On Gregory Mankiw

It’s not that he doesn’t occasionally make decent points. It’s that he’s so interested in scoring some disingenuous rhetorical blow that he fails to think much about what he’s writing, or its implications. For instance, he has questions he’d like to ask the president:

1. During your campaign, you said that under your tax plan, “no one will pay higher tax rates than they paid in the 1990s.” The House healthcare reform bill, however, raises tax rates for top earners well above the 1990s levels. In many states, the top marginal tax rate would exceed 50 percent. Do you still stand by that campaign pledge, and would you veto any bill that violates it?

2. During your campaign, you said, “The danger in a cap-and-trade system is that the permits to emit greenhouse gases are given away for free as opposed to priced at auction. One of the mistakes the Europeans made in setting up a cap-and-trade system was to give too many of those permits away.” The climate change bill now being considered in Congress does the same thing. Are you now willing to have the United States make the same mistake the Europeans made, or would you veto the bill?

Several things to note. First, that top marginal tax rate will apply to households earning over $1 million per year. I’d love to see Greg Mankiw really wrestle with the economic implications of raising that rate, as Tyler Cowen does, rather than just falling back on the baseline economic predictions. But Mankiw doesn’t do much wrestling on his blog.

Second, the next question is entirely aimed at gotcha points, since anyone familiar with the issue can tell you that: a) the original distribution of permits is irrelevant to the efficiency of the final distribution of permits or the actual reduction of carbon, which are functions of the cap and the trading mechanism, and b) Europe’s failure wasn’t about giving the permits away free, it was about having too many permits in the first place. I don’t know if Mankiw understands that the question he’s posing is nonsensical or not, but neither interpretation shines particularly well on him.

Moreover, Mankiw shows no particular interest in the actual policy at issue, or willingness to grapple with the question of second-best solutions, or recognition that policies basically never embody the theoretical ideal underlying them. He obviously understands how the sausage gets made, since he once helped make it, but on his blog he plays the political naif. You’d have to be completely ignorant of the issue to think that the Pigovian ideal would become law. Mankiw’s positioning on the climate change issue seems to indicate that anything other than a “perfect” cap-and-trade bill is veto worthy. This suggests that either he doesn’t actually care about climate change, or he does care but is willing to set aside that concern to score points by noting that the president isn’t generating the perfect economic policy. Again, neither interpretation shines particularly well on him.

Basically, Greg Mankiw is just about the least interesting economics blogger out there. I always know where he’s going to come down on an issue, and I never learn anything from his explanations of why he winds up at that position. He seems to care more about getting it Republican than getting it right, which makes for lousy econoblogging.

Comments

  1. Chi Democrat says:

    EXCELLENT point. I too think Mankiw is a smart person but you hit the nail on the head. He knows better but merely attempts to throw oil on the road.

    Pethokoukis is another (less credentialed) person who does the same thing. These folks are not trying to help the debate merely hinder it.

    The thing I have been most frustrated about since Obama came into office is the lack of engagement from the right other than to try to undercut him.

    I understand striving for power but for what purpose? Is the next person actually going to be more talented than an Obama or have a better chance to implement sound policy in a time of distress. Yet there is so little cooperation.

    It is like if they could only get Larry Kudlow in office everything would be better.

  2. mac says:

    Uh, does the Pigou Club count on “getting it Republican” rather than getting it right? If I had to think of one policy position I associated with Mankiw, that would be it.

    The climate change bill is a huge crap sandwich. 10 years ago this bill would have been unthinkable. Last year, it narrowly failed. It’s perfectly reasonable to say, “hey, lets wait 5 years, and get a better bill.” If you pass this now, you’ll institutionalize a lot of shitty policy (federal control over local zoning?) There are already a few brave Republicans sticking their necks out in favor of a carbon tax. See Jeff Flake and his cosponsor from South Carolina.

  3. bottomofthe9th says:

    Agreed. Mankiw was moderately interesting under Bush, who he was somewhat willing to criticize, but this year has been an uninteresting partisan-fest.

  4. Doug says:

    Mankiw’s blog reminds me of his textbook, but without the editorial, research and humorist staff. And I agree that intellectual dishonesty is never helpful. But where he is unwilling “to grapple with the question of second-best solutions,” I think that’s a reasonable choice for a blogger to make (and be consistent with.)

    A wise friend once told me that the whole point of a blog is to put ideas out there. Granted, my friend probably should have modified “blog” with “good” and “ideas” with “fresh.”

  5. Zach says:

    I could not agree more with this post. It’s as if you read my mind over the weekend and typed it out. I used to really enjoy Mankiw’s blog but he’s become intolerable lately.

