The best of Paul Krugman vs Reddit

Nobel prize-winning economist fields questions from "The Front Page of the Internet". What could go

Paul Krugman has a new book coming out, which means he is doing a lot of thing that one doesn't normally see from a Nobel Prize-winning economist. First he debated Ron Paul on Bloomberg TV, including a bizarre interlude involving inflation in third-century Rome. Then yesterday, he did a question and answer session with Reddit, the hugely popular social news site which brands itself "The Front Page of the Internet".

Under the headline IamA Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, Krugman – username nytimeskrugman – spent a couple of hours answering questions from Reddit users. Here are some of his best answers.

Responding to user sychosomat, who asked about the problems caused by the inability to perform experiments in economics, Krugman wrote:

Well, not being able to do experiments is a problem, but not as bad as all that. We do have statistical techniques for trying to sort out what's going on, although I'm skeptical about their power. But mainly we can look for "natural experiments", which often tell you a lot. In End This Depression I talk about how wars provide a natural experiment on fiscal policy; right now forced austerity in Europe is providing another set of natural experiments.

You may ask whether both sides in every debate won't nonetheless find ways to support their positions. My answer here is that this is not, in fact, happening. On the question of whether austerity is expansionary or contractionary, we had some alleged evidence for expansionary effects, but it was quickly shot down by the normal process of scholarly discussion. In any normal scientific debate, this would now be a settled issue.

I guess that what I'm saying here is that while the non-experimental nature of economics is an issue, the apparent inability to resolve differences that you see right now is about politics, not the inherent problems of the discipline.

Cthwaites asked how close we are to repeating the mistake in 1925, when Britain returned to the gold standard for seven disastrous years. Kurgman:

All around Europe's periphery they're doing it as we speak, er, type. The euro has served as the functional equivalent of the gold standard.

The difference for, say, Spain is that since they don't have their own currency, it's much harder to change course than it would have been for Britain under gold. But if you look at, say, Latvia, they're doing the full Churchill -- and being hailed as a role model even as they enforce a devastating slump on themselves.

Asked by Curbsidejohnman to give the best argument against austerity, Krugman replied:

I think it is to point out that if nobody is buying, nobody can sell. Austerity in a depressed economy makes the depression deeper, and that is, I believe, a point people can grasp. Of course, it's a point made easier to grasp now that the Irish and others have given us such clear examples of how bad the results of austerity can be.

Bloometal asked about Krugman's views on behavioural economics. Krugman wrote:

I think there's a lot of very good work in behavioral econ. But I don't expect a unified theory for many, many years. There are just two many ways the assumption of perfect rationality can fail, and I don't think we have enough broader understanding to put it all in one package.

That said, we can use behavioral econ even as it is, as long as we're modest about modeling. As long as we are prepared to say "this is how people actually seem to behave" without demanding general theorems -- for example the obvious reluctance to accept nominal wage cuts -- we can go a long way toward analyzing real-world issue in a way that can guide both prediction and policy.

Finally, one of Krugman's answers which works best without any context:

Shave around it every day, and get your wife to clip it fairly often.

(Oh all right, he was talking about his beard)

Photograph: Getty Images/Reddit.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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