What I like about people in academics is that when we disagree, we actually care about figuring out who’s right — and therefore we have a tendency to reach consensus, though it can take a while.
Anybody who blogs often enough (very much not excluding yours truly) is occasionally going to post something that, at least as written if not as intended, is objectively plain flat out wrong. Paul Krugman did that a couple of days ago, I responded, he’s responded to my response, and at least 4/5 of our disagreement is now resolved. That’s exactly as it should be.
To review the bidding:
1) Eric Cantor demands that any spending on disaster relief should be paid for through cuts in current spending.
2) Krugman makes a blog post arguing that as a matter of theory, the cost of any new spending at all should be spread over as many categories of taxes and cuts as possible. He makes a correct argument, but it’s based on the premise that the current structure of spending and taxes is optimal.
3) I respond with a major point and a minor point. The major point is that it’s nuts to assume that the current structure of spending and taxes is optimal; therefore Krugman’s argument proves nothing. The minor point is that in the nature of politics, sometimes it’s wise to hold even a good policy as a hostage while negotiating for other policies that you also think are good.
4) Krugman concedes the major point, which of course he must, because he’s objectively flat out wrong. (Again — I’ve been that myself from time to time on other issues.):
Landsburg points out, correctly, that the proposition that a spending increase should be offset with a little bit of pain everywhere and everywhen — that is, with higher current and future taxes and lower current and future spending on many things — follows from assuming that the government starts from a position of doing the right thing. If you think the government’s priorities are all wrong, then theory doesn’t tell you much about what should happen.
5) We now agree that there is no principle requiring new spending to be paid for from a broad base of spending cuts and tax increases.
6) Krugman now goes on to say that Eric Cantor is asserting a principle that all new spending on disaster relief must be offset with current spending cuts. I do not know why Krugman says this; my impression is that Cantor defends this as a policy preference, not as a principle. In any event, when Krugman writes “I should have been clearer about that” (that being the question of what point he was trying to make), I think he’s being a bit disingenuous; his original post was very explicitly not a critique of the take-it-all-from-one-place principle but a detailed careful correct argument (though based on a faulty premise) in favor of the spread-it-out principle. But this is an argument over what is now (in Internet time) ancient history; Krugman and I are in total agreement on substance going forward.
7) Let me stress that: We are in total agreement on substance. Namely: There is no general principle that supports Cantor’s policy preference, and (given reasonable assumptions) there is also no general principle that supports the opposite preference.
8) Krugman then turns to the minor point: Is it ever a good idea to hold good policies hostage in order to get other good policies? I think it sometimes is; he seems to think it’s not. Or he thinks it’s not in this particular instance; I’m having trouble telling how general a statement he’s trying to make here.
9) I’d like to be clear that I never took a stand on whether in this instance it was a good idea to hold one policy hostage to another. I said only that there are surely some such instances and therefore we can’t settle this issue by appeal to general all-encompassing principles.
10) Krugman objects to the analogy in which I compare disaster relief to letting your kid go to the prom. Here he has quite entirely misunderstood the point of the analogy (whether the fault lies more in his reading or in my writing, I’ll let you decide). I was not saying “disaster relief is as frivolous as going to the prom”. I was saying: “Look, there is such a thing as relatively unimportant spending, and therefore if you’re going to argue in favor this particular spending, you’ve got to argue for it on its merits, not on the basis of some general principle that `if it’s good we should do it’ “.
11) Krugman closes by repeating the charge that Cantor has invented a nonsense principle. Here I think Krugman is being mildly libelous, because, as I said above, I’ve seen Cantor claim no such principle; all I’ve seen is a statement of a policy preference. But the language of politicians is sufficiently vague that it’s often hard to be sure what they’ve really meant.
12) The language of academics, by contrast, is refreshingly precise, which is why we’re able to reach something pretty close to consensus even when we start off in opposite corners.