Economics is quite simple and straightforward

By this stage, if you still accept Keynesian economics as a legitimate approach to understanding how an economy works, or how to find our way out of recession, you are basing everything on authority and simple faith. It’s in all the texts, but you would think that by now there would be a growing level of dissatisfaction about the irrelevance of textbook theory for making sense of the actual events of an economy. Kevin Williamson has written an article, Economics may be dismal, but it’s not a science, which refers back to an article written by Niall Ferguson, The Rise and Fall of Krugmania in the UK. So we have a journalist quoting an historian on the uselessness of economic theory.

Economists have never in all their endeavors managed to deliver a truly useful and broadly applicable model to policymakers, which is to say a model that is prospective, connecting policy changes to real-world outcomes in a predictable, accurate, and reliable manner. Given the complexity at work, that probably is an impossible task, and the record of economists for making predictions is not good; Krugman’s record is arguably worse than average, despite his straight-faced insistence: “I (and those of like mind) have been right about everything.” Right about everything would be a very high standard for a marine biologist or an astronomer — but for an economist?

Krugman is trying to set a kind of standard of sorts, for being able to deny reality longer than anyone else. You know that Keynesian inanity about changing one’s mind when the facts change. Keynesian economics will disappear around the same time that the left gives up on socialism and we all know how long that will take. These people will just have to be ignored, in the way they are in the UK.

Economics does provide useful models, ones that really do work and you can use to frame policy. But all such models start on the supply side and revolve around the specific efforts of entrepreneurs living in a world of innovation and uncertainty. In that sense, economics is quite simple and straightforward. The trick is to get 50%-plus-one to vote for policies that make everyone prosperous by making some people quite well off.

Keynes the big loser in UK election

Here’s a story that I can only hope our local right of centre party takes to heart: The UK Labour party should blame Keynes for their election defeat, written by Niall Ferguson no less. From yesterday’s Financial Times:

Credit where credit is due. Lynton Crosby is getting the plaudits for the Conservative party’s successful election strategy, but the real architect of this victory was surely George Osborne, the chancellor. Leave aside Labour’s collapse in Scotland, arguably the election’s most striking result. In England, the Conservatives won because Mr Osborne was right and his critics were wrong.

The comedian Russell Brand was not alone in having his celebrity endorsement of Labour roundly ignored by the voters. Even more ignominiously humbled were the Keynesian economists who have spent so much of the past five years predicting that the economic consequences of Mr Osborne’s policies would be disastrous.

In the vanguard of the Keynesian attack was Paul Krugman of The New York Times. In August 2011 he denounced the “delusions” of the chancellor whose “experiment in austerity” was “going really, really badly”.

Why? Because, in seeking to bring the government’s deficit under control, Mr Osborne was worrying needlessly about business confidence. “The confidence fairy” was the term Mr Krugman coined to ridicule anyone who argued for fiscal restraint.

Unfortunately for Mr Krugman, the more he talked about the confidence fairy, the more business confidence recovered in the UK. In fact, at no point after May 2010 did it sink back to where it had been throughout the past two years of Gordon Brown’s catastrophic premiership.

Mr Krugman was equally relentless in predicting that austerity would lead to recession; indeed, he insisted that the UK’s economic performance would be worse than during the Great Depression. In April 2012 he warned darkly that Britain would “continue on a death spiral of self-defeating austerity”.

It was, he lamented, a “policy disaster” that would cause a double-dip recession and “cripple the UK economy for many years to come”.

In fact, there was no double-dip recession. The UK had the best performing of the G7 economies last year, with a real gross domestic product growth rate of 2.6 per cent. In 2009, the last full year of Labour government, the figure was minus 4.3 per cent. Moreover, far from being in depression, the UK economy has generated more than 1.9m jobs since May 2010. UK unemployment is now 5.6 per cent, roughly half the rates in Italy and France. Weekly earnings are up by more than 8 per cent; in the private sector, the figure is above 10 per cent. Inflation is below 2 per cent and falling.

I’m not often into book burning but these Keynesian texts, with their Y=C+I+G as the cornerstone of theory and policy, are genuine candidates. If reality actually matters, which it may not actually do, Keynesian theory must now disappear. It is already disappearing from policy. Eventually economic theory must catch up, eventually.

UPDATE: Niall Ferguson has done another similar bit of writing on his blog, which he titles, The Rise and Fall of Krugmania in the UK. But it’s not Krugman, it is Keynes who remains everywhere, just as he did after the “death of Keynes” in the 1980s after the Great Inflation, which could not happen, or at least could not according to Keynesian theory. Report of Keynes’s death are greatly exaggerated, in no small part because no economist can function without aggregate demand by their side.

I’m not a Niallist

I read Niall Ferguson’s three posts on Paul Krugman which are generally summarised in this critique of Krugman and titled, “Much Bigger Than The Shutdown: Niall Ferguson’s Public Flogging Of Paul Krugman“. And you may be sure that nothing would be of greater interest to me than a proper take down of Krugman and the Keynesian theory that lies behind it. But while this critique may work in the world of non-economists it doesn’t work for me. There is nothing in it I feel I can refer to as an actual dissection of Krugman’s views. It certainly won’t affect any of Krugman’s own beliefs nor that of any modern economist.

