by Henry on August 4, 2011

“Matt Yglesias”: responds to Chris’s post below, by suggesting that British “lefties”‘ criticisms of New Labour’s record on inequality are discredited by a Lane Kenworthy graph, which he says he’ll take as a decisive argument in favor of what he calls “progressive neo-liberalism,” “until [he sees] a rebuttal of it.” But didn’t we have a rebuttal of Yglesias’ interpretation from “Brian Weatherson”:, the last time he was pushing this line, back in October 2010? Perhaps he found this rebuttal inadequate in some way. But even if this were so, one would have thought that Lane’s own quite specific and limited explanation of what the graph suggests – that it showed that the UK poor probably did better under Labour than they would have under the Conservatives – might have given him pause (I’m quite sure that Chris, for all his dislike of New Labour, would agree with Lane’s claim here).

I also should note that he had a “go”: last week at John Quiggin’s arguments about inequality, where he suggested that NYU professors had it pretty good, and that:

bq. a lot of the political dialogue I see online seems to consist of a slightly strange form of class resentment in which intellectuals, nonprofit workers, or public servants express bitterness about the high incomes of businesspeople whose lives they don’t actually envy.

I wrote a somewhat ill-tempered post in response to this, and then deleted it, because I wasn’t greatly looking forward to policing the comments section. So I’ll limit myself to saying that Yglesias’ aside certainly doesn’t do justice to the genuine and quite serious debates around inequality, which, as far as I can see, are not being driven by ‘class resentments’ but by a genuine and well-founded dismay about the current state of the US political economy. Enormous disparities of wealth help reinforce huge disparities in political power (see e.g. Bartels’ findings on how the interests of different economic segments get represented in the electoral process) in a self reinforcing cycle. That’s a problem – and it’s a _particularly big problem_ for someone who wants to concentrate on maximizing growth first, and only on sharing out the goodies afterwards. As “Cosma says”: in the best post on this broad set of topics that I’ve read to date.

bq. “When you tell us that (1) the important thing is to maximize economic growth, and never mind the distributional consequences because (2) we can always redistribute through progressive taxation and welfare payments, you are assuming a miracle in step 2.” For where is the political power to enact that taxation and redistribution, and keep it going, going to come from? A sense of _noblesse oblige_ is too much to hope for (especially given how many of our rich people have taken lots of economics courses), and, for better or worse, voluntary concessions will no longer come from fear of revolution.

To be clear – I think that Matthew Yglesias is an extremely smart and interesting writer, even when I disagree with him, as I often do. He’s a net contributor to US public debate. But when he comes up against this particular set of issues, he has an unfortunate tendency to wave difficulties in his position away by making -unsubstantiated imputations about the motives of people who bring up the problem of wealth inequality, and- (update: now withdrawn – see his comment below) referring to graphs which don’t actually say what he thinks they say. I wish he’d do better.

Update – I see that Chris has also updated his post in response.

“Not even wrong” is not praise

by John Quiggin on August 4, 2011

At one point in Zombie Economics, I tried a Popperian (or maybe Paulian) smackdown, saying that some defenders of EMH used arguments that effectively rendered it unfalsifiable. I thought that was a bad thing, but apparently at least one reviewer disagrees. Following my stoush with Murdoch, a commenter pointed me to this piece by Stephen Williamson of Washington University at St Louis, who has apparently been asked to review the book for the Journal of Economic Literature. Williamson claims that I am badly confused about the EMH, and that

Market efficiency is simply an assumption of rationality. As such it has no implications. If it has no implications, it can’t be wrong.

He follows up with “Like the “efficient markets hypothesis,” DSGE has no implications, and therefore can’t be wrong.””
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What they don’t ask

by Chris Bertram on August 4, 2011

Last night’s BBC Newsnight in the UK featured “an item on living standards”: (at about 29′) and an interview with Doug McWillians of the “Centre for Economics and Business Research”: think tank (whoever they are). McWilliams asserted that the UK faces a decline in living standards of 25 per cent over the next 20 years or so because of wage competition from overseas: “we” are going to be 25 per cent worse off. I have no idea how plausible this is.{fn1} However, if I’d been the interviewer I’d have followed up by asking McWilliams, “so, the economy is going to shrink by 25 per cent over the next few years?” Because I’m pretty sure that the economy is going to continue to grow, and that McWilliams also believes this, (eventually, and maybe sluggishly) and asking that follow-up would have forced him to make it explicit that he thinks we face a future of contraegalitarian redistribution (and, judging by some of the other elements in the item, longer hours). Unfortunately, the question never came. Until these questions get asked though, we’ll still have a political debate dominated by the assumption that growth-promoting policies will provide people with better lives, even though it seems that they won’t. (Which doesn’t, of course, establish that in the absence of such policies things wouldn’t get even worse.) To protect and improve the real living standards of ordinary people, we need to get redistribution explicitly onto the agenda and not just allow the assumption that rising tides lift (the key political assumption of “left neoliberalism” it seems to me) to stand.

1. To be fair, McWilliams says the decline isn’t predetermined, but can be avoided if “we” provide ourselves with enough in the way of high-tech skills to “command a premium”. Of course this is another feature of the “left neoliberal” toolkit, but as the experience of new Labour shows, it is one thing to sloganize (“education, education, education”) it is another to actually change things.

UPDATE: For some reason Matthew Yglesias has “linked to this post”: taking it to be a data-free assertion that Blair and Brown failed on inequality (I believe that they failed, but it isn’t the subject of this post) and then waving around a Lane Kenworthy graph that he’s fond of in refutation. Two points: (1) the only point in the post that touched on the failure of New Labour was the footnote, which alludes to their record on education not inequality; (2) “Brian posted a few months ago”: in response to “the last time”: Matt deployed his favourite graph against “me on New Labour’s record”: on inequality, given that, I’m surprised Matt is still waving it around.

Adorno Made Him Do It

by Michael Bérubé on August 4, 2011

Shorter <a href=””>Mark Bauerlein</a>: The leftist books Andrew Breitbart didn’t read in college eventually inspired him to slander Shirley Sherrod.
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