Economic Creationism

When the leader of the Republican party insists that government jobs are not really jobs, but something else for which there is no word, and that as a matter of definition only a private employer can "create" a "job," you know you're not going to have a very informative discussion on the relative merits of government spending, not to mention the relative merits of particular spending programs and priorities.  You will spend all of your time instead trying to explain how moronic that distinction is and how irrelevant it is to the matter at hand.  Such inane distractions, however, may constitute a strategy for poisoning the well.  We can't have a serious discussion when the children are running around screaming.

Since I don't know anything about economics, I wonder about the merits of government spending.  Since I wonder about the effectiveness of government, I wonder whether some kinds of spending will be a complete waste.  Lots of economists, however, say that spending is a good idea–and they, real economists, not people with undergraduate degrees in English–claim that spending is appropriate in a time such as this.  Fair enough.  I wonder now what would be a serious rebuttal to this claim.  It is certainly not going to be this set of assertions from the Washington Post's Michael Gerson:

But that creed has now been tested in two areas. First, the new president deferred almost entirely to the Democratic congressional leadership on the initial shape of the stimulus package — which, in turn, was shaped by pent-up Democratic spending appetites instead of by an explainable economic theory. Senate modifications made the legislation marginally more responsible. But Obama's pragmatism, in this case, was a void of creativity, filled by the most aggressively ideological branch of government. And this managed to revive Republican ideological objections to federal overreach. In the new age of pragmatism, all the ideologues seem to be encouraged.

The spending, whatever its particular merits, is the theory.  And saying there is no "explainable economic theory" when (a) there is, and (b) that is the core claim of your argument just begs the question in the most obvious way.  That's what is at issue.

I know a lot of things about which program is better seem to be a matter of taste, not informed or justified opinion, and these sort of assertions just do not help change that impression.  There is, after all, a serious discussion worth having about the economy.  It would be nice if the Washington Post cared enough about its readers to insist that their columnists play along.  Hey Michael, an editor might say, say why there is no explainable economic theory–that's the key issue, after all, and no one can seriously just take your word for it, as you were the former President's speechwriter.

21 thoughts on “Economic Creationism”

  1. If you are really open to the idea that there is a justifiable economic theory behind the Republican decent, then perhaps you should look over your post and recognize the hostility rather than openness it conveys.  You might attract more diverse opinions if your opening paragraph isn’t a full condemnation of the Republican party’s reaction to the stimulus plan based on what you assume must only be petty partisanship rather than a differing underlying economic theory, and then admit in the first line of the next paragraph that you have made this judgment without any knowledge of economics.

    Anyways, if you really are interested in understanding the opposing view, I recommend Human Action by Ludwig von Mises.

  2. As usual, you have completely misunderstood the point of the post Andrew.   Steele’s moronic–sorry if this sounds hostile to you, but it’s just true–contention that government jobs aren’t jobs is a silly way to have a discussion.  Gerson’s evidence-less assertion that the stimulus arguments have no explainable theory (when they do, or they might–it’s up to him to show either of these) doesn’t do anything to inform the readers about the possible choices.

  3. It is offensive to me, though not in the way you probably think.  Imagine if there were a debate that you attended and the side debating a position you hold were completely unprepared and incompetent.  Now imagine that most of the people in the audience walked away from the debate, not saying that the one side was obviously unprepared, but concluding that a definitive answer to the debated issue had been found and that obviously only idiots would hold the views of the debate team that was thoroughly incompetent.  Would you then feel anger toward the idiots who supposedly represent your point of view?  Would you feel offended by individuals who claim to know what is right because they were at the debate?

    I was not attempting to defend Steele as a person.  I was however attempting to defend his views, not because I think even he completely understands them, but because while the Republican party has completely failed the intellectual right, it is the only protection we currently have from economic policies that run completely opposed to our wishes and best judgment.

    The issue I’ve taken with your posting style is that it just screams false dichotomy.  And when I’m presented with the position of being likened to the Republicans in all ways when I agree with them on economic policy, it is going to offend me.

  4. I’d disagree with the first part to the extent that there are some pretty competent nobel-prize winning people on the “other side.”  Doesn’t mean they’re right, they’re just not the fools you suggest they are. 

    As for the other point, the post and just about all posts here in this site which concerns itself with logic and argument, concerns the very thing you point out.  Steele’s argument, as he expressed it, was silly, extremely silly.  It makes a mockery of the people he represents.

    My posting style cannot scream false dichotomy.  As I have included along the top of the page, under the section called “Our Bias,” the failure of some conservative argument does not entail the success of its liberal counterpart.  That’s not a false dichotomy anyway. 

