Friday, July 19, 2013

Benefits of Civil Discourse

I am a regular on ECONTALK - which is a podcast hosted by Russ Roberts of George Mason University and the Hoover Institution.   For the last couple of months I have been listening to the podcasts I missed in the last couple of years I was working full time.

Roberts is a very skilled interviewer and while his economics and mine are very close he has a wide range of guests from both the ranges of the economic spectrum and from other areas of intellectual pursuit.

On April 15 he interviewed Jeffrey Sachs from the Columbia Earth Institute.   Sachs' economics and mine are not very close.  He would like a much larger presence of government and for the first couple of minutes in the podcast threw out a series of propositions which he took as fact and which I think are questionable.   Roberts was gentle in probing the differences but after admitting some level of nuance not present in his original premise - he would return to the theology of his statements.

One of the areas that Roberts discussed with Sachs was his grumpiness about some aspects of Keynesian policy.   Sachs would support significant increases in the level of government spending and taxing but he was quick to admit that the spending has to be of the right kind.  During the aftermath of the stimulus debate Sachs parted company with other Keynesians arguing that things like "Cash for Clunkers" and the payroll tax holiday were actually counterproductive to long term growth.   In an ideal stimulus Sachs would have worked to a) spend money on long term projects and b) reduce the deficit.  Sachs called what we got in the stimulus bill as "crude Keynesianism."   Sachs comments in the interview included this (about moving the deficit down)

"And then every time there was an option to start moving it down, until recently--I know the White House view, because I was discussing it with them often, was: We need another year of stimulus. We need another temporary tax cut, another payroll tax cut, an extension of the Bush tax cuts, and so forth. None of which I agreed with because, you know, from my philosophy I wanted more revenues to fund public goods and at the same time to reduce the deficit because I think that this buildup of debt just builds up lots of problems in the future."

I agree with his point and the substance - we would probably disagree about how much should be spent in the public sector.  But unlike others on the left like Paul Krugman ignore the effects of our increasing debt burden.   Sachs described Krugman's position as irresponsible - that we can borrow cheaply at this point does not mitigate the long term consequences of borrowing for foolish things.

Two things came out of the Podcast - first, I was interested to hear Roberts tease out Sachs' point of view.   But second, this kind of civil discourse is critical to solving the gridlock we face in our political system - were some in the media and the political world more attuned to the skills that Roberts exhibits we could be a lot closer to solving some of our long term problems.

No comments: