Monday, November 02, 2009

Taking out the Trash

I don't usually respond to illogical cheap shots from around the blogosphere (life is too short). But when the cheap shot comes from a Nobel prize winner in economics, I will make an exception.

Paul Krugman says I should be ashamed of myself for calling into question Obama administration estimates of how many jobs have been "created or saved." Here is what Paul writes on his blog:
The Obama administration’s “jobs created or saved” is just a way of saying “other things equal” in non-economese. Of course it makes sense to ask how many more people are working than would have been the case without a given policy — and every administration makes assertions along those lines. During the 2001 recession and its aftermath, how many times did the Bush administration claim that the recession would have been worse without its tax cuts? And while many of us quarreled with that claim, I don’t think I ever argued that other-things-equal arguments are nonsense on their face.
Yet Paul is rebutting claims I did not make, and he is giving Team Obama more credit on this question than it is due. Here is what I wrote on the topic last February:

The 4 million job number is a counterfactual policy simulation of what the stimulus will do based on a particular model of the economy. As such, I have no objection to someone citing it in a policy discussion. In fact, macroeconomists use models to generate figures like this all the time. I have even done it myself.

But as an answer to the question "how can the American people gauge whether or not your programs are working?... What metric should they use?", citing the 4 million job figure is a non sequitur, or more likely a diversion. A metric has to be measurable, and the actual number of jobs "created or saved" by the policy will never be measurable from any data source.

That is, I do not object to claims such as,
A: "Based on our models of the economy, we believe there would be X million fewer jobs today without the stimulus."
But it is absurd to suggest that you can say,
B: "We have measured how many jobs the stimulus has saved or created, and the number is X."
Economists are capable of making statements such as A, but it is beyond our ken to make statements such as B. Statement B is,of course, much stronger than statement A, as it purports to be based on data rather than on models. Unfortunately, we are hearing statements like B much too often from administration officials. A good example is here, where can you "learn" that 110,185.36 jobs have been created or saved in California alone.