Stephen Moore has the dubious honor of being a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. He lives up (or down) to that honor by imparting his wisdom from time to time in signed columns appearing on the Journal’s editorial page. His contribution in today’s Journal (“Why Americans Hate Economics”) is noteworthy for typifying the sad decline of the Journal’s editorial page into a self-parody of obnoxious, philistine anti-intellectualism.
Mr. Moore begins by repeating a joke once told by Professor Christina Romer, formerly President Obama’s chief economist, now on the economics department at the University of California at Berkeley. The joke, not really that funny, is that there are two kinds of students: those who hate economics and those who really hate economics. Professor Romer apparently told the joke to explain that it’s not true. Mr. Moore repeats it to explain why he thinks it really is. Why does he? Let Mr. Moore speak for himself: “Because too often economic theories defy common sense.” That’s it in a nutshell for Mr. Moore: common sense — the ultimate standard of truth.
So what’s that you say, Galileo? The sun is stationary and the earth travels around it? You must be kidding! Why any child can tell you that the sun rises in the east and moves across the sky every day and then travels beneath the earth at night to reappear in the east the next morning. And you expect anyone in his right mind to believe otherwise. What? It’s the earth rotating on its axis? Are you possessed of demons? And you say that the earth is round? If the earth were round, how could anybody stand at the bottom of the earth and not fall off? Galileo, you are a raving lunatic. And you, Mr. Einstein, you say that there is something called a space-time continuum, so that time slows down as the speed one travels approaches the speed of light. My God, where could you have come up with such an idea? By that reasoning, two people could not agree on which of two events happened first if one of them was stationary and the other traveling at half the speed of light. Away with you, and don’t ever dare speak such nonsense again, or, by God, you shall be really, really sorry.
The point of course is not to disregard common sense — that would not be very intelligent — but to recognize that common sense isn’t enough. Sometimes things are not what they seem – the earth, Mr. Moore, is not flat – and our common sense has to be trained to correspond with a reality that can only be discerned by the intensive application of our reasoning powers, in other words, by thinking harder about what the world is really like than just accepting what common sense seems to be telling us. But once you recognize that common sense has its limitations, the snide populist sneers — the stock-in-trade of the Journal editorial page — mocking economists with degrees from elite universities in which Mr. Moore likes to indulge are exposed for what they are: the puerile defensiveness of those unwilling to do the hard thinking required to push back the frontiers of their own ignorance.
In today’s column, Mr. Moore directs his ridicule at a number of Keynesian nostrums that I would not necessarily subscribe to, at least not without significant qualification. But Keynesian ideas are also rooted in certain common-sense notions, for example, the idea that income and expenditure are mutually interdependent, the income of one person being derived from the expenditure of another. So when Mr. Moore simply dismisses as “nonsensical” the idea that extending unemployment insurance to keep the unemployed from having to stop spending, he is in fact rejecting an idea that is no less grounded in common sense than the idea that paying people not to work discourages work. The problem is that our common sense cuts in both directions. Mr. Moore likes one and wants to ignore the other.
What we would like economists — even those unfortunate enough to have graduated from an elite university — to tell us is which effect is stronger or, perhaps, when is one effect stronger and when is the other stronger. But all that would be too complicated and messy for Mr. Moore’s — and the Journal‘s — cartoonish view of the world.
In that cartoonish view, the problem is that good old Adam Smith of “invisible hand” fame and his virtuous economic doctrines supporting free enterprise got tossed aside when the dastardly Keynes invented “macroeconomics” in the 1930s. And here is Mr. Moore’s understanding of macroeconomics.
Macroeconomics simply took basic laws of economics we know to be true for the firm or family –i.e., that demand curves are downward-sloping; that when you tax something, you get less of it; that debts have to be repaid—and turned them on their head as national policy.
Simple, isn’t it? The economics of Adam Smith (the microeconomics of firm and family) is good because it is based on common sense; the macroeconomics of Keynes is bad because it turns common sense on its head. Now I don’t know how much Mr. Moore knows about economics other than that demand curves are downward-sloping, but perhaps he has heard of, or even studied, the law of comparative advantage.
The law of comparative advantage says, in one of its formulations, that even if a country is less productive (because of, say, backward technology or a poor endowment of natural resources) than other countries in producing every single product that it produces, it would still have a lower cost of production in at least one of those products, and could profitably export that product (or those products) in international markets in sufficient amounts to pay for its imports of other products. If there is a less common-sensical notion than that in all of macroeconomics, indeed in any scientific discipline, I would like to hear about it. And trust me as a former university teacher of economics, there is no proposition in economics that students hate more or find harder to reconcile with their notions of common sense than the law of comparative advantage. Indeed, even most students who can correctly answer an exam question about comparative advantage don’t believe a word of what they wrote. The only students who actually do believe it are the ones who become economists.
But the law of comparative advantage is logically unassailable; you might as well try to disprove “two plus two equals four.” So, no, Mr. Moore, you don’t know why Americans hate economics, not unless, by Americans you mean that (one hopes small) group of individuals who happen to think exactly the same way as does the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.