The Trash-Talking Blood Sport of Economics

Economists are engaged in a battle royale where everybody with a fist, glove or folding chair can jump out of the audience and into the ring.

Photo Credit: Flickr (cc)

Thomas Carlyle called economics "the dismal science." Journalist A. J. Liebling called boxing "the sweet science." To read the Internet lately you'd think they got the two professions mixed up.

Economics is becoming a battle royale, a free-for-all. It's a melee where everybody with a fist, glove or folding chair can jump out of the audience and into the ring. It doesn't matter how much ref blows his whistle. There will be blood. If economists had entourages, bullets would be flying.

The brawl du jour is over the Affordable Care Act, but it's also an argument over the tone of policy disputes, a burning "meta" question in that paradoxical world where conservative economists believe every human being on Earth is an economic actor ... except other economists.

Economists are talking trash about each other. And, as crazy as it sounds, it actually matters.

The latest fracas seems to have started when Paul Krugman used the word "fraudulent" to describe Avik Roy's assertion that Obamacare has caused "rate shock" in California. Krugman says economist Roy "knows better" and is intentionally deceiving his readers. Then Tyler Cowen of the Marginal Revolution blog, a smart and rational libertarian-conservative economist, weighed in. "I find the screeds of most but not all of Roy's critics to be inappropriate," Cowen wrote, "or in some cases beyond inappropriate."

Economist Austin Frakt of The Incidental Economist posed a question: "Can polite discourse cut through the noise and, yes, BS? Or, does one have to get a bit rude?" His blog partner, Aaron Carroll, lamented the time wasted on not discussing "actual differences of opinion" and questioned the motives of aggressive writers, saying "incivility sells. It gets eyeballs and clickthroughs."

"Be the debate you want to see," says Carroll.

But the question isn't which debate we'd like to see. Isn't the real question, Which debate leads to the best outcome?

Most people I know would rather have a civil, intellectually-grounded debate. Here's the problem: The economics profession has been injected with enormous sums of money - in the form of chairs, endowments, think tanks, advisory roles, consulting gigs, and God knows what else - to push it further to the right.

And the money's worked. Mike Konczal wrote that his graduate-level macroeconomics course "was by far the most ideologically indoctrinating class I've ever seen," a place where "you learn more sophisticated ways of explaining, say, revealed preferences."

There's a growing perception that right-wing economists are incredibly well-funded, don't fight fair, and are engaged in a war of attrition. That they'll use any gambit necessary to support their case and bog their opponents down in a permanent defensive crouch.

Are they acting out of economic self-interest? There's no way of knowing. I'm sure some are sincere, others are "actors" in the economic sense, and others have simply found themselves hemmed in by events.

I have fewer dogs than usual in the Krugman/Roy fight. I agree with those who say that the ACA is in many ways a new tax, both direct and indirect. (I come at it from the left; I think we need, at a minimum, the public option plus rate controls.) I believe that the ACA's defenders have been seriously overselling California's results. (Although I usually agree with him, I include Krugman among the oversellers.)

And yet, looking at it as objectively as I can, I understand why Krugman called Roy's argument "fraudulent." As Krugman notes, Roy can be worth engaging intellectually. But when an argument seems based on deliberate distortion, is it really more high-minded to pretend otherwise?

There is a war between the young and old/a war between the men and the women
There is a war between those who think there is a war and those who think there isn't.
- Leonard Cohen

A lot of people are suffering because of so many conservative economists' lack of intellectual rigor, seeming disregard for facts, and apparent disinterest in fair play or honesty. Is "civility" the proper response?

Sheldon Whitehouse doesn't think so. This week we had the extraordinary spectacle of a United States Senator - Whitehouse - all but calling a conservative economist a liar during a hearing.The word he used was "meretricious," which when used on the Senate floor is worse than anything Jay-Z or Nas ever said about each other. Among the meanings given for "meretricious" by Merriam-Webster is "having the nature of prostitution" and "tawdrily and falsely attractive."

Color me impressed with Sen. Whitehouse's command of language.

Was he uncivil? Arguably. But I'd say it's even less "civil," under multiple definitions of that word, to mislead policymakers and the public on behalf of counter-productive (and literally deadly) austerity.

As I've said, I prefer civility too. But sometimes people idealize their own personal preferences rather than facing the situation - and the tough battles - at hand. (See "Obama, Barack.") The ancient Greeks understood that a virtue employed in the wrong context becomes a vice. They even invented a dramatic form to illustrate that: tragedy.

The truth is, economics is neither "dismal" nor a "science." It's a heated, highly ideological and frequently unscientific enterprise. True, I hate the tone of the debates sometimes. I hate my own tone sometimes. I'll continue to struggle with it and try to improve it.

But there's a war on. Corporate interests are killing the middle class and depriving poorer people of hope, opportunity, and basic human needs, and they're using economics as a weapon They say truth is the first casualty in any war, and maybe so. But can't we give it a decent funeral, or is that too "uncivil" to mention?

(UPDATE: I see that Krugman addressed this question today too.)

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, a consultant, and a former musician.

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