The zombie economics of austerity in Australia (updated again)
Yesterday’s Fin ran a piece from Stephen Kirchner and Robert Carling of the Centre for Independent Studies, under the headline “Give austerity a chance” which was a pretty accurate summary of the contents. It’s paywalled, but you may be able to read it by clicking here. The piece relies almost exclusively on the work of Alberto Alesina and his colleagues, promoting the zombie idea of expansionary austerity. As I pointed out here, the most influential of these pieces by Alesina and Ardagna, is riddled with errors, at least as it applies to Australia.
Although Kirchner is a blogger himself, he and his co-author could be forgiven for missing my post. But Alesina’s work is probably the most-refuted piece of economic analysis put out (
though never published in a peer-reviewed journal) in recent decades. It’s been demolished not only by the usual suspects like Krugman and DeLong (and me), but by the Economist, the IMF and even by one of Alesina’s own co-authors, Roberto Perotti.
Charitably assuming that Kirchner and Carling had managed to miss just about every publication on the question of austerity in the last year, could they not have spent 30 seconds with Google before hitting “Send”? A search on Alesina+austerity reveals a torrent of criticism, none of which they mention.
It is hard to know which is worse – the possibility that Kirchner and Carling, presented by the CIS as expert economists, were ignorant of all this, or the alternative hypothesis that they knew it and decided not to mention it. Either way, it’s an appalling breach of elementary standards of research.
I’m pretty sure the facts have been brought to the attention of Kirchner and Carling. The honest thing to do would be to write to the Fin pointing out that the work on which they relied was, at best, highly controversial. If Kirchner, Carling and the CIS are unwilling to do this, we can draw the conclusion that they cannot be trusted in anything they write.
Update Sinclair Davidson at Catallaxy has a lengthy reply, but the sole substantive criticism is that contrary to my parenthetical remark, Alesina and Ardagna did finally publish a peer-reviewed paper in 2010. But the work that was actually influential was done back in the 1990s. I’ll republish my blog post pointing out what a shoddy job that paper in describing developments in Australia. Davidson’s piece is notable for the lack of any substantive defence of Alesina’s work, and also for this , offered in response to my observation that the research in question had been comprehensively demolished by the IMF among many others
Fancy that – cutting edge research into a highly politicised aspect of public policy is “controversial”. Does Quiggin think AFR readers are so dumb they wouldn’t realise that?
So, next time you read an opinion piece from the CIS you can safely assume the caveat lector “This research is probably discredited, the authors almost certainly know it, but, if so, they’re not going to tell you”.
No one expects opinion pieces to be “fair and balanced”, but if you are going to rely on work that has been subject to serious and credible criticism, you should at least point out the main criticisms and (if possible) say briefly why you think they don’t stand up. As an example, Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level produces some striking evidence of relationships between inequality and bad social outcomes.. This work has been subject to a lot of criticism, not fatal in my view, but enough that it needs to be mentioned. I did this when I cited the work in Zombie Economics and then at greater length here
Further update While still not disputing any of the substantive points I’ve raised, Davidson digs deeper on the question of whether the original Alesina and Ardagna work was published in a peer-reviewed journal. The work was published in Economic Papers, which does not take unsolicited submissions. Rather the editors commission pieces, or you can propose a piece to them. That is, this is, as the webpage says, a policy forum, not an academic journal. Standard practice for publications of this kind is for the editors to approve (or return for revision, or, very rarely, reject) the pieces they’ve commissioned. This isn’t peer-review in the normal sense. I’ve always assumed that Economic Papers follows the standard practice in this respect, but Davidson is welcome to check it out, if he cares enough.
As a PS, I couldn’t resist checking a 700-comment thread on the US elections. I shouldn’t link, but I will. While there is plenty of not-so-innocent amusement to be had, what struck me was that most of the commenters appear to be creationists – the handful holding up the flag for evolution are getting hammered.