As someone who’s appreciation of economics has absolutely no formal basis, I find the current debate about the Rogoff-Reinhart controversy quite surreal. Here are all these economists on both sides of the argument, discussing the relative merits of one form of analysis, versus another, and minimising or exaggerating the effects of a spreadsheet error. This issue is not an abstract philosophical discourse. The issue of how we view our society is of fundamental importance to every person in the world. Trust in our advisors is particularly relevant to Western democracies surviving. We have moved beyond the base economics, and we are talking about the shape of the Western liberal tradition. Over the last ten years or so, the rudder of Western Society has been firmly in the hands of the austerity driven economists, who, via the World Bank, via the ECB and via the Troika in Europe, have not only had the hegemony of policy, but also have esposed a monopoly on knowledge about the so called remedies for recovery. These policies have prevailed while 27 million people are unemployed in the E.U., and the wealth of middle class Europeans and Americans has dissipated.
These policies bear no criticism. In the case of Ireland, this diminutive analysis portrays the entire Irish population as squanderers whose spendthrift ways are deserving of moral opprobrium and of the punitive austerity imposed as a remedy on the entire population. The fact that the gross excesses were limited to a minute proportion of the population, and there were many non-Irish players, including foreign banks with their snouts in the trough, does not seem to influence the Troika or the arbiters of the new order. The fact that much of the so called “Irish” debt was based in other countries, and not truly “Irish” in any real sense of the word, offers no respite. The undisputed fact that the recklessness of the banks contributed to the catastrophe, fails to provide any relief for the indentured population. Paradoxically, the only element of the population that is not suffering are the bankers, who continue their gluttony of bonuses and high salaries, while acting as the very agencies that are imposing penury on the general population.
So back to the debate over the R-R mistakes/omissions or whatever. The problem for me, an ordinary Joe, is not the semantics of the derivative implications of the subtle analysis that was presented. It was not the worry about the extrapolations of high financial equations. It was not even the arithmetic mistake that was made. It was however the sheer clumsiness, the appalling arbitrariness and the overwhelming subjective nature of the analysis that was most frightening. In my naivety, in my ignorance, I had always thought that economists dealt with the real economy. I considered that these people with their magic formulae, their alchemical spells, could conjure up, if not a view of the future, at least an understanding of the past. But oh! I was woefully wrong. The people who lay the fabric for the agenda of the rich and powerful, don’t do any of that. They decide for arbitrary reasons, to include or exclude countries from their analysis, they don’t bother to check for simple mathematical errors. They then defend themselves against criticism by saying that they were only small errors.
My problem, as a punter, is how the hell can I know what any of their prognostications mean. In fact, how can anyone know? I truly do not know anything of the mathematical formulae required to analyse economies. I know little of the nuances of Keynesian planning, though I understand enough to know that the wisdom of his thinking has been ignored in order to save the oligarchy of the financial elite.
What I do know is this – that the last five years have seen the greatest transfer of public wealth into private hands in the history if Western Society, the indenture of the whole population of the PIIGS countries, the decimation of the middle class, the dismantling of social services and the abolition of democracy in debt burdened nations. The banks have managed to privatise their profits and socialise their losses. Nations have not only lost the ability to decide on their own Government programs, but have had external programs imposed on them.
So what the nub of the problem for the man in the street is that the basis for all these austerity driven policies is not an analysis of tried and trusted methods of overcoming the debt crisis but rather the exact opposite. These programs are not only counter-sense, but they are an exact opposite of the methods that we have learned about dealing with recessions/depressions before. They are an attempt to create growth by shutting down economies. To raise taxes by strangling industry. To reduce social spending by increasing dependency. They fly in the face of the manifest truisms that you cannot create growth without a functioning economy, you can’t have an economy without cash flow, and you cannot have cash flow when you sacrifice individual effort in order to prop up failed financial institutions.
These counter-sense economic policies play straight into the neo-Weberian view of the world that economic collapse has a quasi-moral dimension to it, and that the nations who profited most by the European experiment in the terms of growth and centralisation of wealth are somehow on a higher plane than the peripheral economies that have floundered. Whatever truth there is in the supposition that the peripheal countries screwed up their economies independently of the centre (another manifest fantasy), the cure has nothing to do with the complaint. The cure is designed to tie those peripheral countries into a centralised low-inflation stangnant austerity that has nothing to do with stimulating growth. It has everything to do with economic dependency and indenture.
This whole debate is not about a tweeking of an “Econ 101” freshman project. These data were presented as scientific fact, and a quick revision is not the solution. The basis of the austerity philosophy as applied to Europe is nationalist, pseudo racist, and highly questionable. It relies for intellectual legitimacy on the highly questionable views of the likes of Rogoff and Reinhart. So when you question how such philosophies have contributed to putting twenty seven million people out of work, you have to throw up when you find out that the whole basis of these concepts is faulty. Not only are the analyses subjective, arbitrary and variable, but you also find out that even the basic arithmetic is wrong. Closed prejudiced minds. Sloppy work, and sloppy thinking.