    Since this site is called the NON sequitur, we normally talk about arguments–particular arguments, by the way–that suck.  Steele’s argument, I think, sucks.  So does Gerson’s.  I am not trying to advance some agenda by pointing this out.   My failure to troll the web for some liberal whose argument sucks does not entail that I’m biased. 

    Finally, you defended Steele’s very silly claim.  If you don’t agree with it, you shouldn’t defend it.  And besides, I don’t know if anyone is likening you to the Republicans.   None of these posts are about you.

  5. I am not defending Steele the person, I am defending his views, as he did a poor job at making an explanation of them.

    I am not saying all Republican’s are stupid, I was speaking allegorically because I was attempting to express the reasons one might take offense to you belittling Steele’s argument because he failed to make it very clearly.  I did this because you mentioned your sorrow if you were offending me (though you later state that I should not take any post here personally when I was offended.)

    I do agree with his postion as there being distinctions between government stimulus generated jobs and naturally occuring private sector jobs.  I also agree with him that this stimulus package is a horrible idea.  I have already pointed out how I interpet his statements, why I interpret them that way and how they make logical sense and are not in fact logically incorrect if interpretted the way I have stated.  If you want to discuss any of these topics further I am more than willing to do so, but otherwise I don’t understand what point you are attempting to make, as you seem to be attempting to draw a parrellel between creationism and his economic stance (A comparisson that bewilders me.)

  6. I’m not attacking “Steele the Person.”  I am suggesting his argument–i.e., his view so it seems–as he expressed it in that interview (and repeatedly elsewhere) is silly–it does not advance the discussion.  Beyond that, the silliness of saying things like Steele (and others) is tantamount to the creationist in the biology class: completely ignorant, out of place, and detrimental to the discussion.

    One final time, drawing a principled distinction between government jobs and non government jobs is ridiculous.  I have a government job, it’s just like anyone else’s job.

    Whether or not spending a ton of government cash creating jobs like mine and financing private sector enterprises (construction companies, etc.) is an entirely different matter.  If Steele or anyone else wants to challenge that claim, then I suggest something like the following language: “the stimulus package as it is structured is a bad idea because the jobs it creates will be (a) not worth the expense and (b) short-lived. ”  After that, he can explain why. 

    As for the most recent comment about Obama.  I can only conclude that you have absolutely no sense of humor (this has been the cause of confusion on several occasions now).  When I say “Our great and infallible leader” I intend to poke fun at people who accuse people of actually thinking that (cf. the post on the argumentum ad Obamam).  I suppose I’m also making fun of people who think that, but that isn’t anyone.   Besides, if you think I really mean that unironically, then you have very little regard for my intelligence.

    One more time about bias (by the way, biasED is the adjective you mean to use): I obviously have leftist political leanings.  I don’t think however I have done anything on this website to advance those arguments or any arguments in favor of those views.  Because right (and left wing) punditry is a sham does not mean anything other than that we deserve a better political discourse in our national media.

  7. The following is quoted from

    What does government employment entail?
    The government sector consists of national, provincial and local municipality entities and employs people to help govern the country, provide essential services, research, development and education.
    What do private industry jobs involve?
    The private sector is what brings in money for the country. Income from private industry jobs helps to sustain economic growth. It consists of any unit that supplies goods or services at a set price. The aim of the private sector is to manufacture and promote a product that ensures a return to shareholders.
    The main differences between the government employment and private industry jobs are as follows:
    The government’s main objective in the education, science, knowledge fields and all other areas are to work for the greater good of society. Research and goals are long term. The government plan years ahead and has an enormous budget.
    The private sector on the other hand cannot afford to work with 20 year plans and budgets. Enterprises in the private industry have to get profits while the government just needs to be able to break even or show little growth. As such you will work on longer term projects when if you choose government employment and since profit is not such a big issue; you will also not be judged so severely on productivity and output as in the private sector.
    If you are a person who likes to see the end results of your work, wants to complete projects in shorter time spans and enjoy diversity, then the private industry jobs are more for you. The government has time to implement procedures and plans, while in the private sector you need to finish a task in a set time to make a profit. If you cannot deal with strict budgets and deadlines then government employment is better suited for you.

  8. Hm.  Perhaps a more reputable source would be Wikipedia.  I’m going to assume you’re making fun of yourself by posting this.

  9. Not to pile on but this statement “if you choose government employment… (you)will also not be judged so severely on productivity and output as in the private sector”  is one of the worst lies that continues to be passed around.  One needs to provide context for this statement.  I would actually argue that for the salary paid in many government agencies productivity is superior to the private sector.  I know we all hate the IRS and going to the post office, but for handling the sheer volume of their workload I think that these two institutions are quite efficient.  

