Monday, January 18, 2010

What Didn't Happen: Krugman Telling the Truth

In George Orwell's classic 1984, the poor people of Oceania constantly were being fooled. Despite the fact that Big Brother had total control of the media, it seems that the masses were being duped by the ubiquitous Goldstein. For years, Oceania has been at war with Eurasia. Suddenly, Big Brother tells them that Goldstein has tricked them into believing such lies, as OCEANIA IS AT WAR WITH EAST ASIA! (I mean, everyone should have known that!)

In reading Paul Krugman's missive today in the New York Times, "What Didn't Happen," I am reminded of Orwell. According to the Great Nobel Laureate, Krugman insists that we believe the following:
  • The "stimulus" was "too small"
  • The Obama administration was not "tough enough" with the banks (he should have nationalized them, I suppose -- but, then, they pretty much are nationalized already)
  • Obama did not do as did Ronald Reagan and blame the previous administration.
I must admit that I admire Krugman's chutzpah at one level. Here is a guy to has the guts to claim things that patently are not true and are easily debunked, but he is able to do with (without any sanctions) in the editorial section of the NYT and get away with it, mostly because his employers at Princeton University and in New York are happy to promote his untruths.

In debunking this latest set of claims, let me begin with the last one first, that Obama refuses to blame Bush for his troubles. Writes Krugman:

Finally, about that narrative: It’s instructive to compare Mr. Obama’s rhetorical stance on the economy with that of Ronald Reagan. It’s often forgotten now, but unemployment actually soared after Reagan’s 1981 tax cut. Reagan, however, had a ready answer for critics: everything going wrong was the result of the failed policies of the past. In effect, Reagan spent his first few years in office continuing to run against Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Obama could have done the same — with, I’d argue, considerably more justice. He could have pointed out, repeatedly, that the continuing troubles of America’s economy are the result of a financial crisis that developed under the Bush administration, and was at least in part the result of the Bush administration’s refusal to regulate the banks.

But he didn’t. Maybe he still dreams of bridging the partisan divide; maybe he fears the ire of pundits who consider blaming your predecessor for current problems uncouth — if you’re a Democrat. (It’s O.K. if you’re a Republican.) Whatever the reason, Mr. Obama has allowed the public to forget, with remarkable speed, that the economy’s troubles didn’t start on his watch.

Yes, Krugman sneaks yet another one of his post hoc ergo propter hoc claims that it was the tax cuts of 1981 that must have created the recession of 1982. Now, remember that in 1981, Congress voted to bring down the top marginal personal income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent. Funny about that move. At the Southern Economic Association meetings in New Orleans in 2004, I attended a talk by Krugman, and in the Q & A I asked him if he recommended going back to the 70 percent rates.

"Oh, no!" He replied forcefully. "Those rates were insane!" (Yes, he used the i-word.) Thank goodness, I had a number of economists in the room with me, including Joe Salerno of Pace University and the Mises Institute sitting in the next chair, and I suspect that Prof. Salerno's memory is as sharp as mine.

As an economist, I always like to see the Law of Cause and Effect in action, and I would like to know how those 1981 tax cuts created massive employment. For that matter, Krugman continually claimed throughout the Bush administration that the lowering of the top rate from 39.6 percent to approximately 33 percent played a major role in the recession of 2001, despite the fact that the rates were not even changed until after the recession began.

Has Obama not been blaming the Bush administration, as Krugman claims? Let us look at the recent record. On Saturday, January 9, 2010, the Associated Press had the following piece:

He says "the buck stops with me," but nearly a year into office, President Barack Obama is still blaming a lot of the nation's troubles — the economy, terrorism, health care — on George W. Bush.

Over and over, Obama keeps reminding Americans of the mess he inherited and all he's doing to fix it. A sharper, give-me-some-credit tone has emerged in his language as he bemoans people's fleeting memory about what life was like way back in 2008, particularly on the economy.

(No doubt, the AP must be run by...Republicans! Goldstein himself is president of that faux organization!)

Lest anyone think that just the AP has noticed this from Obama, one of his staunches political allies in the media, Roland Martin of CNN, wrote last month:

...instead of bringing up Bush, maybe they ought to spend more time driving home their message of making the right moves at the right time to get the country moving in the right direction. Bush has gone into retirement, choosing not to speak negatively of President Obama (unfortunately, we still have to hear Cheney and his rants).

If we are to move into a new year and a new way of governing, going back and talking about the past doesn't help. It only gives the impression that you don't have enough good things to say about your own agenda.

We don't have ol' Bush to kick around anymore. Now the heat will be applied fully to Obama, and we'll have to see if Mr. Calm, Cool and Collected can handle the tough moments as easily as he's basked in the praise and adulation.

Now, I find this curious, given that Krugman has had no problem himself blaming Bush's tax cuts for nearly every economic problem, and I doubt seriously that this current White House is so high-minded that it really takes ownership of the rising rates of unemployment and the current economic free fall. Nonetheless, Krugman's column is not about the truth; it is about continuing his partisan narratives couched in the language of The Economist Who Knows Everything.

What about the "stimulus" or alleged lack, thereof? First, Krugman leaves out the role of the Federal Reserve System which has spent trillions of dollars on all sorts of bailout nonsense, and all on the whim of the administration and its own chairman, Ben Bernanke.

Second, there is a more obvious question: How can a government that is flat broke, running more than a trillion dollars in the red, come up with trillions more to spend? Krugman's answer is to print more money (as he points out in his 2008 best-seller The Return of Depression Economics. (I am having my MBA students this spring read that book in order to compare and contrast Krugman's statements to those of the Austrian Economists.)

If printing money works so well, according to Krugman, then why collect taxes at all? In fact, why work at all? Last year, Krugman claimed that the purpose of the "stimulus" was for its spending, not for any real work that might have been done. Well, as I see it, if the work being done is not useful for any purpose other than spending, why use the scarce resources at all and just line up people and hand them their paychecks?

The "stimulus" is a failure not because of any paucity of government spending but because the politically-oriented disbursements don't address the imbalance of the economic fundamentals and the massive malinvestments of the Bush years that still have not been fully liquidated. (That is due in large part because the government continues to try to prop up the owners of the failed assets, with predictable results.)

Last, but not least, there are the banks. Let's face it; if Krugman really believes that the Bush administration "failed to regulate the banks," then I'd like to sell him a few bridges from Brooklyn. While trying to promote his own pathetic narrative of "the bankers serve THEM, but the people in the White House are on OUR SIDE," he forgets that the symbiotic relationship between Wall Street and the banks is not one of reckless free-enterprisers versus wholesome and good Democratic politicians.

There is good reason that the politicians are cozy with Wall Street. Like Willie Sutton, the know "where the money is," and don't mind helping themselves to a few million or more here and there. Economists I respect much more than I do Krugman (like Bruce Yandle of Clemson University, for starters and Jeffrey Miron from Harvard) have noted for years of the real nature of regulation has been for there to be a "revolving door" between the regulators and the industries they supposedly regulate.

Furthermore, as Eugene Fama (perhaps the most distinguished financial economist in the country from the University of Chicago) pointed out in a recent interview with the New Yorker, it was a mistake to bail out the banks in the first place because -- contrary to Krugman and his friends at the NYT -- no institution is "too big to fail." (I love his line that Krugman "wants to be czar of the world." No doubt, the Big K would run everything perfectly.)

Like his rewriting of the history of regulation and deregulation, Paul Krugman begins with the narrative, and then proceeds to pound square pegs into round holes. That hardly is unusual, as most of us perform that exercise from time to time. However, when most of us are caught, we listen to reason.

Krugman, on the other hands, listens only to himself and the daily set of talking points coming from left-wing Democrats. As I have said many times before, the man is not an economist; he is a political operative. Period.

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