Sunday, August 05, 2012

Which economists are—and are not—worth listening to about the current crisis? (Mark Thoma & Brad DeLong)

A follow-up to the useful guide offered by Jonathan Portes. —Jeff Weintraub

=> Mark Thoma on July 17 (some highlights, but read the whole piece):
Economists have been criticized for their performance during the financial crisis, rightly at times, but not all of the criticism has been fair.

It's true that macroeconomists, as a group, did not see the signs of the disaster that was about to hit the economy. There were a few lonely voices who warned that a dangerous bubble was building in the housing market, but they were mostly ignored. And even after the economy’s troubles became evident, it took macroeconomists longer than it should have to correctly diagnose the problem as a balance sheet recession. But once macroeconomists understood the nature of the difficulties we were experiencing, policies to effectively battle this type of recession were proposed. Unfortunately, the proposals were mostly ignored.

The banks got plenty of attention from both monetary and fiscal policymakers, but efforts to replace the lost demand hurting businesses, to help households repair their balance sheets, to create jobs for the unemployed, and to help state and local governments avoid cutbacks forced by balanced budget requirements fell far short of what was needed.

But I don't think this failure can be blamed on economists. There was no shortage of effort from many of us to get policies like these enacted. The question is why nobody listened.

For fiscal policy the answer is clear and simple. Congress is broken, and it no longer has the ability to work for the common good. Perhaps eliminating the filibuster, removing money from politics, reversing Citizens United, and so on would help – that remains to be seen – but as it stands, Congress is clearly dysfunctional.

And that dysfunction coupled with the influence of big money interests caused Congress to listen to the wrong voices. Instead of paying attention to economists who had been right about the recession all along, Congress listened to the voices that had mostly gotten things wrong. In large part, the people who favored deregulation of the financial sector, assured us there was no housing bubble, and told us problems could be easily contained even if there was a bubble are the very same people who brought us the push for austerity, the fear of inflation, the fear of bond vigilantes, and so on, none of which was helpful.

These economists told Republicans and centrist Democrats in Congress what they wanted to hear, things that allowed them to avoid difficult policy choices or pursue ideological agendas, and they were given prominence in policy discussions. The economists who got it mostly right disagreed with these policies in no uncertain terms, but Congress didn't want to hear what they had to say and fiscal policy suffered because of it. [....]

[But] while I can offer a partial defense of economists – Congress has ignored the economists it ought to be listening to – a full defense is impossible. The continued push from some economists for austerity, interest rate increases, and other policies that satisfy political and ideological goals but work against the recovery, and the failure of economists in charge of monetary policy to adopt policies consistent with the Fed’s mandate undermine any attempt to fully defend the economics profession.

We can fix our economic models, at least I hope we can, and maybe we can fix our political institutions, we shall see, but how do we fix the economists standing in the way of better policy?

=> Brad DeLong responds:
Not All Economists are to Blame, But Some Are

[....]  I assert that some economists got things mostly right about the recession and what was needed to fix it, but they have been ignored in policy discussions. Conversely, those who got things mostly wrong were given prominent seats at the policy-setting table where they continued to make errant forecasts even as the evidence piled up against them. One attempt at rebuttal is, I suppose, is to ask how we know who was correct? The answer is that unlike the economists who continue to promote austerity, fear of inflation, and so on, the assertion is based upon the empirical evidence on these issues. [See Paul Krugman for a related issue, why fear of inflation, deficits, and so on "resonates with a lot of people no matter how often and how badly the worldview fails in practice." Part of my point is that I don't think economists are free of blame for this.]

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