None Dare Call It Treason…

But, at least as I read it, that’s what the Republican party — and by that I mean, actual office holders and acknowledged leaders, not yahoos conspiring on some mountaintop — are edging ever closer to these days.

Evidence for such a serious charge?  Just the latest comes from an event Mistermix annotated earlier this morning:  the murder of Peter Diamond’s nomination to serve as a governor of the Federal Reserve.

A little backstory:  Peter Diamond is a member of the Economics Department at MIT (and hence, one of my colleagues).*  He is the author, co-author or editor of twelve books, and his CV lists 143 published papers.  He is perhaps best known recently for his work on social insurance and Social Security in particular, but his interests have ranged very widely indeed, to include among much else foundational research on what happens when buyers and sellers in a market have to look for each other, the problem of “search markets.”  Think, e.g., the problem that  employers and job seekers face to find specific matches in order for the job hunter to sell his or her labor to an employer-buyer.

That’s work that was just honored with the 2010 Nobel Prize for Economics.** [For more details, see the paper to be found at the “advanced information” tab here.]

Now every Nobel comes with a story, and I heard a couple of them at various celebrations I attended to honor Diamond.  One nice touch came at the economics department party for the prize, where department grad students and colleagues wore replica Peter Diamond Red Sox jerseys, in recognition of perhaps his most treasured honor, throwing the first pitch at a regular season game at Fenway a year or so ago.  Nobels are nice and all, but in the Athens of America, the Sox rule.

Then there was the one Diamond himself told at another reception this spring, which suggested the potential for trouble when an anonymous Swedish-accented female voice sounds at one’s home number at 0-dark-hundred, asking for the man of the house, then en route from an overseas trip — and refuses to say what it’s about to his just-awakened partner.  Hmmm.  But that’s the rule:  the laureate gets told first, no ifs/ands/buts.

But the most telling anecdote came from the current head of the MIT economics department, Ricardo Caballero, who told of contacting his immediate predecessor as head, James Poterba, who promptly handed over the brief he had prepared years earlier listing what to do when the call came from Stockholm with Peter Diamond’s name attached.  Which is to say — Diamond has long been recognized as a giant in the field.  The MIT department along with much of the profession had for a while seen the ultimate award of a Nobel as a matter less of “if” than “when.”

The signal importance of Diamond in our current predicament is that he is two creatures at once:  A mathematician by early training, he does a lot of what many academic economists do: prove theorems within models in an attempt to capture essential features of experience within the rigor of mathematical analysis.  At the same time, he is a committed observer and parser of the real world, with a direct focus on critical current policy issues.  In his own words [see entry 4: “My Research Strategy]:

I found I liked doing policy.  And I found that looking at policy questions fueled identification of good theory questions to model and analyze.  As a public finance economist, I was naturally interested in policy (rather than becoming a public finance economist because I was so interested in policy), although that has reversed.  And as a theorist more interested in constructing models to analyze questions than to getting new results in existing models, my taste ran to simplifications that seemed to preserve the important properties and so provide plausibly robust policy insights, an approach that fit with finding questions from involvement in policy discussions.

Hence work on Social Security, on pension systems around the world and so on.

So, just to recap the game so far:  we have in Peter Diamond someone recognized by everyone qualified to do so as one of the pre-eminent economists writing today. His work addresses major issues at the level of both theory and policy/application.  His questions include several that are pressing right now, notably employment and the understanding of essential social insurance programs.

And yet, because of the actions of one or a small minority of United Senators, supported by a unified Republican Senate caucus, the citizens of the United States of America will not secure the benefits of Peter Diamond’s knowledge and intellectual skills at a time when almost one in ten job-seekers are out of work, and our pension and health care systems face the prospect (threat) of enormous and individual-life-changing transformation.

So, why do Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama and the entire slate of the GOP Senators so hate the rest of us ?

Well, that would be (according to Shelby) because Diamond is unqualified to be a Fed governor.  This despite the overwhelming testimony of his profession.

But wait!  There’s an “argument” (sic) Shelby attaches to his presumptively stupid argument that a Nobel laureate economist can’t handle a Fed post.  Shelby’s rationalization?…

…Diamond, it seems, lacks specific expertise in monetary policy, the proper responsibility of the Fed.  Mistermix’s post details the duplicity of this claim:  at the time of Diamond’s nomination, three of the five sitting governors were not monetary specialists.  We’re back to the old trick of inventing criteria as needed to cover blatant political manouvering.

And anyway, Shelby’s just wrong (surprise! Dog bites man!), as Diamond himself made embarrassingly clear in a New York Times op-ed published today:

Last October, I won the Nobel Prize in economics for my work on unemployment and the labor market. But I am unqualified to serve on the board of the Federal Reserve — at least according to the Republican senators who have blocked my nomination. How can this be?

The easy answer is to point to shortcomings in our confirmation process and to partisan polarization in Washington. The more troubling answer, though, points to a fundamental misunderstanding: a failure to recognize that analysis of unemployment is crucial to conducting monetary policy….

…understanding the labor market — and the process by which workers and jobs come together and separate — is critical to devising an effective monetary policy. The financial crisis has led to continuing high unemployment. The Fed has to properly assess the nature of that unemployment to be able to lower it as much as possible while avoiding inflation. If much of the unemployment is related to the business cycle — caused by a lack of adequate demand — the Fed can act to reduce it without touching off inflation. If instead the unemployment is primarily structural — caused by mismatches between the skills that companies need and the skills that workers have — aggressive Fed action to reduce it could be misguided.

