of rank political prejudice.

Bernanke as Savior

“…We should all be able to agree that fashion standards during a polar vortex shouldn’t be the same as in normal times.” Goolsbee is suggesting that Bernanke has adopted the stern measures called for by the hard times thrust upon him. This is indeed the leitmotiv for economic policy throughout the Obama Administration, not merely monetary policy – hey, just imagine how much worse things could have been, would have been, had we not done what we did. In order for this alibi to stand up, there must be general agreement about the nature and size of the problem(s) and the remedy(ies). Without that agreement, we cannot be sure that Bernanke hasn’t worsened the situation rather than helping it – by addressing non-existent problems and/or applying inappropriate solutions.

In this case, we have had only the word of Chairman Bernanke and Treasury Secretary O’Neill (under President Bush) that economic collapse was threatened in 2008. Despite the wild talk of imminent “meltdown,” none occurred. Indeed, there is no theoretical event or sequence that would meet that description in economics. General economic activity worsened markedly – after the bailout measures were authorized by Congress. The emergency stimulus program did not affect this worsening, nor did it effect the official recovery in June 2009; stimulus funds were so slow to reach the economy that the recovery was well underway by the time they arrived.

The QE program itself has been advertised as “economic stimulus” but is notable for not living up to this billing. (To be sure, this is misleading advertising for the reasons cited above.) If anybody feels grateful to Bernanke for launching it, it is presumably officials of the Treasury and Congress – the former because QE prevented interest rates from rising to normal levels that would have swamped the federal budget in a debt-service tsunami, the latter because the precious spending programs beloved of both parties were spared. But Goolsbee comes nowhere within sight or shouting distance of these financial truths.

It makes sense to hail a savior only when you have reached safety. We haven’t even crossed the icy waters yet, because we’ve had the benefits – tenuous though they’ve been – of QE without having to bear the costs. In other words, the worst is yet to come. Bernanke has made all of us protagonists in an old joke. A man jumps out of a skyscraper. As he falls toward earth, the inhabitants of the building on each successive lower floor hear him mutter, “Well – so far, so good.”

The Politicization of Economics

Why make so much of Austan Goolsbee’s valedictory salute to Ben Bernanke? If the quality of Bernanke’s economic policy is a sunk cost at this point, doesn’t that also moot our assessment of his job performance? If Austan Goolsbee has badly misjudged that performance, that doesn’t say much for Goolsbee, but why should we care? After all, Goolsbee is no longer employed by the Obama Administration; he is now safety ensconced back in academia.

Goolsbee’s judgments matter because they are clearly motivated by politics. They are part of a disturbing pattern in which liberal economists provide a thin veneer of economics – or sometimes no economics at all – to cover their espousal of left-wing causes. Goolsbee pooh-poohs the claim that QE was both dangerous and unnecessary, claiming that the rise in the stock market is not a bubble because it has “tracked increases in corporate earnings.” But earlier in the same article, Goolsbee claimed that QE lowered long-term interest rates on Treasuries and corporate bonds (thus reducing costs of corporate finance) and increased spending on consumer durables. So QE induced increases in corporate earnings that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred, causing increased stock prices – but is absolved from charges of creating a stock bubble because the stock prices were caused by autonomous increases in corporate earnings? Goolsbee claims credit for QE on Bernanke’s behalf at one stage, and then disclaims QE’s influence on exactly the same point at another. This is the type of circular contradiction masquerading as economics that Goolsbee and other Keynesians use to sell their politics.

“Forgoing the Fed’s unconventional monetary policies – inviting real and quantifiable damage to the economy – just to prevent the possibility of a potentially dangerous bubble forming somewhere in the economy would have been cruel and unnecessary,” Goolsbee concludes. Foregoing the “modest benefits” that Goolsbee’s pals managed to dig up merely because the Fed had to create “the greatest government-bond bubble in history” in order to generate them would have been “cruel and unnecessary.” Oh, wait – what about the loss of interest income suffered by hundreds of millions of Americans – many of them retirees, the disabled and other fixed-income investors – thanks to the zero-interest-rate policy ushered in by the QE Era? Was this cruel and/or unnecessary? Goolsbee delicately avoids the subject.

But Goolsbee’s fellow Keynesian, Paul Krugman, is not so circumspect. Krugman comes right out and says that nobody has the right to expect a positive interest return on safe assets while the economy was in a depression; they can either make do with an infinitesimal interest return or lose the value of their money to inflation. (In the same blog post, Krugman had previously accused his critics of callous indifference to the pain caused by business liquidations in a depression.)

This is not economics. It is half-baked value judgment hiding behind the mask of social science. Similarly, Austan Goolsbee’s evaluation of Ben Bernanke’s term as Federal Reserve Chairman may have the imprimatur of economics, but it lacks any of the substance.

DRI-186 for week of 1-5-14: The Secular Stagnation of Macroeconomic Thought

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Secular Stagnation of Macroeconomic Thought

The topic du jour in economic-policy circles is “secular stagnation,” thanks to two recent speeches on that topic by high-powered macroeconomist Lawrence Summers. The term originated just after World War II when Keynesian economists, particularly Alvin Hansen, used it to justify their forecast of the high unemployment and low growth that ostensibly awaited the U.S. after the war.

Now, nearly 70 years later, it is back. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, monetary economist John Taylor likened its re-emergence to a vampire arising from his crypt. There is indeed something ghoulish about the propensity of Keynesian economists to ransack outdated textbooks in search of conceptual support for their latest brainstorm.

The backstory behind secular stagnation is only half the story, though. The other half is the insight it offers into the mindset of its patrons.

The Birth of the Secular Stagnation Hypothesis

As World War II drew to a close, economists gradually turned their attention to a problem that had intermittently occupied them since the late 1930s. The Great Depression had soured the profession on the workings of free markets. The publication of John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment Interest and Money had suggested a new framework for economic analysis that placed emphasis on unemployment and its elimination. While war mobilization had made this issue moot, the return of servicemen and readjustment to a peacetime economy brought it back to prominence.

Many Keynesians foresaw a return to mass unemployment and Depression. The leading American exponent, Alvin Hansen, developed a specific hypothesis along those lines. Keynes had posited a simple theory of aggregate consumption: consumption was a stable, linear function of income. These properties implied that, over time, it might become progressively more difficult to maintain full employment.

