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The Debate Over Public Debt

In response to:

How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled from the June 6, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of books by Mark Blyth, Neil Irwin, and David A. Stockman [NYR, June 6], New York Times columnist Professor Paul Krugman continues his attack on me and Carmen Reinhart. Never mind that only one of the three books even mentions us. This is no obstacle to Krugman’s relentless campaign narrowly to circumscribe and grossly to misrepresent our research and its influence. His goal seems to be to paint us as extremists whose work is only referred to by conservatives. In reality, our long-standing position has been as centrists in the economic policy debate.

One would never know from Krugman’s writings that our studies on the history of financial crises helped provide the intellectual basis for the 2012 Obama campaign’s claim that the president’s policies were not the main cause of the long, slow recovery. Bill Clinton made frequent and extensive references to our 2009 book This Time Is Different, for example, in campaign speeches on October 29 and November 1. By contrast, the Romney-Ryan campaign routinely dismissed our results in press briefings by its top economists.

This is hardly a two-way debate on a level playing field. Between April 16 and May 19, when Krugman’s New York Review piece was posted, Krugman had already attacked us in over two dozen print and online pieces in his influential New York Times column, with its million-plus Twitter followers. This is not counting his many appearances on television, and articles since. Oddly, Krugman has never once cited the 2012 paper that is our most important statement on the relationship between debt and growth,1 or our favored 2010 analogy with speed limits and driving accidents.2

By contrast, Reinhart and I have never referenced Krugman, save for an occasional passing compliment to his earlier brilliant academic research. We broke our silence only in a May 25 open letter after Krugman’s baseless and grotesque charge that we did not share data for a 2010 conference proceedings paper, a charge we thoroughly refute in our letter. (Never mind that the proceedings did not require posting of data and, out of several dozen papers, we seem to have been one of a handful to do so.) Our letter also contained an extensive media appendix where we documented our long-standing advocacy of debt write-downs for periphery Europe, support for large-scale infrastructure spending, hyperaggressive monetary easing, etc. Superhawks? Hardly.

Our mainstream views can only be made to seem ultra-conservative next to what Columbia Professor Jeffrey Sachs (in a March 9 critique) has labeled Professor Krugman’s “crude Keynesianism.” Sachs, like many economists, is concerned by unsustainable long-term public debt trajectories.

Balanced, rational discourse may not attract as many blog followers as unilateral assault, but it provides a far better environment for constructive policy debate.

Kenneth Rogoff
Professor of Economics
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Paul Krugman replies:

Mr. Rogoff and Ms. Reinhart seem to have misunderstood the nature of this discussion. I have never attacked them as individuals, and have often praised their earlier work. However, their claim that severe negative consequences follow when public debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP has had an enormous, malign impact on policy discussion. It doesn’t matter whether they themselves are policy hard-liners; the alleged result was out there—and despite important questions raised about their claims from the beginning, they did nothing, as far as anyone can tell, to dissuade others from citing their work on behalf of harsh austerity policies.

I’m sorry if they feel mistreated—but this is about policy, not about personal feelings, theirs or mine.

  1. 1

    “Public Debt Overhangs: Advanced-Economy Episodes Since 1800,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Summer 2012. 

  2. 2

    “Debt and Growth Revisited,” VoxEU.org, August 2010. 

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