  10. Most of the jobs discussions seem to beg myriad questions. There would seem to be a difference in qualityof jobs created: e.g., old-economy vs. new, temporary vs. permanent, captial investment-related vs. pure consumption-related, perhaps even government vs. non-government though I haven’t heard any enlightening discussions on that point yet.

    I read a relevant quote in a George Soros book last night: “[Karl] Popper assumed that the purpose of critical thinking is to gain a better understanding of reality. That is true in science but not in politics. The primary purpose of political discourse is to gain power and stay in power. Those who fail to recognize this are unlikely to be in power.”

  11. Certainly, it seems that the arguments concerning the economic merits of government spending on infrastructure and assistance as opposed to the merits of tax cuts and incentives for businesses are fairly complex. Although people like Krugman seem to assert that the question of the “multiplier” for government spending is pretty much settled, others seem to argue that the “bang for the buck” in situations like ours is less certain. I find it hard to make it through something like <a href=””>this</a> never mind understand what sorts of suitable objections should be raised.

    I probably fall back on my unjustified intuitions that tax cuts go into the banks and paychecks and low income assistance programs get spent. I then conclude on the basis of intuitions like this, and some appeals to authorities who seem to be making plausible arguments, that the best stimulus plan should involve spending a boat-load of cash on infrastructure and assistance and should not provide me with a rebate check that I’m just going to dump into the bank account.

    I see that there is another set of intuitions and a set of <a href=””> authorities</a> who offer equally plausible arguments for the economic claim that the “multiplier” effect for spending  is less than has been claimed, or, the multiplier for tax cuts is greater than previously thought, or this question is overridden by some other factors. I see there is intuitive appeal to a position that says that domestic spending does not increase, relative to other nations, our nation’s wealth, but expanding our exports through stimulation of business would.

    Nevertheless, I find Steele’s “argument” laughable, and even if we grant that there is a “distinction” between government employment and private work, a lot more would need to be done to make the economic point. I think that there is probably some sort of equivocation here in the meaning of “economic stimulus” that we’d need to uncover and analyze. The fact that the debate collapses into two sides that assert the obviousness of their own positions suggests to me that some sort of deep miscommunication is occurring. This miscommunication is unfortunately, to my mind, furthered by the sort of desperate, tortured, and ineffective manipulation of the debate that Steele, I think, is attempting through his “argument.” The problem, I think, is that the claim “tax cuts will stimulate the economy” is no longer believed by 60% of the country. So, Steele turns to attack the notion that “government employment” is job creation.

  12. On this point, this recent study from Media Matters deserves some careful consideration.  Turns out the show with the most “economists” on is Glenn Beck. 

    L Kenyon–Interesting point.  I often wonder during Critical Thinking class whether I ought to call it “how to lose arguments to immoral blowhards.”

  13. Indeed. Viewed from a political framework, there is a whole other set of “rules” for proper discourse – it could be instructive to hear Willie Brown’s take on what these are. Normal argumentation rules only apply to the rational framework…

    The “goodness” of a job could be measured by how much it directly, and indirectly, helps increase our GDP (the amount of goods and services purchased), in the short term for this particular case where we are trying to reverse the current term negative spiral. I can imagine government jobs that do help substantially with short term GDP, and private jobs that do little. So when we speak in the aggregate about “government jobs”, I think we over generalize; perhaps a more productive discussion could be found by asking “What kinds of government jobs help the most? What kinds of private jobs?”

    What if all these economic arguments are too difficult for the lay person to understand? How do we citizens get involved effectively in our democracy, in driving economic policy? Is the citizen’s key role here a pawn to be “convinced” and therefore to become more confident, and that confidence in turn engender the turn-around we seek? Leave the details to the economists and the politicians? Egads. And if it’s confidence we seek, who cares about stimulus-created jobs?

    Maybe an empirical approach would be better suited to a democracy, because it would be more understandable. One thought experiment: what if we choose some states to get government tax cuts, and other states to get government projects, and a third group to get both, all of equal value? (These are not independent economies, which would make this less precise). Which approach would you prefer for your state?

  14. That’s pretty cynical L Kenyon.  Of course politicians are more interested in being thought of as right rather than actually being right, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t inquire into the principles of economics to form our own opinions.  Indeed, if we’re going to make any judgment about statements pertaining to economics, then we have a duty (if we desire to have any integrity) to learn a thing or two about economics first.

