Suggestions on Apostate Economic Pundits

I put a call out on Twitter this past week looking for suggestions of people like Paul Krugman, who recently argued in a Bloomberg piece that he and other pro-globalization economists had gotten it wrong in the 1990s and early 2000s, which is to say, public intellectual types who have admitted to interpreting the world — economically, primarily — incorrectly, and acknowledging the errors of their ways. Richard Posner did this to great effect back in 2009, with A Failure of Capitalism, in which he renounced his naive faith in the power of markets to bring about socially ideal outcomes. Ideally, I was hoping for a treasure trove of wonky types like Krugman who understood the economic models underpinning so many anti-government, low-tax, turbo-charged financial market wishful thinking, yet also were likely to be read by run-of-mill liberals like my parents, who are more likely to learn about these things by flipping to the Op-Eds in the New York Times than delve into minutiae on left policy twitter. People like Larry Summers and Olivier Blanchard — policy types who have worked with large International Financial Institutions like the World Bank — were in close second, as architects of policies based on bad (I would argue) priors, who have since recanted, of late, on the benefits of austerity and so forth.

Some good suggestions I received included:

— Dani Rodrik’s ‘The Sorry State of Macro‘ blog post in 2009

— Obamanauts — including Summers, I think — who have argued that they did not do enough during the Obama Administration, but not for lack of trying. How convincing they are in making this claim is one thing; it’s hard to prove a counterfactual that Summers himself wanted a larger stimulus than he felt entitled to ask for (he argued a version of this in response to a question from Pedro D’Acosta at the ASSAs back in 2013), and seems contraindicated by reflections by Democratic political aides. What’s also lame is that many arguments here blame Republicans; yes, the Republicans are intransigently opportunistic, but Obama still formed a bipartisan deficit reducing commission. But in these numbers, Larry Summers and Christina Romer at least have argued that they should have spent more, and Summers has argued that post-Keynesian economists (read, not mainstream) have more to contribute in explaining how economies work, and what should be done about them.

— Michael Jensen (proponent of shareholder capitalism indirectly cited in Wall Street by Gordon Gekko), who now argues that CEOs can go too far in that department, and the Business Roundtable, who released a statement in August that businesses had focused too heavily on shareholder primacy, to the detriment of business and the economy at large.

— and Paul Krugman, bringing me full circle.

I think the more interesting point made by the small number of responses was perhaps evidence of absence: not many people will go on the record to say that they were wrong, unless they can throw the opposite political party under the bus. But I’m very happy to be proven wrong! If you have suggestions of other economists to look into — mainstream economists drawing on the reserve army theory, for example — I’d love to know.

Jackie Brown and Robert Forster

To say that the news of Robert Forster’s death saddened me today would really understate things. He’s held a special place in my heart since I saw Jackie Brown as a particularly earnest ninth-grader who couldn’t wait to see the newest Quentin Tarantino movie, but despite his lengthy resume, I haven’t actually watched all that many of the movies or TV episodes he’d been in. As a result, the sensitive bail bondsman with a normie dad aspect is how he’s been preserved in my mind for more than twenty years now. I had been meaning to watch Jackie Brown again for a stupidly long time. Earlier this summer, I bought and read Rum Punch, the Elmore Leonard novel that it’s based on, and was struck by how thin the longer treatment of the characters felt compared to how I remembered the movie. (And I’m an Elmore Leonard fan too, for what that’s worth.) Then it was back to planning to watch Jackie Brown… until the news today.

Watching it confirmed my memories that this is one of my favorite movies of all time — the camera work, the pacing, and the acting are all amazing. As a portrait of nuanced characters, it is phenomenal — each character is part of a system, no character is all good or bad, and the movie manages to avoid a wishy-washy moral relativism that lesser films might fall into. Tarantino telegraphs the sexism of the law enforcement agents in two sentences, and echoes themes about the structural racism of law enforcement from Spike Lee and John Singleton’s work earlier in the 90s in a way that resonates today. Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Ordell Robbie, is an arms dealer, so there’s an added topicality to his discussions about demand for the different types of guns he is able to sell; while Ordell relays this information, Tarantino’s ‘Chicks with Guns’ movie, a feature in a feature that logically enough features women in bikinis shooting pistols and other semi-automatics in what looks like Nevada, plays on a small-by-2019-standards TV in the background.

And the other period details are lovely. A key plot piece takes place at a mall, where Forster’s character Max Cherry seems to routinely watch movies during his lunch break, Sears is one of the anchor stores, and the prices recited sound … really low. The amazing suit Pam Grier’s Jackie buys — which set in my 14 year old mind what I hoped I would one day dress like — is only $267? Fridges are small, cigarettes are everywhere, and key-less entry puzzles the newly released from prison character played by Robert Deniro. CDs and cassette tapes! The music in the movie is incredible, and the motif of Max listening to the Delfonics as his relationship with Jackie (and crush on her) deepens is chef’s kiss perfect. And oh, the Kangol hats. Yet despite the setting clearly being the mid-90s, the movie doesn’t feel dated, and I don’t think that’s just because norm-core brought Teva sandals with socks back into vogue.

Pam Grier and Robert Forster are magnetic; my crush on both from this movie is apparently undimmed, decades later. What passed me by as a high-school student was the vulnerability both evince in their discussions about age and the passage of time. This elegiac quality is present in the novel, but all of the characters seemed to be cliches: the Max of the novel is quiet, but tough and paternalistic; Jackie is effervescent, deftly manipulative, and very, very capable; Ordell is funny, but mercenary and cruel. Tarantino allows the actors to telegraph their insecurity and uncertainty in ways that heighten the poignancy of the story and increase the impact of the last few scenes. (And Jackson should have won an Oscar for this role. I’m just saying.)

Tarantino improves upon the book in other ways, too. Foremost is his decision to make Jackie Brown black. The stakes rise for Jackie in the movie, thanks to the institutional racism of the labor market and the justice system: her precarity in the opening scenes of the movie in which she is entrapped by the agents tracking Robbie thanks to a surprise inclusion of cocaine in the package of cash she is smuggling, the plausible charge of ‘intent to distribute’ from what looks like a really small sample (I’ll take Robbie’s word for it), and the challenge of finding a good job as a middle-aged black woman with a criminal record highlight the persistent and intersectional vulnerabilities that define many American experiences.

Though seemingly small, his decision for Jackie to buy a black pantsuit is also an improvement over the Leonard’s decision for her to buy some sort of mermaid skirt combo. A skirt suit is hard to run in — Tarantino shows us that in the opening scene of the film where Jackie rushes to make her gate on time — and undercuts the idea that she’s handy and practical. Tarantino’s wardrobe change also echoes the suits his male principals — Travolta, Jackson, and Keitel in Pulp Fiction, all the Mr.’s in Reservoir Dogs — wore as they went about their work. Jackie works non-stop through this movie; her ‘badass in the boardroom’ suit (a line I have loved since the first time I watched this) gives her the sartorial respect she deserves. (For a lovely exegesis on this particular suit, you ought to read this by Manuela Lazic. It delighted me, and I hope you feel the same way.)

Finally, Jackie and Max do not consummate their relationship in the movie! I can’t overstate this. Forster telegraphs Max’s longing in ways that will make you feel feelings; as we observe Jackie’s affection for him grow, the tension builds until the second to last scene, when they meet one last time. Jackie has the $500,000 that fueled the suspense of most of the movie and she’s about to leave town; Max took only the 10% cut owed a bail bondsman, and he still feels guilty about it. Jackie walks slowly toward Max, takes his hands, and they kiss four times. It’s unbearably chaste, and it broke my heart. His phone rings, and while he’s trying to calm a frantic parent down to learn the details, Jackie slips out the door. His gentle request to call the customer back in 30 minutes, the red lipstick on his mouth as he gazes at Jackie’s departing car, and his slow walk into his backroom are devastating, and I challenge you not to tear up as Jackie turns up Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th St” on her way to the airport.

For the time being, I’m content to sit with this as my lasting impression of Robert Forster. And I don’t think I’ll wait such a long time to watch Jackie Brown again. It’s a really good movie.

Stiglitz for the Public; Stiglitz for the Undergrads

Uli Volz has a great piece in The Mint about Joseph Stiglitz’s contribution to economic thought, particularly regarding his critiques of the Washington Consensus as Chief Economist of the World Bank from 1997 until 1999, and in his capacity as founder of Columbia University’s Initiative for Public Dialogue (IPD), which aspires to “broaden dialogue and explore trade-offs in development policy by bringing the best ideas in development to policymakers facing globalisation’s complex challenges and opportunities [while] striving to contribute to a more equitably governed world by democratising the production and use of knowledge.” (IPD, 2019) He is prolific: in addition to his work with great economists like Stephany Griffith-Jones and Jose Antonio Ocampo, a selection of his books for popular audiences in the past three decades includes Globalization and Its Discontents (2002); Fair Trade for All (2005); Making Globalization Work (2006); Freefall (2010); The Price of Inequality (2012); The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them (2015); The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe (2016); and, most recently, People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent (2018). I’ve given copies of these books as gifts; my mother-in-law (not an economist) purchased People, Power, and Profits of her own volition; and some guy I went to college with posted a photo of himself reading aloud from Globalization and its Discontents at a party as his first Facebook profile picture.

Stiglitz’s body of academic work is likewise awe-inspiring. He won his Nobel Prize for his work on asymmetric information and market failure, and its relevance to labor markets, financial markets, and competition writ large, and has written quite a lot about development, the failures of globalization, the role for regulation, and crisis. In addition to his work with the IPD at Columbia, he is prominent within the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) both for his many different research projects as well as his mentorship in INET’s Young Scholars Initiative. And, as Volz mentions, in his time at the World Bank (which fueled his motivation to write Globalization and Its Discontents), he came under fire for the admirable reason of criticizing the IMF for requiring countries to impose austerity and high interest rate policies if they wanted aid to respond to major financial crises in the 1990s.

