Josh Barro Phenomenon

Josh BarroLet me coin a term: the Josh Barro Phenomenon. It is a special form of conservative affirmative action where just by being something other than a stupid troll, a conservative can be held in high esteem among liberals. And Barro has received more than his fair share of compliments by us on the left. For example, I haven’t written that much more about Dean Baker than I have Josh Barro, even though in terms of policy ideas Baker is many quantum states beyond Barro.

This afternoon, Barro tried to make the case that he’s a real Republican that just wants to clean up the party, How Republicans Made Both Parties Stupid On Fixing Infrastructure. But what he actually did was show that he’s a real Republican—full stop. The article starts with him defending Chris Christie’s decision to kill the new Hudson River tunnel for mass transit—an expansion that is badly needed.

Barro tries to sound very Serious by arguing that the project is “overly expensive.” But that is always always always the reasoning for a politician to kill a project. No one ever says, “I’m killing this very popular tunnel because I hate public transit.” (Christie has no problem spending money on expanding the New Jersey Turnpike.) Instead, politicians say, “I’d love to support this very popular tunnel, but I just can’t because it is too expensive.” Or whatever. So all Barro’s “reasonable” arguments about wasteful spending just allow people like Christie political cover when they make entirely ideological decisions.

Also in his sights is Obamacare, which he calls a “Rube Goldberg mess.” And he’s right! But why is it is Rube Golberg mess? Because people like Josh Barro required it! Last year, he was arguing that it was best if the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare—not because he liked it, but because it might lead to a single payer health insurance system. You know: a non-Rube Goldberg mess.

I’m really tired of all of this. Conservative obstruction causes supposedly liberal legislation to be ridiculously complicated and inefficient. Then “reasonable” Republicans like Josh Barro complain about the legislation being complicated and inefficient. It doesn’t matter that he is attacking the Republicans for their intransigence. He is still helping the modern Republican Party to ruin good legislation coming and then complain about the damage they caused afterward.

When you get right down to it, Josh Barro is a middling writer who uses most of his intellect to make conservative ideas sound palatable. Just like the less aggressive “reformers,” he believes in the conservative ideology. He just thinks that the Republicans could do a better job of getting their own way. And he’s right! But he shouldn’t be getting compliments from liberals about being a more effective advocate for vile conservative policy ideas.

Update (5 June 2013 7:53 pm>)

Josh Barro tweeted:

I’m honored he would even read me. However, I don’t see his problem. He is providing cover for the same conservative politicians that he claims to want to reform. I don’t see how I’m wrong about that. The question of infrastructure is one of compromise. Pork is often a necessary part of that. One can always find a reason to be against a policy.

But I do feel a little bad about calling him a “middling” writer. It was a rhetorical flourish. Not that it was his problem with the article.

Sinning Against Keynes

John Maynard KeynesOn this day in 1878, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa was born. Growing up, I always thought he was like the Mexican Billy the Kid. But if he was any kind of outlaw, it was Robin Hood. I think it’s all about racism. This morning, I was wondering about all of this immigration reform. Why is it that Americans have no problem with the Canadian border, but we want to build an electrical fence on the Mexican border? I know the justification is that Mexico is a poor country so people from there want to come into this country for economic opportunity. But doesn’t that beg the question? If we hadn’t had these racist attitudes, wouldn’t Mexico have by now reached economy parity with us? Regardless, Pancho Villa is rightly a hero is Mexico and he should be here too.

In 1941, monologist Spalding Gray was born. Here he is in Swimming to Cambodia:

The great journalist Bill Moyers is 79 today. He first gained attention as White House Press Secretary in the Johnson administration. But since then, he is one of the few establishment voices on the left who hasn’t been co-opted by the New Democratic movement. The fact that today he is considered some kind of leftist radical by those on the right (and even many on the “left”) is a good indication of just how out of kilter American politics has become.

Musician Laurie Anderson is 66. Here she is doing “Sharkey’s Day“:

The day, however, belongs to the most sinned-against man in modern economics, John Maynard Keynes who was born on this day in 1883. He spent most of the Great Depression with those in power ignoring him. But after that, we learned our lesson! I remember when I took Econ 101, I thought, “That’s great! We will never again have to suffer through a Great Depression.” Oh, silly me. During this crisis, those in power have done everything they possibly could to avoid believing everything we’ve known for the last 70 years about economic recessions.