  15. I would grant that to be true for judgments pertaining to the factualness of a statement, but I don’t see how that would be necessary for judgments about argumentation structure.

    I don’t consider myself a cynic, more of an optimistic pragmatist. As a citizen with a strong interest in and knowledge of economics (though I am no economist), I probably have a better working knowledge that a large majority of citizens. But when intelligent economists disagree on what seem like basic claims (e.g., how stimulative tax cuts are relative to direct government spending), I do find myself thinking that perhaps this is too complicated an area for most of us to understand. A single poor assumption, such as the assumption that housing prices will continue to rise, can invalidate massive structures that depend upon that assumption. And this is a self-referential system, so predictions themselves can be self-fulfilling. My main hope is finding a productive point of view that can boost our collective intelligence in this area.

    But being able to critique the validity of an argument’s structure is something we can hold on to, and try to improve in our public discourse, even if the underlying subjects are sometimes intractable.

  16. But if the disagreement is on the validity of the premises upon which the arguments are being based, then how can we judge the arguments themselves?  If our understanding must rely on the opinions of experts, without understanding of how they achieved their opinion, aren’t we then basing our own opinions on arguments from authority?  And wouldn’t this then lead us to a place of irrational confidence where we are unable to judge the validity of the arguments?  Some fallacies are simply a matter of structure, while others require an inconsistency with reality prerequisites and understanding to identify.

    I admit to being a ‘convert’ of the Austrian School of economics.  That means that I am operating under some base conclusions (that others might see as being assumptions) as to how markets work.  This might color my view of when a fallacy is and is not performed in comparison to an individual of a different or no economic position.  However, how can we not then determine which economically ‘tainted’ view point is inconsistent, then allowing us to properly gauge when a logical fallacy occurs, without delving into economics?

  17. You can attack an argument’s premises, and you can also attack an argument’s logic; these seem independent to me. This website seems mostly concerned with the latter.

    Only other opinions, not understanding, can be based on opinions of experts. But I think it would be great to understand the logic experts have used to achieve their opinions, I’m not sure that is always possible, nor always useful.

    One point I tried to make is that for extremely complex systems, an empirical approach seems more useful, and transparent. Then you get into arguments about how analogous our situation is to previous situations, without having to get tangled in the various competing economic theories.

  18. Per Andrew Clunn’s comment above: “If our understanding must rely on the opinions of experts, without understanding of how they achieved their opinion, aren’t we then basing our own opinions on arguments from authority?”

    I would simply observe that there is nothing wrong with relying upon authority per se; it is the appeal to misleading authority that is a fallacy. We commonly and appropriately rely on physicians’ authority for medical information and actions; upon engineers’ authority when we drive across a bridge, etc.

  19. Andrew, I think everyone that posts on this site agrees that if we really want to answer certain questions about the economy, and make arguments and predictions about what consequences will follow from certain actions, then we will in fact have to delve into economics. The problem is, most of the press (not only the op-ed pages) hasn’t delved into the economics. I think everyone wishes that the media would get a bunch of the nation’s leading economists together to argue the merits of one particular course of action over another. On another website ( someone had calculated the number of economists that have appeared recently on the major television media outlets to discuss the financial stimulus package and the result was that around 5% of the total number of pundits (as in, talking heads brought in to offer commentary) were actual economists. The rest were Republican and Democratic congresspersons or interest groups. When the empirical information is absent or difficult to find, at least we have logic to fall back on.

  20. jcasey, I don’t care if Krugman has a PhD and a Nobel Prize. It’s clear from his writing that he isn’t talking about economics. He’s abusing economics to talk about politics.

    Now, as for the “stimulus” being sane or not, I suggest that you read some Hayek or von Mises. The Austrian school of economics says that when you make money too cheap, people buy too much of it, and spend it wildly. When they wake up in the morning with a headache, and a whopping big bill to pay, they find that they can’t sell the things they bought. They have to retrench, cut back on any new spending, fire employees, close plants … you’ve heard this before because it’s today’s news. But it’s today’s news AFTER ten years of wild spending (the dot-com boom followed by the building boom). The only quick solution is to create another boom … this time based on even more easy money.

    Can you see how those of us who ascribe to this theory think that the stimulus is completely batshit insane? It’s economic creationism — let’s create prosperity by the stroke of a pen, rather than allowing it to evolve naturally.

  21. Hi Russell,

    You're a little late to this discussion.  I think if you read the comments and the post you'll see that most have granted the possibility of reasonable disagreement.  You seem here, however, to have confused stimulus spending with some kind of bubble creation.  That's not the idea, as I understand it.

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