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.

Not Lake Wobegon

I haven’t been paying much attention to the Oz since it went behind the paywall, but I happened to pick up a copy of today’s paper edition, and came across a fascinating piece by Christian Kerr (who, IIRC, used to write for Crikey as “Hillary Bray”). Trying to talk up public opposition to equal marriage as a reason for Labor hesitancy to push hard on the issue, he cites a survey showing that around 25 per cent of Australians agree with the proposition homosexuality is immoral. Conscious that 25 per cent is, well, a minority, he decides to look at individual electorates.

What’s really striking is Kerr’s discovery that ‘In 80 of the 150 federal electorates, an above-average number of people support the proposition’. I did some quick math of my own, and it turns out that 80 is almost exactly half of 150. So, next time you see a sample estimate that doesn’t suit your case, be sure to check subsamples. You, too, may find that half of them are above the average.

Further adventures on Intrade

As I mentioned last time I wrote about my adventures on Intrade, I’m sceptical of the claim, a special case of the (semi-strong version of the) Efficient Markets Hypothesis, that the odds in betting markets provide the best estimate of the probability of political outcomes. I managed to double my small stake betting on Newt Gingrich, and might have made more if I had not overestimated the efficiency with which the Republican electorate processes information. I sold on the news of his work for Fannie Mae, and thereby missed the peak of the market when he won South Carolina.

Having made my point and learned a bit about the practical operation of markets, I meant to cash out my winnings, but that turned out to be a complicated process, and I couldn’t resist another flutter. Rick Santorum was trading at 100-1, and while I didn’t think much of his chances, those are pretty good odds in a four-horse race, especially one with no particularly attractive candidates.

He’s now 17.9 per cent (nearly 4-1 in the old language, if I recall it correctly), so I’ve now made a pretty substantial gain. There’s a bit of a cognitive consistency problem here – I didn’t really mean to make money backing Santorum, so now I need some suggestions as to an appropriate use for the money, one which would offset any damage done by backing him when he was down where he belonged. Orientation can be US, Australian or global.



Expansionary austerity: some shoddy scholarship (repost)

I’ve just read ‘Tales of Fiscal Adjustment’ by Alesina and Ardagna, which appears to be the founding text for the idea of expansionary austerity. The level of scholarship, at least as it applies to Australia (which is their first illustration) is exceptionally poor, to the extent that it requires a rescuscitation of the ancient Internet tradition of Fisking. I’m going to quote excerpts from their text (about 50 per cent of the total), and intersperse them with my comments.

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Startling news from the polls

In a piece that pretty much writes off Julia Gillard as PM, Laurie Oakes reports

ALP polling has produced a finding that has startled those around the prime minister.

It shows that, while only 30 per cent of voters plan to vote for the Gillard Government, 38 per cent describe themselves as Labor people.

The conclusion drawn from this is that the Government has to be seen as ‘more Labor’. It has to show more concern about, and become more identified with, things that are regarded as `Labor issues

Wow, how could anyone have predicted that?

Republican idiocracy

As usual with my Fin columns, Catallaxy was straight out of the gate with a response yesterday. It was perhaps unsurprising as my piece mentioned climate change, and the Catallaxy crew includes a self-described “prominent scientist”, Alan Moran, a signatory of public letters attacking mainstream climate science.

In Catallaxy terms, however, Moran seems to be the designated hitter for those occasions when I write about the US political scene. Last time out, he was criticising me for “anointing” Romney as the likely winner – he preferred to discuss the bold tax plans of Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Now, he’s upset that I’ve “anointed” Jon Huntsman as the only Republican contender who seemed likely to beat Obama, ruled out because of his heretical (that is, pro-science) views on climate change.

Anyway, the column is over the fold.

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