The artwork above is courtesy of Jodi Beggs, proprietress of the lively Economists Do It With Models site, who graced us with a visit in yesterday‘s comments and expanded on those comments on her own page. (That’s me kicking Paul Krugman in the gut.)
Jodi objects to the tone, and in part to the substance, of my response to Paul’s recent attacks on the “deficit hawks” who oppose various spending programs that Paul happens to favor. I’d summarized his rhetorical technique as follows:
- Identify an adversary who is concerned about the cost of some program Krugman likes.
- Label that adversary a “deficit hawk”.
- Belittle (perhaps reasonably) excessive concern about the deficit while ignoring legitimate concerns about the costs of spending and taxation, which is not at all the same thing.
- Omit any attempt at an honest reckoning of costs and benefits.
- Pretend you’ve said something relevant.
I particularly objected to Paul’s labeling as “hypocrites” those who support both spending cuts and tax cuts. Paul thinks that’s hypocritical because spending cuts and tax cuts have opposite effects on the deficit. I think that’s completely ridiculous because the merit of a policy depends on many things other than its effect on the deficit. Here’s Jodi’s attempt to prove that we’re both right and both wrong:
If all people claim to care about is size of the deficit, then they are being hypocritical in advocating one method of reducing the deficit and eschewing another. If all people care about is economic efficiency, then they are by definition internally consistent if they advocate both benefits and tax cuts. The reality of the situation is that most reasonable people put some weight on both deficit reduction and economic efficiency, so people are not automatically hypocritical or consistent just because they are simultaneously in favor of cuts in unemployment aid and taxes.
I agree in principle, but I object in practice, because in practice nobody cares primarily about the size of the deficit.
Look. Any time the government spends money, there are two or three downsides (which might or might not be outweighed by the upsides). Call the downsides Thing One, Thing Two, and Thing Three. Thing One, the biggee, is that resources get consumed. Thing Two, which can also be pretty big, is that the program must be financed by (current or future) taxes, which discourage productive activity. And finally, there might or might not be a Thing Three, which is that any increase in the deficit could conceivably have some minor disadvantages that are, by any reckoning, eensy weensy compared to Things One and Two.
Because Things One and Two are so much bigger than Thing Three, it must be extremely rare for the prospect of Thing Three to sway anyone’s opinion about the overall desirability of any given spending program. So for Paul to pretend that most of the opposition to his favored programs is based on Thing Three still strikes me as, yes, pummelling a straw man.
Everyone agrees that the deficit is a relatively minor issue (though some of us have said so more consistently than others). Paul wants to pretend that his opponents believe otherwise so that he can prove them wrong. That’s easier, I suppose, than engaging the issues they might be right about.