  6. Ryan: I’ve never read Mankiw’s blog, but anytime he’s been quoted in the papers in the past several years, what I’ve read has been congruent with what I would have expected from a GOP hack.

    I guess Mankiw once was a respected economist, which must be why econbloggers like DeLong have given him the benefit of the doubt as long as they have – not by agreeing with him on any particular issue, but in assuming that his hackish idiocy on a given day was an exception, rather than the true pattern.

  7. DF says:

    Mankiw is not interested in debate, or being ingenuous, he’s interested in selling books.

  8. Mark says:

    I recall DeLong evicerating him over his economic projections at the CEA. It was epic.

  9. RN says:

    You absolutely nail it. The man represents the very worst in economics, not because of his politics, but because he’s intellectually dishonest and pathologically disingenuous.

    I agree with your point about Tyler; we need the very best thinking from the left and the right at this point, with honest, open-minded debate. Our economic future depends on it.

    Greg is truly evil because, as you imply, his goal is simply to confuse the issue, at a time when we desperately need clear thinking.

    Therefore he is not an economic blogger, he’s a political blogger making one poorly disguised intellectually dishonest argument after another.

    I went to Harvard and I’m ashamed.

  10. CBBB says:

    The fact that Mankiw’s blog doesn’t allow comments is, I think, a huge mark against him.
    I feel that comments are an integral part of a blog – you have to let people give their feedback on your posts as a way of being accountable.

  11. I wonder how all you Mankiw critics would size up Krugman.

    Since all of you are so much more transparently honest than Greg is, and therefore qualified to smack him.

  12. pkgm says:

    Agree w/ caveat bettor.

    Paul Krugman is different how?

  13. Karl Smith says:

    The man represents the very worst in economics, not because of his politics, but because he’s intellectually dishonest and pathologically disingenuous

    That someone is saying this about Greg Mankiw tells you that you have to a pretty thick skin blogging.

  14. RN says:

    “I wonder how all you Mankiw critics would size up Krugman.”

    Nice try, caveat and pkgm:

    Attempt to hijack the post and make it about Krugman.

    The post is about Greg Mankiw.

    I’ll point out that you don’t defend him against these charges. I’ll assume this is because you can’t.

  15. Matt McKnight says:

    This is a ridiculous criticism. Mankiw makes a simple point that Obama is now faced with two cases were he is potentially going to have to behave in a way that violates his campaign pledges.

    The criticism is then that Mankiw didn’t write about the further implications of those decisions. However, Mankiw’s writing is true- Obama is faced with adopting policy that I, as one of his supporters, voted for him on the promise that he was not going to pursue.

    This is the other side of the coin that Bush I violated with “No New Taxes” followed by the embarrassing “Exception that proves the rule”. Tax pledges are dangerous, and serve to diminish credibility.

    So, then we get to the heart of your criticism, the listing of the other things that you wish Mankiw would write about. I found the following the most absurd: “since anyone familiar with the issue can tell you that: a) the original distribution of permits is irrelevant to the efficiency of the final distribution of permits or the actual reduction of carbon, which are functions of the cap and the trading mechanism, and b) Europe’s failure wasn’t about giving the permits away free, it was about having too many permits in the first place.”

    You may have failed to notice that Mankiw’s post was quoting Obama as saying that Europe’s failure was about giving the permits away for free. By pointing out this contradiction where what Obama said was a mistake is what is currently proposed, the question would elicit where Obama falls on the issue. It’s a good question. It’s not meant to reflect Mankiw’s position.

    It is a mistake to view these issues as Democrat v. Republican, and your oversimplification is simply another form.

    To criticize an economist on his failure to expound on every issue in a single blog post seems like a very weak criticism. Mankiw has many original ideas. For example, I have found Mankiw’s arguments for how the public plan option could be structured as a non-profit enlightening as to the risks of the measure.

  16. Phil Rothman says:

    So, Greg Mankiw, the non-wrestling-with-issues econblogger, specializes in ‘gotcha points’ and ‘hackish idiocy.’ If logic and consistency are sufficiently foolish such that they are hobgoblins for you, it certainly makes sense to ignore what this ‘once … respected economist’ has to say.

  17. Paul says:

    Dear Ryan,

    I would have edited out the last few sentences were I you. It detracts from your semi valid points and makes it seem as if you have a case of “blog envy”.

    Secondly, Mankiw’s blog is meant to be ACCESSIBLE. Those interested in the econometrics of his ideas can easily find them in his papers. The simple fact that Mankiw’s actually has research that backs up his assertions, unlike 99.999% of most bloggers, is the reason (along with Econ profs telling their classes in every dept across America) his blog is so popular.

    Regards,
    Paul

  18. a says:

    “he’s so interested in scoring some disingenuous rhetorical blow that he fails to think much about what he’s writing”

    Perhaps Mankiw is the worst of the bunch, but my impression (FWIW, which admittedly isn’t much) is that economists are basically engaged in one giant pissing contest to prove who has the biggest intellectual dick. Mankiw at least doesn’t have a tendency to call his opponents “stupid”.

  19. Noah says:

    Wow, this post P0WNs Mankiw. I wuv it.

  20. I think the issue is on economics and and nt on people and their point of view. we all have the right to desagree on something. the only thing I can blame at Greg is the fact that he does’nt let people express their view on his blog.

  21. Michael CArroll says:

    Difference between Krugman and Mankiw?

    Krugman’s Blog – Comments

    Mankiw’s Blog – No Comments

  22. rana says:

    The problem with Mankiw’s “gotcha” questions is that, for example, he implies that giving away the permits is a sufficiently bad that the bill should be vetoed. But he offers no analysis to support such a view. And as others have noted, giving away permits is not a big deal when it comes to efficiency, especially when compared to Obama’s plan to return the money through spending and infra-marginal tax cuts. Mankiw, can claim that he did not say that the the bill should be vetoed, but that would just lend support to the view that he is a disingenuous hack.

  23. Mike says:

    Ryan, it’s absurd that you would call Mankiw’s second question nonsensical. What’s nonsensical is your notes about his question. First you write, “the original distribution of permits is irrelevant to the efficiency of the final distribution of permits or the actual reduction of carbon, which are functions of the cap and the trading mechanism.”

    You mean you could distribute all the permits to one person and still reach an efficient outcome. Obviously you’re right. I stress obviously because every economist knows, including Mankiw, that it’s not about the distribution, its about the number of permits distributed. So I don’t know why you waste time addressing this point.

    Let’s continue with your enlightening notes.

    Second, you write, “Europe’s failure wasn’t about giving the permits away free, it was about having too many permits in the first place.”

    Obviously you’re right again. Pat yourself on the back. Maybe your aware of this fact because its stated in Mankiw’s original question:

    During your campaign, you said, “The danger in a cap-and-trade system is that the permits to emit greenhouse gases are given away for free as opposed to priced at auction. One of the mistakes the Europeans made in setting up a cap-and-trade system was to give too many of those permits away.”

    And you’re wrong, Europe’s problem was about giving the permits away for free. There would be nothing wrong with giving the permits away for free if you could determine the correct number to give away. The problem is no one can determine this number. So giving away the permits for free is problematic. Selling the permits and utilizing the market is the only way to provide the appropriate supply. The Obama administration knows this yet is ignoring this fact in the current climate bill. This is what Mankiw’s questioning.

  24. howard says:

    during greg mankiw’s time in the bush administration, said administration made a large number of economic claims that were simply not true. and mankiw didn’t resign in protest or in any way, shape, or form defend economic honesty.

    and now he poses as a great truth teller.

    what a jerk.

    i’m reminded, when it comes to mankiw, of a story i’ve told many times on blogs. in the late ’60s, when i was an adolescent, i was watching firing line one night with my (very liberal) mother, and she said “boy that bill buckley is smart.”

    “no mom,” i said, “he’s articulate. if he were smart, he wouldn’t say so many dumb things.”

    greg mankiw says a lot of dumb things.

  25. Paul Schulstad says:

    Lost in Brad DeLong’s attack on Mankiw is that that Mankiw is correct in pointing out that Obama has walked away from important campaign promises. Liberals ignore this issue at their peril because American voters are starting to realize that there is a chasm between Obama’s lofty campaign rhetoric and the reality of how is acting as president. The non-stimulating stimulus bill is only the most obvious piece of evidence.

  26. howard says:

    paul schulstad: compare the stimulus bill obama offered to the one that passed and then explain to us again how it’s obama who weakened the stimulus: one would really like to know how he magically made senators change the terms without leaving any fingerprints.

    this puts aside that obama didn’t campaign on a stimulus.

    eventually, in short, you might get to a claim that makes sense, but you haven’t yet.

  27. MPO says:

    “Greg is truly evil because, as you imply, his goal is simply to confuse the issue, at a time when we desperately need clear thinking.”

    That sounds terrible. Not at all like reading Krugman or DeLong for the past 8 years.

    “Therefore he is not an economic blogger, he’s a political blogger making one poorly disguised intellectually dishonest argument after another.”

