Debating the Stimulus (Or Not)

So Tyler Cowen, Greg Mankiw, and Arnold Kling all seemed a bit irked this morning, and understandably so: as Reihan noted the other day, name-calling and accusations of intellectual dishonesty are not an especially helpful way to advocate for a policy position, though let me submit that simply denying the existence of honest and well-informed people who hold views in conflict with your own has got to be even worse. Writes Mankiw:

In a TV interview last month, Vice President Joe Biden said the following:

“Every economist, as I’ve said, from conservative to liberal, acknowledges that direct government spending on a direct program now is the best way to infuse economic growth and create jobs.”

This statement is clearly false. As I have documented on this blog in recent weeks, skeptics about a spending stimulus include quite a few well-known economists, such as (in alphabetical order) Alberto Alesina, Robert Barro, Gary Becker, John Cochrane, Eugene Fama, Robert Lucas, Greg Mankiw, Kevin Murphy, Thomas Sargent, Harald Uhlig, and Luigi Zingales — and I am sure there many others as well. Regardless of whether one agrees with them on the merits of the case, it is hard to dispute that this list is pretty impressive, as judged by the standard objective criteria by which economists evaluate one another. If any university managed to hire all of them, it would immediately have a top ranked economics department.

And now Cowen, on how such dissenters are dealt with:

A highly respected anti-stimulus economist puts up some anti-stimulus evidence in a highly imperfect test […]. The anti-stimulus economist is attacked by pro-stimulus economists. But the pro-stimulus proponents are focused on attack. They are not putting up comparable empirical evidence of their own for the efficacy of fiscal policy and there is a reason for that, namely that the evidence isn’t really there.


Writing polemics against market-oriented economists, no matter what the failings of such economists (and I am one of them, and I have failings), doesn’t get us out of that box.

I’ll say it again to the pro-stimulus forces: a stimulus is going to happen, so I’d love to be cheered up by your evidence. Put it on the table.

(For his part, Kling makes a similar offer.)

As it happens, each of these economists has also linked to this terrific panel discussion at the U of C, in which John Huizinga, Robert Lucas, and Kevin Murphy take on what we know so far about the plans for economic stimulus, try to set the terms of the debate in ways that are fair to both sides, and go on to raise some important concerns. (Huizinga and Murphy’s very helpful slides are available in PDF here and here, respectively.) I sat through the whole thing this morning, and while it’s not quite the kind of open back-and-forth that Cowen and Kling are hoping for, I agree with many others that the hour it takes to watch it is an hour well-spent. Don’t hold your breath, though, in waiting to see whether such discussions become the norm rather than they exception: one of the privileges of being in charge is never having to admit you’re fallible.

P.S. If Alan can do it, then so can I: check out my new(ish) digs at Culture11!