Samuelson: Economics Is Confusing

Robert SamuelsonYesterday was Sunday and that can mean only one thing: Robert Samuelson wrote something stupid in his column over at the Washington Post and Dean Baker destroyed it with mockery and, you know, facts. I really don’t like Samuelson; he’s the embodiment of the Very Serious Pundit who claims to simply explain what the facts are, when he actually pushes conservative ideology. And given that Samuelson writes about economics and finance (what I care most about), he is one of “the most slappable people on earth.”

This week, he really outdid himself. His argument is that all this austerity that he’s been pushing for four years hasn’t worked and now none of the people he’s been listening to know what is going on. He wrote, “The public is confused, because economists are divided.” But that’s not really true. As Paul Krugman noted, there are economists who have been right and economists how have been wrong. Samuelson insists on talking to the economists who have been wrong. And given that these austerity economists still don’t want to admit that they were wrong, they just claim that no one knows and that the macroeconomic field is divided.

Jared Bernstein makes fun of Samuelson’s claim that nothing we seem to do helps the economy:

This is like someone who’s supposed to be getting in shape for a race saying “I’ve tried eating extra snack foods, sitting around watching TV, and napping… but nothing seems to be improving my speed. It’s a mystery!”

Or to put it less fancifully, “We’ve done everything we can to slow the economy down, but it all just seems to slow the economy down. It’s a mystery!”

But what is most surprising about Samuelson’s article is it’s ending. And no one has mentioned it, perhaps because everyone expects this kind of thing from him. Samuelson uses the fact that “no one knows” what’s going on in the economy to justify—Wait for it!—more austerity!

But now a cycle of overconfidence has given way to a cycle of under-confidence. The trust in macroeconomic magic has shattered. This saps optimism and promotes spending restraint.

So when we “knew” that austerity was good we pursued austerity. But now that we don’t know if austerity is good we should pursue… austerity?

If economists somehow prove to Samuelson that austerity is bad, I guess he will tell us to pursue… austerity.

I guess he’s right: economics is confusing!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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