A numerical example using the simple Keynesian macroeconomic model will clarify this point. Y = real income or output, which is the sum of C (Consumption), I (Investment) and G (net Government spending). Further, C is a linear function of Y; that is, C = a + bY, where the “a” term reflects the influence on Consumption of factors other than real income and “b” (the slope of the Consumption function depicted diagrammatically) is the marginal propensity to consume from additional income acquired. Assume, purely for expository purposes, that a = 50, b = .75, I = 100 and G = 100. If Y = 1000, then C = 50 + .75 (1000) = 800. The influence of technology, which improves from year to year, will cause productivity to increase and output to increase over time, all other things equal. Assume, again purely for illustrative purposes, that this increase is 5%. In that case, the full employment level of income will increase from 1000 to 1050. But C does not increase by 5% to 840; it increases only to 837.50. In order to preserve full employment (according to Keynesian logic), the sum of I and G will have to increase by 212.50, an increase of 6.25% over its previous value of 200 – which is more than 5%. Over time, this putative annual shortfall in Consumption would get larger and larger, requiring successively larger doses of I and G to keep us at full employment.

Already we can see the germ of logic behind Hansen’s secular stagnation hypothesis, which is that Consumption over time will fall farther and farther behind the level necessary to preserve full employment. (The word “secular” does not reflect its customary meaning of “non-religious or worldly” but rather its technical economic meaning of “a long time series of indefinite duration.”) Underconsumption is a theme dear to the hearts of Keynesian economists. In this case, it depends as a first approximation on the algebraic structure of the simple Keynesian model, in which Consumption is a simple linear function of income (Y).

There was much more to the analysis than this. In principle, Consumption might increase for reasons unrelated to income. But Hansen predicted just the opposite. He believed the primary source of autonomous increases in Consumption was population growth, and he foresaw a sharp in U.S. population growth after the war. He was equally pessimistic about increases in autonomous Investment because he thought the highest-returning investments had already been tapped. Thus, by default, government deficit spending was the only possible remedy for progressively worsening unemployment and stagnating economic growth – hence the term “secular stagnation.”

The Gruesome Death of the Secular Stagnation Hypothesis

Alvin Hansen was known as the “American Keynes.” Presumably this was because of the apostolic fervor with which he preached Keynesian gospel. In this case, he shared something else with Keynes: the thoroughness with which history repudiated his ideas.

Hansen predicted population decline. Instead, the U.S. experienced the biggest baby boom in history. Among other effects, this produced an explosion of household investment in consumer durables such as homes, automobiles and appliances. The shortages and government-imposed rationing of World War II had generated a pent-up demand that burst its boundaries in the postwar climate.

Rather than unemployment and depression, the U.S. enjoyed one of its biggest expansions ever in 1946. This eventually created problems when, during the Korean War, the Truman administration preferred to fund the war via money creation rather than employing the borrowing that had financed most defense expenditures during World War II. The result was inflation, which the Administration countered with wage and price controls.

The U.S. had borrowed to the max in its conquest over the Axis powers, with debt climbing to its highest level as a percentage of national output. In his recent book, David Stockman pointed out the important role played by the Eisenhower Administration in paying down this debt and returning a semblance of sanity to federal-government spending.

This combination of private-sector buoyancy and government fiscal retrenchment left no need or room for the Keynesian remedy proposed by Hansen. As the 1950s unfolded, economic theoreticians on all sides of the spectrum delivered the coup de grace to the secular stagnation hypothesis.

In 1957, Milton Friedman presented his “permanent income” hypothesis of consumption spending, which fleshed out the individual utility-maximizing theory of consumer behavior with the picture of a consumer whose spending is governed by an estimation of lifetime or “permanent” income. He or she will tend to dissave by borrowing when young and by drawing down accumulated assets when old, meanwhile accumulating assets via saving in prime earning years. It is not actual or realized income so much as this individualized conception of expected normal income that influences consumption spending.

Keynesian Franco Modigliani developed his own theory of “life cycle” consumption, rather broadly similar to Friedman’s, within the same time frame. Left-wing economist James Duesenberry developed a “relative income” hypothesis stating that consumption was influenced by the consumer’s income relative to that of others. While there were important theoretical and practical differences between the three theories, they all rejected the simple Keynesian linear dependence of consumption on income. And this drove a stake through the heart of the secularly widening gap between consumption and income. The slats had been kicked out from under the secular-stagnation platform.

The secular stagnation hypothesis had already been proved to be a resounding flop in practice. Now it was shown to be wrong in theory as well. Before Keynesian economics had even been adopted on a wholesale basis, it had suffered its first crushing defeat.

The Rise of the Undead: Secular Stagnation Rises from the Crypt

Broadway impresarios sometimes revive past productions, but they invariably choose to revive hit plays rather than flops. Based on its first run, secular stagnation would not seem to be a prime candidate for revival. Nevertheless, Lawrence Summers mounted a new version of the concept and took it out of town for a tryout in two recent speeches, supplemented by comments on subsequent blog posts.

In his first speech, made to the International Monetary Fund Research Council, Summers grappled with the theoretical issues involved in resurrecting Hansen’s ancient bogeyman. Paraphrasing Clemenceau on war and generals, Summers mused that “finance is too important to be left to financiers.” The U.S. quickly recovered from the financial panic of 2008-09, but the ensuing four years brought astonishingly little progress when measured in standard macroeconomic metrics like employment and output growth. Although the term “secular stagnation” has long been neglected by his profession, Summers now finds it “not…without relevance” in understanding our current situation.

If the U.S. suffered a mass power blackout, output would fall precipitously. It would be idiotic for economists to object that electricity constitutes “only 4%” of total output – obviously, its importance is not indicated by its fraction of total output. Similarly, finance should be viewed in the same light – as the intermediating, lubricating force that enables the bulk of our goods and services. If a power blackout did occur, we would naturally expect restoration of service to be followed by a catch-up period of increased output, rather than the sort of prolonged stagnation we have actually experienced after the financial crisis. So why hasn’t it happened?

Summers’ explanation to the IMF audience was technical – that the “natural rate of interest” is negative; e.g., below zero. “We may need to think about we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity, holding our economies back, below their potential.” Summers means that the practical inability to charge negative rates of interest – e.g., subsidize loans rather than charge money for them – is what is chaining the U.S. economy down.

In his second speech and follow-up blog  comments, Summers elaborated on the policy implications of his musings. “Our economy is constrained by lack of demand rather than lack of supply. Increasing our capacity to produce will not translate into increased output unless there is more demand for goods and services.” Of course, this is the old-time Keynesian religion of underconsumption, set to the background music of Cole Porter’s “Everything Old is New Again.” Secular stagnation has been brought down from the attic, fumigated with a dusting of demographics (the declining U.S. birth rate) to remove the stench of disgrace left by Hansen.

We need to “end the disastrous trends toward less and less government spending and employment each year.” In other words, the problem is not that we overspent and created too much sovereign debt in 2008-09; the problem is that we spent too little – and then cut spending after that. We should replace coal-first power plants – that will necessitate a huge program of capital spending to keep the power on. Following Keynes, Summers stresses the importance of supporting domestic demand by improving the trade balance.

Just as this program begins to sound suspiciously like a hair of the dog that bit us – or maybe the entire hair coat – Summers removes all doubt. It is “a chimera to rely on regulation” to pop asset bubbles in the face of the monetary excess necessary to underpin his program.

