December 27, 2010
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
In his September 28 New York Times blog post, Paul Krugman announced that “economics is not a morality play.” That turn of phrase is his way of defending the idea that in unusual times, such as the sort of deep recession we are in, we can get strange relationships between economic cause and effect. The result is that actions which we might find highly distasteful can have positive effects. Thus we cannot afford to be overly concerned with morality if the goal is to get out of the recession.
Specifically, Krugman defends the claim that World War II got us out of the Great Depression, because “this is a situation in which virtue becomes vice and prudence is folly; what we need above all is for someone to spend more, even if the spending isn’t particularly wise.” Even spending on something destructive like war, he argues, is what is needed to solve the problem, especially when the “political consensus for [domestic] spending on a sufficient scale” is not available. In Krugman’s version of Orwell’s Newspeak, destruction creates wealth, and war, though not ideal, is morally acceptable because it produces economic growth.
Thankfully, we can get behind his Newspeak to see the fallacy of his economics. To believe that spending—any kind of spending—is the cure for what ails us is to ignore the subjective nature of wealth and the microeconomic basis of economic growth in favor of an absolute reification of economic aggregates such as GDP and unemployment. Spending trillions of dollars fighting a war can certainly bring idle capital and labor into employment, driving up GDP and lowering unemployment. But this does not mean we are any wealthier than before.