Posts Tagged ‘history of economic thought’

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Mark Tansey, “Garden” (2006)

Modern Monetary Theorists are having a moment, as governments (many of them run by conservative regimes, such as Donald Trump and the Republicans in the United States) are running gigantic fiscal deficits in order to combat the economic crisis occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic.*

This time, with the $2 trillion CARES Act, the U.S. federal government has taken an additional step down the road of Modern Monetary Theory, by having the Federal Reserve buy an unlimited amount of Treasury bonds and government-backed mortgage bonds — whatever was necessary “to support smooth market functioning”—in other words, by simply creating the necessary money.

But, as Michael Hudson et al. explain, the idea that is being celebrated right now—that running government budget deficits is stabilizing instead of destabilizing—”is in many ways something quite different than the leading MMT advocates have long supported.”

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) was developed to explain the logic of running government budget deficits to increase demand in the economy’s consumption and capital investment sectors so as to maintain full employment. But the enormous U.S. federal budget deficits from the Obama bank bailout after the 2008 crash through the Trump tax cuts and Coronavirus financial bailout have not pumped money into the economy to finance new direct investment, employment, rising wages and living standards. Instead, government money creation and Quantitative Easing have been directed to the finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sectors. The result is a travesty of MMT, not its original aim.

By subsidizing the financial sector and its debt overhead, this policy is deflationary instead of supporting the “real” economy. The effect has been to empower the banking sector, whose product is credit and debt creation that has taken an unproductive and indeed extractive form.

Let me back up for a moment. I’ve been an advocate of Modern Monetary Theory ever since I began to study it (at the prodding of friends [ht: br]), as can be seen in various of my blog posts. In particular, from the perspective of the Marxian critique of political economy, two formulations that represent both critiques of and alternatives to those of mainstream economics are particularly useful: government deficits and bank money.

Perhaps the best known (and, in many ways, most controversial) aspect of Modern Monetary Theory is the logic of running budget deficits. The mainstream view is that the government imposes taxes and then uses the revenues to pay for some portion of government programs. To pay for the rest of its expenditures, the state then borrows money by issuing bonds that investors can purchase (and for which they receive interest payments).** But, neoclassical economists complain, such borrowing has a big downside: budget deficits increase the demand for loans, because the government competes with all the loans that private individuals and businesses want to take on—thus leading, in the short run, to the so-called crowding-out effect and, in the long run, an increase in government debt and the potential for a government default.

Advocates of Modern Monetary Theory dispute both of these conclusions: First, they argue that governments should never have to default so long as the country has a sovereign currency, that is, so long as they issue and control the kind of money they tax and spend (so, e.g., the United States but not Greece). Second, taxes and bonds do not and indeed cannot directly pay for spending. Instead, the government creates money whenever it spends.*** Clearly, this is useful from a left-wing perspective, because it creates room for government spending on programs that benefit the working-class—including, but certainly not limited to, the much-vaunted jobs guarantee.****

The second major contention between mainstream economics and Modern Monetary Theory concerns the role of banks—in particular, the relationship between bank lending and money. As Bill Mitchell explains,

Mainstream economic theory considers banks to be institutions that take in deposits which then provides them with the funds to on-lend at a profit. Accordingly, the ability of private banks to lend is considered to be constrained by the reserves they hold.

In other words, banks are seen as financial intermediaries, funneling deposits and then (backed by reserves) allocating a multiple of such deposits to the best possible, most efficient uses.

From the perspective of Modern Monetary Theory, private banks don’t operate in this way. Instead, they create money, by making loans—and reserve balances play little if any role.

A bank’s ability to expand its balance sheet is not constrained by the quantity of reserves it holds or any fractional reserve requirements. The bank expands its balance sheet by lending. Loans create deposits which are then backed by reserves after the fact. The process of extending loans (credit) which creates new bank liabilities is unrelated to the reserve position of the bank.

This is exactly the opposite of the mainstream story, with the implication that banks create loans (and therefore money) based on the profitability of making such loans, an activity that has nothing to do with the central bank’s adding more reserves to the system.

