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Good Motives Are Not Enough

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For the most part, after seeing Kinsley’s latest I’m happy to defer to Drezner, Konczal, and Krugman. But I did want to add a couple points.

First, I should note that neither Krugman (nor me, in the linked post) “called [Kinsley] a neocon.” The point was just that Kinsley’s invocation of stagflation is comparable to neocon invocations of Munich to justify various interventions against authoritarians who pose threats that are vastly less serious that Hitler. And, again, the moralism that seems to be doing most of the work in Kinsley’s argument isn’t an invention of his critics; it’s entirely explicit. Konzcal again cites Kinsley’s argument about “we have to pay a price for past sins” and “[t]he problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians.” Even more instructively, consider Kinsley’s earlier concession:

My fear is not the result of economic analysis. It’s more from the realm of psychology….

[…]

But this cure has been one ice-cream sundae after another. It can’t be that easy, can it? The puritan in me says that there has to be some pain. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been plenty of economic pain. But that pain has come from the recession itself, not the cure.

It’s not name-calling to say that moralism rather than economic analysis seems to underpin Kinsley’s belief in austerity.  It’s just an accurate description of his explicit argument.

What makes this argument offensive, though, is Kinsley’s implicit assumption of shared sacrifice. It seems important to note that Kinsley and people similarly situated to him are going to keep eating “ice-cream sundaes” no matter what fiscal policies are implemented; the pain being inflicted in the name of austerity is being inflicted on others. Cutting the welfare state during a time of mass unemployment, however, as Kinsley concedes has devastating effects on the less well-off. If you’re a liberal advocating policies that are certain to inflict immediate pain on people who are already in dire straits, you’d better have a damned good argument that this is justified by a clear long-term payoff. Boil off the puritain moralism, though, and Kinsley’s only substantive argument is the invocation of stagflation. And this argument is transparently wrong: there’s no sign of significant inflation, and many of the conditions that led to stagflation (most notably a labor force with the leverage to extract higher wages) don’t exist in 2013. Which is presumably why Kinsley is unwilling to defend his claim on the merits and would prefer to discuss the purity of his motives.   It’s also far from obvious why higher inflation would be so bad that it would justify higher-than-necessary unemployment even if there was any evidence that it was happening.

So, fine, let’s stipulate that Kinsley is a good liberal and that he sincerely believes that austerity will be better for all in the long run. It just doesn’t matter because he doesn’t have any kind of serious argument to make in defense of austerity.

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