At the close of his first speech, Summers provided the only saving grace with the caveat: “This may all be madness and I may not have this right at all.”

Krugman’s Endorsement of Summers: For This We Need Economists?

Summers’ revival of the secular stagnation hypothesis was the talk of policymaking circles. Half of the talk was probably devoted to wondering what Summers was saying; the other half to wondering why he was saying it. Perhaps trying to be helpful, Summers’ partner in Keynesian crime Paul Krugman weighed in with his own interpretation of Summers’ remarks.

Inevitably, Krugman’s own views crept in to his discussion. The result was a blog post that could scarcely be believed even when read. (Readers with broad minds and strong stomachs are referred to “Secular Stagnation, Coalmines, Bubbles, and Larry Summers,” 11/16/2013, on the Krugman archive.)

Krugman begins with an uncharacteristic (and unrepeated) touch of humility. Noting the similarity between his own previous published diagnosis of our economic ills and Summers’ current one, he admits that Summers’ is “much clearer…more forceful, and altogether better.”

According to Krugman, he and Summers both view the U.S. economy as stuck in a “liquidity trap.” This is another Keynesian illustration of market pathology. As Keynes originally described the concept, a liquidity trap existed during an economic depression so intense that monetary policy was rendered impotent. Governments use banks as their tool for creating money; securities sold to the public are snapped up by banks, which in turn use them as the basis for making loans to businesses. But banks cannot force businesses to take out loans. If businesses decide that conditions are so bad that investing is too risky no matter how low the borrowing rate of interest, then monetary policymakers are helpless. In contrast, fiscal policy labors under no such constraint, since the government can always spend money for stimulative purposes. In a liquidity trap, though, monetary policy is likened to “pushing on a string” – a fruitless effort.

Krugman carries this notion further by identifying it with Summers’ evocation of a negative equilibrium interest rate. Investment demand is so weak and the desire to save so strong that the two are equilibrated only when “the” interest rate is below zero. In this climate, Krugman maintains, “the normal rules of economic policy don’t apply…virtue becomes vice and prudence becomes folly. Saving hurts the economy – it even hurts investment thanks to the paradox of thrift.” Krugman hereby drags in Keynesian anachronism #3. The so-called “paradox of thrift” states that the attempt to save more results in less saving because ex ante increases in saving will reduce income and employment, thus preventing the saving that consumers are trying to do, while reducing consumption as well. The only problem with this is that we have actually realized increases in saving and income at the same time, which is diametrically opposite to the effects predicted by the concept.

But these are trifles compared to the powerhouse contentions Krugman has coming up. Summers outlined a general program of public spending to increase demand and frankly admitted the futility of suppressing bubbles caused by the money creation necessary to finance the spending. Is Krugman troubled by this? Not merely “no,” but “Hell, no.”

“While productive spending is best, unproductive spending is still better than nothing…this isn’t just true of public spending. Private spending that is wholly or partially wasteful is also a good thing, unless it somehow stores up trouble for the future.” And how could that possibly happen? (See “Europe, Sovereign Debt of; Europe, Financial Crises of; Europe, Bailouts Multiply Across; Europe, Political Protests Blanket.”)

Krugman continues with an example of wasteful spending by U.S. corporations that produced virtually no payoff after three years. “Nevertheless, the resulting investment boom would have given us several years of much higher employment, with no real waste, since the resources employed would have otherwise been idle.[emphasis added] F.A. Hayek characterized Keynesian economics as the negation of the market, a description well befitting this rationalization. In Krugman’s world, the labor market and relative prices might as well not exist, for all the effect they have. Microeconomics either does not exist or operates on a different plane of existence than the macroeconomic plane on which the statistical construct of aggregate demand wields its decisive influence. For this we need economists?

Krugman now arrives at “the radical part of Larry’s presentation” – as if the foregoing weren’t radical enough! He straightforwardly, even proudly admits what Summers guardedly suggests – that asset bubbles are a good thing. In fact, according to Krugman, U.S. prosperity has been built on bubbles for quite a while. “We now know that the economy of 2003-2007 was built on a bubble.” Krugman is being coy here since he made a celebrated statement in 2002 calling for the Federal Reserve to create a bubble in the housing market. Oddly enough, this attracted almost no attention at the time and has brought him no adverse reaction since then. “You can say the same about the latter part of the 90s expansion; and… about the later years…of the Reagan expansion, which was driven …by runaway thrift institutions and a large bubble in commercial real estate.”

Krugman’s recall of history is curiously defective, especially considering that he was employed in the Reagan Administration at the time, albeit in a minor position. The 1986 tax reform law was, and still is, pinpointed for tax-law changes that helped pop a real-estate bubble largely built on tax-deductibility. The political Left is fond of criticizing Reagan for claiming to have lowered taxes in the early 80s while actually raising them later on. The Left is even fonder of excoriating Reagan and Paul Volcker for ending inflation on the backs of the poor by killing off inflation by stopping monetary expansion too abruptly. Now Krugman is criticizing Reagan for doing just the opposite!

Krugman’s piece de resistance is his riposte to future critics who will object to the runaway inflation that the Summers/Krugman project will promote. Krugman unblinkingly admits that inflation “expropriates the gains of savers,” but replies that “in a liquidity trap, saving may be a personal virtue but it’s a social vice.” And in an economy facing secular stagnation, the liquidity trap is “the norm. Assuring people they can get a positive rate of interest on safe assets means promising them something the market doesn’t want to deliver.”

Krugman implicitly and explicitly assumes that markets are as dysfunctional as life-support patients with no respirator. But when he needs a justification for deep-sixing the life savings of hundreds of millions of people, he suddenly pulls out “the market” and gives its ostensible verdict a personal blessing of moral authority. Yet in this very same blog post, he cavalierly dismisses his critics as “a lot of people [opponents of Krugman] want economics to be a morality play and they don’t care how many people suffer in the process” [!!] For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the long-running debate between Krugman and his critics, those critics are free-market economists who want bubbles to end with unsustainable businesses being liquidated rather than bailed out, and the business cycle to be cut short rather than prolonged indefinitely with each iteration worse than the previous one.

Intellectual Stagnation, Not Economic

At this point, it is all too clear that secular stagnation has taken place. But the stagnation is intellectual, not economic. Keynesian economists are framing policy arguments using terms like “secular stagnation,” “liquidity trap” and “paradox of thrift.” These recondite terms went out of fashion over thirty years ago, along with the paleo-Keynesian economic theory that spawned them. They survive in the 20th-century textbooks and graduate-school memories of economists now approaching retirement.