What is particularly sad about this is that almost the whole of the “Chicago School” and “fresh water” economists did all they could to muddy the water. I particularly think of men like Greg Mankiw who argued against stimulus, who had always accepted the concept before Obama was president. What’s more Mankiw started to become pro-stimulus again as one of Romney’s economic advisers, I assume he was laying the groundwork for the upcoming Romney administration.

What Keynes taught about economics is about as basic as you can get. And there are very few economic situations in which it isn’t appropriate. One of those would be the stagflation of the 1970s. But what we have been suffering through the last five years is exactly the same thing we struggled through for 10 years after the crash of 1929. And mostly we’ve done better than then because of systemic changes in our governance. Now we have Social Security and Unemployment Insurance. So the recession wasn’t as bad. And we did (despite enormous resistance from the right) manage to pass a small stimulus. But otherwise, our response was the same as the response to the Great Depression. We have sinned against Keynes and against our entire nation of people.

Here is Keynes reporting on the good news of the end of the gold standard:

Happy birthday John Maynard Keynes!

Alberto Alesina Wasn’t Right

Alberto AlesinaI guess Wonk Blog is trying to brandish it conservative credentials. This morning, Jim Tankersley wrote one the lamest economic articles I’ve read in weeks, The Era of ‘Uncertainty’ May Be Over. Will a Growth Boom Begin? It seems designed to give the austerity folks cover. It argues that all the signs indicate that “confidence” is increasing, and if the economy improves it must be that the conservatives were right all along! Most likely, as usual, the causation works the other way around: the improving economy has increased confidence. But that hardly matters, there are so many things wrong with what is effectively an austerity apologia.

The basis of the article is the daily news-based Economic Policy Uncertainty. It looks at what people are writing in newspapers and determines if times are more or less uncertain. Do people really believe that “uncertainty” is keeping the economy down? “It’s a persistent [thought] among Republican lawmakers and business leaders of all stripes.” While I know this is an ideological belief among Republicans, this just isn’t true of business leaders. Survey after survey has found that a small percentage of businessmen think regulatory uncertainty is holding their businesses back. Consumer demand is a much bigger deal. And understandably so: no one is ever certain what the future will bring; business owners are used to this; the silly idea that businesses need “certainty” is just made up by conservative politicians. (Note: “economic certainty” is just another phrase for “demand.”) By “business leaders” Tankersley means, “People who write for conservative business magazines.” In other words: who cares?

Similarly, the article uses the Stanford-University of Chicago monthly economic policy index to show that “uncertainty” is down to the—Wait for it!—2011 level right before the Republicans caused the Debt Ceiling crisis. The stark downward fall in “uncertainty seems to be nothing more than a seasonal effect: it goes down at the beginning of every year. But it isn’t even clear what the index means. It was markedly lower at the end of 2009. What exactly has happened to make things less uncertain now? I would argue that things are more uncertain now than then: the Republicans are continuing to push another Debt Ceiling showdown. But in 2010, no one thought a major American political party was crazy to do that. Now we know better.

Tankersley also puts up a graph of “consumer confidence.” It is up. But this is a measure of how people feel about the economy; it doesn’t work the other way around. And that is the heart of what’s wrong with the whole article. Everyone knew that as the economy improves, people will feel more confident. But the whole argument that “confidence” would lead to growth was about businesses not individuals. First, individuals don’t have a lot of money to spend; that’s why we’re in a liquidity trap. Second, the austerity philosophy is part of supply side economics, the idea that if you build it the customers will come. So consumer confidence is irrelevant to the argument.

The article ends by quoting Alberto Alesina of all people. He was the lead author of the hugely influential paper, “Large changes in fiscal policy: taxes versus spending.” Mike Konczal wrote an article explaining some of the history of this paper that was both shoddy and wrong, It’s Alberto Alesina’s World and We’re All Just Unemployed in It. Just like with Reinhart-Rogoff, Alesina’s work depended upon a (hopefully unintentional) deceptive use of data. When the appropriate data were used, the argument fell apart.

But Tankersley quotes Alesina as saying that he is very optimistic about all of this “confidence.” The implication is that if the economy does improve, then he was right. But he wasn’t. As we all know, eventually the economy will recovery, even if policy makers do all the wrong things. The question is whether the economy would recover better under one policy rather than another. Alesina’s theory has been tried throughout Europe and to a lesser degree in the United States. And we know the answer: the theory made the economy worse than it would have been and people are still suffering as a result. It is journalistic malpractice to turn reality on its head and give Alesina cover for being so disastrously wrong.

What is wrong with Wonk Blog these days?!