Krugman’s position might really be brought down to three propositions:

1) To get out of our current recession it was, and is, necessary to have a full blown Keynesian stimulus.

2) Obama’s actual stimulus was too small. It was large enough to appear large enough but it was too small to actually achieve its ends and so will only discredit Keynesian theory and policy rather than demonstrate its effectiveness.

3) And for Austrian critics, where’s the inflation that is supposed to follow this wasteful expenditure since prices have been dead flat if not tending towards deflation? You may have pointed out that inflation that followed the spending of the 1970s but now there’s none so an Austrian analysis is completely wrong.

Ferguson made no headway on any of this. Instead, he stepped back and wrote:

I am not an economist. I am an economic historian. The economist seeks to simplify the world into mathematical models – in Krugman’s case models erected upon the intellectual foundations laid by John Maynard Keynes. But to the historian, who is trained to study the world ‘as it actually is’, the economist’s model, with its smooth curves on two axes, looks like an oversimplification. The historian’s world is a complex system, full of non-linear relationships, feedback loops and tipping points. There is more chaos than simple causation. There is more uncertainty than calculable risk.

Well great. This is not just Keynesian economics it is all economics that Ferguson takes aim at. By its nature, economics is about simplification, sometimes using smooth curves on two axes (e.g. supply and demand). And while I am a critic of economic theory along many dimensions, including the way in which the uncertain future is almost invariably swept away by many forms of modern analysis, this is so superficial and wrong headed that it leaves me absolutely cold. Krugman can ignore it because it in no way touches anything that matters in his economics and analysis. This is no answer at all.

But then to go on about how beastly Krugman is in how he attacks his opponents, and to praise Keynes as the contrast, is to show a fantastic ignorance of Keynes and the polemical nature of The General Theory. This is Ferguson attacking Krugman:

Finally – and most important – even if Krugman had been ‘right about everything,’ there would still be no justification for the numerous crude and often personal attacks he has made on those who disagree with him. Words like ‘cockroach,’ ‘delusional,’ ‘derp,’ ‘dope,’ ‘fool,’ ‘knave,’ ‘mendacious idiot,’ and ‘zombie’ have no place in civilized debate. I consider myself lucky that he has called me only a ‘poseur,’ a ‘whiner,’ ‘inane’ – and, last week, a ‘troll.’

Here Krugman is doing no less than Keynes did himself. Keynes famously initiated a slash and burn on the economics of his predecessors and attacked them not just intellectually but personally, most notably his own mentor at Cambridge, A.C. Pigou. Keynes said it was to ensure that attention was paid to his book since the issues were so important, but Pigou was clearly aggrieved and said so in the opening words of his review of the The General Theory:

WHEN, in 1919, he wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Mr. Keynes did a good day’s work for the world, in helping it back towards sanity. But he did a bad day’s work for himself as an economist. For he discovered then, and his sub-conscious mind has not been able to forget since, that the best way to win attention for one’s own ideas is to present them in a matrix of sarcastic comment upon other people. This method has long been a routine one among political pamphleteers. It is less appropriate, and fortunately less common, in scientific discussion. Einstein actually did for Physics what Mr. Keynes believes himself to have done for Economics. He developed a far-reaching generalisation, under which Newton’s results can be subsumed as a special case. But he did not, in announcing
his discovery, insinuate, through carefully barbed sentences, that Newton and those who had hitherto followed his lead were a gang of incompetent bunglers. The example is illustrious: but Mr. Keynes has not followed it. The general tone de haut en bas and the patronage extended to his old master Marshall are particularly to be regretted. It is not by this manner of writing that his desire to convince his fellow economists (p. vi) is best promoted.

Alas, it did turn out that this was indeed the best way to influence his fellow economists and it is a template that Keynesians have followed ever since. Krugman’s style and form of attack – stupid, ignorant, incompetent bungler that he is (two can play at this game, I suppose) – is patterned after Keynes who was as arrogant as anyone who has ever written on economic matters as well as being amongst the most incompetent. An actual economic ignoramus who did his undergraduate degree in philosophy and notoriously, on Joan Robinson’s say so, never understood basic micro – “Maynard never spent the half hour necessary to learn price theory” – which is a pretty large gap in any economist’s knowledge base. That in trying to refute Say’s Law he fell right into the oldest fallacy in economics but then took the entire profession along with him is just one of those very unfortunate events that history is filled with. Every economist of his generation with no exception thought The General Theory was end-to-end nonsense. But the economics they knew has now disappeared as have those economists and is now replaced with the poisonous nonsense peddled by Krugman.

This is what Niall Ferguson does not discuss because he doesn’t understand it himself. But you would need a combination of an actual historical understanding of the development of economic theory up to the publication of The General Theory along with a reasonably sound understanding of why it was superior to what we find today. Alas, it is a relatively rare combination but some at least do have it. But if you try to say this to Keynesians in public, they will shout you down and threaten to remove your license to practise economics. Yet it is the Keynesians of the modern text – the people who think Y=C+I+G actually makes economic sense – who are the barbarians ruining our economies right before our eyes.