The shocking character of the Summers/Krugman hypothesis doesn’t derive from its vintage, though. Its anti-economic character – relative prices are irrelevant, waste is a good thing, markets are worthless except when economic managers need a pretext for arbitrary action – is professionally repellent. Even more frightening is the hubris on display. Summers is a disgusting sight, standing up in front of an audience at the International Monetary Fund, pontificating with grandiose gravity about “managing an economy” – as if he were the CEO of a U.S. economy of some 315 million people and tens of thousands of businesses.

There are quite a few people who consider a large public corporation too unwieldy to manage effectively. The difficulty of one economist managing an entire economy must increase not merely linearly but exponentially, considering the interaction and feedback effects involved. At least Summers had the minimal presence of mind to recognize that he might be mistaken. Krugman, in contrast, displays the same mindset as his intellectual antecedent, John Maynard Keynes. Several biographers and friends – including F.A. Hayek, with whom his relations were cordial despite their opposing views – remarked that Keynes was obsessed with his own preeminence as a public intellectual rather than with mastery of economic theory as such. Hayek remarked that Keynes may have been the most brilliant man he ever encountered but was a bad economist. Summers and Krugman show no signs of possessing the intellectual diversity and flexibility of Keynes – only his arrogance and deep-seated need for personal attention.

There is another shocking aspect to this latest policy flap. Summers/Krugman are in the anomalous position of criticizing the results of their own policies. That is, even they cannot credibly maintain that we have lived under a regime of laissez-faire or tight fiscal or monetary discipline for the last five years. They can only insist that not enough was done. Of course, this is the standard big-government lament; when big-government fails, try bigger government. But in this case, they are telling us that the results they formerly called bad were really good and we should expect no more from them in the future. The friendliest left-winger would have to acknowledge that Summers/Krugman are confessing failure and telling us that this is the best we can do. Notice, for example, that neither man stressed the very short-term nature of their policy prescription or promised that once their strategy of fiscal inebriation reached its apogee, we could let the market take over. No, theirs was a counsel of despair reminiscent of late 1970s malaise.

You can’t get any more stagnant than that.

DRI-300 for week of 7-28-13: Was Detroit’s Fall ‘Just One of Those Things That Happens Now and Then’ to ‘An Innocent Victim of Market Forces’?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Was Detroit’s Fall ‘Just One of Those Things That Happens Now and Then’ to ‘An Innocent Victim of Market Forces’?

Last week’s EconBrief analyzed Detroit’s precipitous decline from America’s most prosperous city to Chapter 9 bankruptcy. The most popular explanation ascribes the event to 20th-century liberalism, which reigned unchallenged over the city throughout its financial death spiral. When a city is named the most liberal in America, as Detroit was by the BayAreaCenter for Voting Research, political philosophy becomes the prime suspect at its post-mortem.

Still, there have been prominent dissenters. Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm called Detroit a victim of “free trade.” Presumably, she refers to the international trade in automobiles that increasingly brought foreign models – especially Japanese cars – to prominence in the U.S. Even more significant were the comments of Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, economist and columnist for the New York Times. In his column of 07/27/2013 entitled “When It Comes to Detroit, Greece Is Not the Word” and subtitled “Victims of Creative Destruction,” Krugman lamented the fact that Detroit’s bankruptcy would occasion comparisons to the financial default of Greece.

Greece’s circumstances were unique and not comparable to those of other countries, Krugman contended. Moreover, Greece’s small economy – “about 1 ½ times as big as metropolitan Detroit” – did not affect the rest of the world much. Consequently, it was wrong to use Greece’s problems as an excuse to cry wolf about government deficit spending. Thus, it must be just as wrong to cite Detroit as a model for municipal excess. For example, U.S. state and local government-employee pensions are only underfunded by about one trillion dollars, Krugman contended. He cited a BostonCollege study as his source for this figure, which is only about one-third the size of conventional estimates.

Having established Greece as an isolated case, Krugman appears poised to do likewise for Detroit – but no. “So was Detroit just uniquely irresponsible? Again, no. Detroit does seem to have had [sic] especially bad governance, but for the most part, the city was just an innocent victim of market forces.” Reading Krugman on Detroit’s political leadership suggests that, had Krugman strolled through Hiroshima the day after the atomic bomb was dropped, his reaction would have been that an especially large bomb seemed to have fallen in the middle of the city.

Krugman plays it coy about just which “market forces” victimized Detroit, but he has no scruples about reminding us that they can be brutal. “…Sometimes whole cities…lose their place in the economic ecosystem…,” he lectures sternly. And when that happens? That is when we pull out the big gun in the liberal arsenal: we need to “have a serious discussion about how cities can best manage the transition when their traditional sources of competitive advantage go away. And let’s also have a serious discussion about our obligations, as a nation, to those of our fellow citizens who have the bad luck of finding themselves living and working in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Detroit, according to Krugman, isn’t “fundamentally a tale of fiscal irresponsibility and/or greedy public employees…it’s just one of those things that happen now and then in an ever-changing economy.”

It is deeply ironic that, of the two commentators, it was the politician who referred explicitly to international trade. After all, Paul Krugman won his Nobel Prize for work in the field of international trade theory. Yet he referred to that subject only obliquely in his column. That is the clue to the profound intellectual dishonesty of these two commentaries. The politician lied about a subject on which politicians lie reflexively. The economist avoided a subject in which he is supremely qualified because he had no intention of telling the truth and could not bear to trash his reputation by lying outright.

America’s Unfree International Trade in Automobiles
The effects of international trade in automobiles can be seen daily zooming across the roadways of America. The Toyota is one of the most popular automobiles in America. But this is hardly the outcome of free trade in automobiles. Free trade is defined as the absence of such impediments to international trade as tariffs (taxes) and quotas. No sooner did foreign-car makers such as France’s Renault and Sweden’s Volvo enter the U.S. market in the 1960s than they were besieged with tariffs at the behest of Detroit.

When Japanese automakers like Honda, Toyota and Nissan began to loosen the stranglehold of the Big Three on the U.S. market in the 1970s, Congress erected a tariff wall against foreign-car imports. This was even extended to include a quota of one million Japanese-car imports. Amazingly, tariffs remain in force to this day in the form of a 2.25% tariff on Japanese-car imports and a 25% truck tariff.

Doubtless Ms. Granholm was relying on the notoriously poor memories of Americans when she cited free trade as the cause of Detroit’s woes. But it isn’t necessary to be a student of U.S. commercial policy in order to know she is lying. Today, nearly two-thirds of Toyotas sold in America are not shipped to America from Japan. They are assembled right here in the USA in places like Tennessee and Alabama. Why did Japanese automakers take the time and trouble to build auto plants here in the U.S.? In order to escape our import barriers. Direct foreign investment is a classic ploy to overcome tariffs and quotas. Honda was the first Japanese automaker to build a U.S. plant, followed soon by Toyota in the early 1980s.