Both points—concerning the financing of government spending and endogenous bank money—are well known to anyone who has been exposed (either sympathetically or critically) to Modern Monetary Theory. In my view, they fit usefully and relatively easily into modern Marxian economics, especially in terms of both the theory of the state (e.g., government finances) and the theory of (fiat) money.

The problem, it seems to me, arises in the terms of the major complaint registered by Hudson et al.—namely, that government stimulus plans have mostly been directed to the finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sectors, which are considered unproductive and extractive, and not to the “real” economy, which is not.

Readers who know something about the history of economic thought will recognize that these productive/unproductive and extractive/non-extractive distinctions have a long lineage and can be traced back, first, to the French Physiocrats and, later, to Adam Smith—in other words, to the beginnings of modern mainstream economics.

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Using his Tableau Économique, François Quesnay attempted to show that the proprietors and cultivators of land were the only productive members of the economy and society, as against the unproductive class composed of manufacturers and merchants. It follows that the government should promote the interests of the landowners, and not those of the other classes, which were merely parasitic. Smith took up this distinction but then redeployed it, to argue that any labor involved in the production of commodities (whether agricultural or manufacturing) was productive, and the problem was with revenues spent on unproductive labor (such as household servants and landlords). The former led to the accumulation of capital, which increased the wealth of nations, while the latter represented conspicuous consumption, which did not.

Marx criticized both formulations, arguing that the productive/unproductive distinction had to do not with what workers produced, but rather with how they produced. Within capitalism, labor was productive if it resulted in the creation of surplus-value; and, if it didn’t (such as is the case with managers and CEOs who supervise the production of goods and services, as well as all those involved in finance, insurance, and real estate), it was not. So, the Marxian distinction is focused on surplus-value and thus exploitation.

And that, it seems to me, is the major point overlooked in much of Modern Monetary Theory. FIRE is extractive in the sense that it receives a cut of the surplus created elsewhere in the economy. But so are industries outside of finance, insurance, and real estate, since the boards of directors of enterprises in those sectors extract surplus from their own workers. And those different modes of extraction occur whether or not there’s a jobs guarantee provided by the creation of money by governments or banks.

From a Marxian perspective, then, the crucial distinction—both theoretically and for public policy—is not that between FIRE and the so-called real economy, but between classes that appropriate the surplus and otherwise “share in the booty” and the class that actually produces the surplus.

Right now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the class that is working to produce the surplus and provide the commodities we need is the one that is carrying the burden—either because they have been laid off and mostly left to their own devices, without paychecks and healthcare benefits, or been forced to continue to labor under precarious and unsafe conditions.

It’s that class, the American working-class, that is suffering from the ravages of the current economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic. They’re the ones, not their employers (whether in FIRE or the “real” economy), who deserve to be bailed out.

 

*Although this is certainly not the first time Republican administrations have run fiscal deficits, and allowed the public debt to soar—as long as they’re in power. They did it under Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, and long before the pandemic with Trump’s tax cuts. The only time American conservatives seem to worry about deficits and debt is when Democrats hold the reins.

**Wealthy individuals and large corporations long ago determined they prefer to be paid to purchase government debt instead of being taxed.

***So why, then, does the government need to tax at all in Modern Monetary Theory? Best I can figure, there are two major reasons: First, taxation makes sure people in the country use the government-issued currency, because they have to pay taxes in that currency (and not, e.g., in some kind of local or digital currency). Second, taxes are one tool governments can use to control inflation. They can take an amount of money out of the economy, which keeps consumers and corporations from bidding up prices.

****But that’s clearly not a new idea. Back in 1943, Michel Kalecki argued that governments had the ability to use a spending program (e.g., through public investment or subsidizing mass consumption) to achieve full employment. But it would likely be opposed by an alliance of big business and rentier interests based on three reasons:

(i) dislike of government interference in the problem of employment as such; (ii) dislike of the direction of government spending (public investment and subsidizing consumption); (iii) dislike of the social and political changes resulting from the maintenance of full employment.

In other words, capitalists are against both the government’s usurping of their private role as masters of the economy and society and the strengthening of the working-class, for whom “the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure.”

