September 06, 2013

Mr. Krugman's Science: The Curious Silence About Syria

I'm at a loss to understand Paul Krugman's utter silence about President Obama's campaign to bomb Syria.  Mr. Krugman, as serious students of economics know (as oxymoronic a catergory as that might seem), won the Nobel Prize from a Swedish bank for his steadfast opposition to George W. Bush's "war of choice" in Iraq, a war which Bush placed on the "national credit card" while reducing the taxes necessary to pay for such folly.  Mr. Krugman was so exercised about Bush's misrepresentations that led us into an unnecessary war that he warned, quite uncharacteristically, that Bush would ultimately resort to "money printing," the way that all banana republics (as opposed to Banana Republics, which sell cotton shirts from Malaysia) eventually do when they run out of dough.

It turns out that a nation which pays debts in its own currency can't run out of dough.  Mr. Krugman assures us of this now.  I suppose this is the reason he has no problem with bombing Syria, or invading Syria with troops, or whatever.  We have the money after all, even if the national debt is much higher now, both absolutely and as a percentage of GDP.  Indeed, invading Syria, starting yet another war in the Middle East, might stand in for the "alien invasion" he also promotes as a way to galvanize federal spending and, thus, ensure economic recovery for the nation generally.

Cynics might observe that Krugman is a dyed-in-the-wool Democratic partisan, and that Mr. Obama's loose association with that party might explain everything.  They might go further and argue that Mr. Krugman recognizes that he's not likely to draw attention to his economic doodling on the same basis as before.  Would the Swedish bank reward him again with a Nobel Prize for challenging the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize?  Well, the Peace Prize comes out of Norway, so there's a shot.  I understand the Swedes tell Norwegian jokes.  Vociferous, consistent opposition to Obama's nonstop warmongering (which turns out to be about as flagrant as his predecessor's) might win Mr. Krugman the Nobel Peace Prize, however.  That award hutch is filling up! 

Mr. Krugman always has his eye on the prize, but I don't think he has more Nobels in mind.  He has to worry about the deficiencies in the analyses of almost all other economists, for one thing, and that's a lot right there.  In his column today Mr. Krugman explained why economic policy over the last five years has been so dismal, and why an output gap, the difference between what the American economy could have produced in goods and services over that period, about $2 trillion, was so predictable.

Well, I take that back.  It wasn't actually predictable, because the grand mavens of economics concede that you can't actually predict economic futures with their science.  The New York Times invited a colloquium on this very subject over the last weekend (after first publishing an article asserting that economics was not a science), and the outcome, which the Times appeared to endorse (probably at Mr. Krugman's insistence behind the scenes) was that although economics is not a science which can predict anything, it can explain things, so it's a science. 

An interesting distinction, as Woody Allen said in "Love & Death."  As to its usefulness in explaining things, we have Ben Bernanke's deathless pronouncement before a Congressional committee in October, 2005 :

U.S. house prices have risen by nearly 25 percent over the past two years, noted Bernanke, currently chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, in testimony to Congress's Joint Economic Committee. But these increases, he said, "largely reflect strong economic fundamentals," such as strong growth in jobs, incomes and the number of new households.
Okay, that's an explanation.  We might disagree now that the housing bubble simply reflected "strong economic fundamentals."  We might say that Mr. Bernanke was off his rocker.  Mr. Bernanke holds a PhD in Economics from MIT, however, as does his fellow scientist Paul Krugman.

The Times article, in defending economics as an "explanatory" science, compared it to meteorology, which has "similar" problems of prediction (so the article claimed), but is nevertheless socially useful.  Not to cavil, but Mr. Bernanke was so far off that it would be a little like sitting in the middle of a hurricane and wondering whether the atmospheric low pressure might have something to do with these strong winds we're experiencing. 

Mr. Krugman was able to figure out where the economy ought to be today "on the back of an envelope."  It's all a matter of "textbook macroeconomics," and it tells you that federal spending on a jobs program would have avoided all the pain.  You can explain the past, that is, by applying a theory to it after you already know the results, even if, knowing the preconditions as you did, you could not predict the future. Yeah, why the hell not?  Why look in a textbook, however?  Why not just fart out a theory?

As the Distinguished Research Scientist from a Great Southwestern University points out, how do we distinguish the accuracy of Mr. Krugman's analysis from a hundred other theories we could develop (or fart) and apply to the same factual history?  What about automation, or the continuing problem of losing high-paying jobs to overseas competitors, or the skyrocketing cost of the master resource, petroleum, or the ecological, environmental and overpopulation limits we are hitting with a vengeance?  Maybe the United States has been in a long, slow, but accelerating decline brought about by all these forces, and the housing bubble was just a palliative interruption of that process that fueled consumer spending.  Maybe the "trend lines" on which "potential output" is based are pure moonshine based on completely unrealistic assumptions.

I don't suppose any of these ideas cluttered up the back of the envelope.  The theories of Paul Krugman, Ace Scientist, cannot be falsified.  Like the Letters of Transit that Mr. Ugarte laid his hands on, they "cannot be rescinded, not even questioned."

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