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I am usually silent on controversial current affairs, or I like to wait a while for them to cool down before I comment. Here is the Kate Zernike piece in the NYT which castigates Tea Partiers for having the temerity to read classic old works for their ideas, inspiration and motivation.

But when it comes to ideology, it has reached back to dusty bookshelves for long-dormant ideas.

If their arguments can be out there …  or out of date, the works have provided intellectual ballast for a segment of the electorate angry or frustrated about the economy and the growing reach of government.

The works are more suited to protest than to policy making

In response, a famous Tea-Party zealot remarked:

The same principle applies to international economics. Comparative advantage is an old idea; intellectuals who want to read about international trade want to hear radical new ideas, not boring old doctrines, even if they are quite blurry about what those doctrines actually say. Robert Reich, then (edited) Secretary of Labor, understood this point perfectly when he wrote an essay for Foreign Affairs entitled “Beyond free trade”. (Reich 1983). The article received wide attention, even though it was fairly unclear exactly how Reich proposed to go beyond free trade (there is a certain similarity between Reich and Gould in this respect: they make a great show of offering new ideas, but it is quite hard to pin down just what those new ideas really are). The great selling point was, clearly, the article’s title: free trade is old hat, it is something we must go beyond. In this sort of intellectual environment, it is quite hard to get anyone other than an economics student to sit still for an explanation of the concept of comparative advantage. Just imagine trying to tell an ambitious, energetic, forward-looking intellectual who is interested in economics — William Jefferson Clinton comes to mind — that before he can start talking knowledgeably about globalization and the information economy he must wrap his mind around a difficult concept that was devised by a frock-coated banker 180 years ago!

Economics is not as well served by its writers as evolution. Still, the distinctive feature of the writers whose ideas about world trade play well with an intellectual audience is the same: the successful books are those that not only do not explicitly discuss mathematical models, they are not even implicitly based on mathematical reasoning. A book like Robert Reich’s The Work of Nations (Reich 1991) not only eschews equations and diagrams, it never even tries to present the idea of comparative advantage informally. In fact, it never uses the phrase “comparative advantage” at all, even to criticize it. As a result, books by authors such as Reich or Thurow do not make humanists uncomfortable. Unavoidably, however, they also give them no sense of the power and importance of economic models in general, or of Ricardo’s difficult idea in particular. If anything, the message one gets from these books is that in the new economy nineteenth-century concepts no longer apply.

Here is the zealot.

2 Responses to “Zernike’s Tea Party Dustup”

  1. Harry says:

    See Steve Berkowitz’s piece in the Saturday Journal on the Tea Partiers.

    I thought comparative advantage was settled doctrine. “Fair Trade” is the phrase used to sell the idea that we should trade only with countries willing to relinquish any comparative advantage, so our candlemakers will not feel competition, the goal being to fool consumers that protectionism is good for them.

  2. Harry says:

    Some time ago you posted a piece or two on the 1099 rules embedded in the health care bill. It turns out my daughter’s organization has started to realize the implications of this provision, which will require their members to submit 1099’s not only for the dues they pay, but also for many other transactions.

    Even these folks are upset, without having studied the obsolete ideas of nineteenth-century writers on political economy.

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