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source*

As I noted a few days ago (in discussing the notion of human capital), the concept of capital has undergone an extraordinary redefinition and expansion in recent years. Now, in the work of mainstream economists, it has come to refer to, in addition to physical capital, human, social, intellectual, and many other forms of capital.

What’s going on?

My sense is that, whereas capital traditionally referred to the property of capitalists—and thus their claim on some portion of new value created in the form of profits—it now means something very different: any stock that can be accumulated over time to yield an income (or at least, as in the case of housing, a flow of benefits). One interpretation, then, is we’re being moved by this reimagining of capital further and further away from any notion of class (such as implied by the differences between capital and labor and the accumulation of capital by and for the benefit of a tiny minority in society). But there is, I think, a somewhat different interpretation: we’re still obsessed by class (perhaps even more than before) and, precisely because of that, the mainstream project is to turn all of us into capitalists, with the shared goal of accumulating and managing our individual portfolios of various forms of capital.

Income share by labor and corps to 2011

It is perhaps not a coincidence that capital is being redefined and expanded precisely when the “capital share”—that is, the share of national income going to corporate profits—has reached record highs (not coincidentally, just as the wage share is at a record low) and some (such as Thomas Piketty and sympathetic readers) are expressing a worry that current trends in the unequal distribution of wealth may, if they continue, represent a return to the réntier incomes and inherited wealth characteristic of “patrimonial capitalism.”

So, capital is still a problem that haunts economics.

The problem of capital can be traced back to the first texts of modern economics. While I don’t have the space here to present a full history of economic thought, it is important to note that, for Adam Smith, the stock of physical capital played an important role in creating the wealth of nations. But, at the same time, Smith worried that capitalists might not carry out their “historical mission” of accumulating capital—if, for example, they chose to divert some of their profits to other uses, such as luxury consumption. David Ricardo, too, worried about the capitalists’ mission—if, with continual growth, the declining fertility of land under cultivation meant that rent on the land cut into profits and thus slowed the process of accumulation. Marx, of course, challenged both the classicals’ definition of capital—preferring to see it as a social relationship, rather than a thing—and their worry that the accumulation of capital (in the form of c and v, constant and variable capital) would slow as a result of exogenous events—because, for Marx, the problems were endogenous, as capital itself created obstacles to smooth and continuous accumulation. Even in early neoclassical growth theory (for example, in the Solow model), capital carried the hint of class, as it still had to be accumulated by a small group of investors—with the caveat, of course, that labor also stood to benefit as a result of more jobs and a higher marginal productivity.

But that previous class dimension of capital seems to have radically changed with the proliferation of new, expanded notions of capital.

This issue of capital came up as I was reading the commentaries on Piketty’s book that were delivered in a session at the recent American Economic Association meetings. All of the respondents—mainstream economists of various hues and stripes—took issue with Piketty’s definition and measurement of wealth. However, let me for the sake of this post focus on one of them, by David Weil [pdf]. Weil’s view is that, in addition to productive capital (the K one finds, alongside labor, in the usual neoclassical production function), capital should also include two other forms of wealth: human capital and “transfer wealth.” In his hands, labor income is now transformed into another kind of return on capital, the result of which is that a portion of national income (his calculations indicate 38 percent) represents a payment for education above and beyond “brute” labor. Human capital has the additional advantage, for mainstream economists like Weil, that it is more equally distributed (“there is a limit to how much human capital even the richest parent can cram into the head of his or her child”) than physical or financial capital. And then there are the Social Security payments workers rely on as retirement income. Weil also wants to treat them as capital, as a “transfer wealth.” He does acknowledge potential objections (“Ownership of transfer wealth conveys no control rights, and it can’t be sold or borrowed against, although it is not clear that these characteristics would be very valuable to those who hold it. Because it is annuitized, transfer wealth does not pass on to heirs, and so it is certainly true it affects the dynamics of inequality differently than market wealth.”) but then, impressed with the “gross size of these transfer claims,” Weil proceeds to treat them as a form of individual wealth—instead of as a social claim by one group of former workers on the surplus being created by existing workers.

The proliferation of these notions moves capital further and further away from its previous associations, in one way or another, with class and the process of producing, capturing, and utilizing the surplus in the form of capitalist profits. That’s one of the effects of redefining capital and imagining that wages and Social Security represent different returns on capital.

