Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Cardboard Belt Economics

Years ago I presided over a mediation in lawsuit that rose out of an old and long-simmering family feud.  "Larry*," said one of the witnesses, "I coulda took you out when you was nine years old."  Yeh, I thought, some memories are long.  And you go to bed every night mad that you didn't take your chance.  I thought of Larry yesterday when I read David Warsh's uncharacteristically splenetic acccont of the "rivalry" (if such it was) between Hayek and Keynes--together with the at-least-equally-splenetic commentary (see comments to Warsh and the links rherefrom).

To all which Underbelly responds: Gentlemen, puh-leez. Of course there are important fundamental controversies in economics that remain alive and deserve attention--e.g.,, whether and how to manage a depression recession, whether and how much to print money, which taxes to cut and which to raise blah blah. But the issue of who did what to whom  75 years ago is not one of them. Re-re-re-fighting the Keynes/Hayek wars is a kind of mental infirmity. Its persistence--indeed, sometimes it seems its near-dominance--in public policy debates is a disturbing index of the extent to which the whole profession has lost its way, burning off potentially useful energy in a useless manner.

Specifically: (Keynes)(Hayek) may or may not have been right back in the age of Model A Fords and five-cent ice cream cones. But it is not at all clear (it is open to contention) how far we live in the same world that they did. Perhaps more important (how could people not have noticed?) both "Keynesianism" and the "Hayekian" view (may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth) have evolved to a point where the founders could hardly recognize and might very well repudiate the (mis)applications undertaken in their name. "Keynes" and "Hayek," in short, aren't even good shorthand: they are historical curiosities, and to build the debate around them today is about as asking what we might have to learn about embroidery from the Empress Wu. In short, get over it.

 But I grant, people do not get over it. By all appearances, the nourishing of old hatreds is one of our most beloved forms of self-abuse. How many Thanksgiving parties have gone sour when Aunt Minnie blurts out: "Christmas, 1963! You gave my Harold a cardboard belt!" (I was going to insert a Hatfield-McCoy reference here, but they the Hatfields and the McCoys seem to have aestheticized their hatreds and turned them into dinner theatre). I read of somebody--I forget who, although it may have been this guy--who set out to write a book about "the wisdom of the aged"--autumnal insights from superannuated captains of politics or industry.  Way I hear it, he abandoned the project when he found out that all he did was to scratch old scabs ("That guy?  That guy?  Christmas 1963, he gave me a cardboard belt!")

And it is not just individual instances.  Michael Oakeshott (yes?) says that politics is the organization of hatreds.  It can be more than that,  but it is a wonder how much of politics is indeed built on the enterprise of keeping old memories alive so as to unify the rememberers.  The Sicilians have their Piazza of the Treidici Vittime.  The Greeks still celebrate Ochi Day.  And it wasn't that long ago that the English looked forward to Guy Fawkes Day as an occasion to beat up a few Catholics.  

Like I say, I grant that we can learn from history (sometimes and within narrow limits).    And history is fun, but there are other ways to enjoy it besides getting mad all over again.  Give it a rest, guys, you've got better things to do with your time.  Oh and by the way, did I tell you that the Obama girls had to celebrate Pearl Harbor day by eating Japanese food?

[Just for the record:  On balance, think Hayek worried a hell of a lot more about Keynes than Keynes did about Hayek.  I think Milton Friedman is  a lot more important to current economic debate than Hayek.   I think Warsh took too many cheap shots.   I think "The Uses of Knowledge in Society" is a masterpiece.   I think The Road to Serfdom is an interesting book--interesting enough to have irritated the daylight out of me when I first read it about 1963.  Indeed I suspect that Road--like its bookend, Capitalism and Freedom--is probably a more interesting book than made out by those who preach it without ever having read it.  Of course, same may be true of the Bible.]  

No comments: