Sympathy for the Kinsley

Paul Krugman, Daniel Drezner, and others slam fabled contrarian Michael Kinsley for his argument that we need to cut the budget deficit now because “we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be” and that this attitude follows “the lessons of Paul Volcker and the Great Stagflation of the late 1970s.”

You know you have a problem with Drezner when, instead of calling your work “piss-poor monocausal social science,” he doesn’t even call it “social science” at all.

I have some sympathy for Kinsley, though, not on the merits—-I have no idea on the merits, for all I know he’s exactly correct on the economics—-but on his reactions to this event.

I think I’m well qualified to write about this because I know about as much of macroeconomics as Kinsley does (or so I suspect).

I think Kinsley’s economic argument goes roughly as follows: with the economy in depression, what you need to stimulate it is for businesses to hire people and for unemployed people to work. How do you do this?

– Cut taxes on businesses and lower their per-worker costs so they can afford to hire people.

– Cut taxes on rich people so they can invest more money.

– Make life more uncomfortable for unemployed people so they are motivated to work, and make life more uncomfortable for low-income people so they won’t be tempted to leave the labor force.

OK, I’m not saying the above recommendations are a good idea. They’re pure microeconomic thinking and not necessarily applicable at all to macroeconomics. But my guess is that’s roughly how Kinsley is thinking. After all, microeconomics is simpler than macroeconomics. I understand micro but not macro, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kinsley is similar.

OK, bear with me here. Suppose Kinsley does believe the above recommendations are correct, in the sense of ultimately helping the economy and making everyone richer. As Kinsley might say in one of his phrasemaking moments: Making Donald Trump more comfortable is a small price to pay for bringing millions of Americans into the middle class. (Or something like that.)

Anyway, if Kinsley does believe that, then he also knows enough to realize that the above recommendations scream “conservative Republican” not “liberal Democrat.”

But Kinsley is a liberal Democrat. And, rather than saying he’s been “mugged by reality” and will now be joining the Paul Ryan campaign, he wants to make it clear that his views are coherent. He doesn’t want the Krugmanites to vote him off the island.

So, given all these premises, I can see where Kinsley’s coming from. He wants to be a charming contrarian and occasional gadfly. He wants to feel safe enough in his liberal perch to advocate conservative policies without losing his parking space on the center-left side of the street.

But that’s the problem with being contrarian. Sometimes it pisses people off.

P.S. In searching for kinsley krugman, I found this amusing bit from anti-Krugman blogger Robert Murphy from March, 2010:

But the thing that’s really aggravating about all this, is that if, say, the dollar crashes in 8 months and we start running 12% annualized CPI growth, it’s not as if Krugman, Yglesias, et al. are going to say, “Gosh, I apologize for trashing Kinsley back in March 2010.”

I guess Krugman, Yglesias, et al. are off the hook on that one!

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.