I greatly admire Stiglitz’s work. But my first introduction to him was way back in college, as a freshman taking Principles of Economics. My professor used Stiglitz’s then current textbook (probably the third edition from 2002, though I guess that hints at my age), and, tantalizingly for a globally conscious undergrad who was deciding between sociology, government, and economics as a major, that globalization book. To my dismay as a good if under-examined US-style liberal, most of that semester seemed to revolve around showing why minimum wages and rent controls were bad ideas if you cared about unemployment and access to housing, taxes were bad for consumers and the economy at large thanks to dead-weight loss, and regulation created so many perverse incentives that, like, why bother. It was a one-semester principles class, so my professor, a micro guy who was also my advisor, picked and chose the sorts of things he liked to teach, and all macro was reserved for the frenzied last month of the spring semester.

That’s when my professor deployed Globalization and Its Discontents — our one paper assignment of the semester asked us whether Stiglitz had contradicted his textbook. In hindsight, it was a brilliant troll: any left-leaning students taking an economics class because they wanted to learn about the monetary forces behind inequality and oppression (there were at least a few of us) had to confront the disconnect between the technical story Stiglitz’s textbook presented and the polemic he’d written in anger about what he’d observed on the ground at the World Bank, or at least as close to the ground as its chief economist ever gets. Wesleyan’s Principles of Economics classes had a way of filtering out most students critical of market dogma — students who thought econ was BS because it didn’t acknowledge real-world problems left for other social science majors, while students who remained mostly accepted the unfortunate “fact” that raising the minimum wage would hurt the precariate, or else they didn’t care much. I clung on — again, thanks to my advisor — and remember on occasion meeting fellow critics in the major by my senior year. We were a small group.

Why not refame that assignment? Why not ask what was wrong with the textbook we read in the first place? While it’s true that the most interesting work by most textbook authors is their articles, how many undergrads actually hang on to be assigned those papers, let alone seek them out on their own? How many technocrats keep up with the literature, let alone incorporate newer findings into their reports?

Alternately, why couldn’t Stiglitz have rebuilt his textbook from the ground up, knowing how tempting textbooks that package everything just so, with practice questions and test banks and everything, are for overtaxed faculty? And set the academics lucky enough to get tenure (or tenure-track or full time jobs) aside: how are adjunct faculty supposed to have the time to craft a nuanced treatment of economics in a semester that upholds diverse university and college standards of rigor and assessment, especially if they’re rushing from campus to campus to make ends meet?

I suspect that many of us who use textbooks do so with at least a modicum of guilt; we should, anyway. They’re expensive for students, and the supplemental sections with real-world examples that students don’t read anyway drive up the prices. But time is important, and the cheap or free textbook alternatives (I’ve been using CORE for a year and a half now — it’s fine but at least it’s free) often lack those amenities that facilitate evaluation. I also suspect that we choose our textbooks to signal our values — there’s no way I’ll assign a textbook by Glen Hubbard, and I resented how one university required me to teach with Mishkin’s Money and Banking textbook. But is Cecchetti and Schoenholtz’s book really better, even if I like their papers more, and they weren’t featured in Inside Job as captured by industry? I appreciate Paul Krugman and Daron Acemoglu’s work too, but the contrast between their textbooks and the books that they’ve written for undergrads’ parents (I have to assume) is great.

It’s worth noting that textbooks — successful ones with multiple editions, and international versions, too — are good business, if you can find it. Henry Farrell wrote as much in this Monkey Cage post with the apt title, “College Textbooks Are a Racket.” It’s easier to find reports on what Greg Mankiw has earned in royalties — in 2013, his publisher’s bankruptcy could have interrupted his receiving $1.6 million — than what Krugman earns, and it’s also worth noting that Paul Krugman refused to comment in his own blog post revealing that data.

The most recent US edition of Stiglitz’s textbook came out in 2006, but international editions have been published in 2011 and 2015. Economics students that plan to go into business, policy, or academia and whose professors don’t want to assign Mankiw or Krugman will read these books. Who are Stiglitz, Krugman, and Acemoglu writing their popular books for? If the answer is policy-makers, they should think about the content of their textbooks. If the answer is voters, we are going to see a continued disconnect between the politicians we vote for, and the feasibility of their passing what they promise, if their staff have bought in to the ideas they learned about early on.

Volz’s piece ends with two discomfiting anecdotes. In 2008, Stiglitz chaired a UN Commission of Experts on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System to evaluate how the IMF should proceed in responding to the Global Financial Crisis; he also chaired a Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, convened by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy. In these capacities, Stiglitz (and the Commissions) argued that the World Bank and IMF should prioritize financial stability through the creation of various macroprudential institutions, and that GDP was a flawed indicator of economic performance and social progress. (Stiglitz, Sen, Fitoussi, 2019) In 2013, the one division of the IMF released an Ombudsman report about how it had failed in its responses to the Eurozone crisis; its research staff continue to make pro-austerity proposals. And with some understatement, Volz notes that the second report “did not lead to any meaningful policy uptake.” (Volz, 2019)