Bill Keller has decided to discuss “The Politics of Economics in the Age of Shouting.” He says it comes down to just say what they want to hear, and loudly. At least he’s honest enough to admit that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, and manages to take a swipe at Paul Krugman in the first graf. Bear in mind — he used to be the Managing Editor… Prof. Krugman, who actually does know what he’s talking about, addresses “Things to Tax.” He asks how about making increased revenue part of the remedy? And not just a return to Clinton-era tax rates. Here’s Keller:
I share a virtual neighborhood with a legion of Times reporters, editors and columnists who know more than I will ever know about business and economics. (Look! Right over there: a Nobel-prize-winning economist!) In this humbling company, on this intimidating matter, who am I to tell anyone what to think? And so my plan was, frankly, to avoid the subject.
But while there are things a columnist can ignore (if Kim Kardashian ever features in this column, just shoot me), our failing economic ecosystem is not one of them. So for the past several weeks my airplane and bedside reading has consisted of sexy documents like “A Roadmap for America’s Future” and “The Way Forward” and “The Moment of Truth” and “Restoring America’s Future” and “Living Within Our Means and Investing in the Future.” I’ve also reached out to a few economists respected for the integrity of their science and their patience with economic illiterates.
The first thing I gleaned from this little tutorial will probably not surprise you: There really is a textbook way to fix our current mess. Short-term stimulus works to help an economy recover from a recession. Some kinds of stimulus pay off more quickly than others. Once the economic heart is pumping again, we need to get our deficits under control. The way to do that is a balance of spending cuts, increased tax revenues and entitlement reforms. There is room to argue about the proportions and the timing, and small differences can produce large consequences, but the basic formula is not only common sense, it is mainstream economic science, tested many times in the real world.
So what’s the problem? Why is our system so fundamentally stuck? Partly it’s a colossal, bipartisan lack of the political courage required to tell people what they sort of know but don’t want to hear. Partly it’s a Republican Party that, for its own cynical reasons, wants no deal with this president. Partly it’s moneyed, focused lobbies that swarm in defense of specific advantages written into the law; there is no comparable lobby for compromise, let alone sacrifice.
But also, I’ve come to think something is rotten in the state of economics. The dismal science, as Thomas Carlyle called it, has been ravaged by the same virus that has corrupted the rest of our national discourse.
Back in the very pre-digital days, the writer A. J. Liebling famously remarked that freedom of the press was guaranteed only to the man who owned one. Nowadays, of course, freedom of the press belongs to anyone with Internet access, from the information guerrillas of WikiLeaks to the blogger next door. The democratization of media has diminished the authority once held — and sometimes abused — by a few big newspapers and broadcasters. In many ways this has enriched society, creating a great global buffet of information and opinion, pooling the knowledge of the masses and providing an almost instantaneous reality check on the conventional wisdom.
The consequences have not all been happy, though. The easiest way to stand out in such a vast crowd of microbroadcasters is to be the loudest, the angriest, the most outrageous. If you want that precious traffic, you stake out a position somewhere in oh-my-God territory and proclaim it with a vengeance. Global warming is a hoax! Vaccines make you sick! Obama is a Muslim! In vanquishing the conventional wisdom, sometimes it seems we have vanquished wisdom itself.
Economists don’t live in caves, so there is no reason they should be immune to the centrifugal politics of this noisy world. Thus serious scholars are tempted to sign onto ideas that stretch their own credulity, and lesser economists are thrust forward for their moment of fame as witnesses on behalf of dubious claims. Economists cluster in ideological think tanks that promote political conformity rather than intellectual rigor. Politicians, with no generally accepted consensus to challenge them, can get away with plucking data out of context to bolster assertions that are based more on faith than on reality. Tax cuts pay for themselves! Protectionism saves jobs! It’s all the Fed’s fault! Deficits don’t matter! Obama is a socialist! Say it often enough and before long it’s a serious discussion on cable TV, in which the proven and the preposterous get the same respectful chin-wagging.
“Nobody who is taken seriously as an economist is going to say ‘cancel the Fed,’ ” said Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia Business School, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush, and now Mitt Romney’s chief economic adviser. “I find it very disturbing that the media is giving equal time to some ideas that are just crazy.”
The Web site PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning fact-checking service, recently did a thorough debunking of Republican claims that Obama’s 2009 stimulus program created, quote, “zero jobs.” In fact, the checkers established, using still-trustworthy sources like the Congressional Budget Office, that the stimulus created or saved a couple of million jobs. Case closed? No, the Republicans just went on repeating the claim.
“The talking points drive the discourse,” said Bill Adair, the editor of PolitiFact. “They repeat the talking points so often I think they start actually believing them.”
In the Internet age, anyone can be an expert, and anyone who says otherwise is an elitist.
The other day House Speaker John Boehner put out a list of 132 economists who signed a statement endorsing a Republican menu of spending cuts, tax cuts and deregulation. All of these are legitimate things to propose, but the statement claimed the Republican list “will do more to boost private-sector job growth in America in both the near-term and long-term than the ‘stimulus’ spending approach favored by President Obama.” Reputable number-crunchers like Moody’s Analytics and some top-tier economists of both parties said Boehner’s statement would have little or no impact on the short-term employment problem. So who were these 132 economists? With a few exceptions they were academics from off-the-beaten-path colleges (no offense to Dakota State University), bloggers (the Calafia Beach Pundit?) and economists from devoutly libertarian think tanks. But the news had the right-wing tom-toms beating with excitement.
