It’s been many years since I’ve read The New York Times. Like most readers, I got discouraged by the shrinking page size, the self-confident erroneousness that becomes apparent whenever America's newspaper of record covers a topic I’m familiar with, and the lack of a comics page. Sure there are occasions when you can’t avoid it—usually when enough people are complaining about an article or when somebody I know is in the paper—but on a daily basis I follow the golden rule that life is just too short for The New York Times.
So imagine my surprise the other day when, challenged by a third-world Internet connection and enticed by an old-school six-column page width, I picked up a $2.65 copy of the International Herald Tribune, which partially reprints The New York Times, only to discover that the paper a) no longer bundles that day’s edition of the Beirut Daily Star (my actual purpose in buying it), b) has jettisoned the last memory of its fabled Big Apple namesake by calling itself “The Global Edition of The New York Times” and c) features the kind of groupthink rarely seen outside a French parochial school.
While the rest of hyperconnected, interweb-powered planet Earth has now seen Keynesian economic intervention tested in real time and discredited beyond any intelligent doubt, the Times, I quickly learned, is a walled garden where the ideas of John Maynard Keynes remain not only viable but so evidently true as to require no factual support.
You may know Keynes as the brilliant mid-20th century economist whose general theory of employment was said to have undergone a revival in 2008, though in fact it had never gone away. You won’t know Keynes very well from reading the Times, but only in the sense that you won’t know Christianity very well if you never meet any non-Christians. Economic intervention is the air the Grey Lady breathes. In the opinion pages of the edition I looked at, perennially perturbed Nobel laureate Paul Krugman decries the “so-called urgent need to reduce deficits” and asserts without documentation that a “real response” to the global correction must involve precisely the medicine that has so far proven ineffective: stimulus for infrastructure and government schools, taxpayer-funded payoffs for mortgage deadbeats, and an “all-out effort” by the wildly popular Federal Reserve.
In a business column, It’s a Wonderful Life star James Stewart compares 2011 with 1938, briefly debating whether Depression-era stimulus saved the economy or would have saved the economy if it were larger. Stewart ultimately decides that Franklin Roosevelt’s spending cuts (prompted, naturally, by “strident calls” from Republican dead-enders) doomed a nascent recovery. Humorously, Stewart quotes disgraced former CEA head Christina Romer’s two-year-old warning against “the urge to declare victory”—leaving readers to puzzle over what economic policy from 2009 could possibly have been considered a victory.
In another opinion page column on “outrage,” somebody named Roger Cohen laments the plunging stock markets’ effect on Europe’s August vacation schedule while chastising Germany for growing “tired of others’ problems” and turning “parochial at the very moment its leadership is needed.” Cohen accounts for Germany's relatively strong economic position by noting that the country has “invested in a highly educated workforce” and also “fostered cooperation between labor unions and employers and between industrialists and the government in defense of German jobs.” Missing from this equation is Germany’s longstanding aversion to inflation, which has frequently placed communist-educated Chancellor Angela Merkel to the right of the American president on economic matters.
And in a front-page “News Analysis” (praise Allah we can still count on those!), reporter Jackie Calmes warns that despite the “boasts of Republicans” who may or may not have mildly slowed the growth of federal spending during the debt-ceiling compromise, “well-known economists, financial analysts and corporate leaders, including some Republicans…are expressing increasing alarm about Washington’s new austerity.” Not to be outdone by Stewart’s citation of the career-dead Romer, Calmes brings in an actual corpse: cadaverous former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, whose panicked, catastrophic response to 2008’s years-overdue financial correction should have disqualified him from commenting on anything more complicated than the Peterson Field Guide to Birds.
Even in the truncated version of the Times available in the IHT, there’s plenty more like that, including this extended metaphor from Pimco’s Bill Gross: “An anti-Keynesian, budget-balancing immediacy imparts a constrictive noose around whatever demand remains alive and kicking.” Nowhere in the percentage of the paper I finished (unlike the stingy Times, IHT carries the Jumble) was there any room for the anti-Keynesian sentiments the paper’s news and opinion sections continually referred to without ever engaging. At no point did anybody ask the questions the rest of us have had to contend with for more than three years now:
Is it possible that the choice between budget-balancing and job creation is a false choice?
Is there any reason to believe at least $2 trillion in fiscal stimulus and $2.9 trillion in monetary stimulus since 2008 have made a positive difference in the economy—especially considering that most economic indicators are worse than the worst-case scenarios that were made public when those spending decisions were approved?
And how many times can the Keynesian consensus fail the test of outcomes before it goes away for good?
Outside the airless chambers of the Times’ fancy new headquarters (half of which the company had to sell at a fire-sale price just two years ago after completing the building), these questions have been active for some time now. I’ve been documenting the advent of the “true Keynesian” argument, in which acolytes claim the problem is not with the First Baron’s theories but with a reality that doesn't fit them. Krugman, the doctor, attempted something like this the other day in this blog post accusing anti-Keynesians of misstating the master’s theories.
That’s a fair complaint, and Keynesian theory is considerably more nuanced than the cartoon version favored by both contemporary followers (who among other things ignore the admonition to reduce deficits during economic booms) and detractors (who tend to believe any waste of public money qualifies as Keynesian stimulus).