At the same time, the new forms of capital continue to be haunted by the issue of class, precisely in the insistence that everyone—not just capitalists—owns some and that forms such as human capital and “transfer wealth” are more equitably distributed than traditional (physical and financial) capital. In other words, mainstream economists’ attempts to redefine and expand what we mean by capital still carry the whiff of a claim on net income that is something above and beyond what laborers receive by exchanging their ability to work for a wage.

The problem, of course, is that the more capital is detached from the traditional role of the capitalist—to serve as “a machine for the conversion of this surplus-value into additional capital”—the more it calls into question the idea that the class of capitalists serves any particular role at all in today’s society. This is a problem that, of course, has reinforced by the onset and enduring legacy of the most severe crisis since the First Great Depression.

In this sense, the proliferation of new forms of capital—in the midst of the growing inequality that both caused and is now the consequence of the Second Great Depression—merely serves to remind us of the antithesis between the character of wealth as socially produced and privately captured. That is the real problem with capital that simply can’t be solved within the existing economic institutions.

*This illustration was produced by the Capital Drawing Group.

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They never give up. But no matter how much lipstick they put on a pig, it’s still a pig.

Ross Douthat did it back in February, by painting a rosy picture of the drop in the employment-population ratio.

Now, we have Zachary Karabell expressing his optimism about the youth unemployment crisis (16 percent in the United States, more than 50 percent in countries like Spain and Greece). Based on a single anecdote, he concludes that young people, at least college graduates, are not really unemployed. They’re just choosing to look for better options.

many college-educated young people are choosing not to take low-paying service-level jobs if they don’t absolutely have to. Because they can live with their parents (and as many as 45 percent of recent grads do) and because they rarely have much in the way of fixed costs such as homes and children, they can hold out for a job that matches their ambitions. They can also retool their skills as they discover that their college degree in marketing and communications may not leave them in the best position to get the type of job that they want.

This type of unemployment is one of choice — rational, legitimate choice — not of systemic failure. It is a challenge to find a meaningful job, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. A youth cohort determined to create meaningful work should not be seen as lazy, lost or in dire straits. Instead it could be exactly the type who might actually lead the transition of our economy away from the making-stuff economy of the 20th century to an ideas economy of the 21st. . .

In the United States, youth unemployment is not quite what it seems. It is not a simple sign of how bad the economy is. Youth unemployment is actually a sign of ambition and expectation. Young people aren’t part of a generation of despair, but rather a generation determined not to settle. That may not always be realistic, but it is a vital fuel to propel our society forward.

If it looks like a pig, smells like a pig, no matter how much lipstick you put on it, it’s still a pig.

And, while we’re on the topic (of porcine cosmetics, not unemployment), there’s Simon Wren-Lewis, who so desperately wants to tell us, notwithstanding the spectacular failures of mainstream economics in recent years, that all is well. Everything we need is right there in the textbooks, he argues. Like the “the proposition that austerity was a crazy thing to try in this recession.” Well, on that one point he’s right: all you need is some basic Keynesian economics to criticize austerity. But, no matter how hard you look, you’re not to going to find the appropriate tools for analyzing a whole host of other crisis-related issues, such as the role of inequality in creating the conditions for crisis or the tendencies within capitalism to endogenously produce such crises. Sure, the ideas are there to push back against the austerians but, nowhere in mainstream macroeconomics—whether in the textbooks or in the most advanced areas of research—are you going to find a theory of capitalist dynamics that explains how we got into the current mess, much less how to get out of it. Wren-Lewis wants to blame partisan concerns (and, sure, there’s plenty of that) but not the basic theory.

To give credit where credit is due, Wren-Lewis sincerely wants to do the right thing and take the ideological lipstick off the pig. But then, even after adding a bit of economic history and the history of economic thought, he’s still left with the same old pig.

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Philip Mirowski’s latest, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, has been getting quite a bit of play since publication. Antipode has published a review symposium and Mirowski himself has participated in an exchange at the FDL Book Salon and been interviewed by the New Books Network, Estudios de la Economía, and by Nathan Tankus for Naked Capitalism.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview conducted by Tankus:

NT: Given this context, what are the salient features of Neoliberalism that have generally been preserved over time? What are the origins of the Neoliberal Thought Collective and how has it changed?

