Monday, July 11, 2011

Krugman takes on his Times colleague Bobo and Ruth Marcus

New York Times columnists aren't supposed to directly criticize each other in their columns. But Krugman seems to be pushing the envelope on that matter with David "Bobo" Brooks in his column No, We Can't? Or Won't? 07/10/2011, which should be read together with his blog post The Long and the Short of It 07/10/2011.

The Bobo commentary in question is from the PBS Newshour Political Wrap segment of 07/08/2011, in which the insufferable Ruth Marcus substituted for Sleepy Mark Shields, who was presumably taking an extended nap that day. I get grumpy about the Political Wrap, because it preserves the tone of Serious Commentary but is often little more than a clown show. Bobo delivers his version of that day's Republican Party talking points in a calm and soothing tone. Shields at least snaps awake occasionally and says something perceptive. The main effect of having Marcus on with Bobo is that she makes him sound like a profound intellectual. If Marcus has ever offered any perceptive political observation or analysis, it's not one that I ever recall encountering.

Here's the video:



Bobo offers his deep thoughts on the economic situation:

And so one of the lessons I take away is, we don't know much about the economy. And the second lesson I take away...

JIM LEHRER: Nobody knows very much.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Nobody knows very much.

DAVID BROOKS: And I think most economists would concede that.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And the second thing I take away is that we're just not really good, the government is not really good at manipulating quarter-to-quarter growth.

The government can create the terms for long-range growth with human capital policies and good structures and good tax -- but boosting the economy from quarter to quarter, month to month, we just -- especially with fiscal policy, just don't have that within our power.
Anyone who has been listening to actual economists was probably surprised to learn that most of them think they are as clueless as Bobo pretends to be. I get the impression that Lehrer is occasionally poking fun at Bobo like when he summarized his comment as, "Nobody knows very much."

Fortunately, Ruth Marcus is there to show that some people know even less than Bobo:

JIM LEHRER: All right.

Ruth, the president -- one of the things the president said today was that maybe one of the reasons for the fact that private business has not been hiring is that they are all worried about the debt limit vote. Do you buy that?

RUTH MARCUS: No, but I -- any -- any argument that can get to an agreement on the debt limit, I give some tolerance to.

One of the things that's fascinating about the job numbers is that how you react to them and how you understand them within the context of the debt limit depends on what your preexisting conceptions are, so that Republicans saw the terrible job numbers and -- which are terrible -- and said, well, this just shows that the last thing on earth that we can do is raise taxes and squelch the prospect of job creation.

And Democrats saw it and said, this shows that we need to make sure that, whatever we do in the short-term, it doesn't -- you know, we can't cut spending and, therefore, cut growth, and we need to think about further stimulative things.

So, each side is going to take these numbers and use it to just make the same arguments that they would have made absent those numbers.
Why doesn't she just answer "present" and spare us the nails-on-the-blackboard moments of hearing her pretend to have something to say?

Anyway, Krugman was perhaps more charitable in the way he put it, but he rips them both in his blog post:

A number of people have been telling me about David Brooks and Ruth Marcus agreeing that there’s not much government can do about short-run economic performance, that we need to focus on long-run solutions. It’s a common sentiment inside the Beltway.
If you want to split hairs, Marcus didn't explicitly agree with him in that portion I just quoted; she only babbled incoherently and sounded like she was agreeing. But don't miss the later portion where she gushes about the Big Deal - the one that seriously cuts Social Security and Medicare benefits and begins the phaseout of both programs - saying, "And there is the big deal. The big deal is what gets David and me actually really revved up and excited."

Krugman continues:

And it's also utterly, utterly backwards. Changing the economy's long-run growth rate is hard. We’ve had almost 25 years of "new growth theory" research, with every possible regression run, looking for the keys to faster growth; my sense is that we’ve basically come up dry.

Meanwhile, policy can have huge short-run effects. Monetary policy for sure, in normal times. In a liquidity trap, that's harder — but fiscal policy does indeed work, if tried.
In the column, he discreetly avoid naming Bobo and Marcus. But he writes:

Yet a destructive passivity has overtaken our discourse. Turn on your TV and you'll see some self-satisfied pundit declaring that nothing much can be done about the economy's short-run problems (reminder: this "short run" is now in its fourth year), that we should focus on the long run instead.
And he explains, "Our failure to create jobs is a choice, not a necessity — a choice rationalized by an ever-shifting set of excuses." And goes on to deconstruct some of the favorite excuses.

In the blog post, he writes, "Politically, stimulus turns out to be hard to do. But commentators who spread fatalism are part of the problem." In the column he concludes with:

Listening to what supposedly serious people say about the economy, you'd think the problem was "no, we can't." But the reality is "no, we won't." And every pundit who reinforces that destructive passivity is part of the problem.
They say Krugman is shrill.

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