Not only do domestic manufactures escape the penalties levied on imported goods, they also escape the criticism often leveled at purchases of foreign goods. The same people who scream and holler about American jobs being exported to Japan by “globalization” (today’s pejorative buzzword for free trade) can hardly complain when the Japanese build a U.S. plant that employs U.S. workers. The same chauvinists who demand that we “buy American” can’t very well complain when we buy American-made Toyotas.

It is true that production tends to migrate to its least-cost locus. But transport costs have been falling, not rising, for decades – that is why containerization has become so popular. Before tariffs, the Japanese made cars in Japan and shipped them here. Only after tariffs were imposed did it become efficient to move production to the U.S., where the Japanese had to strain to acclimate U.S. workers to their legendary production methods.

Sharp-eyed readers noticed the word “assembled” used to describe the process by which automobiles are made. Today, the hundreds of parts that comprise an automobile are manufactured throughout the world. They are shipped to automobile plants for final assembly into the finished product. So-called “American” cars like Fords, Chryslers and GM products may well contain fewer American-made parts than do Toyotas and Hondas. To an economist, what matters is that the final product be produced at least cost and that all trade reflects the comparative or “opportunity” costs of producing the products traded. Free trade reflects those costs while tariffs and quotas distort them.

No, it wasn’t free trade that drove General Motors and Chrysler to virtual bankruptcy. It was a combination of factors, one of which was the ability of competitors to overcome the protectionist barriers thrown up by Detroit’s political influence.

Similar logic defeats the comment made by another left-wing onlooker that “capitalism failed Detroit.” The Big Three benefitted from numerous federal-government bailouts even before 2008. Chrysler enjoyed one of the very first federal-government bailouts in 1980, thanks to the charisma and clout of Lee Iacocca. Of course, this was the antithesis of capitalism (but the epitome of “crony capitalism.”) Really, what Ms. Granholm means by “free trade” is freedom itself; e.g., the absence of government coercion and constraint. As we discover below, this is exactly what Detroit did not experience during its painful decline.

Why Krugman Could Not Say What He Implied
Krugman’s comments about “just one of those things” and “an innocent victim of market forces” conjure up images of Detroit buffeted by random shocks from outside the city involving supply, demand and prices of things like oil, raw materials, labor, machinery and technology. Of all the possible “market forces” involved, what could Krugman possibly mean if not the market for automobile production and sale? Surely Detroit and Battle Creek didn’t wage war over breakfast cereal dominance? The Great Lakes weren’t blockaded by Canada at some point, were they?

Krugman’s vague references are intended to allow his readers to believe that he means that the effects of international trade in automobiles are what did Detroit in. But he is not going to come right out and say that. For that would expose him as incompetent in his Nobel-Prize specialty. The problems experienced by the Big Three automakers couldn’t possible have caused Detroit’s bankruptcy and Krugman knows it. There is no alternative to conceding that the right wing is right – liberalism’s bankruptcy caused Detroit’s bankruptcy. And Krugman knows that, too.

Automobile companies located in Detroit certainly suffered losses of sales and profits from (mostly) Japanese competition. But these losses were not felt by “Detroit,” either by the citizenry at large or by municipal government coffers. Corporate profits and losses accrue to shareholders. In this case, that means a few million people who mostly don’t live in Detroit but rather are dispersed throughout the nation. They include private individuals, households, investment-company fund shareholders and pensioners. Some executives lost jobs and income, but they were comparatively few when mingled among the nation’s fourth-largest city. In principle, workers could suffer job and income losses – but in practice the UAW saw to it that they didn’t. The union’s unwillingness to make wage and benefit concessions to management was proverbial. Its legacy-benefit accumulations to retirees were legendary. To this very day, Japanese auto-plant workers continue to assemble cars more productively than do UAW workers in Big Three auto plants. Consequently, the Big Three were bled dry. This even continued during the Obama Administration’s bankruptcy bailout, when General Motors’s shareholders were stiffed in favor of the UAW, which split the spoils with the federal government.

Not only did municipal government not suffer, it was among the vampires. For years, the automakers paid millions to the city for so-called “riot insurance.”

That is not all. The losses suffered by auto-company shareholders must be counterbalanced by the greater gains in real income. After all, international trade produces gains that more-than-offset losses; that is why international trade is just as beneficial as intranational trade. Once again, those gains are dispersed throughout the nation. But there were surely more foreign-car drivers in Detroit than auto-company shareholders – UAW parking lots were often sprinkled with imports! – and the gains of the former were larger than the losses of the latter.

Upon analysis, the notion that foreign-car competition wrecked Detroit is ludicrous on its face. And Paul Krugman’s curiously oblique column now makes sense. He couldn’t endorse Jennifer Granholm’s ridiculous claim, thereby becoming the first Nobel Prize-winning economist to make himself a laughingstock in his own specialized niche. But his liberal credentials, syndicated-column status and unshakable personal arrogance demanded that he not concede even the clearest victory to the enemy. He cannot acknowledge a truth uttered by the right wing even when validated by the logic of his own profession.

Detroit’s Downfall Was Not Random
Krugman’s description of Detroit’s fate as “just one of those things” triggers memories of a popular song from Detroit’s glory days: “Just one of those things; just one of those crazy things; one of those bells that now and then rings; just one of those things.” In short, it implies randomness rather than the result of purposive acts, incompetence, bad judgment or corruption.

That is exactly the opposite of the truth.

Detroit’s political leadership was not a random variable. Its liberal pedigree was impeccable. The city’s last Republican mayor served from 1957 to 1961. His successor, Jerome Cavanaugh, was a young New Frontier Democrat cast in the mold of John F. Kennedy. Cavanaugh was determined to use government to lift up the poor and impoverished. He accomplished half his objective; he used government. But the poor and impoverished did not decline. Instead, a city that boasted America’s highest per-capita income in 1960 went steadily downhill to a household income of $26,000 in 2010. Unemployment stands today at 16%.

Krugman’s description of Detroit as “an innocent victim of market forces” is classic liberal rhetoric. Whereas liberals usually create “social wholes” or collectives from politically malleable blocs and cast them as victims, Krugman has escalated the use of this technique to encompass an entire city. As noted above, his unnamed market forces must refer to international trade. But as explained above, the widely dispersed losses suffered by the Big Three automakers from Japanese competition cannot begin to explain the highly concentrated losses felt by the fourth-largest and most prosperous city in the world’s wealthiest nation. When the gains from that international trade are factored in, Krugman’s implicit case disintegrates.

International trade does not explain the fact that one-third of Detroit’s acreage is either vacant or horribly blighted. Trade cannot account for the fact that houses sometimes sell for $500 or less. International trade did not cause Detroit’s population of nearly 2 million to shrink to roughly 700,000. These things were caused by the 20-year reign of a black-separatist mayor who declared that only white could people could be racist. When whites reacted by fleeing the city for Detroit’s numerous suburbs, Mayor Coleman Young continued to direct imprecations at the “racists in the suburbs.” The more whites left the city, the more politically potent Young’s black base became. This tactic of deliberately encouraging out-migration through ineffective government has been dubbed the “Curley Effect” (after Boston’s notorious Mayor James Curley) by economists Andrei Shleifer and Edward Glaeser.

