Saturday, August 3, 2013

An Economism Update, Courtesy Today’s Newspaper

Where does our society stand regarding economism today? Here’s a quick survey based on the Saturday, August 3 edition of the Houston Chronicle, the paper that some nice person flings onto our front walk each morning.

First thing we might note is an editorial cartoon by Dana Summers, a conservative-leaning cartoonist with the Orlando Sentinel, that I cannot locate on the Web. The cartoon shows Obama in a chef’s outfit serving up a roast pig labeled “more spending,” saying something to the effect that this dish pleases the diners every time.

This seems to be the sort of cartoon that is supposed to get the reader to nod sagely and mutter, “Ain’t it the truth.” This bit of popular wisdom ignores the larger picture. I agree that if we rewind the tape to around 1980, you can find fat-and-sassy liberals of the Tip O’Neill school who did in fact appear to believe that government spending of just about any sort would solve just about any problem. What economism advocates appear to have not noticed is that this species has become extinct. The level and extent of recommended government spending that passes for “liberal” these days would be viewed as very politically middle of the road, if not indeed center-right, in the world of Ronald Reagan.

The other thing that economism advocates have failed to notice is mentioned in another article in today’s Chronicle, reporting that the recent outbreak of cyclospora food poisoning had been traced to two popular restaurant chains that were serving bagged lettuce from a Mexican farm run by an American company:

What seems impossible to ignore is that with all the repeated cutbacks in the Federal budget over the past 4 decades, critical programs like the FDA’s food safety inspections are now inadequate to protect the American public. Add all the Interstate highway bridges that are due to crumble into dust anytime soon, and so on and so on, and only somebody blinded by ideology could conclude that more government spending is always and everywhere a dumb idea.

Turn the page from the editorial cartoon and we come to a column by economist Paul Krugman:

(subscription required). Krugman is angry at his fellow economist-pundits who appear to be mounting a campaign against Janet Yellen as the new Federal Reserve chair despite her numerous qualifications. He’s angry because the reasons given seem frankly sexist, which is a good reason to be angry. But he includes among the thinly-disguised-sexist rants the claim that somehow she lacks the serious gravitas that is supposedly an important requirement in the Fed position.

Krugman inquires as to just what it means to these pundits to be properly serious, besides possessing the Y chromosome. And he notes that it appears that people of Yellen’s persuasion have argued that the Fed should perhaps be more worried about helping the unemployed and others being hurt by the recession rather than fighting off a non-existent threat of inflation. That concern, apparently, gets classified as non-serious.

This point gets back to one of the fundamental features of economism I addressed in The Golden Calf. The two religious roots of today’s economism that I identified there have in common classification as parts of Christianity, but also having a marked predilection for the words of the Old Testament over the New. And while my rabbi friend gets upset when I employ this generalization, many see the god of the Old Testament as generally a nasty and vengeful deity as contrasted with the kind and compassionate god of the New Testament. To the extent that economism is actually warmed-over religion pretending to be hard-headed economics, it would not be surprising if economists of that persuasion equated sternness and lack of sympathy for the plight of the poor and unemployed with desirable traits—showing that one was a hard-headed realist who understood God’s plan for the world. By contrast, even if all the economic data showed that the “stern” austerity program simply was not working, anyone who worries more about the poor and unemployed is obviously a wuss who has no grasp of God’s plan, and hence cannot be trusted at the economic controls.
So in the end we get even more evidence that economism is an ideology that blinds people to facts about the world, and that it’s alive and kicking in the corridors of power.

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