Is history what you think you remember?



Robert Waldmann is shocked, shocked, to find conservative economists not doing their homework:

Even now, I am shocked that economists didn’t bother to look up the data on FRED before making nonsensical claims of fact. 

I’m shocked that he’s shocked.

Waldmann’s issue is the relationship between government spending and growth in recent years, which everyone on the right knows has been negative, but is actually positive. Why, he asks, didn’t they look up the data — which takes only a few seconds on FRED — before making their claims?

But this is typical; it applies to issues across the board. The same people know that growth has been much faster since financial deregulation and the Reagan tax cuts, except that it hasn’t; they know that Reagan was the only president to oversee the creation of millions of jobs, because there never was a Clinton boom; they know that there has been unprecedented growth in government spending under Obama, when the reality is the opposite. At this point you shouldn’t be surprised.

Still, why this failure to do even the simplest homework? In general, people on the right seem to do economic history (and probably history in general) using the principle of 1066 And All That: “history is what you remember”, often what you sort of think you remember. They hear everyone around them saying stuff, repeat it, and that becomes what everyone knows; the idea of checking the facts themselves never seems to arise, indeed is almost anathema. I’ve had conversations in which people belligerently assert “I’m not impressed by your charts — you’ll never convince me that government spending has fallen under Obama.” Don’t bother me with facts!

But why this attitude? Mainly, I suppose, it’s the epistemic closure that comes from serving the interests of big money. There’s a world of think tanks that don’t want too much thinking, partisan media that don’t do fact-checking, and for that matter professional journals that erect high barriers against anything even vaguely Keynesian while uncritically publishing new classical stuff.

There’s also a more specific, wonkish issue. New classical macroeconomics decisively failed the reality test in the early 1980s, but rather than accepting this result, that camp rejected empirical testing. Instead, “empirical” work consisted of “calibrating” models to fit (some of) the data, using ever more abstruse techniques. One result, I suspect, was that conservative economists got out of the habit of looking at raw data; they could tell you about the moments of the distribution, but if you asked them what happened to unemployment and inflation between 1979 and 1989 they probably had no idea.

I will say, by the way, that writing for the Times — and especially doing so in the face of so much right-wing animosity — has been a useful discipline. In general, the Times maintains standards for fact-checking — and for explicit corrections when you get it wrong — that nobody else seems to. And I am especially careful, because so many people are gunning for me. So every assertion of fact in my columns does come with a source, usually visible in the links embedded in the online version. Oh, and for the haters: saying something that doesn’t match your opinion is not an error of fact.

But all this only proves my depravity. After all, the facts have a well-known liberal bias.

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