International trade did not give Detroit the worst crime rate in the nation and a murder rate eleven times greater than New York’s. It was Mayor Young who polarized the police force by laying off white officers to change the racial composition of the department. It was the mayor who refused to treat black and white criminality alike and called rioting “rebellion” when committed by blacks. International trade did not make 47% of Detroit’s citizens functionally illiterate, nor did it set Detroit’s public education system trudging toward the bottom rungs of the national achievement ladder despite an per-student expenditure of over $14,000.

Random market forces did not create a vast municipal bureaucracy, at one time comprising nearly 10% of the city’s working population. Market forces did not arrange for public-employee retirees to have 80-100% of their medical costs paid by their city retirement benefits. International trade did not cause 75% of municipal revenue to be devoted to salaries, benefits and legacy (retirement) obligations of municipal employees. Japanese competition did not force Detroit to burden its citizens with the highest per-capita tax burden in the state while still borrowing and spending lavishly enough to drive the city into bankruptcy.

International trade did not compel two of Mayor Coleman’s closest aides to separately steal over $1 million dollars, crimes for which they served jail terms. Trade did not seduce the “Hip-Hop Mayor,” Kwame Kilpatrick, into violating 24 federal statutes, including racketeering and mail fraud. The Japanese did not make the municipal bureaucracy virtually impervious to all attempts at reform, streamlining or simple day-to-day functional improvement.

International trade did not compel Detroit city government to smother small businesses with regulations such as the licensing requirements that threaten the existence of over 1,000 small businesses that make up some 10% of businesses and serve over two-thirds of Detroit residents. International trade did not dictate a city-imposed minimum wage exceeding $11 per-hour for public employees and businesses contracting with the city.

Krugman’s call for a “serious discussion…as a nation…about our obligations…to our fellow citizens…who have bad luck” is a thinly-veiled call for a bailout. But that was exactly the road Detroit followed under Coleman Young, whose explicit strategy was to “go to war with the city’s major institutions and demand that the federal government save it with subsidies.” Sure enough, up to one-third of Detroit municipal salaries were paid by federal-government salaries, according to researcher and write Tamar Jacoby. As Steven Malanga pointed out in The Wall Street Journal (7/27-28/2013), this strategy acquired the nickname “tin-cup urbanism.” Today, we are all holding tin cups and the federal government is robbing most of them in order to replenish favored cup holders.

No, there is absolutely nothing random about Detroit’s descent into bankruptcy. The forces causing it had virtually nothing to do with international trade. They were the forces of anti-capitalism, not capitalism. It is easy to see why Paul Krugman could only hint that international trade was involved without actually mentioning the subject, and why he had to distract his readers with the non sequitur of Greece. Detroit’s bankruptcy was caused by everything Paul Krugman believes in and continues to advocate today except for free trade. In other words, the fate of Detroit is Krugmanism in action.

DRI-326 for week of 5-12-13: Paul Krugman Can’t Stand the Truth About Austerity

An Access Advertising EconBrief: 

Paul Krugman Can’t Stand the Truth About Austerity

The digital age has produced many unfortunate byproducts. One of these is the rise of shorthand communication. In journalism, this has produced an overreliance on buzzwords. The buzzword substitutes for definition, delineation, distinction and careful analysis. Its advantage is that it purports to say so much within the confines of one word – which is truly a magnificent economy of expression, as long as the word is telling the truth. Alas, all too often, the buzzword buzzsaws its way through its subject matter like a chain saw, leaving truth mutilated and amputated in its wake.

The leading government budgetary buzzword of the day is “austerity.” For several years, members of the European Union have either undergone austerity or been threatened with it – depending on whose version of events you accept. Now the word has crossed the Atlantic and awaits a visa for admission to this country. It has met a chilly reception.

In a recent (05/11/2013) column, economist Paul Krugman declares that “at this point, the economic case for austerity…has collapsed.” In order to appreciate the irony of the column, we must probe the history of the policy called “austerity.” Tracing that history back to the 1970s, we find that it was originated by Keynesian economists – ideological and theoretical soul mates of Paul Krugman. This revelation allows us to offer a theory about otherwise inexplicable comments by Krugman in his column.

The Origin of “Austerity”

The word “austerity” derives from the root word “austere,” which is used to denote something that is harsh, cold, severe, stern, somber or grave. When applied to a government policy, it must imply an intention to inflict pain and hardship. That is, the severity must be inherent in the policy chosen – it cannot be an invisible or unwitting byproduct of the policy. There may or may not be a compensating or overriding justification for the austerity, but it is the result of deliberation.

The word was first mated to policy during the debt crisis. No, this wasn’t our current federal government debt crisis or even the housing debt and foreclosure crisis that began in 2007. The original debt crisis was the 1970s struggle to deal with non-performing development loans made by Western banks to sovereign nations. At first, most of the debtor countries were low-income, less-developed countries in Africa and Latin America. Eventually, the contagion of bad loans and debt spread to middle-income countries like Mexico and Argentina. This episode was a rehearsal for the subprime-mortgage-loan defaults to follow decades later.

The original debt crisis was motivated by the same sort of “can’t miss” thinking that produced the housing mess. Sovereign nations were the perfect borrower, reasoned the big Wall Street banks of the 1970s, because a country can’t go broke the way a business can. After all, it has the power to tax its citizens, doesn’t it? Since it can’t go broke, it won’t default on its loan payments.

This line of reasoning – no, let’s call it “thinking” – found willing sets of ears on the heads of Keynesian economists, who had long been berating the West for its stinginess in funding development among less-developed countries. Agencies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank perked up their ears, too. The IMF was created at the end of World War II to administer a worldwide regime of fixed exchange rates. When this regime, named for the venue (Bretton Woods, New Hampshire) at which it was formally established, collapsed in 1971, the IMF was a great big international bureaucracy without a mandate. It was charmed to switch its attention to economic development. By brokering development loans to poor countries in Africa, Central and South America, it could collect administrative fees coming and going – coming, by carving off a chunk of the original loan in the form of an origination fee and going, by either rolling over the original loan or reformulating the development plan completely when the loan went bust.

The reformulation was where the austerity came in. Standard operating procedure called for the loan to be repaid either with revenues from the development project(s) funded by the loan(s) or by tax revenues reaped from taxing the profits of the project(s). Of course, the problem was that development loans made by big bureaucratic banks to big bureaucratic governments in Third World nations were usually subverted to benefit leaders in the target countries or their cronies. This meant that there were usually no business revenues or tax revenues left from which to repay the loans.

