On twitter, I follow some people who espouse ideas that are diametrically opposed to mine in an attempt to learn why they believe those things. I often try to engage them via twitter, but it is an awful medium for actual exposition. It is great for invective though. Sometimes, my attempts at engagement are mistaken for heckling and I get blocked. Such are the hazards.
I follow one woman, @elizcrum, who seems to be employed in media in some way. She posted a link to an writer at the New York Post in which the writer attempted to savage Paul Krugman. I say ‘attempted’, because it isn’t clear that savaging actually happens if the subject is unaware of it. I’m thinking of Shelby Foote’s description of Jefferson Davis’ fulminations against Abraham Lincoln as that of Jeremiah and Sennacherib.
The article was a hit list of Krugman’s supposed failings. I don’t know if they are failings or not, because context was missing. The writer is not without suspected bias, as the New York Post swings on the Rupert Murdoch/Roger Ailes axis.
I highlighted one quote from the article, “Krugman’s Keynesian faith is at best an unproven theory” and labeled it #False. The writer asserts that Krugman’s work as an Nobel Prize winning economist is a matter of faith, a belief in things not provable. And that he uses the expression, “unproven theory”, leads me to believe that he does not understand the meaning of the word, “theory”. I also asked her when we would see the benefits of “trickledown” economics.
She responded by saying she objected to Keynesianism because it “renders spending money that one doesn’t have (which we all once believed was wrong) morally neutral.” This is a complex argument and she was undoubtedly hampered by Twitter’s limit of 140 characters in making it. I responded by saying that if “objection is on moral grounds, is feeding the poor morally suspect?” She responded by saying that we should feed those who cannot afford food, but that the $16T national debt was not caused by food stamp programs.
Looking at the national budget as a moral issue is fraught with problems, and I don’t think I can do the issue justice in this space. I’ll instead jump to my conclusion: I think that when people start talking about the budget in moral terms, they have a conclusion in mind and are looking only for evidence to support their position, as opposed to evidence that might render them wrong.
In this regard, they are acting only like most people normally act. It is a well established fact that people are drawn to things that substantiate their ideas and self-image and there is no reason to think that a moral argument about budget would be any different.
But is the Keynesian argument amoral and is that a bad thing? First, let’s define ‘keynesian’. The term has taken a beating, including one by President Nixon. The thrust of Keynes position was that we live in a consumption based economy. When consumption stops, production slows down and depression sets in. The proper role of the government in that case is to consume, when private enterprise is reluctant to consume. The hope is that the debt-driven consumption will be compensated by revenue streams generated by a restarted economy.
Is this amoral? Yes. My first response, which I deleted, was to ask sarcastically if loaning money was immoral. Like I said, Twitter is good for invective. I think she is trying to frame the question as if we are stealing from our children. Yes, that would be immoral. The unwillingness and political cowardice shown by legislators to cut revenues and increase spending during the Bush years was immoral. Borrowing against the future is not immoral. It is sometimes necessary. Failing to repay it is immoral.
One of my favorite graphs shows the national debt as a percentage of the gross domestic product.
You can see it here.
The issue isn’t the size of the debt, but our ability to pay it back.