Election 2016

Many of America's Leading Economists Are Not Even Remotely Grappling With America's Systemic Problems

Any suggestion that governments can do more to move economies out of the doldrums will be attacked and dismissed.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

A version of this post first appeared on the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

The ferocious reaction to my assessment that Senator Bernie Sanders’ economic and health care proposals could create long-term economic growth shows how mainstream economists who view themselves as politically liberal in America have abandoned progressive politics to embrace a political economy of despair.  Rationalizing personal disappointment and embracing market-centric economic theories according to which government can do little more than fuss around the edges, their conclusions—and the political leadership that embraces them—have little to offer millions of angry ordinary people for whom the economy simply isn’t working.

It has certainly been a rough seven years for the economists in the Obama Administration.  While avoiding a Great Depression, the administration has presided over what Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong call a “Lesser Depression.” One might almost forgive them for a certain defeatism after seven years of painfully slow economic recovery, and the dismay of seeing urgently needed programs blocked by the Republican congressional majority. After so many compromises and let-downs, perhaps it is easier to tell those who expect more that it just can’t happen. There is comfort in the Thatcherite phrase, “There is no alternative” (TINA).

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Combined with orthodox neoclassical microeconomics, however, rationalization has produced a toxic political economy that abandons progressive ideals and surrenders political space to xenophobes and the populist rightwing (see: Donald Trump). The mainstream economists who have attacked my embrace of Keynesian economics have abandoned, in practice, the notion that government can effectively intervene in the economy to raise levels of employment, and to promote economic growth and equity. Instead, they have returned to pre-Keynesian Classical thinking, where the very suggestion that government action can raise growth rates or wages is taken to be obviouslywrong. Criticisms of the orthodox model and its conservative policies are deemed worthy of scorn, to be dismissed tout courtbecause they are obviously at variance not only with textbook economics, but with what we need to believe in order to accept failure

The mechanism of economic policy paralysis among the liberals who espouse market-centric economics works like this: If we accept the (flawed) premise that the total supply of goods and services equals total demand, then we can agree with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that potential output is best measured by observing actual output. And with that—presto!—unemployment magically disappears, and we no longer suffer from slow growth. Conveniently align growth projections with the otherwise-disappointing performance during the Lesser Depression, and as the CBO has done, estimates of potential growth now equal actual growth: Instead of the 3 percent average annual growth of the 1959-2007 period, not to mention the 4 percent growth 1947-'73, we are now told to accept 2 percent growth not as a disappointment, but as recognition of an unfortunate necessity. Such reevaluations say to policy elites, Hey, we are doing as well as can be expected. To the general public, the message is: “Sorry, nothing more can be done for you.” TINA.

The reason elite economists and politicians were so angry at my analysis of Sanders’ proposals was that it disrupted a consensus that nothing can be done by government to improve the performance of the economy. After all, if things are already as good as they can be, it is irresponsible pie-in-the-sky to even suggest to the general public that we can do better. Instead, the task of economists and other policy elites becomes to explain to the general public why they should accept stagnant incomes and rising inequality, and applaud the anemic growth of recent years as the best possible outcome. But the real danger of such thinking is that it leaves liberals like Hillary Clinton with few policy options to offer in response to the siren song of demagogues like Donald Trump. The self-proclaimed “responsible” elite economists see their role as to persuade the public that nothing can be done, in the hope of heading off the challenge of those who would capitalize on the electorate’s appetite for change. They have to slap down critics. “Responsible” elite economists have to keep the party of “good arithmetic” from overpromising at all costs. It should not surprise us, though, that those whose living standards have suffered most from stagnant growth are more inclined to believe politicians promising change.

It was only by rejecting classical economics that Franklin Roosevelt was able to save the American economy and bring about a revolution in social policy. And only by rejecting the new classical economics and the policy of so-called responsible elite economists can Clinton meet our current economic crisis. 

John Maynard Keynes showed how active government policy can raise employment and output; his followers, including Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor, showed how full employment encourages further investments and leads businesses to find ways to raise labor productivity to match increasing product demand. New Deal American economists, such as Rexford Tugwell and John Maurice Clark, showed how active government policy can raise growth rates with investments in infrastructure, in public services, in human capital development, and in research and development. By listening to these ideas, economists associated with liberal American politics helped produce 25 years of relatively rapid and egalitarian growth after World War II. Abandoning these ideas, we have suffered 30 years of relatively slow growth and rising inequality, culminating in the current Lesser Depression. 

The debate over my little report showed how mainstream economics has left us with a smugly certain macroeconomics lacking in imagination, and offering no effective policies to move beyond economic stagnation and escalating inequality. If these economists cannot do better, then we risk more than personal disappointment; we gamble our liberal political economy against the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Hillary Clinton can do better. And Americans deserve better.

Gerald Friedman is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.