PM:The origins were surprisingly transnational, given the mistaken widespread impression that Neoliberalism is predominantly an American fascination. It began with some tentative meetings of the Colloque Walter Lippmann in Paris in the 1930s, and became consolidated with the Mont Pèlerin Society in the 1940s. I try and demonstrate in the book that it has grown ever more cosmopolitan over time, although my own deficiencies in foreign languages and non-Western history thwarts my realization of that ambition. Throughout the decades, the thought collective has maintained a productive tension between its American-flavored Chicago wing and its continental Austrian/Ordo tendency.

Although some on the left have suggested that the thought collective displays no substantial continuity across time and space, in the book I attempt to summarize some of its more enduring attributes. One telltale complex encompasses some of the things Michel Foucault first drew our attention to, such as the image of ideal human life as becoming the ultimate entrepreneur of your own flexible self, but one where the putative Self as captain of your own fate deliquesces into a moral and intellectual vacuum. This explains why Neoliberals are so contemptuous of Isaiah Berlin’s ‘positive freedom’, since there can be no enduring Self that demands fealty: you need to be an infinitely pliable entity in order to adequately respond to the demands of the marketplace. Various technologies like Facebook serve to teach the masses how to maintain the outward appearances of this empty self.

Because the book is focused on the crisis, I devote far more effort to enumerating and summarizing the Neoliberal approach to political economy. It starts from the premise (contrary to their public PR) that they reject classical liberalism, because they don’t believe in a traditional circumscribed sphere for the state separate from that of The Market. Instead they are constructivists, redefining and building a strong state to institute and maintain the kinds of markets they think will not come about on their own. For the collective, the most propitious time to make such bold interventions is during a crisis, when they are mobilized to define ‘exceptions’ to previous rules. Their prescription for apparent market failures is always more new-fangled markets. Hence, as they have often explicitly written, they are not ‘conservatives’ in any meaningful sense of the term. They often vent their distrust of democratic structures, hoping to reconcile them with their interventions by portraying voting itself as a kind of hobbled marketplace. Democracy therefore needs to be contained and neutralized by a strong state.

For Neoliberals, The Market is the only ultimate arbiter of Truth. Their problem is that most people still resist this fundamental tenet, because they persist in believing in quaint notions of justice, including the notion that rewards should be proportionate to effort, or else hoping sustenance be apportioned according to basic needs. Because The Market is smarter than anyone, the poor need to capitulate to whatever The Market currently bequeaths them. The rich, of course, have no problem with their lot. This unequal distribution of wealth is a necessary structural feature of capitalism. Market discipline should also extend to corporations; the Neoliberals have long proselytized for the extension of market-like incentives within corporate boundaries. Outsourcing and outsized CEO recompense are direct corollaries. Gargantuan firms are not a serious problem, since they merely are a reflection of fleeting market success; antitrust should be jettisoned, and there is no long-term problem of Too Big to Fail.

The Neoliberals have changed over time primarily by sloughing off progressively more of their classical liberal heritage. It began with Chicago rejecting the very idea of corporate power as a problem for capitalism in the 1950s; it continued with rejection of the prior Austrian tendency to distrust the destabilizing potential of the finance sector. (Gold bugs and 100% money cranks no longer get much respect from the Neoliberals.) They have abandoned all classical liberal aspirations to improve the lot of the working classes through education; rather, they now seek to undermine all public education by subjecting every credentialing process to the marketplace of ideas. They dismiss the classical liberal suspicions concerning intellectual property, since inventing new property rights is an effective way to defeat their opponents. Finally, the thought collective has managed to string along their useful fellow-travelers, the true libertarians, without once admitting that they share little more in common than some vain posturing over freedom.

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My better half has insisted for years that I not be too hard on Paul Krugman. The enemy of my enemy. Popular Front. And all that. . .

But enough is enough.