Ordinarily, that would leave the originating banks high and dry, along with the developers of the failed investment projects. “Ordinarily” means “in the context of a free market, where lenders and borrowers must suffer the consequences of their own actions.” But the last thing Wall Street banks wanted was to get their just desserts. They influenced their colleagues at the IMF and the World Bank to act as their collection agents. The agencies took off their “economic development loan broker” hats and put on one of their other hats; namely, their “international economics expert advisor” hat. They advised the debtor country how to extricate itself from the mess that the non-performing loan – the same one that they had collected fees for arranging in the first place – had got it into. Does this sound like a conflict of interest? Remember that these agencies were making money coming and going, so they had a powerful incentive to maintain the process by keeping the banks happy – or at least solvent.

Clearly, the Third World debtor country would have to scare up additional revenue with which to pay the loan. One possible way would be to divert revenue from other spending. But the agency economists were Keynesians to the marrow of their bones. They believed that government spending was stimulative to the economy and increased real income and employment via the fabled “multiplier effect,” in which unused resources were employed by the projects on which the government funds were spent. So, the last thing they were willing to advise was a diversion of spending away from the government and into repayment of debt. On the other hand, they were willing to advise Third World countries to acquire money to spend through taxation. If government were to raise $X in taxes and spend those $X, the net effect would not be a wash – it would be to increase real income by X. Why? Because taxation acquires money that private citizens would otherwise spend, but also money that they would otherwise save. When the entire amount of tax revenue is then spent by government, the net effect is to increase total spending – or so went the Keynesian thinking. One of Keynes’ most famous students, Nicholas Kaldor, later to become Lord Kaldor in Great Britain, complained in a famous 1950s’ article: “When will underdeveloped nations learn to tax?”

Thus, the development agencies kept a clear conscience when they advised their Third World clients to raise taxes in order to repay the debt incurred to Western banks. Not surprisingly, this policy advice was not popular with the populations of those countries. That policy acquired the descriptive title of “austerity.” Viewing it from a microeconomic or individual perspective, it is not hard to see why. By definition, a tax is an involuntary exaction that reduces the current or future consumption of the vict-…, er, the taxpayer. The taxpayer gains from it if, and only if, the proceeds are spent so as to more-than-compensate for the loss of that consumption and/or saving. Well, in this case, Third World taxpayers were being asked to repay loans for projects that failed to produce valuable output in the first place and did not produce the advertised gains in employment either. A double whammy – no wonder they called it “austerity!”

How austere were these development-agency recommendations? In Wealth and Poverty (1981), George Gilder offers one contemporary snapshot. “The once-solid economy of Turkey, for example, by 1980 was struggling under a 55 percent [tax] rate applying at incomes of $1,600 and a 68 percent rate incurred at just under $14,000, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) urged new ‘austerity’ programs of devaluation and taxes as a condition for further loans.” Note Gilder’s wording; the word “austerity” was deliberately chosen by the development- agency economists themselves.

“This problem is also widespread in Latin America,” noted Gilder. Indeed, as the 1970s stretched into the 80s and 90s, the problem worsened. “[Economic] growth in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa went into reverse in the 1980s and 1990s,” onetime IMF economist William Easterly recounted sadly in The Elusive Quest for Growth (2001). “The 1983 World Development Report of the World Bank projected a ‘central case’ annual percent per-capital growth in the developing countries from 1982 to 1995″ but “the actual per-capita growth would turn out to be close to zero.”

Perhaps the best explanation of the effect of taxes on economic growth was provided by journalist Jude Wanniski in The Way the World Works (1978). A lengthy chapter is devoted to the Third World debt crisis and the austerity policies pushed by the development agencies.

Two key principles emerge from this historical example. First, today’s knee-jerk presumption that government spending is always good, always wealth enhancing, always productive of higher levels of employment depends critically on the validity of the multiplier principle. Second, the original definition of austerity was painful increases in taxation, not decreases in government spending. And it was left-wing Keynesians themselves who were its practitioners, and who ruled out government spending decreases in favor of tax increases.

Fast Forward

Fast forward to the present day. Since the 1970s, the worldwide experience with taxes has been so unfavorable – and the devotion to lower taxes has become so ingrained – that virtually nobody outside of Scandinavia will swallow a regime of higher taxes nowadays.

Keynesian economics, thoroughly discredited not only by its disastrous economic development policy failures but also by the runaway inflation it started but could not stop in the 1970s, has emerged from under the earth like a protagonist in a George Romero movie. Its devotees still preach the gospel of stimulative government spending and high taxes. But they stress the former and downplay the latter. And, instead of embracing their former program of austerity as the means of overcoming debt, they now accuse their political opponents of practicing it. They have effected this turnabout by redefining the concept of austerity. They now define it as “slashing government spending.”

The full quotation from the Paul Krugman column quoted earlier was: “At this point, the economic case for austerity – for slashing government spending even in the face of a weak economy – has collapsed.” Notice that Krugman says nothing about taxes even though that was a defining characteristic of austerity as pioneered by development-agency Keynesians of his youth. (Krugman does not neglect devaluation, the other linchpin, since he advocates printing many more trillions of dollars than even Ben Bernanke has done so far.)

When Krugman’s Keynesian colleagues originated the policy of austerity, they did it with malice aforethought – using the term themselves while fully recognizing that the high-tax policies would inflict pain on recipients. Now Krugman projects this same attitude on his political opponents by claiming that not only does reduced government spending have harmful effects on real income and employment, but that Republicans will it so. The Republicans, then, are both evil and stupid. Republicans are evil because they “have long followed a strategy of ‘starving the beast,’ slashing taxes so as to deprive the government of the revenue it needs to pay for popular programs. They are stupid because their reluctance “to run deficits in times of economic crisis” is based on the premise that “politicians won’t do the right thing and pay down the debt in good times.” And, wouldn’t you know, the politicians who refuse to pay down the debt are the Republicans themselves. The Republicans are “a fiscal version of the classic definition of chutzpah…killing your parents, then demanding sympathy because you’re an orphan.”

But the real analytical point is that Krugman, and Democrats in general, are exhibiting the chutzpah. They have taken a policy term originated and openly embraced not merely by Democrats, but by Keynesian Democrats exactly like Krugman himself. They have imputed that policy to Republicans, who would never adopt this Democrat policy tool because its central tenet is excruciatingly high taxes. They have correctly accused Republicans of wanting to reduce government spending but wrongly associated that action with austerity in spite of the fact that their Keynesian Democrat forebears did not include it in the original austerity doctrine.

Why have they done this? For no better reason than that they oppose the Republicans politically. Psychology recognizes a behavior called “projection,” the imputing of a detested personal trait or characteristic to others. Having first developed the policy of austerity in the late 1970s and seen its disastrous consequences, Democrats now project its advocacy on their hated Republican opponents. In Krugman’s case, there are compelling reasons to suspect a psychological root cause for his behavior. His ancillary comments reveal an alarming propensity to ignore reality.

