How long is the short run? Felix Salmon:
Krugman vs Summers: The debate: The motion was that “North America faces a Japan-style era of high unemployment and slow growth”; Paul Krugman was arguing for it, while Larry Summers was arguing against. Krugman found himself with the home-team advantage through being paired with Canadian economist David Rosenberg; Summers had strong rhetorical backup from Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer. But at heart, this was Krugman vs Summers…. This debate, because it took place within a basically Keynesian, leftist worldview, was very interesting. Both Krugman and Summers spent a lot of time saying that they agreed with each other — with one big difference. They both quoted Keynes as diagnosing “magneto trouble” — the engine of the economy is broken, and it needs to be fixed. Summers has faith that, in Churchill’s phrase, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities” — the right thing, here, being to fix the magneto with expansionary fiscal and monetary policy. Krugman, by contrast, sees political gridlock as far as the eye can see, and says that it doesn’t matter how innovative or philanthropic or demographically attractive the U.S. is — if you don’t fix the magneto, the car won’t start, and America’s magneto ain’t gonna get fixed any time soon.
Economically speaking, the Nobel laureate largely had the better of the technocrat. We’re already four years from the beginning of the U.S. recession, and we’ve certainly been going nowhere over that time — the question isn’t whether the economy is lost, so much as whether there’s something which can help it back onto its feet in the next few years….
Bremmer had one theme, and he was sticking to it: the U.S. might be in a mess, but it has stronger fundamentals than other regions, especially Europe and Japan. But Bremmer never explained how being not-as-bad-as-Europe was going to help drag the U.S. out of its current slump….
Summers really is a formidable debater. He met Krugman’s gridlock argument head-on, saying that Barack Obama’s legislative achievements in 2009-10 were greater than those in any two year period since 1965-66, or possibly even 1933-34. And in his concluding remarks, he declared that “things are never as bad as you think they are when things are bad”, adding optimistically — and accurately — that in politics, “the transition from inconceivable to inevitable can be very rapid”. Summers’s optimistic sentiment went down well with the well-heeled Toronto crowd….
[H]ost Rudyard Griffiths declared a “technical victory” for Summers and Bremmer. They didn’t win a majority of the votes — in fact, they were beaten by Krugman and Rosenberg, 45% to 55%. But Krugman and Rosenberg started the debate with 55% support, while Summers and Bremmer started with just 25%: basically, the undecideds all plumped for Summers over Krugman.
As for me, I entered the debate torn, and I exited it that way as well….
[T]he Krugman-Rosenberg teams couldn’t even agree on the analysis: while Krugman was convinced that a bunch of borrowing and spending would fix what ails the economy, Rosenberg was convinced that we’re at the beginning of a massive deleveraging and that you can’t fix an over-indebted economy by piling even more debt onto it.
Krugman is certainly outside the economic consensus, and while that doesn’t mean he’s wrong, it’s certainly prima facie reason to be skeptical about his analysis. Besides, Krugman’s been so pessimistic for so long, now, that it’s almost impossible to imagine what kind of evidence could get him to change his mind and declare that we’re not headed for a lost decade after all. Summers, by contrast, doesn’t think in forecasts so much as in probability distributions — a much less constricting way of thinking.
So, do I think that North America faces a Japan-style era of high unemployment and slow growth? I’ll agree with Summers and Krugman on this one: yes, it does. Will it manage to do what’s necessary to avoid that fate? That’s something no one can know with any certainty. But life’s certainly a lot easier if you believe that it will.