The Accidental Theorist

The search for better economic policy.
Jan. 24 1997 3:30 AM

The Accidental Theorist

All work and no play makes William Greider a dull boy.

(Continued from Page 1)

First, isn't my thought experiment too simple to tell us anything about the real world?

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No, not at all. For one thing, if for "hot dogs" you substitute "manufactures" and for "buns" you substitute "services," my story actually looks quite a lot like the history of the U.S. economy over the past generation. Between 1970 and the present, the economy's output of manufactures roughly doubled; but, because of increases in productivity, employment actually declined slightly. The production of services also roughly doubled--but there was little productivity improvement, and employment grew by 90 percent. Overall, the U.S. economy added more than 45 million jobs. So in the real economy, as in the parable, productivity growth in one sector seems to have led to job gains in the other.

But there is a deeper point: A simple story is not the same as a simplistic one. Even our little parable reveals possibilities that no amount of investigative reporting could uncover. It suggests, in particular, that what might seem to a naive commentator like a natural conclusion--if productivity growth in the steel industry reduces the number of jobs for steelworkers, then productivity growth in the economy as a whole reduces employment in the economy as a whole--may well involve a crucial fallacy of composition.

But wait--what entitles me to assume that consumer demand will rise enough to absorb all the additional production? One good answer is: Why not? If production were to double, and all that production were to be sold, then total income would double too; so why wouldn't consumption double? That is, why should there be a shortfall in consumption merely because the economy produces more?

Here again, however, there is a deeper answer. It is possible for economies to suffer from an overall inadequacy of demand--recessions do happen. However, such slumps are essentially monetary--they come about because people try in the aggregate to hold more cash than there actually is in circulation. (That insight is the essence of Keynesian economics.) And they can usually be cured by issuing more money--full stop, end of story. An overall excess of production capacity (compared to what?) has nothing at all to do with it.

Perhaps the biggest objection to my hot-dog parable is that final bit about the famous journalist. Surely, no respected figure would write a whole book on the world economy based on such a transparent fallacy. And even if he did, nobody would take him seriously.

But while the hot-dog-and-bun economy is hypothetical, the journalist is not. Rolling Stone reporter William B. Greider has just published a widely heralded new book titled One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. And his book is exactly as I have described it: a massive, panoramic description of the world economy, which piles fact upon fact (some of the crucial facts turn out to be wrong, but that is another issue) in apparent demonstration of the thesis that global supply is outrunning global demand. Alas, all the facts are irrelevant to that thesis; for they amount to no more than the demonstration that there are many industries in which growing productivity and the entry of new producers has led to a loss of traditional jobs--that is, that hot-dog production is up, but hot-dog employment is down. Nobody, it seems, warned Greider that he needed to worry about fallacies of composition, that the logic of the economy as a whole is not the same as the logic of a single market.

I think I know what Greider would answer: that while I am talking mere theory, his argument is based on the evidence. The fact, however, is that the U.S. economy has added 45 million jobs over the past 25 years--far more jobs have been added in the service sector than have been lost in manufacturing. Greider's view, if I understand it, is that this is just a reprieve--that any day now, the whole economy will start looking like the steel industry. But this is a purely theoretical prediction. And Greider's theorizing is all the more speculative and simplistic because he is an accidental theorist, a theorist despite himself--because he and his unwary readers imagine that his conclusions simply emerge from the facts, unaware that they are driven by implicit assumptions that could not survive the light of day.

Needless to say, I have little hope that the general public, or even most intellectuals, will realize what a thoroughly silly book Greider has written. After all, it looks anything but silly--it seems knowledgeable and encyclopedic, and is written in a tone of high seriousness. It strains credibility to assert the truth, which is that the main lesson one really learns from those 473 pages is how easy it is for an intelligent, earnest man to trip over his own intellectual shoelaces.

Why did it happen? Part of the answer is that Greider systematically cut himself off from the kind of advice and criticism that could have saved him from himself. His acknowledgements conspicuously do not include any competent economists--not a surprising thing, one supposes, for a man who describes economics as "not really a science so much as a value-laden form of prophecy." But I also suspect that Greider is the victim of his own earnestness. He clearly takes his subject (and himself) too seriously to play intellectual games. To test-drive an idea with seemingly trivial thought experiments, with hypothetical stories about simplified economies producing hot dogs and buns, would be beneath his dignity. And it is precisely because he is so serious that his ideas are so foolish.

Paul Krugman is a professor of economics at MIT whose books include The Age of Diminished Expectations and Peddling Prosperity.

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