Who is an Expert on the Stimulus Package?

The sheer size and complexity of the proposed stimulus package makes quality journalism about it difficult. Striving for some scientific perspective on the problem, journalists have asked many economists what they think about the package. Having earlier questioned the legal system’s reliance on some economic experts, I’d like to offer some skeptical thoughts about their role in the stimulus debate.

Fair news outlets always try to balance “conservative” and “liberal” economists, anticipating that politics will be driving their perspectives. Just as Jeremy Waldron has argued that the use of majority voting among appellate judges should lead us to suspect any characterization of them as “above the political fray,” perhaps this journalistic practice should lead us to reconsider economists’ objectivity. Certainly macroeconomist Robert Barro wants to discredit Paul Krugman in this way:

[Krugman] just says whatever is convenient for his political argument. He doesn’t behave like an economist. And the guy has never done any work in Keynesian macroeconomics, which I actually did. He has never even done any work on that. His work is in trade stuff. He did excellent work, but it has nothing to do with what he’s writing about. . . . He hasn’t done any work on [new Keynesian economics]. Greg Mankiw has worked in that area. [emphasis added]

But Mankiw’s own opinions on the current crisis have been trashed on their own terms by Nate Silver. Barro also notes sarcastically that “attacking Iran is a shovel-ready project . . . but I wouldn’t recommend it,” possibly undermining conservative economist Martin Feldstein’s dreams of funding a massive military buildup with stimulus money.

Of course, economists have always been the subject of jokes about indeterminacy in their profession (one classic: if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they still couldn’t reach a conclusion). But Barro’s comments strike me as revealing more about the role of econo-pundits than he would like.

Consider the following excerpts from Matt Miller’s superb book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas:

“Of all the policy-relevant aspects of economics,” says Princeton economics professor Alan Blinder, “the one on which there is the closest to total unanimity among economists is that free trade is good. The result is that anyone in the fraternity who says anything that could even obliquely give aid and comfort to the enemies of free trade is considered traitorous.” . . .

“What most economists don’t realize is that when they say that free trade is good for the country as a whole, they’re adding an ethical layer almost unthinkingly,” says Dani Rodrik, a leading trade iconoclast at the Harvard Kennedy School. “You’re now taking off your hat as an economist and you’re putting on your hat as a political philosopher.”

Rodrik and Blinder offer important demarcations between descriptive and normative economics. Done scientifically, economics can offer illuminating accounts of how and why various policy initiatives succeeded or failed. But going forward, in a veritable no man’s land of economic catastrophe, we have little reason to believe that old studies are extrapolable to the new landscape we face. Instead, we have only a church-like institution, with definite moral stands, but little inherently scientific rationale to guide action. When heretics challenge its authority, they are duly punished.

The stimulus debate should focus on real human needs and long-term economic productivity–not the kind of pseudo-scientific projections of output stimulation the media is now consumed with. As I’ve said before in another context, when it comes to government spending on stimulus, I’m all for it–not because I think it will jump start the economy, but because on balance we have enough crying public needs to justify a great deal of spending. Consider the state of public transit in cities like St. Louis:

One stop scheduled to be cut is in the western suburb of Chesterfield, Mo., just up the road from a bright, cheerful nursing home called the Garden View Care Center. Without those buses, roughly half of the center’s kitchen staff and half of its housekeeping staff — people like Laura Buxton, a cook known for her fried chicken who comes in from Illinois, and Danette Nacoste, who commutes two hours each way from her home in South St. Louis to her job in the laundry — will not have any other way to get to work.

“They’re going to be stranding a whole lot of people,” said Val Butler, a nurses’ assistant at Garden View, who said that she feared looking for work elsewhere in a tightening economy. “A lot of people are going to lose their jobs. A lot of people.” . . . Money that some lawmakers had proposed to help transit systems pay operating costs, and avoid layoffs and service cuts, was not included in the latest version [of the stimulus bill].

Some conservative economists may well be more concerned with speeding millions more in tax cuts to the Fortunate 400 than they are with the plight of workers at nursing homes and their residents. (Who knows the level of pain now endured by those who earned, on average, $263 million in income last year?) But it’s long past time to recognize that preference as an ideological and philosophical one, not one dictated by the science of economics.

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