Baruch the political football

James Suroweicki is using Baruch’s (rather good) line, the “undead homicidal zombie market”  as grist to his anti-anti QE2 mill.

What’s most striking about the attacks on QE2 is how hysterical they are. People aren’t just suggesting that the Fed’s policy—which is quite modest relative to the size of the U.S. economy—might be ineffective or mildly inflationary. Instead, they’re accusing the Fed of “injecting high-grade monetary heroin” into the system, pursuing a policy that “eviscerates” the middle class, and potentially giving birth to an “undead homicidal zombie market.”

The main problem with this of course, is that this last bit never happened. No-one ever accused the Fed of potentially creating an undead homicidal zombie market.

What Baruch actually wrote (my emphasis) was:

“I’m not saying we’re in an undead homicidal zombie market,”

And there we could let it lie.

Although to be fair, I did add “though we may be” as quite frankly I was not very sure of anything at that particular moment. Communicating this lack of certainty was the point of the post, which was about feeling confused and worried. But nevertheless, in the offending line above, Baruch was trying to stop going too far down the path of a metaphorical flight of fancy about undead cats. To avoid, if you like, hysteria.

So James S. has it completely arsy-versy. Clearly he hadn’t actually read Baruch’s post, and by the way James, in the unlikely event you ever read this one, if you do choose to misquote me disapprovingly the least you could do would be to drop us a link, no? Probably you have an outdated editorial policy that prevents you from doing so, but still, this is the 21st century.

Calling one’s opponents “hysterical” is, moreover, quite a cheap rhetorical shot, a debating tactic much used by Straussian neo cons and WSJ op ed writers to close off a reasoned argument they are on the wrong side of. Different words that do the same job are “partisan”, and (Baruch’s favourite) “shrill”. If someone is hysterical it is much easier to ignore the points they make. Rather, the word implies, they just need a hard slap and a good shake. The word has the stench of politics about it.

That’s the wider context here, which I think we need to put James’ article into. QE2 has become politicised, and this is a mark of just how demented US political discourse has become. Domestic bond purchase programs elsewhere don’t generally create similar levels of controversy between parties; most politicians realise their central bankers are just following through with their mandates, as the Fed clearly is, without any regard for political advantage. Baruch thinks the blame for the politicisation lays squarely at the feet of congressional republicans. He also finds it highly amusing to find himself somehow lumped in with this lot, however indirectly, as he has yet to contemplate a more priceless, ill-intentioned, irresponsible and ignorant set of economic baboons.

But the worry is that if the republican baboons don’t like QE2, then it follows that those on the other side of the aisle will start to like it, not on the basis of a reasoned weighing up of pros and cons, rather because it gives them good talking points. The result will be the vaguely uncritical lumpen thinking we see in the New Yorker article, and at its worst, an item of pragmatic economic policy which should be debated on its merits will join the pantheon of topics of almost theological controversy in the US such as abortion, gun control, flag burning and gay marriage. Pretending that QE2 is a well established economic policy without risk of externalities is frankly as absurd as saying it is an unmitigated evil.

Felix, whose own position is not far from Baruch’s, does a much better job of tackling the article in this post. As he puts it, “the weird thing is that Surowiecki and I actually agree on most of the issues here.”

Indeed. As things stand right now, Baruch is very rapidly coming to terms with QE2: not particularly astonishingly, the thing might actually be working! There are green shoots everywhere he looks , from an apparent increase in volume at transaction processing companies, to semi makers guiding for much lower seasonality in the next quarter, to positive 2011 GDP revisions by the economists, to strategists telling me to buy cyclicals, etc etc. The price of gold even dropped a bit on thursday. He is pretty optimistic, certainly much more than he was last month, when his problem was that he could see the sufficient reasons for stocks to rise (QE2), but not the efficient ones (forward EPS estimates going up). That’s been solved, confusion lifted. Things are great!

Then again, that’s exactly what I’m supposed to feel, isn’t it? There’s nothing like turning up to a party with a hangover (swearing you’ll only stay for a bit), having that first drink and realising how much fun you’re going to have if you stick around. Thoughts of a potentially much worse hangover yet to come are far away.

One response to “Baruch the political football

  1. Richard Tull

    Suroweicki is a lot like his New Yorker colleague Malcolm Gladwell. They both present what is esssentially conventional wisdom, but than add a slight twist. This is habitually viewed by the magazine’s readership, who are largely ignorant of economics, finance, and statistics, as insightful. (Or, in the case of Gladwell, genius.)

    Nice line about the Republican congressional economic posturing. I worry less about the the theological issues, which have long been drawn on party lines or are diversions, and more about the politicization of economic issues – deficit reduction, the estate tax – which the Republicans are successfully championing because the President is weak.