Economists Can Be So Wrong

Oh boy! Krugman could not have been more wrong about Macroeconomics than what he said recently in his blog The Conscience Of A Liberal for The New York Times. In a blog post, Competitiveness And Class Warfare, he concludes:

International competition is a mostly bogus notion; …

In a sense it is not surprising. Paul Krugman has done enough to push free trade. With that position, one is forced to take a position that competitiveness doesn’t matter (or that free trade will lead to a convergence between successful and unsuccessful nations).

The notion that balance of payments does not matter is as old as Monetarism. If it is understood that competitiveness does matter and that for a nation it hurts domestic producers and hence one needs some sort of protectionist measures goes against the notion of free trade. For neoclassical economists other than Paul Krugman, competitiveness does matter but in a different sense. They would argue that it there is divergence in performance of nations because of “loose fiscal policy” or “fiscal profligacy” and so on and that once the government balances its budget and behaves the way as per a standard textbook model, there’ll be convergence in performance because market mechanisms will do the trick. But Krugman is different. During the crisis, he has understood that fiscal policy is important and that it is not impotent as claimed by his colleagues.

There are of course other factors at play in the examples Krugman provides. Japanese producers are highly competitive but at the same time, the government of Japan didn’t expand domestic demand by fiscal expansion and so the performance of the economy of Japan has suffered. But that doesn’t mean that the competitiveness of Japanese producers doesn’t matter. Had they been less competitive, Japanese exports would have been lower than otherwise and Japan would have imported more because foreign producers would beat them at their home. Moreover, a weaker current account balance of payments would have led to a bigger government deficit and the Japanese government would have (incorrectly) tightened fiscal policy in response, with the result that both balance of payments and fiscal policy would have reduced domestic demand and hence output.

So while there are other factors affecting economic performance, none of it ever means that competitiveness doesn’t matter.

Cambridge economists were clear on this. Here’s Wynne Godley in a 1993 article Time, Increasing Returns And Institutions In Macroeconomics, in S. Biasco, A. Roncaglia and M. Salvati (eds.), Market and Institutions in Economic Development: Essays in Honour of Paolo Sylos Labini, (New York: St. Martins Press), page 79:

… In the long period it will be the success or failure of  corporations, with or without active help from governments, to compete in world markets which will govern the rise and fall of nations.

In trying to defend the importance of fiscal policy, some economists such as Paul Krugman become forceful in their views about the way the world works and underplay the importance of matters such as international competitiveness. They seem to falsely believe that this strategy would work for them because accepting the importance of competitiveness would give enough chance for their opponents to argue against worldwide fiscal expansion.  It is a sad and counterproductive strategy.

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