David Frum On Conservative Economics: Were We Wrong?
A very sobering piece to write, no doubt, but needed nonetheless. Especially when you consider the revised GDP numbers from 2008.
Two years ago, Commerce estimated the decline of the US economy at -0.5% in the third quarter of 2008 and -3.8% in the fourth quarter. It now puts the damage at -3.7% and -8.9%: Great Depression territory.
Those estimates make intuitive sense as we assess the real-world effect of the crisis: the jobs lost, the homes foreclosed, the retirements shattered. When people tell me that I’ve changed my mind too much about too many things over the past four years, I can only point to the devastation wrought by this crisis and wonder: How closed must your thinking be if it isn’t affected by a disaster of such magnitude? And in fact, almost all of our thinking has been somehow affected: hence the drift of so many conservatives away from what used to be the mainstream market-oriented Washington Consensus toward Austrian economics and Ron Paul style hard-money libertarianism. The ground they and I used to occupy stands increasingly empty.
A decline of -8.9%.
Conservatives…let that sink in for a moment.
Anybody now think the stimulus was too big?
We can’t know exactly how things would have played out in a world in which key policymakers had better data. If the true scope of the economic disaster in the fourth quarter had been clear, however, it seems certain that Ms Romer’s models would have shown a need for more stimulus, that the White House would have agreed to push for more (and perhaps a lot more), and that Congress would have been much more receptive to a bigger bill. A drop of 8.9% does seem much more terrifying, after all, than a 3.8% decline. Bigger stimulus would have reduced the economic deterioration in subsequent months. The Fed might also have been more aggressive.
Of course, it’s not impossible that knowledge of the dire state of the economy would combine with a bigger stimulus plan to shake faith in American finances. It is unlikely, however. At the end of 2008, America’s net debt-to-GDP ratio was less than 50%. Other large economies were also tanking, and money was flooding into Treasuries. In late December of 2008, yields on 10-year Treasuries fell to near 2%.
America had plenty of room and every reason to borrow and spend heavily. What it didn’t have, unfortunately, was an accurate picture of the economic situation. And that was a crippling limitation indeed.
Frum closes it out with this tribute to Susan Sontag’s famous challenge to her left-wing brethren in 1982:
Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Wall Street Journal editorial page between 2000 and 2011, and someone in the same period who read only the collected columns of Paul Krugman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of the current economic crisis? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?