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The Devil and Paul Krugman
Neo-classicist vs. Keynesian

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
September 6, 2009

I wanted to understand the economy, and Doctor Paul Krugman had a dental appointment that day, and for the next 475 days afterward. He must have a really bad set of teeth.

So I knew my answer to what was going on in the economy lay in Fresno, California. No, not Free Republic, but close.

Satan lives there. He just likes the climate, you see, and Blackstone Boulevard on a Saturday night sounds just like hell, only with lower rents.

Being a liberal gives me a big “in” with “Old Sparky” as his friends call him, so I paid a visit.

When I got there, the door was ajar. Well, that's his prerogative. Even in Fresno, nobody is going to steal HIS stereo. I tapped on the door. An ear-splitting shriek came from the vestibule beyond, one of the few stucco homes in Fresno to actually HAVE a vestibule. I took it as an invitation to come on in.

The source of the screams became immediately clear. Ronald Reagan was hanging, belly down, from a wall, suspended by meat hooks from his wrists and ankles. How trite, I thought. I peered closer. This was Reagan as an old, old man, evidently as he was in the weeks before he died. Clearly, he had no memory of being president, and no idea of why he was being punished, It was just a vacant mind in eternal torment, mute, terrified, uncomprehending.

Wow, that's cold, I thought, peering into his rheumy, filmed, confused eyes.

“Do you like it?” Satan asked from behind me. “I call it 'Suspending in the Balance of Powers'” It's true: puns come from hell. Satan chortled. “If you think the poor sap is suffering now, “he crowed, “just wait until Nancy dies!”

I nodded to indicate a profound and deep appreciation of his work, but in reality, the only dead presidents that interest me appear on bank notes, and Ronbo isn't one of them.

“The economy.”

“So you said. Well, you've come to the right place.”

“Paul Krugman.” It's good to keep your sentences short and declarative around Satan, for much the same reason that you don't volunteer information to cops.

Satan glowered. “Not one of my favorite economists, I'm afraid. A bit Keynesian for my tastes.”

“He wrote a piece for the New York Times magazine this week. 'How did Economists get it so wrong?' It was about how so few saw the financial meltdown of 2008 coming.”

Satan pulled out a Blackberry and tapped keys. “I'll read it later.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Even though he's not one of your favorite economists?” I asked.

“If I don't learn from my mistakes, I'm doomed to keep repeating them.”

Upon brief reflection I decided not to ask why, after dozens of millennia, he had any mistakes left to repeat. “Krugman argues that economists, including the Keynesians, subscribe to the infallible market idea, the notion that markets are rational and self-correcting.”

“Infallibility always was one of my greatest errors of logic. Do you know I have the greatest collection of dead popes in the universe?”

“Who else is coll...um, never mind. Krugman argues that the markets are not rational, and that investors are not rational either, which is why you get bubbles and subsequent crashes.”

“With all due respect to Krugman, that's a bit like arguing that sunset is what causes night. Of course markets are irrational. The market is nothing more than an isostatic point between greed and fear, and that point is forever shifting haphazardly. Thus it's filled with irrational exuberance and paralyzing paranoia. Think Hitler in the bunker, and you have a typical day on Wall Street.”

“And you think this is a good thing.”

“Well, cha! I am the price of lies and the god of darkness, am I not? I broke the mold when I had Adam Smith write 'Wealth of Nations.' Who do you think the Invisible Hand really was, anyway?”

“I'm guessing you're a neo-classicist, what Krugman calls a freshwater economist.”

“I'm not an economist, but I did invent them. Oh, yes.

“Economists and bookkeepers are among my finest creations. Just the fact that any act, no matter how cruel or how absurd, can be reduced to entries in a book column has greatly amplified the human ability to do evil. Take the Holocaust. By itself, the greatest pogrom in the world, twelve million dead. But what made it so creepy were the bookkeepers who took all those shivering, frightened and confused humans and reduced them to entries in log books, and the existence of the logs was an institutionalized justification to keep on massacring people. Even as prison guards went mad and lost their humanity, the bookkeepers, insular and insulated, kept right on making their entries, and because book entries are always a good thing, it justified increasing the number of entries the next year. Of course, the bookkeepers didn't hear the screams and didn't smell the smoke, so they could keep it up indefinitely. Meanwhile, economists took all the bookkeepers' entries and explained how these were good for the economy and helped the war effort.

“Some days I could just hug myself.”

Satan let me consider that for a few minutes. He really is a son of a bitch. There was a certain truth in what he was saying. Economists and bookkeepers aren't evil people, by any means, but they do disassociate our economic imperatives from our human needs, sometimes even to the extremity of Nazi Germany. As long as the books are clean, the children can be dirty.

Nodding, I quoted Krugman: “Chicago’s Casey Mulligan suggests that unemployment is so high because many workers are choosing not to take jobs: 'Employees face financial incentives that encourage them not to work . . . decreased employment is explained more by reductions in the supply of labor (the willingness of people to work) and less by the demand for labor (the number of workers that employers need to hire).' Mulligan has suggested, in particular, that workers are choosing to remain unemployed because that improves their odds of receiving mortgage relief. And Cochrane declares that high unemployment is actually good: 'We should have a recession. People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.'”

Satan smiled. “Yeah. There were guys like Mulligan back in the 1930s, too. They blamed the Depression on a housewife's revolt, you know. The economy was in bad shape, according to them, not because Wall Street screwed the pooch, but because housewives stopped buying food and clothing as a form of socialist protest against the country.

“So what did Krugman think of that interpretation?”

“He thought it was crazy. That was the word he used: crazy. He went on to say, “If you start from the assumption that people are perfectly rational and markets are perfectly efficient, you have to conclude that unemployment is voluntary and recessions are desirable.”

Satan shook his head sorrowfully. “I had such high hopes for Krugman, and look at him now. I would have put him high amongst my councils.

“The thing is, Zepp, that Krugman is right. The markets aren't rational. Excuse me a moment.” Satan closed his eyes for a moment, and little puffs of purple smoke shot out both ears. He opened his eyes and smiled. “OK, I just read the Krugman article. You know, I could have made him a science fiction writer. If you think economists can cause much evil, you should see what one science fiction writer with no scruples can do.

“Actually, Krugman's half right. I can say this on the record, because we both know that I can say the markets are irrational, and they'll go right on believing they are rational, because that's how they justify their existence, along with all the absurdities and atrocities they commit.

“But what Krugman didn't say is that a lot of the irrationality doesn't just stem from the willful blindness of the accountant. A lot of it stems from the fundamental dishonesty of people completely corrupted by money, who genuinely feel that what they do, which is of no real value to society, justifies an income that starts in the low millions and can go into the billions. From there, it's only a short step to flat-out thievery. Will Rogers used to refer to bankers as 'banksters', and nothing has changed. Except now the bankers are playing the market, too. And they aren't going to let that change because it's a gravy train. If that turns America into a third world country, they'll just say that it shows that Americans were lazy and irresolute, and got what they deserved. And of course, they use that to justify personal stealing, sometimes from the investment houses who make their lavish lifestyles possible.

“Poor Krugman. He is sticking his neck out just saying the markets are irrational. If he said they were a pack of thieves as well, they would have Van Jones'd him by Labor Day.”

“This article appeared the day before Labor Day.”

“Exactly. The day Jones quit, in fact.”

“Point taken. So what's your overall view of the economy right now.”

“Well, I am the Prince of Chaos, bringer of famine and privation and woe. I am the liar in the business suit, the imperious aristocrat, the jealous shopkeeper. I am fear and greed and lust and stupidity and ignorance.

“And I couldn't be happier with the current state of the economy.”

Posted: September 6, 2009

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