It’s always fun to read Paul Krugman when he’s angry. And he was angry on Friday, I See Very Serious Dead People. He discussed a number of things, but I want to focus on one thing that he almost wrote about. One of his main complaints with the world of economic policy debate is the way that the very people who claim to be pushing “serious” policy ideas are the ones pushing useless and, very often, counterproductive policies. “I know that people who airily dismiss the austerity debate and all that and demand that we focus on the long run think they’re taking a brave stand; but you know, they aren’t.” That’s about right.
It often seems to me that talking about the “big picture” and the “long run” and “structural issues” are just a way to appear to be doing something, without actually doing anything. This problem is global, but it is especially typical of the United States. I noted this after 9/11. An obvious change would have been to put pilots in a separate compartment from the passengers. But that would have cost a lot of money. So instead, we got entry x-rays and bans on shampoo. But overall, it was just very clear that the government felt it more important to look like it was protecting us than it was to actually protect us.
With economic policy, the solutions to our problems are pretty simple. We went through this in the 1930s, and we know what works. But instead, we get the exact same policy prescriptions that failed back them. The most annoying of these is the idea that businesses aren’t hiring because American workers just don’t have the skills that employers want. This same thing was said in the late 1930s, but somehow, when the government started spending in expectation of World War II, those same workers were plenty skilled. And after the war, they continued to be. Funny that. Even funnier is the fact that so many establishment figures today recycle this same point without a hint of irony.
But I don’t think that they are ignorant. The purpose of claiming that the problem is a “skills gap” is that it doesn’t have a clear solution. The only thing that can really be done is to have the government pay for workers to go back to school and get those skills that businesses are supposedly so desperate for. And that means it is always at least a couple of years away. And when the last crop of students finds that they aren’t any more employable than they were before, no one cares. It isn’t like there are labor reporters everywhere disseminating the information.
Our economic problems are just a matter of doing what worked before: stimulus, which used to be the standard response to a recession, regardless of political party. This was true right up to the last Republican president. Our economy would be booming right now if Obama had grown the government the way that Reagan and the two Bushes grew it. But we couldn’t do that! So instead, much of the Washington punditry — including many so called liberals — call for mysterious, complicated, and slow policy. Needless to say, such pundits don’t have to worry about losing their jobs. So the pain they push on the rest of us and the years of bad times their policy preferences guarantee are no big deal.
Economic policy is not rocket science. When people claim that it is, all they are doing is arguing that we do nothing. It is kind of like global warming denial: we just don’t know enough; we need more study; there are no simple answers. It’s all nonsense. It’s all stalling. It’s just a way for the power elite to hang onto power.