Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It's Not Always About Congressional Dysfunction

Mark Thoma defends economists by bashing Congress:

For fiscal policy the answer is clear and simple. Congress is broken, and it no longer has the ability to work for the common good. Perhaps eliminating the filibuster, removing money from politics, reversing Citizens United, and so on would help – that remains to be seen – but as it stands, Congress is clearly dysfunctional.
And that dysfunction coupled with the influence of big money interests caused Congress to listen to the wrong voices. Instead of paying attention to economists who had been right about the recession all along, Congress listened to the voices that had mostly gotten things wrong. In large part, the people who favored deregulation of the financial sector, assured us there was no housing bubble, and told us problems could be easily contained even if there was a bubble are the very same people who brought us the push for austerity, the fear of inflation, the fear of bond vigilantes, and so on, none of which was helpful.
 I mostly disagree with this. Break it down:

1. In 2009, Congress moved rapidly to pass a large stimulus bill. Was it big enough? Probably not, but it wasn't way off from the consensus of economic thought, as far as I can see. Yes, some economists said it should be have been bigger, even very much bigger, but overall I don't think Congress was far off from what economists were saying.

2. In 2010 you have the best case for Congressional dysfunction as he describes it. The White House was clearly pushing for more stimulus (even if it was, again, rather short of what many economists wanted), and Congress barely acted.

3. In 2011 Congress moves to austerity, strongly contrary to the consensus among economists. However, calling that a case of Congressional dysfunction seems wrong to me. The White House and most Congressional Democrats wanted fiscal expansion in 2011 and 2012, but House Republicans wanted contraction. But unlike 2010, these Republicans weren't a minority blocking action; they had won a landslide election! There is, to be sure, institutional malfunction here, but it's not Congress; it's the Republican Party.

You can't expect, and we generally don't want, Congress to produce results that differ dramatically from election returns. The fault lies elsewhere. One could blame voters, but I generally don't do that; they usually just react to the choices they have. The fault here (if you think that austerity is a terrible mistake) is with a Republican Party which is entirely rejecting the mainstream economic consensus. It's not even limited to the Congressional wing of the GOP; all the presidential candidates were for austerity, as are most Republicans in state government.

For 2011-2012, I see no reason at all to believe that anything about Congress as an institution, from the way they are elected through the way they organize themselves, has anything at all to do with the problem Thoma is concerned about. He can blame the Republican Party, or he can just blame democracy, but to blame it on Congressional dysfunction is a bum rap.

1 comment:

  1. You're too kind to voters. Many voters have been and continue to be very supportive of policies that are, quite frankly, exceedingly stupid. Yes, the Republican argument for austerity in a recession is a bad one, but it's really a very populist argument. How popular? It's written into 49 of the 50 state constitutions!

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