    That sounds terrible. Not at all like reading Krugman or DeLong for the past 8 years.

    “The fact that Mankiw’s blog doesn’t allow comments is, I think, a huge mark against him.”

    I think it says much more about the quantity of vitriol and energy behind spreading that vitriol found in his ideological opponents. But take comfort, one explanation for left-wing posters’ tendency to deluge commentators with hate in degrees and quantities that would make the Venezuelan and North Korean governments blush could be that right-wingers are too stupid to operate computers in large enough numbers to produce the same effect.

    “I feel that comments are an integral part of a blog – you have to let people give their feedback on your posts as a way of being accountable.”

    No, you don’t. Blogging isn’t about author accountability. Many blogs allow comments, but you have to pass their moderation before the comment appears. Many others allow comments and, really, probably shouldn’t due to the sheer amount of traffic and the tendency of comment threads to become circle jerks or flame wars. Even many major online news sources do not allow comments on their stories, and that – that – is where accountability should be a necessity.

    “The post is about Greg Mankiw.”

    That’s not how the game works. Didn’t someone else lambasting Mankiw just claim that comments were about “accountability”? If Mankiw is being attacked as a disingenuous partisan hack more interested in rhetoric than clear and objective discourse, then it is perfectly valid to cite the king of this behavior (Krugman) and the less publically known but often much more transparently partisan and blindered DeLong, who spends a curious amount of time openly flaming people.

    For the record, I _did_ vote for Obama (the pick of Palin was too much, and I simply don’t trust McCain’s business and economic instincts), and I do not read Mankiw regularly except as I also read Krugman and DeLong and roughly a dozen or so other econ blogs – daily, but in varying rotations. I’m not a fan of Mankiw, but articles and comment threads like these, particularly when contributors insist that it’s because he’s not “clear-minded” and objective enough for them, are mind-boggling and, honestly, depressing. It’s like listening to conservatives and liberals arguing that, say, Hannity and Olbermann are not two peas in a pod. Each side is convinced that their mouthpieces are largely in the right, even when they’re behaving in exactly the same ideologically blindered manner. And, sadly, on a blog ostensibly full of educated people who should know better, this topic and comment thread are exactly – exactly – the same thing.

  28. RN, I’m not above defending others, even those who can aptly defend themselves. But Ryan is generally a blogger I respect (sort of like Felix Salmon, his predecessor in a way). My point in my comment above is that he might be stooping even below the dubious watermark to which he accuses Mankiw.

  29. DM says:

    This post is completely understandable given you’re not a Mankiw fan… but what’s wrong with calling politicians on their campaign promises? Whether given away or auctioning permits is better or worse is irrelevant…. Obama made a point to emphasize that permits should be auctions. Why? Either he seemed to think it important, contrary to Ryan’s view, or he was just lying to win votes? Regardless, politicians should be accountable to their campaign promises, even when they’re on your side.

  30. willybobo says:

    He seems to care more about getting it Republican than getting it right…

    Um, doesn’t that just mean he’s a Republican? I mean that seriously. The Republican political strategy does not seem to ever be about engaging in policy questions and getting those right, but about blocking things they don’t like in order to advance Republican rhetorical principles.

    I mean, can you point to any prominent Republican bloggers who are outlining serious policy proposals around health care, around climate change, around unemployment… I don’t think the Republican approach is to say, “the public wants universal health care, let’s figure out how to do that without creating a solution that’s worse than the problem.” They just say, “universal health care is a Democrat priority. Let’s stop them!”

  31. Dave says:

    The individual example given here is not a great one, but the thrust of the post is correct. Mankiw has an annoying preference for needling over argumentation, and, on those occasions when he does attempt argumentation, he typically ignores glaringly obvious counterarguments.

    I’m with others here that his blog would be greatly improved by comments. For one, it would render his readers less susceptible to half-baked thinking. But I think it would also force him to increase the quality of his posts. Like it or not, if you’re a prominent economist, as Mankiw is, your blog posts will be taken seriously no matter how ill-conceived they are. It’s unfortunate, then, that his posts end up being such a mixed bag.

  32. Mankiw had his comments from the inception of his blog in March 2006 until October 2007.

    His explanation of disabling comments can be found here:

    http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2007/10/why-comments-are-gone.html

    And unlike Brad DeLong, Greg wasn’t able to police his blog via outright censorship. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Just post a polite comment eviscerating Brad’s underlying arguments, and see if it lasts for even an hour on his blog.

