Sunday, January 2, 2011

Greg Mankiw's Latest Column is Mostly Nonsense

Normally, I enjoy reading Greg Mankiw both on his blog and in the New York Times. His writing is thoughtful and clear, and although his blog does not allow comments, I do appreciate his explanation why (he's blogging for himself, not for me, and policing comments was too costly for a personal hobby). A recent controversial column, on marginal tax rates, elicited such a large response he even got involved in the conversation.

However, I want to disagree with the sentiment of his most recent column. On my reading, his advice to President Obama is basically that it will be easier to work with Republicans if the President simply becomes a Republican, by (for example) taking a more long-term view of the economy and not using government as a tool for redistribution. This is just silly. Obama was voted in on the Democratic ticket. Voters could reasonably expect him to support typical Democratic policies, such as redistribution of income. Changing course would be a disservice to the voters, who chose the President in part because of his party affiliation.

Greg - it's obvious that by becoming a Republican, or at least making policies that coincide with Republican ideals, it would be easier for the President to work with Republicans. But that's not a realistic or useful policy prescription. Stick to the last point (don't cast the Republicans as your enemy) and focus on how the two sides can find middle ground to make meaningful changes in deficit reduction, entitlement reform, and the future of our nation.


Anonymous said...

I checked out the original column, and thoroughly expected that you'd oversimplified his proposal. I should applaud your painstaking effort to represent his argument more charitably than it deserved, since it was not simply "silly" but downright patronizing.

I'm curious, though, whether Mankew simply subscribes to the belief that all intelligent individuals are fiscal conservatives. My take on the column is that Mankew confidently suggests Republican policies because he believes that, deep down, Obama must also subscribe to his fiscal sensibilities, and that the only thing preventing a Republican fiscal agenda is political unfeasibility. This is hardly empirically supported, given that economic depression correlates with neither party control...

The only way that his prescription makes sense, and I believe it is a feasible interpretation, is if we assume that the purpose of Obama's policies are to ensure continued "Democratic" control of the executive branch. In that model, the actual policies are instrumental to the persistence of a social coalition in power, not intrinsic along ideological lines. Another way of framing this model would be to locate Obama's responsibility not in his initial mandate, which reflects a past margin among voters, but rather the current margin, and therefore the margin among prospective voters. Ironically, a case could be made that either obligation is more democratic than the other.

Pete Abbate said...


Thanks for the read. It's possible Mankiw, who identifies as an intelligent person, may assume that others who share that trait also share his public policy views. I think in general, he overstates the positive, scientific aspects of his policy views and understates the normative component of economic policy-making. His ideas are not scientific or indisputable facts and it frustrates me that he seems to present them as such.

With respect to your final interpretation, I do believe your claim that Obama should "update" his margin with respect to recent election results. However, much of Mankiw's argument eschews margins (in spite of the full point dedicated to thinking along the margin) with broad claims such as "Stop spreading the wealth around." So although I believe that case could be made, I don't think Mankiw intends or achieves such an argument.

Anonymous said...

I'm not actually claiming the Obama should update his stance, and I agree with you that Mankiw does not sufficiently articulate that position. However, I believe that the position is implicit to Mankiw's overall approach. Basically, there exists a gap between your normative position on policies and Mankiw's, especially as they relate to the "purpose" of policymaking. It would seem that the Republican Mankiw recognizes the first and foremost agenda to be continued party control, so that any political adaptation precedes obligations to former social coalitions. This probably represents an interesting rift between Republican and Democratic self-conceptions, and seems to pass the sniff-test of what we might expect given ideological notions of self-interestedness and social welfare.

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty