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Stiglitz and Other Heavyweight Champion Economists in Epic Battle Over Austerity Policies That Devastate Millions

The field of economics is tumult, strewn with discredited theories and tarnished reputations.

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This article discusses a simmering feud among five of the most prominent economists in the world (two of them Nobel Laureates).  It was prompted by the August 8, 2013 article by Raghuram Rajan, who has just been selected to run India’s Central Bank, entitled: “The Paranoid Style in Economics.”  (Note: I have deliberately “buried the lead” in my last section.)

The personalities involved have a great deal to do with the feud, but as Paul Krugman wrote on May 23, 2013, “ It’s Not About You.”

I will ignore the personalities and discuss what it is about – economic policies that continue to cause devastating harm to the public all over the globe.  Krugman and Joe Stiglitz are critics of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) imposition of austerity as a cure for severe recessions.  Ken Rogoff, Carmen Reinhart, and Rajan were the leading economists at the IMF who championed the imposition of austerity. 

Round One: Rogoff v. Stiglitz

The original feud was most famously between Stiglitz and Rogoff.  Stiglitz, who led the movement at the World Bank to throw off its support for austerity, memorably claimed that IMF was staffed with “third rate” economists.  Rogoff famously blasted Stiglitz in a July 2, 2002, “ open letter” (only months after Stiglitz was made a Laureate) that, inter alia, referred to him as a “loose cannon” who had “slandered” the IMF staff, slammed him for refusing to “admit to having been even slightly wrong about a major real world problem,” suggested he was so arrogant that he doubted that Paul Volcker was “really smart,” admitted that Stiglitz had a few ideas with which the IMF would “generally agree” because most of them were “old hat,” described Stiglitz’s most recent book as “long on innuendo and short on footnotes,” derided him as pretending to see himself “as a heroic whistleblower” when he was actually peddling “snake oil,” described Stiglitz views as being most analogous to Arthur Laffer’s “voodoo economics” (cleverly and deeply insulting on multiple levels), accused Stiglitz of lacking faith in markets and having faith in increasingly democratic governments (“you betray an unrelenting belief in the pervasiveness of market failures, and a staunch conviction that governments can and will make things better”), and ended with a wonderfully nasty “compliment” that compared Stiglitz to a famous scholar who suffers from often disabling mental illness (“Like your fellow Nobel Prize winner, John Nash, you have a ‘beautiful mind.’ As a policymaker, however, you were just a bit less impressive.”)  To top off this list, Rogoff told Stiglitz that he should pull his book from publication because it “slandered” a senior IMF official.

But those are only the gratuitous insults that Rogoff launched at Stiglitz.  His real attack was that Stiglitz had done incalculable damage to the developing world by criticizing the IMF and by opposing austerity as “battlefield medicine” for nations thrown into severe recessions.

“In your role as chief economist at the World Bank, you decided to become what you see as a heroic whistleblower, speaking out against macroeconomic policies adopted during the 1990s Asian crisis that you believed to be misguided. You were 100% sure of yourself, 100% sure that your policies were absolutely the right ones. In the middle of a global wave of speculative attacks, that you yourself labeled a crisis of confidence, you fueled the panic by undermining confidence in the very institutions you were working for. Did it ever occur to you for a moment that your actions might have hurt the poor and indigent people in Asia that you care about so deeply? Do you ever lose a night’s sleep thinking that just maybe, Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, Bob Rubin, and Stan Fischer had it right—and that your impulsive actions might have deepened the downturn or delayed—even for a day—the recovery we now see in Asia?”