    If Ryan’s notoriety increases, he may ironically need to go the way of Brad or Greg himself. I’d keep my options open; I constantly find them to be scarce.

  33. Stephen says:

    This is grossly unfair to Professor Mankiw, who has consistently and coherently argued in favor of either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade-with-auctioned permits for quite a long time now, and has provided the intellectual meat for these arguments elsewhere on his blog.

    In particular, if you had read Mankiw’s other arguments, you would know that he sees Pigouvian taxes as a good opportunity to raise government revenues efficiently. He sees that revenue generation as a very important part of any such bill. He may not make that point in this particular post, but he makes it very frequently. It seems both unfair and inefficient to expect bloggers to completely repeat all their arguments in every post.

  34. David says:

    I agree with comment 15. This original post completely misses Mankiw’s point.

  35. Robert Johnston says:

    He seems to care more about getting it Republican than getting it right…

    “Um, doesn’t that just mean he’s a Republican?”

    What it means is that Mankiw is not an economist. Really, that much is pretty obvious. There’s just no intellectual honesty there.

    That also, by the way, is the difference between Mankiw and Krugman. It really does just come down to the fact that, whether or not you agree with him, Krugman makes intellectually consistent and defensible arguments based on empirical reality, while Mankiw simply doesn’t. There is a complete lack of empiricism in Mankiw’s posts, the ones at issue here being typical. Mankiw is a second rate game theorist who blogs about being a Republican; he’s in no way, shape, or form an economist.

  36. Tim says:

    //Europe’s failure wasn’t about giving the permits away free, it was about having too many permits in the first place.//

    Hold the phone. I may be a moron, but I think I can figure this one out using basic Econ 101: Could it be that giving away free carbon permits might–gasp–involve larger amounts of carbon permits than auctioning them off? Especially if–less surprised gasp–the government over estimates the proper amount of permits to give away?

    What is it with ad hominem attacks on Mankiw these days? It’s getting to the point where we may as well call it a Mankiw attack (at least within economics).

    In which case, Paul Krugman and Bradley DeLong are some of the biggest Mankiw-ers I know of.

  37. Doug says:

    Not really, Tim. The marginal cost of an extra credit will be the expected return on the emission. If you give 90% free the last one costs the same as if you charged for the rest, which means it will provide the same incentive not to emit that extra unit of CO2.

    However, the whole system by which the price efficiently incents green improvements probably will get distorted all to Hades.

  38. Tim says:

    Good point. I figured a set supply that was above what was in fact environmentally sound would still result in too many permits (and I still think it would). But not necessarily too much production, I suppose (though I still think it could).

    I still don’t like the giving away of permits proposal not so much because of efficiency (I could care less, and it’s probably not a large factor anyway), but because I have big questions about who gets the permits, who gives them out, the subsequent effects on competition (like centralization), etc.

  39. JT says:

    Mankiw has repeatedly pointed out over the years that he is following Milton Friedman’s personal philosophy that:
    “The role of the economist in discussions of public policy seems to me to be to prescribe what should be done in light of what can be done, politics aside, and not to predict what is ‘politically feasible’ and then to recommend it.”
    link

  40. JT says:

    In other words, Mankiw isn’t going to use his blog to promote “the good” but only “the perfect.” Aim for the perfect you’re more likely to get the good.

  41. FDS says:

    What accounts for the insane rage towards mild-mannered mainstream economist Greg Mankiw? MPO in comment #27 says all that needs to be said about this. Greg Mankiw is a decent guy who has written a good text book and, in the eyes of the left, did the unforgivable: he worked for George Bush. All this complaining about how he is disingenuous or he doesn’t allow comments is just a cover for the juvenile rage that animates the left. I go to Greg’s blog every day. I recommend it to others. I also go to the blogs of Krugman and DeLong. Whereas Paul and Brad think it is their right to trash, in highly personal tones, those with whom they disagree, Greg is always civil. Mankiw is a star. He’s not going away. All of you maniacs gleefuly anticipating a “Mankiw Death Watch” should really grow up.

  42. JTapp says:

    Wow, my first comment was deleted here? I was simply pointing out that Mankiw always argues for the optimal, which a lot of economists including Brad Delong (see his recent post here, scroll to bottom about the Samwickian fallacy) think is the role of economists. They argue for the perfect, not the good.
    Brad Delong on the subject.

    So, I find it ironic that Delong linked to this post where the author is criticizing an aspect of Mankiw’s blog that DeLong thinks is okay for economists. blog seems to

  43. ryan says:

    JTapp, the spam filter may have eaten your comment, but I didn’t intentionally delete it. I let through everything that isn’t spam.