Greg Mankiw: When the Columnist Misframes the Issue

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Sunday, 23 March 2014 05:44

In his column "when the scientist is also a philosopher," Greg Mankiw tells us about his preference for not having the government interfere in consensual exchanges between individuals. He warns readers that economists who advocate such interventions also have a political philosophy about achieving certain outcomes (i.e. less inequality).

The wisdom of not interfering with consensual exchanges implies that is possible to have exchanges in which the government has not already played a huge role in setting the terms of the exchange. This is clearly not true.

For example, the number of jobs is very directly determined by government policy. We would have millions more jobs in the economy today if the government had not decided to run a high unemployment policy by reducing the size of the budget deficit. One can argue for the merits of deficit reduction, but this was a political choice where a lower deficit number was judged to be more important than letting millions of people have jobs.

In the same vein, we could have pursued policies to get the trade deficit closer to balance. If we had emphasized reducing the value of the dollar in our negotiations with trading partners, instead of things like patent protection for prescription drugs, copyright protection for Microsoft and Hollywood, and access to financial markets for Goldman Sachs, we would also have millions more people employed.

Furthermore, we could have structured trade agreements to put our doctors and lawyers in direct competition with their counterparts in the developing world (who would train to our standards) then globalization would not have been a factor increasing inequality. Instead it would have brought down the wages of the most highly skilled workers, while producing huge economic gains by lowering the cost of health care and other services. This would also have improved the bargaining situation of most of the workforce at the expense of business.

Mankiw is misleading readers by implying that we have the option to have consensual exchanges that are not shaped in very large ways by the government. (This is the topic of my free book, The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive.) In the last three decades, most of that shaping has been done to redistribute income upward.