Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Liberal Hack Economists Remain MIA (ACA Edition)

To return to an oldie but goody: it's still striking to me that no one has jumped up to fill what appears to be a market opening for hack economists on the liberal side. This comes to mind this time from the reaction of economists, including liberal economists, to the sudden decrease in health care inflation over the last few years. As Annie Lowrey reports:
Major new studies from researchers at Harvard University, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and elsewhere have concurred that at least some of the slowdown is unrelated to the recession, and might persist as the economy recovers. 
Not, that is, "Obamacare is slashing health care inflation!" Lowrey does have some relatively optimistic quotes from David Cutler, health care economist, but they're still very tempered.

What we don't have, and haven't anywhere that I've seen it, are liberal economists claiming that the entire slowdown in costs has been ACA-related, or even the bulk of it (the bulk is in fact, economists tell us, recession-related, and of the rest it's not altogether clear where it came from).

Just as we didn't see any liberal economists last year arguing that the economy was in fact way more healthy than people thought. If anything, in the lead-up to an election with a Democrat in the White House, most prominent liberal economists stressed the weaknesses of the economy.

There are plenty of liberal hack pundits; there's nothing about being a liberal that prevents people from embracing convenient arguments, even if they're barely plausible. And there are conservative hack economists, so there's nothing about being an economist that prevents lame spin. But for whatever reason, there aren't any liberal economists who function as party apologists. That doesn't mean that liberal economists are always right about everything; it also doesn't mean that there's no biases involved in their work (more, perhaps, in choice of projects, for example). It just means that, as far as I can see, they tend strongly to call them as they see them, rather than adapting their analysis and talking points to whatever the Democratic Party happens to need at the time.

And I'm not saying that there should be liberal hack economists. I don't think liberals are worse off because of this gap, at all. I just think it's odd that either there's no demand for it, or there's no one willing to fill the demand.


  1. One of the primary differences between liberals and conservatives is that liberals take government seriously, and conservatives don't.

  2. Part of the reason we're stuck with ultimately very conservative legislation coming from a Democratic controlled Senate and Presidency is because the hack's tend to dominate the debate. And Conservatives tend to voice their hackery more because there is no disincentive in the conservative media to being wrong. On the other side however, there is a huge disincentive. Because the left media doesn't defend their hacks and the right browbeats them into submission.

    I am no fan of the Daily Kos, but I bet if it was fact checked, it would be more accurate than the conservative equivalent, NRO or whatever.

    How much of the NBC Nightly News or PBS' NewsHour was devoted to looking at "Death Panels"? How much of the national conversation is driven by hack journalists on both sides? A lot. And one side doesn't need to be correct, they just need to be loud. And they are really good at that.

  3. Mightn't this just be a feedback loop thing?

    If a CHE writes an article saying food stamps caused the recession, or whatever, the response from the conservative media will be positive, and the response from the liberal media will be irrelevant or grist to their mill.

    But a wannabe LHE who wrote an article crediting this inflation slowdown to the ACA would be contradicted by Ezra Klein and his nerd minions within minutes; then dismissed by Yglesias, lampooned by Chait, and finally, somewhat bafflingly, called a disgusting evil bloated maggot by Greenwald. And that's before the conservatives got started.

    It's not worth it.


    1. So your argument is that if the conservative media agrees with the conclusion, they don't read the analysis. Instead, they assume it must be true. Liberal media types read the analysis, judge it, and then attack the author if they believe the conclusions to be overstated.

      But why?

    2. My thinking is good ol' cognitive dissonance. Conservatives have a greater need for closure than do liberals; it's part of their psychological makeup.

      So, I actually suspect that JB is wrong to equate liberal pundit hackery with liberal expert hackery. Punditry is, essentially, immune to factual correction anyway, and is about saying what makes you "feel good."

      However, I have an underpants gnome problem in my theory. I have a reasonable assumption, but I'm having trouble connecting it to the lack of liberal hacks. Yes, there should be FEWER (see cog. diss.), but there still should be SOME in this theory.

  4. Perhaps there isn't as much of a market as you suspect.

    In the last decade or so, liberals have been motivated more by social issues and foreign policy than pure economic issues. And liberals have been- rightly, in my mind- less than satisfied with Obama's economic and health care policies (mind you, that's not necessarily hostility, just recognition that a lot more needs to be done).

    As such, a LHE that argues that "The stimulus and the ACA are making everything GREAT!" really doesn't serve their purposes; they wouldn't latch onto that argument because they don't actually agree with its conclusions.

    Then, add in the "feedback loop" problem that Anon @ 11:03 noted, and I think you can explain the bulk of the absence.

  5. Perhaps no one is making a deal of it because it was anticipated. After discussion of reform during the Clinton administration health care inflation abated for awhile too. Even though in that case reform was completely defeated. Any deflation this time around, expecially this early on, is probably to be expected and at least partly attributable to a similar phenomenon

  6. Not sure it's necessarily a feedback loop situation because I think right wing hack economists are aware that they're wrong and are simply pushing ideological imperatives because there's no incentive to be correct or more accurately, consistent. They can look at the data and parse what serves them. They can discount the CBO when it serves them. Then turn around and praise it when it serves them. There is absolutely no incentive to be consistent. A feedback loop would suggest that they actually believe their own hackery (maybe they do.)

    But what is amazing about the Right Wing Media in general and Right Wing economists specifically is that they demand ABSOLUTE consistency from their opponents. A Keynesian can't be a free-marketeer, etc.

    1. Games are a lot easier to win if you rig the rules in your favor, sir.

  7. Jonathan Bernstein: "To return to an oldie but goody: it's still striking to me that no one has jumped up to fill what appears to be a market opening for hack economists on the liberal side. "

    Shorter version: Again and again, the two sides do not behave in the same way.

    Jonathan, perhaps a general conclusion can be drawn from this?

  8. I think the proximate reason for the dearth of liberal hacks is that liberal non-hacks would not be reticent about pushing back against them. Now, Paul Krugman may not push back as assiduously (or acidulously) as he does against conservative hacks, but if the issue got a lot of play, I'm pretty sure he'd come down on the non-hack side. I'm virtually certain that Ezra Klein (and the other economics Wonkbloggers), Derek Thompson, Ryan Avent, Brad DeLong, John Cassidy, Annie Lowrey and David Leonhardt, among many others, would. (And JB would link to them.) This is partly because, as TN notes, if you want government to actually work, wishful thinking and hackery are counterproductive, but if all you want to do is retard progress, mostly by appealing to people who already agree with you, any old argument will do.

    I think it may also be true that the sort of liberals who seek out political analysis and commentary are more inclined toward substance than hackery. I know that sounds self-serving (and maybe it is), but the audience for the non-hacks is a very small portion of people who vote Democratic, so I'm not making a larger point about liberals and conservatives in general, just a small subset on the liberal side.

    In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a bigger audience for conservative non-hacks than the conservative marketplace indicates. (I think Conor Friedersdorf would agree with that.) There's actually a fair amount of non-hackery in conservative publications (thinking specifically of The American Conservative, but I'm sure there are others) outside the conservative movement and thus free to call out any hack they disagree with, even if he or she is "on the team."

    Analogizing to movies, I'd guess that very few people open the NYT movie page on Friday wondering if Manohla Dargis will rate the new Adam Sandler movie as hilarious or super-duper hilarious. Hardly anyone reads A.O. Scott to decide between going to see the latest offering from Lars von Trier or "The Focking Fockface Fockers Are At It Again" (in glorious 3-D!). Not that there's anything wrong with preferring Kevin James to von Trier (I've never seen a Dogme movie, and probably never will), it's just that the NYT critics do not see their role as reflecting popular taste (whatever that is) but rather critical analysis of movies, and that's what the people who do read the movie page are looking for.

    [Note: If "The Focking Fockface Fockers Are At It Again" comes to a theater near you, I'm buying drinks for everyone at the next Plain Blog happy hour.]

    1. Supposedly, the MPAA wouldn't sign off on the title "Meet the Fockers" until the studio could demonstrate that there were actually people living in American named "Focker." So I assume they wouldn't look too kindly on "Fockface."

  9. The odd thing is that there's a good-sized market for liberal hackery as far as foreign policy is concerned. There's plenty of writers and filmmakers who do fine just tenuously connecting anything bad that happens in the world to US/Israeli machinations.

    Of course, there's also the question of who counts as a hack. Many on the right and centre-right certainly consider Krugman a hack, even if he does criticize Obama sometimes.

  10. Entrenched business interests and the conservative media industry pay conservative economists well to be hacks. Nobody pays liberal economists well to be hacks. So they don't be them.

  11. Prof. Bernstein,

    It's possible that you live in a Progressive bubble, mostly avoiding non-progs who point to Proggish hackery and nonsense. A small test: what's the ratio of non-progs to probs that you link to for analysis?

  12. What Ron E. said. There's just no money in calling to soak the rich.

    @backyardfoundry - If he's in a progressive bubble, why hasn't he encountered these prominent liberal economic hacks?

    Or if he's just too blind to see them, would you care to give us a link to some of their hackier moments?

  13. Wherein Krugman claims that ALL Republicans are unreasonable on economic issues:


    That took a couple seconds to Google: Paul Krugman hack

    1. Wherein Brad DeLong claimed that anyone (including extreme libertarians) who was against Obama's stimulus was a shameless Republican hack and possibly one of the stupidest men alive:


  14. Per the open, the difference between a hack and an honest error is knowledge: the hack "embraces convenient arguments (that are) barely plausible". The analyst committing the honest error apparently doesn't realize that their argument is barely plausible.

    I bring this up because, on the rare occasion that Professor Krugman acknowledges the problem of the huge debt overhang, he dismissively notes that there is plenty of time (and political will) to make drastic budget changes a decade or so hence.

    Krugman's support of massive stimulus today is against the objective of kick-starting hiring, the gatekeepers of which hiring are (I guess?) oblivious to the major changes coming soon, changes that will no doubt have big impacts on their potentially-larger businesses.

    If Krugman realizes that the prospect of massive new hiring under the looming shadow of big budgetary changes is a remote one, then he's a hack. If he doesn't, well, he's something else.

    I think I like the guy a lot more if he's a hack, honestly.

    1. Or he disagrees with you about the economics of it. I don't think that makes him either a hack or dishonest; it's just disagreement. He has his positions, and he argues for them.

      He certainly doesn't, as far as I've seen, adjust his economic arguments to suit the current needs of the Democratic Party. Nor does he, from what I've seen, adjust his economic arguments to suit the current needs of an ideological faction.

      Now, I will absolutely agree that he (and DeLong, mentioned above) use shrill language to make their points. If people want to argue that Krugman and DeLong can be hackish *as pundits*, I don't know whether it quite fits the definition, but I wouldn't really argue about it. But neither of them, or any of the other prominent liberal economists, are hacks *as economists*.

      Again: whatever the explanation, it has to fit in that there are plenty of liberal hack pundits, and I'd agree with the comment above that there are liberal hack foreign policy types.

      But not economists, as far as I can see.

    2. Thanks for the comment; I'd agree that we don't really know if Krugman gets the inconsistency of his analysis. Specifically, Krugman's defense of the 2003 comments mentioned by backyard below is that what Bush was doing was 'structural and permanent'; what Krugman proposes is 'temporary' - to be replaced by something draconian soon enough. It may be that Krugman doesn't realize that the hoped-for job growth in his plan is intended to be 'structural and permanent' in the eyes of the little people potentially making those hires....if so, I suppose he's not a hack?

      Essentially, though, if the characteristic of a hack is the embrace of flawed arguments to indulge a particular audience, when Krugman sighs and rolls his eyes and says "Duh, of course you can borrow a bunch of money to get little people to hire here on the precipice of wrenching budgetary change", whom do you propose is consuming that? People who see the flaw in the argument? That's required for being a non-hack, isn't it?

      But if his readers saw the flaw, why would they put up with the commentary?

  15. "But for whatever reason, there aren't any liberal economists who function as party apologists."

    "But neither of them, or any of the other prominent liberal economists, are hacks *as economists*. "

    Here's a fine example of Krugman making a giant about face after the switching of presidents. Note his pathetic rejoinder to the post. Imagine how he would respond today to the 2003 quote. Krugman does crap like this all of the time, but one would have to read non-progs to know about it. I could give you progs a reading list, but I doubt it would help.


    1. If you doubt it would help, then why post at all?

  16. To make things easier, here is 2003 Krugman:

    …last week I switched to a fixed-rate mortgage. It means higher monthly payments, but I’m terrified about what will happen to interest rates once financial markets wake up to the implications of skyrocketing budget deficits.

    …we’re looking at a fiscal crisis that will drive interest rates sky-high….But what’s really scary — what makes a fixed-rate mortgage seem like such a good idea — is the looming threat to the federal government’s solvency.

    …How will the train wreck play itself out? ….my prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar.

    1. This isn't a story of Krugman being a partisan hack; it's a story of him being arrogant (in Tabarrok's view).

      Krugman himself confesses to two errors in the link chain here: the one in 2003 which definitely talked down the economy under a GOP president, and one in the 1990s which talked down the economy when a Democrat was in the White House.

      The main point is, however, that no one could possibly read Krugman over 2009-2013 as a blind cheerleader for the economy. My guess is that anyone who compiled his predictions would find that he once again was overly pessimistic. That's not the behavior of a hack.

    2. "The main point is, however, that no one could possibly read Krugman over 2009-2013 as a blind cheerleader for the economy."

      If I can point to a liberal economist who acted "as a blind cheerleader for the economy" between 2009 and 2013, would you admit that this post is just your usual partisan hackery?

      And to define the terms in quotes more clearly, you should link to Republican economists who acted the hack when Bush was in office. I want a good "blind cheerleader" to compare my progressive targets to.

    3. For the record:


  17. Also, if he was a hack he'd surely try to pin poor growth on inequality, which would be nice for him politically. But he won't because he can't see it in the numbers.

    So maybe Stiglitz is a hack for pushing that line? How could we non-economists know?

  18. However, I do think that in a sense we need "liberal hacks" right now. It's not just about the ACA-we can debate how much or little credit it deserves.

    However, the drop in healthcare costs if it proves permanent takes away the whole narrative that we need to reform Medicare because of the steeply rising healthcare costs.

    Why aren't liberals talking about the drop in healthcare costs and why they should



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