Must-read: Noah Smith: “Policy Recommendations and Wishful Thinking”

Must-Read: I must say I am getting more than a whiff of the disastrous trope that “it is the duty of an organic intellectual to support the Movement” here.

The technocratic view is that there will be a bunch of competing ideological views and material interests pulling and hauling, and that by always wading in and joining the tug-of-war side that has the better policy idea at the moment in the issue under dispute one will get better governance and higher societal well-being. The opposite view is: There is a Movement, the Movement is good because the Movement is supported by the class whose interest is the general interest and by Correct Ideological Thought, and all progressives must support the movement.

That is a disastrous pattern of thought. I am 100% with Noah Smith here:

Noah Smith: Policy Recommendations and Wishful Thinking: “There was a bit of a blow-up earlier this year over Gerald Friedman’s analysis of Bernie Sanders’ economic plans…

…To me, it seemed that the coup-de-grace was delivered by Justin Wolfers…. Friedman admits he made a mistake and then says that his conclusion was right anyway, because we can go find some alternative assumptions that make his original conclusion hold. To me this is transparently assuming the conclusion. That’s a big no-no, and while a lot of macroeconomists probably do this, it looks really bad to admit to it! (I’m also starting to realize that ‘Joan Robinson’ is a sort of an invincible rhetorical refuge for lefty macro types, the way ‘Friedrich Hayek’ is for righty macro types.)….

The fracas quieted down, but now it’s back. Friedman and allies are no longer saying that their analysis is ‘just standard economics’, since they had to switch to non-standard economics to make the conclusions come out the way they wanted. The line now is that Krugman, the Romers, et al. are just a bunch of pessimists, who are unintentionally playing into the hands of conservatives…. Krugman was not happy about this, and blogger ProGrowthLiberal was pretty mad:

The claim that economists like Christina and David Romer bought into the New Classical revolution is both absurd and dishonest…[W]e critics do admit we are below full employment and we have been calling for fiscal stimulus. On this score, the latest from J.W. Mason is even more dishonest than the latest from Gerald Friedman. Guys–you do not win a debate by lying about the other side’s position….

I don’t like what Friedman and Mason are doing. I think economists have a duty to look at the facts as objectively as they can, regardless of their emotions and desires. You shouldn’t prefer Model B over Model A just because one leads to ‘hope’ and the other to ‘hopelessness’…. Friedman and Mason seem to be arguing that our belief about the facts should be driven, at least in part, by our desire to avoid a feeling of powerlessness. They also seem to be saying that if the facts seem to support conservative policies, even a tiny bit, we should reinterpret the facts. I don’t like this approach. It seems anti-rationalist to me, and I think that if wonks behave this way, they’ll end up recommending lots of bad policies.

Cf. Henry Farrell’s 2011 attack on Matt Yglesias:

Henry Farrell (2011): The Limits of Left Neo-Liberalism: “[Doug Henwood is] wrong in the particulars…

…But… Doug is onto something significant…. Left neo-liberalism in the US… have always lacked a good theory of politics… tend[s] to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But… politics… requires strong collective actors…. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies at best tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case…. It’s hard for me to see how left-leaning neo-liberalism can generate any self-sustaining politics. I’m sure that critics can point to political blind spots among lefties (e.g. the difficulties in figuring out what is a necessary compromise, and what is a blatant sell-out), but these don’t seem to me to be potentially crippling, in the way that the absence of a neo-liberal theory of politics (who are the organized interest groups and collective actors who will push consistently for technocratic efficiency?) is…

People should say that policies are good if they tend to do good things–to make people freer and richer. People should not say that policies are good if they tend to build the Movement, for there is neither Correct Ideological Thought nor a universal class whose interests are identical to the general interest. And people should, especially, not misrepresent what policies are likely to do in the interest of building the Movement.

And where the Movement is good, the policies that advance it will also be the policies that make technocratic sense…

April 24, 2016


Brad DeLong
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