Why Americans Hate Economics
In university classrooms—and especially the Obama White House—fancy theories of macroeconomics defy basic common sense…
By STEPHEN MOORE
The Wall Street Journal.
Opinion, Page A11
Friday, August 19, 2011
Christina Romer, the University of California at Berkeley economics professor and President Obama's first chief economist, once relayed the old joke that "there are two kinds of students: those who hate economics and those who really hate economics." She doesn't believe that, but it's true. I'm surprised how many students tell me economics is their least favorite subject. Why? Because too often economic theories defy common sense. Alas, the policies of this administration haven't boosted the profession's reputation.
Consider what happened last week when Laura Meckler of this newspaper dared to ask White House Press Secretary Jay Carney how increasing unemployment insurance "creates jobs." She received this slap down: "I would expect a reporter from The Wall Street Journal would know this as part of the entrance exam just to get on the paper."
Mr. Carney explained that unemployment insurance "is one of the most direct ways to infuse money into the economy because people who are unemployed and obviously aren't earning a paycheck are going to spend the money that they get . . . and that creates growth and income for businesses that then lead them to making decisions about jobs—more hiring."
That's a perfect Keynesian answer, and also perfectly nonsensical. What the White House is telling us is that the more unemployed people we can pay for not working, the more people will work. Only someone with a Ph.D. in economics from an elite university would believe this.
I have two teenage sons. One worked all summer and the other sat on his duff. To stimulate the economy, the White House wants to take more money from the son who works and give it to the one who doesn't work. I can say with 100% certainty as a parent that in the Moore household this will lead to less work.
Economic bimboism is rampant in Washington. The Center for American Progress held a forum earlier this summer arguing that raising the minimum wage would create more jobs. For this to be true, you have to believe that the more it costs a business to hire a worker, the more workers companies will want to hire.
A few months ago Mr. Obama blamed high unemployment on businesses becoming "more efficient with a lot fewer workers," and he mentioned ATMs and airport kiosks. The Luddites are back raging against the machine. If Mr. Obama really wants to get to full employment, why not ban farm equipment?
Or consider the biggest whopper: Mr. Obama's thoroughly discredited $830 billion stimulus bill. We were promised $1.50 or even up to $3 of economic benefit—the mythical "multiplier"—from every dollar the government spent. There was never any acknowledgment that for the government to spend a dollar, it has to take it from the private economy that is then supposed to create jobs. The multiplier theory only works if you believe there's a fairy passing out free dollars.
How did modern economics fly off the rails? The answer is that the "invisible hand" of the free enterprise system, first explained in 1776 by Adam Smith, got tossed aside for the new "macroeconomics," a witchcraft that began to flourish in the 1930s during the rise of Keynes. Macroeconomics simply took basic laws of economics we know to be true for the firm or family—i.e., that demand curves are downward sloping; that when you tax something, you get less of it; that debts have to be repaid—and turned them on their head as national policy.
As Donald Boudreaux, professor of economics at George Mason University and author of the invaluable blog Cafe Hayek, puts it: "Macroeconomics was nothing more than a dismissal of the rules of economics." Over the years, this has led to some horrific blunders, such as the New Deal decision to pay farmers to burn crops and slaughter livestock to keep food prices high: To encourage food production, destroy it.
The grand pursuit of economics is to overcome scarcity and increase the production of goods and services. Keynesians believe that the economic problem is abundance: too much production and goods on the shelf and too few consumers. Consumers lined up for blocks to buy things in empty stores in communist Russia, but that never sparked production. In macroeconomics today, there is a fatal disregard for the heroes of the economy: the entrepreneur, the risk-taker, the one who innovates and creates the things we want to buy. "All economic problems are about removing impediments to supply, not demand," Arthur Laffer reminds us.
So here we are, three years of mostly impotent stimulus experiments and the economy still hobbled. Keynesians would be expected to be second-guessing the wisdom of their theories. Instead, Prof. Romer recently complained that the political system will not allow Mr. Obama to "go back and ask for more" stimulus.
And that is why Americans hate economics.
Mr. Moore is a member of the Journal's editorial board.
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