“I’ve never in my professional life seen the disjunction between the political debate about economics and the consensus of economists be as large as it is today,” said Justin Wolfers, a Wharton School economist who favors Democrats, and who tweeted withering commentary on the list of 132.
Surely this dilution of authority contributes to our national paralysis. At the very least it befogs the discussion and fosters a pervasive cynicism.
Columbia’s Hubbard says the way to weed out the quackery is for serious economists to speak up when silly ideas get a political foothold. He’s right, but once a mainstream economist has settled comfortably into a party-line think tank or joined a candidate’s brain trust, or even enjoyed the adulation at partisan cocktail parties, a degree of self-censorship takes hold.
Of course, there have always been economists who leaned right or left — and some outright snake-oil salesmen — but until recently the public debate about economics pretty much stayed within the boundaries of accepted science. Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have become conservative icons, John Maynard Keynes and Paul Samuelson are stalwarts of the liberals, but in their lifetimes they all had a reverence for evidence (even if their acolytes did not).
Rereading some of the alternating, left-right weekly columns Samuelson and Friedman wrote for Newsweek in the 70s, I’ve been struck by their shared assumptions, and by the fact that the tone was so civil. It’s not hard to imagine both men signing on to the kind of grand bargain that keeps eluding Congress now. But if they were getting started in today’s media market, they would probably be obliged to amp up the vitriol, to sound like the old “Saturday Night Live” “Point-Counterpoint” parody:
“Paul, you pompous ass!”
“Milt, you ignorant slut!”
Here’s hoping that one of the Kardashians does something so extreme, so outré, that he’s forced to feature it in his column, and then someone can fulfill his wish… Here’s Prof. Krugman:
The supercommittee was a superdud — and we should be glad. Nonetheless, at some point we’ll have to rein in budget deficits. And when we do, here’s a thought: How about making increased revenue an important part of the deal?
And I don’t just mean a return to Clinton-era tax rates. Why should 1990s taxes be considered the outer limit of revenue collection? Think about it: The long-run budget outlook has darkened, which means that some hard choices must be made. Why should those choices only involve spending cuts? Why not also push some taxes above their levels in the 1990s?
Let me suggest two areas in which it would make a lot of sense to raise taxes in earnest, not just return them to pre-Bush levels: taxes on very high incomes and taxes on financial transactions.
About those high incomes: In my last column I suggested that the very rich, who have had huge income gains over the last 30 years, should pay more in taxes. I got many responses from readers, with a common theme being that this was silly, that even confiscatory taxes on the wealthy couldn’t possibly raise enough money to matter.
Folks, you’re living in the past. Once upon a time America was a middle-class nation, in which the super-elite’s income was no big deal. But that was another country.
The I.R.S. reports that in 2007, that is, before the economic crisis, the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers — roughly speaking, people with annual incomes over $2 million — had a combined income of more than a trillion dollars. That’s a lot of money, and it wouldn’t be hard to devise taxes that would raise a significant amount of revenue from those super-high-income individuals.
For example, a recent report by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center points out that before 1980 very-high-income individuals fell into tax brackets well above the 35 percent top rate that applies today. According to the center’s analysis, restoring those high-income brackets would have raised $78 billion in 2007, or more than half a percent of G.D.P. I’ve extrapolated that number using Congressional Budget Office projections, and what I get for the next decade is that high-income taxation could shave more than $1 trillion off the deficit.
It’s instructive to compare that estimate with the savings from the kinds of proposals that are actually circulating in Washington these days. Consider, for example, proposals to raise the age of Medicare eligibility to 67, dealing a major blow to millions of Americans. How much money would that save?
Well, none from the point of view of the nation as a whole, since we would be pushing seniors out of Medicare and into private insurance, which has substantially higher costs. True, it would reduce federal spending — but not by much. The budget office estimates that outlays would fall by only $125 billion over the next decade, as the age increase phased in. And even when fully phased in, this partial dismantling of Medicare would reduce the deficit only about a third as much as could be achieved with higher taxes on the very rich.
So raising taxes on the very rich could make a serious contribution to deficit reduction. Don’t believe anyone who claims otherwise.
And then there’s the idea of taxing financial transactions, which have exploded in recent decades. The economic value of all this trading is dubious at best. In fact, there’s considerable evidence suggesting that too much trading is going on. Still, nobody is proposing a punitive tax. On the table, instead, are proposals like the one recently made by Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Peter DeFazio for a tiny fee on financial transactions.
And here’s the thing: Because there are so many transactions, such a fee could yield several hundred billion dollars in revenue over the next decade. Again, this compares favorably with the savings from many of the harsh spending cuts being proposed in the name of fiscal responsibility.
But wouldn’t such a tax hurt economic growth? As I said, the evidence suggests not — if anything, it suggests that to the extent that taxing financial transactions reduces the volume of wheeling and dealing, that would be a good thing.
And it’s instructive, too, to note that some countries already have financial transactions taxes — and that among those who do are Hong Kong and Singapore. If some conservative starts claiming that such taxes are an unwarranted government intrusion, you might want to ask him why such taxes are imposed by the two countries that score highest on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.
Now, the tax ideas I’ve just mentioned wouldn’t be enough, by themselves, to fix our deficit. But the same is true of proposals for spending cuts. The point I’m making here isn’t that taxes are all we need; it is that they could and should be a significant part of the solution.