I simply can’t let Krugman [ht: br] get away with writing off a large part of contemporary economic discourse (not to mention of the history of economic thought) and with his declaration that Larry Summers has “laid down what amounts to a very radical manifesto” (not to mention the fact that I was forced to waste the better part of a quarter of an hour this morning listening to Summers’s talk in honor of Stanley Fischer at the IMF Economic Forum, during which he announces that he’s finally discovered the possibility that the current level of economic stagnation may persist for some time).

Krugman may want to curse Summers out of professional jealousy. Me, I want to curse the lot of them—not only the MIT family but mainstream economists generally—for their utter cluelessness when it comes to making sense of (and maybe, eventually, actually doing something about) the current crises of capitalism.

So, what is he up to? Basically, Krugman showers Summers in lavish praise for his belated, warmed-over, and barely intelligible argument that attains what little virtue it has about the economic challenges we face right now by vaguely resembling the most rudimentary aspects of what people who read and build on the ideas of Marx, Kalecki, Minsky, and others have been saying and writing for years. The once-and-former-failed candidate for head of the Federal Reserve begins with the usual mainstream conceit that they successfully solved the global financial crash of 2008 and that current economic events bear no resemblance to the First Great Depression. But then reality sinks in: since in their models the real interest-rate consistent with full employment is currently negative (and therefore traditional monetary policy doesn’t amount to much more than pushing on a string), we may be in for a rough ride (with high output gaps and persistent unemployment) for some unknown period of time. And, finally, an admission that the conditions for this “secular stagnation” may actually have characterized the years of bubble and bust leading up to the crisis of 2007-08.

That’s where Krugman chimes in, basking in the glow of his praise for Summers, expressing for the umpteenth time the confidence that his simple Keynesian model of the liquidity trap and zero lower bound has been vindicated. The problem is, Summers can’t even give Alvin Hansen, the first American economist to explicate and domesticate Keynes’s ideas, and the one who first came up with the idea of secular stagnation based on the Bastard Keynesian IS-LM model, his due (although Krugman does at least mention Hansen and provide a link). I guess it’s simply too much to expect they actually recognize, read, and learn from other traditions within economics, concerning such varied topics as the role of the Industrial Reserve Army in setting wages, political business cycles, financial fragility, and much more.

And things only go down from there. Because the best Summers and Krugman can do by way of attempting to explain the possibility of secular stagnation is not to analyze the problems embedded in and created by existing economic institutions but, instead, to invoke that traditional deus ex machina, demography.

Now look forward. The Census projects that the population aged 18 to 64 will grow at an annual rate of only 0.2 percent between 2015 and 2025. Unless labor force participation not only stops declining but starts rising rapidly again, this means a slower-growth economy, and thanks to the accelerator effect, lower investment demand.

You would think that a decent economist, not even a particularly left-wing one, might be able to imagine the possibility that a labor shortage might cause higher real wages, which might have myriad other effects, many of them really, really good—not only for people who continue to be forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work but also for their families, their neighbors, and for lots of other participants in the economy. But, apparently, stagnant wages (never mind supply-and-demand) are just as “natural” as Wicksell’s natural interest rate.

And then, finally, this gem:

The point is that it’s not hard to think of reasons why the liquidity trap could be a lot more persistent than anyone currently wants to admit.

No, it’s not hard to think of many such reasons. But when the question is asked in the particular way Krugman poses it—in terms of natural rates of this and that, of interest-rates, population, wages, innovation, and so on—the only answers that need be admitted into the discussion come from other members of the close-knit family (and thus from Summers, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Gordon). All of the other interesting work that has been conducted in the history of economic thought and by contemporary economists concerning in-built crisis tendencies, long-wave failures of growth, endogenous technical innovation, financial speculation, and so on is simply excluded from the discussion.

It is no wonder, then, that mainstream economists—even the best of them—are so painfully inarticulate and hamstrung when it comes to making sense of the current economic malaise.

I’ll admit, it wouldn’t be so bad if it was just a matter of professional jealousy and their not being able to analyze what is going on except through the workings of a small number of familiar assumptions and models. They talk as if it’s only their academic reputations that are on the line. But we can’t forget there are millions and millions of people, young and old, in the United States and around the world, whose lives hang in the balance—well-intentioned and hard-working people who are being made to pay the costs of economists like Krugman attempting to keep things all in the family.