Is Nick Rowe a Cannibal?

Nick RoweNick 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.

2 thoughts on “Is Nick Rowe a Cannibal?

  1. It’s an especially silly notion when applied to Greece as austerity there has made the deficits worse. Obviously there are times you should put that plan for a new soccer stadium or shopping mall on hold for a few years. It’s brainless to reduce basic social services that have both a immediate and a long-term negative impact on demand. Unless you don’t care about that, and some don’t.

    • I do understand where Rowe is coming from. I think. He wants “austerian” to not be a pejorative. And I can appreciate that. But I think we need a good pejorative — even a better one. When it comes to the US, the people calling for austerity are as likely as not to also be calling for tax cuts. So what they really want to do is screw the poor and middle classes. Rowe, of course, is talking about economists. But I still think that applies to economists here. I don’t know his academic work, but Greg Mankiw’s general readership articles are just conservative apologia: why inequality is right and fitting and so on. And by all accounts, he’s a great economist. But apparently, being great at economics is as useful as being great on the violin when it comes to policy.

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