Yglesias and Klein on notPaul Samuelson

Robert Waldmann

I noticed that Robert Samuelson wrote this Op-ed in the Washington Post. I knew I couldn’t stand to read it (I haven’t). However, I did encounter it’s echos at Matthew Yglesias’s and Ezra Klein’s. After the jump my denunciation of a paragraph quoted from a column which I haven’t read.

In the Post Klein quotes a long passage from the op-ed. It exemplifies idiocy. I quote the quote

All “reforms” do not succeed; some cause more problems than they solve. Johnson’s economic policies, inherited from Kennedy, proved disastrous; they led to the 1970s’ “stagflation.” The “war on poverty” failed. The press should not be hostile, but it ought to be skeptical.

Samuelson’s evidence for the failure of Johnson’s policies are economic problems which began after he had been out of office for 5 years. This is op-ed level empirics. Evaluate policy by looking at aggregates with a lag from 0 to 13 years after the beginning of the policy. This is not evidence. With that approach one can prove anything. Why look Hoover’s policies were followed by the period of, by far, the fastest economic growth the US has ever known (starting 1 month after he left office not 5 years).

Klein assumes that “stagflation” must refer to something very important .. the productivity slowdown. Here he shows his age (half of mine). The word was commonly used in 1975 long before the slowdown was detected. It just meant high unemployment combined with inflation. The causes suspected at the time were the oil price shock (not mentioned by R Samuelson) and, maybe, Aurthur Burns’ monetary policy accepting inflation to get the Nixon vote up to 60%. If the Johnson deficits caused such damage then what could we expect from the Reagan Bush and Bush deficits. R Samuelson’s “analysis” is insane. There is no way to translate it into a statement about measurable variables so that it comes close to fitting the data.

Klein and Yglesias note that the poverty rate fell roughly in half during the “unsuccessful” war on poverty. Why do most people my age (twice theirs) agree taht the war on poverty was a failure ? I think it is simple. Way back in the day, lefties tried to convince the apolitical to mildly conservative tax payer that it was better to fight poverty than to suffer crime. The poverty rate fell during the war on poverty, but the crime rate soared. This causes a violent reaction. I’d guess than anyone over 10 understands that race and racism had a lot to do with it.
On the other hand, the decline in poverty was not impressive. I mean the poverty line measures absolute poverty. Of course it declines (was the attitude in the 60s). Then when it stopped declining only lefties, and, of course, the poor noticed or cared.

So why does Samuelson dare write such crap ? Well for one thing he is a pundit and has been free to make claims without evidence without ever having to answer criticism for years. For another, he is presenting the conventional wisdom. R Samuelson complains that the press writes to much on politics not on policies and their consequences (at least as interpreted by Klein). He doesn’t notice that he has decided that Reagan was right, or partly right, because he was politically successful. Is there any other possible explanation ?