Doubting David

I think Paul Krugman gets the point, but misses the purpose, of this David Brooks passage:

The economic approach embraced by the most prominent liberals over the past few years is mostly mechanical. The economy is treated like a big machine; the people in it like rational, utility maximizing cogs. The performance of the economic machine can be predicted with quantitative macroeconomic models.

These three sentences are almost a perfect distillation of the current conservative economic talking points. And I want to emphasize that they’re talking points – they’re designed not as a serious intellectual argument but rather as a marketing ploy to appeal to the rubes.

The models offered up by Krugman and other saltwater economists have one major weakness: they don’t jibe with “common sense” thinking, which equates the government’s finances to that of a big household and is thus inherently suspicious of public debt and the idea that you can and should spend your way out of bad times. The current conservative public opinion strategy is to take that widely held but mistaken suspicion, and say things that amplify it as much as possible. Just sow doubt everywhere you can. Rather than try and attack the models on their technical merits, something most pundits simply aren’t qualified to do (and would be counterproductive anyway since it would be over your target audience’s head), you can just attack the modelers as hubristic for even trying to get their arms around something as complex and mysterious as the economy. And in doing so you make it very easy for the average person to get comfortable with thinking that they know just as much about the economy as those pointy-headed economists, so to hell with their expertise, let’s do the commonsense thing and cut spending during a recession.

UPDATE: Of course, Dean Baker is way more cogent than I could ever be. “David Brooks: Math is Hard, Just Give Money to Rich People.”

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