Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Paul Krugman's intellectually dishonest bait and switch

It becomes almost humorous (or would, if billions of dollars and the entire US economy weren't on the line), to watch the posturing the current economic gurus like Larry Summers, Robert Reich, and Paul Krugman as they pimp for the economic stimulus plan. Krugman's most recent NYT editorial is a perfect example.

Take his opening premise:

As the debate over President Obama’s economic stimulus plan gets under way, one thing is certain: many of the plan’s opponents aren’t arguing in good faith. Conservatives really, really don’t want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don’t want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending.

This is cute. Krugman moves the definition of bad faith to be anyone who disagrees with a new New Deal and government activism. As long-time readers of Krugman will know, this is codespeak for labeling opponents of massive government interventionism as racist. In Krugman's view--a view apparently shared by many Bail-out supporters--the only legitimate argument left is over how to divide the spoils, not whether the government should print money it cannot back.

Leaving that aside, however, my favorite Krugman ("There is no God but Keynes, and I am His Prophet") piece of intellectual dishonesty comes here:

Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

First, Krugman creates an obvious straw man by lampooning those who disagree as always preferring tax cuts to government spending. Given the record of the past eight years it would be hard--outside the Libertarian movement--to find any legislator, Democrat or Republican, who has consistently objected to government spending. NCLB? Medicaid Prescription Drugs? Homeland Security Grants?

Then Krugman does a neat bait-and-switch argument by equating anyone who wants tax cuts to also be advocating the elimination of, say, the air traffic control system. Really? Silly me, I thought the argument was about the effectiveness of economic stimulus, not the effectiveness of regulatory organizations. Does anyone else note here that Krugman is not merely comparing apples and oranges, but apples and screwdrivers? Unless Krugman would like to explain how increased funding for, say, the FDA would result in economic stimulus. Safer food? Possibly. But not economic stimulus. Certain functions (we can debate which ones later)are either best performed by government or are traditionally performed by government (unless you are one of my anarcho-capitalist readers), and that has (wait for it) absolutely nothing to do with the effectivess of government spending as economic stimulus.

[There is an argument to be made for government spending, a very Keynesian argument that suggests that you get $1.50 in economic stimulus for every government $1.00 spent. This argument is, however, so shopworn and fraught with variables it does not take into account that even most Keynesian economists approach it very diffidently.]

Krugman knows his argument here is pure bullshit, which is what makes him intellectually dishonest. He knows that Statists across the country will only quote his initial paragraph as holy writ, while failing to engage the non-supporting mess to follow. Krugman's advocacy is no longer about the conscience of a liberal, but about his personal ability to go down in history like Keynes or Friedman as the intellectual who reshaped the America economic scene. Unfortunately, unlike both Keynes and Friedman, Krugman stoops with great regularity to the demonization of anyone who disagrees with him, and has subordinated substantive thought to the creation of red meat talking points.

Heck, he could have worked for the last administration.


Tyler Nixon said...

Krugman strikes me as an exploitive parasite, looking to emblazon the Obama agenda and America with his ahistorical mushy-headed nonsense.

He really has descended to the level of a cheap Bush talking-points copywriter.

Bowly said...

It also ignores the absurdity that without federal government direction, airlines and local governments would be content with midair collisions. I admit that I'm drifting further into An-Cap positions over time, but I don't think it takes an An-Cap to realize that airlines probably don't want planes to crash. Not good for the business model.