Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I was too late to be insulted 

I met Brad DeLong when he was here at SCSU at our Winter Institute some years ago. There are people I like personally and disagree with professionally, many in fact*; DeLong was one. His presentation on technological change and growth was good, balancing history and economics. He was personally pleasant to talk to.

Unfortunately, he seems to have gone bonkers with this post, referring to people who disagree with the Obama stimulus package by way of responding to a request for comment by GOP House leader John Boehner as "ethics-free Republican hacks." I'm not sure what disappoints me more: that he called us that, or that he didn't even bother to list me among the people whose quotes he displayed. Yoohoo! Brad! See page 5. Guess he didn't get that far.

Nor is his standard really useful. He can only note that Council of Economic Advisors members have not signed on to the list. Yet Greg Mankiw has written about the stimulus in skeptical terms. And what about Nobel Laureates, such as Gary Becker? Who qualifies as being "an economist once upon a time"?

Having read the plan, the argument can be made that, even if you wanted to pass a stimulus package, the blend contemplated here does not get enough bang for the buck. The authors of that piece, incoming CEA chair Christina Romer and Biden adviser Jared Bernstein, say there's a "significant margin of error". Is it not appropriate, then, for a loyal opposition to suggest there is a different way? How is it hackery?

Don Boudreaux points out that being opposed to the Obama Spendorama isn't just about it not working. Even if it did, one might object on ethical grounds:
again supposing that fiscal stimulus by government will work and that the economists on DeLong's doo-doo list actually agree (for these suppositions are part of DeLong's premises), it's more likely that such opposition reflects an abundance of ethics rather than an absence of ethics.

It's no ethical challenge to support something that works. It is, however, a real ethical challenge to oppose something that you believe would work. Someone opposed as a matter of principle to government intervention into the economy might be sensible or not; but if that person sticks by his or her principles -- if he or she continues to oppose the intervention on moral grounds, or because of a belief that following what is thought to be a wise rule-of-thumb is best even at the cost of making things worse in the immediate case -- that person is ethics-infused, not ethics-free.

Which kind of person is DeLong? As Mom used to say, when you point one finger at someone else ... well, I bet your mom told you the rest. One wonders why he's so defensive.

*--sadly, it can go the other way. One macroeconomist whose work I have long admired came here to give a talk and was distressingly distant, glum and unfriendly towards the people who tried to meet him after the talk. He only used 20 minutes of his hour-long period for his remarks. He seemed only interested in picking up his honorarium. I think we've had enough through here that I don't identify him saying this; I still admire his work greatly, but I'd never invite him back.

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