In my Nobel acceptance speech in December, I discussed in detail the patterns of hiring in the American economy, and concluded that structural unemployment and issues of mismatch were not important in the slow recovery we have been experiencing, and thus not a reason to stop an accommodative monetary policy — a policy of keeping short-term interest rates exceptionally low and buying Treasury securities to keep long-term rates down. Analysis of the labor market is in fact central to monetary policy.

Seems like this guy might be useful, just about now, doesn’t it?

Diamond’s most important point was not that Shelby’s malign influence is evidence of a poisoned political process, (though it is) nor even that the point of monetary policy is to influence things like the labor market (which it is, and is what makes direct knowledge of such spheres kind of important).  Rather, Shelby and the Republican Party are actually playing a much more dangerous game, one much more hostile to the interests of the United States and its citizens than any mere power squabble.   Here’s how Diamond wraps up his piece:

To the public, the Washington debate is often about more versus less — in both spending and regulation. There is too little public awareness of the real consequences of some of these decisions. In reality, we need more spending on some programs and less spending on others, and we need more good regulations and fewer bad ones.

Analytical expertise is needed to accomplish this, to make government more effective and efficient. Skilled analytical thinking should not be drowned out by mistaken, ideologically driven views that more is always better or less is always better.

And this is where Shelby’s — and the Republican Party’s — become guilty of what some may think is too strong a charge.

We face real, enormous problems.  Yet the Republican party has decided that its return to power by any means is more important than the interests of the United States. Why else block an obviously overqualified person to help set monetary policy, except for the fear that his policy ideas might work?  How else to describe — other than the pursuit of party advantage over Country First — the increasingly vocal murmurings that the GOP should push the US into default in order to so damage the American (and world!) economy that even as weak a candidate as any in the current GOP pool could defeat President Obama in 2012?

And so on — readers of this blog can continue the litany as needed.

Rush Limbaugh laid this out back in 2009 of course:  it was better then and it’s still the preferred option, from his point of view and from that of the Republican Party as a whole, that President Obama fail and the US suffer.  Heaven forfend that this administration to succeed and for GOP governance to be thus revealed as the disaster it is.

Oh — and one more thing.  As Diamond writes in the passage quoted above, blocking his nomination has the effect of making it more and more difficult to bring  “skilled analytical thinking” to bear on great public problems.

This despite the fact that deriding the possibility of competence as a tool of governance is both a disaster in the short term (near 10 percent unemployment, remember) and utterly corrosive of US power and influence looking to longer horizons.  If we barricade the government against even the possibility of having to act on the best disinterested advice we can get…what do you think will happen over time?  Nothing good…

I suppose there are some out there (a quotidian gossip, perhaps) who might find the use of words like “treason” to be, well, uncivil in this context.

But how else do you describe actions that harm Americans now and are likely to weaken the US relative to competitors and potential adversaries over the years and decades?  And when those deeds are in the service not only of trying to defeat a sitting President, but to deny that President the levers of government within the term for which he was duly elected?  I don’t know words strong enough to excoriate such Benedict Arnolds.

This is your modern Republican Party.  It is, IMHO, beyond salvation.  We do need an opposition, but this one does not retain any claim to the traditional epithet, “loyal.”  Time to start over.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

*I’ve met Diamond at a couple of large events.  I don’t know him though and have never had a real conversation with him — and I’ve never discussed with him or any other MIT economist what the hell was going on with his Fed nomination.  What follows is thus all mine; don’t blame him.

**Strictly speaking, the Sveriges Rijksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Honor of Alfred Nobel…but most everyone still calls it simply a Nobel Prize. #vampirepedantcrucifixfootnote

Images:  Max Liebermann, Women in a Canning Factory, 1879.

Agostino Carracci, Arrigo el peludo, Pedro el loco y el enano Amon (Hairy Arrigo, Crazy Peter, and the dwarf Amon), before 1602.

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3 Comments on “None Dare Call It Treason…”

  1. Ian Preston Says:

    When Diamond was awarded the Nobel last year I was quite surprised – surprised, that is, to realise that he hadn’t already won it. I know him mainly through his foundational work in my own area of public finance. He seems to me though like the sort of person who can turn his thought to any area of economics and contribute something of fundamental significance. The simple stupidity of the rationale offered for rejecting him is, frankly, staggering. Portraying him as unqualified seems to me like a slap in the face to anyone who values dispassionate academic investigation as an appropriate approach to analysis of economic policy.


  2. Republicans vote as a bloc or a “block” to prevent any significant movement towards addressing our economic problems in a way that will actually solve them. They want the economy to stay stagnant or dip. They want to destroy the middle class. They want an oligarchy.

    I applaud Obama for his attempts to appoint Mr. Diamond and Elizabeth Warren and others who have the ability to create sane financial policy. Republicans think only of squelching all possibilities of an economic turnabout in the hopes that a bad economy will increase their chances to win the presidency and the Congress in 2012 (they already own the Supreme Court). If they manage to accomplish this coup d’etat, the “balance of power” will become a myth and we will no longer have a democracy. Treason is not too strong a word for it.

    The tragedy is that Americans are either so ill-informed or isolated that they don’t have a clue about what, if anything, they can do to fight back.

    ‎”in the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over Communism; in this country, capitalism over democracy.” – Fran Lebowitz


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