Nick Rowe is a real economist, and to say that I am not would be putting on airs. But I think he chose an article title that is more true than he realized when he wrote, A Silly Question for Anti-Austerians. In it, he argued that everyone is an austerian, it is just a matter of degree. He put forward an example, “Suppose the national debt was, let’s say, 1,000% (ten times) annual GDP. And suppose the budget deficit was, let’s say, 50% of GDP.” If you would favor austerity under those circumstances, then, in analogy with the old joke about prostitution (“Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?”), it is just a matter of degree.
It is a silly question, indeed. I don’t think Rowe intended it as such, but it is the kind of question meant to shutdown debate rather than encourage it. It is the economics version of the ticking time bomb torture hypothetical, which I have discussed before. It is a form of apologetics, not real argumentation. It is a way of making difficult words meaningless. And the weird thing is that I don’t think that Rowe is an austerian. Not that it matters.
When Paul Krugman talks about someone being an austerian, he isn’t saying that under certain incredible circumstances she would be for austerity. Rather, he’s saying that she is for austerity under, for example, current European conditions. Rowe seems to be arguing that Krugman oughtn’t be able to do that because he too would be for austerity under some conditions.
Let me give you an analogy. Cannibalism is a continuum. Despite the fact that generally, humans will not eat other humans, there are times when they will. Specifically, people will engage in cannibalism when they are starving. And I really don’t believe people who claim that they would never do such a thing. The will to survive is incredibly strong. And let’s face it, as disgusting as the very idea is to me, it is just a social construct. So should we go around calling each other cannibals just because, under the right conditions, we would eat human flesh? Should we not be mean to Jeffrey Dahmer by calling him a cannibal just because we too might be cannibals under some circumstances? I certainly don’t think so. Words are not, nor should they be, linguistic straitjackets.
Now I image that Rowe might counter me by claiming that one only becomes a cannibal once one actually eats human flesh. But that is not what he is proposing. He isn’t suggesting that the word “austerian” be applied as a practical description: “He is an austerian when it comes to Greece but not when it comes to Finland.” And even that would be to trivialize the language. It’s very much like saying, “She’s a lesbian when it comes to attractive women but not when it comes to ugly women.” What’s with that? That just isn’t helpful in discussing anything.
Even though such hypotheticals really are silly and ultimately stop discussion by leading people down an intellectual cul-de-sac, that doesn’t stop people from being very interested in them. Indeed, there are gobs of comments on the article. But most of it is really about massaging the hypothetical. I didn’t see anyone who questioned the basic validity of the hypothetical. In addition, Rowe even pushed back against people trying to “dodging the question.” And that is the pernicious aspect of such hypotheticals. They even confuse those who are proposing them.
But I’m reasonable. Nick Rowe can call me an austerian if I can call him a cannibal.