Paul Krugman’s Flight from Reality

In the quoted column alone, Krugman makes numerous factual claims that are so clearly and demonstrably untrue as to suggest a basis in abnormal psychology. Pending a full psychiatric review, we can only compare his statements with the factual record.

“In the United States, government spending programs designed to boost the economy are in fact rare – FDR’s New Deal and President Barack Obama’s much smaller recovery act are the only big examples.” Robert Samuelson’s recent book The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath (2008)covers in detail the growth and history of Keynesian economics in the U.S. During the Kennedy administration, Time Magazine featured Keynes on its cover to promote a story conjecturing that Keynesian economics had ended the business cycle. Samuelson followed Keynesian economics and such luminaries as Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Walter Heller, Nobel Laureates Paul Samuelson and James Tobin through the Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Reagan administrations. One of his major theses was precisely that Keynesian economists produced the stagflation of the 1970s by refusing to stop deficit spending and excessive money creation – a view that helped to discredit Keynesianism in the 1980s. There can be no doubt that U.S. economic policy was dominated by Keynesian policies “designed to boost the economy” throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Moreover, every macroeconomics textbook from the 1950s forward taught the concept of “automatic stabilizers” – government programs in which spending was designed to automatically increase when the level of economic activity declined. These certainly qualify as “big” in terms of their omnipresence, although since Krugman is an inflationist in every way he might deny their bigness in some quantitative sense. But they are certainly government spending programs, they are certainly designed to boost the economy and they are certainly continually operative – which makes Krugman’s statement still more bizarre.

“So the whole notion of perma-stimulus is a fantasy… Still, even if you don’t believe that stimulus is forever, Keynesian economics says not just that you should run deficits in bad times, but that you should pay down debt in good times.” The U.S. government has had one true budget surplus since 1961, bequeathed by the Johnson administration to President Nixon in 1969. (The accounting surpluses during the Clinton administration years of 1998-2001 are suspect due to borrowing from numerous off-budget government agencies like Social Security.) This amply supports the contention that politicians will not balance the budget cyclically, let alone annually. European economies are on the verge of collapse due to sovereign debt held by their banking systems and to the inexorable downward drift of productivity caused by their welfare-state spending. Krugman’s tone and tenor implies that “Keynesian economics” should be given the same weight as a doctor prescribing an antibiotic – a proven therapy backed by solid research and years of favorable results. Yet the history of Keynesian economics is that of a discredited theory whose repeated practical application has failed to live up to its billing. Now Krugman is in a positive snit because we don’t blindly take it on faith that the theory will work as advertised for the first time and that politicians will behave as advertised for the first time. If nothing else, one would expect a rational economist to display humility when arguing the Keynesian case – as Keynesians did when repenting their sins in favor of a greatly revised “New Keynesian Economics” during the mid-1980s.

“Unemployment benefits have fluctuated up and down with the business cycle and as a percentage of GDP they are barely half what they were at their recent peak.” Unemployment benefits have “fluctuated” up to 99 weeks during the Great Recession because Congress kept extending them. The rational Krugman knows that his fellow economists have debated whether these extensions have caused people to stop looking for work and instead rely on unemployment benefits. Robert Barro says they have, and finds that the extensions have added about two percentage points to the unemployment rate. Keynesian economists demur, claiming instead that the addition is more like 0.4%. In other words, the profession is not arguing about whether the extensions increase unemployment, only about how much. Meanwhile, Krugman is in his own world, pacing the pavement and mumbling “up and down, up and down – they’re only half what they were at their highest point when you measure them as a percentage of GDP!”

“Food stamp use is still rising thanks to a still-terrible labor market, but historical experience suggests that it too will fall sharply if and when the economy really recovers.” Food stamp (SNAP) use has steadily risen to nearly 48 million Americans. Even during the pre-recession years 2000-2008, food-stamp use rose by about 60%. Thus, the growth of the program has far outpaced growth in the rate of poverty. The Obama administration has bent over backward to liberalize criteria for qualification, allowing even high-wealth, low-income households into the program. This does not depict a temporary program whose enrollment fluctuates up and down with economic change, but rather a tightening vise of dependency.

Krugman’s picture of a “still-terrible labor market” cannot be reconciled with his claim that government spending is an effective counter-cyclical tool. If Krugman’s reaction to the anemic response to the Obama administration economic stimulus is a demand for much higher spending, he will presumably pull out that get-home-free card no matter what the effects of a spending program are. Why would much higher spending work when the actual amount failed? Krugman makes no theoretical case and cites no historical examples to support his claim – presumably because there are none. Governments need no urging to spend money – European governments are collapsing like dominos from doing exactly that. European unemployment has lingered in double digits for years despite heavy government spending, recent complaints about “austerity” to the contrary notwithstanding.

“The disastrous turn toward austerity has destroyed many jobs and ruined many lives. And its time for a U-turn.” Keep in mind that Krugman’s notion of “austerity” is reduced government spending but not higher taxes. This means that he is claiming that taxes have not gone up – when they have. And he is claiming that government spending has gone down, presumably by a lot since it has “destroyed many jobs and ruined many lives.” But government spending has not gone down; only a trivial reduction in the rate of growth of government spending has occurred during the first four and one-half months of 2013.

“Yet calls for a reversal of the destructive turn toward austerity are still having a hard time getting through.” Krugman’s rhetoric implies that Keynesian economics is a sound, sane voice that cannot be heard above the impenetrable din created by right-wing Republican voices. As a rational Krugman well knows, the mainstream news media has long been completely dominated by the Left wing. (It is the Right wing that should be complaining because the public is unfamiliar with the course of economic research over the last 40 years and the mainstream news media has done nothing to educate them on the subject.) Its day-to-day vocabulary is permeated with Keynesian jargon like “multiplier” and “automatic stabilizers.” The rhetorical advantage lies with Democrats and Keynesians. It is practical reality that has let them down. The economics profession conducted an unprecedented forty-five year research program on Keynesian economics. Its obsession with macroeconomics led to a serious neglect of microeconomics in university research throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s. By approximately 1980, the verdict was in. Keynesian economics was theoretically discredited, although its theoretical superstructure was retained in government and academia. Even textbooks were eventually revised to debunk the Keynesian debunking of Classical economics. Macroeconomic policy tools were retained not because free markets were inherently flawed but because policy was ostensibly a faster way to return to “full employment” than by relying on the slower adjustment processes of the market. The reaction to recent “stimulus” programs has demonstrated that even that modest macroeconomic aim is too ambitious.

Keynesian economics has had no trouble getting a hearing. It has had the longest, fairest hearing in the history of the social sciences. The verdict is in. And Krugman stands in the jury box, screaming that he has been framed by conservative Republicans as the bailiffs try to remove him from the courtroom.

Memory records no comparable flight from reality by a prominent economist.