Adam Davidson, Donald Trump, economics, economists, Federal Reserve, Financial Crisis, Following Up, Global Imbalances, Great Recession, Janet Yellen, Korea, Peter Navarro, The New Yorker, TPP, Trade, Trans-Pacific Partnership
A fascinating and revealing coda has just been provided to my brief brush with fame last week, when The New Yorker deemed my views on trade issues not worthy of consideration. And the source was, of all people, Fed Chair Janet Yellen.
As I wrote on October 13, in a profile of Donald Trump economic adviser Peter Navarro, New Yorker writer Adam Davidson made clear that he considered one glaring weakness of the Republican candidate’s views on trade and other economic policies to be their lack of support among professional economists. As a result, Davidson was completely unimpressed when Navarro noted that I have endorsed them in general – since I lack an economics degree. Nor was his interest piqued when I reminded him by email that my predictions about the outcomes of major trade policy initiatives, like admitting China into the World Trade Organization, were much more accurate than those of most Ph.Ds .
Enter Chair Yellen. In a speech in Boston the very next day, she focused on “some ways in which the events of the past few years [since the outbreak of the financial crisis and Great Recession] have revealed limits in economists’ understanding of the economy….” And despite her understatement, these limits look awfully important. The subjects to which they apply include how demand influences supply, the makeup of the groups of actors economists study (which these scholars’ models assume are completely homogeneous), how finance affects the real economy, and “what determines inflation.”
Indeed, Yellen’s list raises the question of where economists’ knowledge really is solid – at least in terms of ideas that affect economies’ performance in the real world. And so does the economy’s abysmal performance on net since the outbreak of a near-financial cataclysm that virtually none of its members foresaw.
Yellen did add an international question that she believes deserves much more research: how changes in American monetary policy affect the rest of the world and then feed back to the United States. But even though other aspects of the nation’s relationship with the global economy strictly speaking don’t fall under the Fed’s purview, she still might have noted that major gaps still exist in her profession’s understanding of international trade.
Even more disturbing: Although the trade-fueled global imbalances that built up during the bubble decade have been identified as bearing great responsibility for the crisis’ outbreak, as Davidson’s attitude suggests, international commerce is the one area of economics where no significant thinking has been called for at all since the disaster. Indeed, judging from the reactions to Trump’s trade proposals, the conventional wisdom is more entrenched than ever.
Of course, none of this is to say that economists know nothing useful, whether on trade or elsewhere. But with evidence that those global imbalances are once again nearing pre-crisis peaks (albeit with a somewhat different composition), and with President Obama seemingly more determined than ever to win passage of a trade agreement (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) modeled on a Korea deal that has supercharged the U.S. merchandise deficit, you’d think that both economists and journalists would react to proposals for fundamentally new approaches with at least minimal humility.