Since the austerity crowd won’t own up to a mistake, I will: I engaged in a kind of thought experiment last week, after we first learned that austerity economics is partly based on a spreadsheet error. I wondered, What if you were a government leader who sincerely believed those figures, or an economist who made the mistake of a lifetime?
My empathy was misplaced. This discovery hasn’t changed government policy one bit – at least not yet. Economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff seem suprisingly unremorseful. And austerity’s paid pitchmen are still hawking their wares.
It looks like we’re dealing with austerity’s “Curveballs.”
Curveball, you’ll remember, was the anonymous source who falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Bob Drogin’s Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War told that story in detail. In an interview in The American Prospect, Drogin notes that all of the CIA intelligence used to justify the Iraq War – all of it – traced back to a single, self-interested party. This fraud was also the source for Judith Miller’s highly influential (and entirely false) reporting for the New York Times.
Curveball didn’t need to prove his claims because the decision had already been made to go to war. He just needed to sound plausible enough for Miller and all the other self-interested hacks inside and outside of government.
As Drogin says in the interview, the Curveball episode was “a conspiracy of ineptitude driven by tawdry ambitions, spineless leadership, and fear.” It wasn’t that “they failed to connect the dots,” says Drogin. They “made up the dots.”
That sounds a lot like austerity economics. It flies in the face of experience and conventional economics to slash government spending during a crippling recession. But the decision had already been made by powerful and wealthy interests. It was helpful when a few individuals stepped forward with conveniently Curveball-like findings that seemed to disprove the lessons of the past.
It was hardly conclusive, but it was “plausible enough.”
There’s another important parallel between austerity and the justification for invading Iraq. “In a few cases people tried to stop things,” Drogin told The American Prospect, but:
“What I found astonishing [was] how petty and vindictive the CIA was to people who tried to speak truth to power. They were shunted aside. They were essentially exiled and told to seek psychiatric counseling. Intelligence is a cult, and these guys were heretics.”
Substitute “conservative institutions” for “CIA” and “conservatives economics” for “intelligence,” and that’s pretty much austerity economics in a nutshell.
Reinhart and Rogoff reacted to the discovery of their error with surprising cynicism and indifference. They had supposedly found a “magic number” – 90 percent – beyond which public debt began destroying a nation’s economy. But once the world learned that this false figure was literally founded on a cut-and-paste spreadsheet error, the two economists essentially shrugged their shoulders.
Their response can be boiled down to “Numbers. Shmumbers. Surely too much debt is bad, right?”
That’s like justifying a false alarm by saying “Nobody likes fires.”
I sympathized with Reinhart and Rogoff last week, wondering how it must feel to live out “those children’s nightmares where they show up in school and then realize that they’re naked.” Matthew O’Brien used exactly the same analogy in The Atlantic, writing that this was “the academic’s version of the dream where you’re naked in public.”
But afterwards I began wondering: Why had they been so careless? Millions of people use spreadsheets in our work. If a critical presentation’s coming up – to a boss, or a Board of Directors, or a big client – they double-check and triple-check our work. R and R presumably had assistants, grad students, and each other, and yet they never verified a presentation that could literally influence the fate of millions.
Why so sloppy? Because it doesn’t matter when you’re Curveball. You don’t have to be right. You don’t even have to be particularly convincing. The 2010 Reinhart and Rogoff paper certainly wasn’t. Dean Baker wondered at the time why they weren’t making their data available as is customary, especially since their findings were so unexpected and significant.
And now the impact of their work, as Nancy Folbre notes, includes “growing evidence of cruel consequences, like increased hunger among Greek children.”
It doesn’t matter. You don’t need to check your work when you’re Curveball.
There are other Curveballs of Austerity, of course. Take Erskine Bowles, who dismissed the “spreadsheet scandal” with the hilarious argument that he’s acting on “common sense and my own personal experience in both the public and private sector.” His “private sector” experience includes a role in the Clinton Administration as it aided in the Wall Street deregulation that ruined the economy, while his “private sector” experience at Morgan Stanley and on corporate boards is a litany of failed enterprises and bad business choices.
Bowles and his equally-unqualified colleague Alan Simpson continue to push for ever-more extreme austerity programs, despite the evidence (and the wreckage) all around them. They’re getting plenty of help from their comrades in the Republican Party, their collaborators in the Administration, and the media’s bumper crop of economic Judith Millers.
The opportunists of austerity are as plentiful and as shameless as their military peers were regarding Iraq, and they share the same motivations: “tawdry ambitions, spineless leadership, and fear.”
We still haven’t learned the real lesson they’ve come to teach us: As long as wealth stalks the corridors of power, life will keep throwing us curveballs.