Sensible economic policy is not just found in textbooks

Standard caveat: I remain apolitical here. Hat tip to Economist’s View, whose discussion of Andrew Leonard’s Salon article on some current trade policy touches on a lot of interesting things.

Apparently there’s a “Trade Adjustment Assistance” program on the Senate radar. Now, this could be considered sensible economic policy, whether or not you agree with it.

“The Trade Adjustment Assistance program is designed to compensate manufacturing sector workers who are displaced by trade. It includes financial support for education and training, a health care credit, wage insurance and other goodies.”

It’s a well-worn argument that long-term benefits from trade with other countries might come with short-term costs for those workers who find employment in industries which produce goods most likely to be imported. Social justice might argue for support for such workers; help the worker, not the industry is not an original maxim. It can be applied equally to “dying” industries. If the typewriter industry is becoming obsolete, do you subsidize the typewriter producers or let them die and use your welfare state to support the people who are affected?

Maybe it’s too harsh to say that this is not a textbook argument, but one certainly can’t gloss over the negatives of any policy, no matter how positive the positives, and, recall, those pesky Principles of Economics said that Trade Can Make Everyone Better Off.

The Salon article refers to this, from The Atlantic, makes the forceful and obvious point (I will paraphrase) that a proper welfare state doesn’t ask why, just helps the needy while they need, and that this trade adjustment business is a band-aid, a facsimile of a real solution for the problems of the consequences of harsh and widespread unemployment in whole communities at a time.

Not to wade into the politics where I don’t belong, but I like this:

“Preaching the benefits of free trade without being willing to take care of the “losers” created by trade isn’t very bright in an election year when workers are feeling squeezed, and the opposition party controls Congress.”

Ignoring the electioneering stuff, the direct analog to an economics class or an economic policy debate would be to actually have a proper debate, an acknowledgment that everything isn’t always super-awesome. Similarly, the Economist’s View take:

“It seems to me that an administration that truly cared about the working class would be eager to find a way to help those who are hurt from trade, that they would make it a high priority and insist it get done, but there’s little indication – through actual action – that helping workers hurt from trade, or from economic conditions more generally, is a priority.”

This is perhaps one of the biggest economic policy questions: how big should your welfare state be? Design is one thing, but we have a fundamental philosophical question here, which is bigger than technicalities. Let’s brawl that one out, historically, globally, politically, morally, economically.

Except for poor old John McCain, who gets kicked again. Hard. I’m on record: I think he is an economist (for a suitable definition of economist). Not Economist’s View.

“I think a lot of people are missing the point about John McCain’s lack of knowledge about economics… Anyone who really cared about economic policy and its effect on households would have taken the time to become familiar with the basics. How will he know how best to help workers if he has no idea about the underlying economics? If he asked, there are very prominent economists who would be happy to spend an hour once or twice a week – kind of like a principles course – explaining how the economy operates. But he never bothered, never took the time, because he apparently doesn’t care enough to give up the time necessary to actually understand the polices he is voting on. I wouldn’t mind the ignorance so much if there was any indication at all that he had tried to over come it, any indication he thought it was important enough to learn about, but there isn’t.”

We’re going to give McCain the Principles of Economics course? I just got chills. Surely not the one we give the poor undergraduates? From me:

“A list of “principles” pregnant with loaded statements is not the right way to present our discipline.”

Let’s not indoctrinate John McCain too!

The Cold War revisited; elections and policy

Here’s a third-hand recommendation, with a hat tip to Economist’s View: an interesting Paul Krugman article on why capitalism “won” the Cold War. The thesis is this:

“Communism failed because of an inability to provide a sustaining reason for existance; only under crisis could it work…. [it] failed as an economic system because people stopped believing in it, not the other way around.”

The hybrid system of regulated capitalism alongside a centrally planned public sector dominates the modern world. As far as I can tell, a purely capitalist economy is equally difficult to find in history as a purely communist society; perhaps the hybrid reflects some natural impossibility of living at either extreme. The argument that some resources are best allocated, or some goals best achieved, by one mechanism and some by the other is a strong argument – though of course not one immune to counterpoint.

There isn’t a lot of big economic policy debate these days. The dominance of the hybrid system naturally pushes policy debate into a very small subset of all the possible economic policies. That’s not necessarily a criticism; you could, for example, blame either status quo lethargy or status quo satisfaction for containing the debate.

That makes the Krugman article a bedfellow of a recent mini-debate about whether elections matter for economic policy. Economist’s View also covered that one here; it seems to have kicked off with a Tyler Cowen article in the New York Times with the perfectly descriptive title “It’s an Election, Not a Revolution”.

Cowen says:

“This election is certainly important. But based on the historical record, it isn’t likely to result in a major swing in economic policy. Fundamentally, democracy is not a finely tuned mechanism that can be used to direct economic policy as a lever might lift a pulley. The connection between what voters want, or think they want, and what ultimately happens in the economy, is far less direct…. Shifts in economic policy are usually quite moderate.”

The Economist’s View cites a counterpoint from Kevin Grier:

“I see real differences. I don’t see McCain lifting the cap on FICA earnings. I don’t see McCain going for publicly created “green jobs”. I do see both of them “fixing” the AMT. I don’t see McCain as so anti-trade as Obama.”

I’m sorry, but I think I just went in to an apathy coma. Not to be too obnoxious, but if that’s the best we can come up with, I’m taking Cowen’s side all day long: the big questions are not asked. It could be a product of the political system, of apathy, of satisfaction, of something else entirely. Reflexive defense against attacks on the significance of democracy have grounds far larger than just economic policy, but it’s difficult to deny that, for better or worse, we won’t see any seismic shifts any time soon.