An Exceptional Economist

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When I first saw the list of “Seven Bad Ideas” by Jeff Madrick, I thought of the biblical refrain, “Woe unto them who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). How can he consider the Invisible Hand, Say’s law, limited government, low inflation, efficient markets, free trade, and economics as an objective science to be “bad ideas”?

Then I read the book, and came to the conclusion that Jeff Madrick is an exceptional economist. By that I mean that Madrick considers all the above ideas to be good except when they are misused by economists and government officials who engage in “dirty economics.” He is one of those economists who constantly says, “I’m all in favor of the free market, but . . .” and then lets out a litany of exceptions to the rule.

The greater the level of economic freedom, the higher the standard of living.

His first chapter sets the tone. He labels the Invisible Hand a “beautiful idea,” and waxes eloquent about Adam Smith’s “brilliant” metaphor of the market. Then he goes on the attack, criticizing laissez-faire advocates such as Milton Friedman (his favorite bête noire) for ignoring the importance of “monopolies, business power, lack of access to information, the likelihood of financial bubbles, economies of scale.” When that happens, he concludes, “The efficient Invisible Hand gets very dirty.”

Madrick protesteth too much. Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” consists of three elements: maximum freedom, competition, and a system of justice. If the invisible hand gets dirty, it’s only because one or more of these elements are proscribed. If all three are in place, the result is “universal opulence which extends to the lowest ranks of the people,” as Smith predicted in the early pages of The Wealth of Nations. Indeed, the Economic Freedom Indexes, produced by the Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, confirm Adam Smith. They list five critical factors: size of government, legal structure, sound money, trade, and regulations. They demonstrate that the greater the level of economic freedom, the higher the standard of living.

In chapter 5, Madrick attacks the notion that “There Are No Speculative Bubbles.” Here again he begins with a positive idea, the efficient market theory (EMT), which originated from the work of Eugene Fama at the University of Chicago. Fama, who won the Nobel Prize last year, found that it’s almost impossible to beat the market and difficult to identify asset bubbles. But then Madrick spends most of the chapter highlighting the exceptions, citing Robert Shiller and other critics of EMT. “The development of the EMT is another example of how faith in the rationality of free markets was pushed too far,” Madrick says. Yet the fact remains, when the financial markets are transparent sans government interference and mismanagement, they work pretty well.

In chapter 6, Madrick attacks globalization. He begins by saying, “Opening markets to world trade can and should be beneficial.” Then comes the “but . . .”, as he cites cases of people in Asia, Europe, and Latin America who are damaged by free trade and market liberalization. He also cites Paul Krugman, for the idea that “broad swaths of the population [are] hurt by trade.” But no one says that trade doesn’t hurt some groups in the short run, and requires them to retool and change jobs. A recent study of the NAFTA free-trade agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States concluded that on net balance more jobs and more income were created than destroyed.

When financial markets are transparent sans government interference and mismanagement, they work pretty well.

Madrick derides the whole idea of Say’s law and the self-adjusting economy. However, he never cites directly the great French economist J.B. Say. In fact, I have the impression that he may have never read Say’s Treatise on Political Economy, published in English in 1821. Nor does he seem familiar with the work of Steve Kates, the foremost authority on Say’s law. If he had, Madrick would know that Say’s whole focus is the benefits of the supply side of the economy — technology, productive savings and investment, and entrepreneurship — which is the key to long-term growth and higher standards of living. Who could be against that?

Like Krugman, Robert Kuttner, and other Keynesians, Madrick berates “austerity” economics and the obsession with government deficits in Europe and the US. Yet he conveniently ignores examples in which austerity worked, such as Canada in the mid-1990s, when it cut government spending and laid off federal workers but managed to balance the budget in two years and then went on an 11-year supply-side run that proved a success. Today Canada is ranked no. 7 in the Economic Freedom Index, ahead of the US (no. 12).

Seven Bad Ideasshould be renamed The Anti-Friedman Book. It attacks the late Milton Friedman in virtually every chapter, blaming him and his "laissez-faire" policies for everything bad in the world. Madrick says that the establishment economics profession has bought into all things Friedman, and that Friedman has had his way in practically all policies, including those of the Clinton era. According to Madrick, Friedman is "the most influential American economist of the last quarter of the twentieth century.” If so, why hasn’t the US adopted a flat tax, a negative income tax, school choice, decriminalization of drugs, or privatization of Social Security or even the national parks, as Friedman advocated? Why hasn’t the US eliminated the Fed and replaced it with a computer that increases the money supply at a steady rate? If only Madrick were right and Friedman truly ruled!

Madrick conveniently ignores examples in which austerity worked, such as Canada in the mid-1990s, which balanced its budget in two years.

In his final chapter, one of Madrick’s chief complaints about the economics profession is its lack or misuse of empirical evidence to support its assertions. But sometimes he is guilty of the same error. One of the most egregious examples is this extreme statement: “By every measure, the economic improvement in the 1950s and 1960s was superior to the improvement from 1980 onwards when Friedman type-economics began to prevail.” Say again? He may have a point with some statistics, such as per capita GDP growth, or real wages in the United States. But there are plenty of countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa that have adopted Friedman free-market policies and have blossomed. And in the US, there are plenty of contrary data, such as life expectancy, leisure time, and especially new technology (personal computers, smartphones, the internet, etc.). When you include worker benefits, total compensation is still rising for the average employee. According to Michael Cox, an expert on consumption patterns at Southern Methodist University, ownership of cars, color televisions, and household appliances has risen dramatically at all income levels, and even in poor households, since 1980. The standard of living has advanced so far and has risen so rapidly for most Americans since 1980 that there is no comparison. Is there anyone who would prefer to live in the 1950s and 1960s rather than today, as Madrick’s statement implies?

Most of the time, Madrick loses his sense of balance. He devotes 90% of the book to the exceptions, making it a work full of tedious arguments and complaints that would interest only professional economists (what John Stossel calls “getting caught in the weeds”). He even takes on his Keynesian friends, such as Lawrence Summers, and lambastes them for falling into “Friedman’s folly.” Madrick still thinks Friedman is the Devil.

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