Speaking of enfant terrible, Josh Barro’s counterpart on the left is Matt Yglesias. (It says much about our screwed up political system that these guys largely agree on policy matters.) Today, Yglesias wrote an apologia of sorts for the contention of the European Union elite that Ireland is some kind of economic success story. It isn’t that Yglesias himself thinks that Ireland is a success but he is putting forward a defense of how these people can possibly think that Ireland, with a 13.5% unemployment rate, is a “success.”
Basically, the argument comes down to this: “Ireland is doing a lot better than Spain!” I have a word for that argument: pathetic. But Yglesias pushed it. He rightly noted that since 2011, Irish unemployment has gone down a tad whereas Spain has seen its unemployment rate go up by 5 percentage points. But this is where he went wrong, I think. He blamed the rise in unemployment on the Spaniards’ “many iterations of protest marches, strikes, and even riots.” In contrast, the Irish, although they too hate austerity, have been “good soldiers.” This is absurd! First, he presented no argument at all to indicate that the strikes are the reason for the increased unemployment. Nor is it at all clear that the Irish would not also riot if their unemployment rate were to double.
Yglesias even implicitly makes this argument. He showed that Iceland’s economy is doing even better than Ireland. Whereas Ireland only saw its unemployment rate go down starting in 2012, Iceland’s has been steadily decreasing since mid-2010. There are a number of reasons for this, in particular the fact that Iceland has its own currency and that they let banks fail rather than propping them up like they were “supposed” to do. And yes, he’s right that Spain and Ireland are both in a bad situation because they don’t have their own currencies. But he’s dead wrong to suggest that the difference between austerity being marginally successful and being a total catastrophe is how well behaved the populace is.
It’s this kind of very theoretical, too smart by half writing that is most annoying about Yglesias and Barro. They both seem far too caught up in their own clever notions about policy to care about the actual human lives that are harmed. In Yglesias’ article, he blames the Spanish workers whose lives have been destroyed for the fact that austerity continues not to work. This strikes me as typical of war apologia (although far more understandable). It is shocking, but there are many who claim that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was well worth the at least 100,000 Iraqi deaths. Regardless of how much one may have wanted to get rid of Hussein, that is too high a price to pay. The best I can say is that such people have become disconnected from their fellow humans. And I’m afraid that is especially easy when looking at something as theoretical as economics.
I admire both Yglesias and Barro. I wish I didn’t have to say that. Most of the time I write about them, it is to present an interesting idea or perspective. But that doesn’t stop me from being annoyed with them. What makes them great is also what makes them annoying. The late 20s and easy 30s are a hard time for intellectuals. I understand. That was when I was a bleeding heart libertarian. And I have long admitted that part of my dislike of Barro is that he reminds me of myself at that age, even if he is smarter. (And that is a question; until anyone beats me at a differential equation solving competition, I concede nothing!)