Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Shoeless Joe" Stiglitz vs. the Alan Simpson & Erskine Bowles Deficit Reduction Proposal

“Macroeconomic policy can never be devoid of politics..."
Joe Stiglitz is a Nobel-Prize winning economist, currently professor at Columbia University, who chaired Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisors from 1995-97 and was Chief Economist at the World Bank.  He won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001 for his work on "market imperfections." He's long been a critic of free market theorists - who he regards as market "fundamentalists" - and has written extensively on the destabilizing effects of economic globalization.

Stiglitz plays in powerful circles, but he's not a "team player."  He left the Clinton administration after losing an ongoing duel with Larry Summers. In an American Prospect profile ten years or so ago, entitled "Shoeless Joe" and highlighting the often-disheveled professor's unorthodoxy, Jonathan Chait quoted Stiglitz' take on his stint as CEA chief:   
"When I was in the lawyer- and politician-dominated White House environment, I often felt that I had arrived in another world," he recounted. "I had expected lower standards of evidence for assertions than would be expected in a professional article, but I had not expected that the evidence offered would be, in so many instances, so irrelevant, and that so many vacuous sentences, sentences whose meaning and import simply baffled me, would be uttered."
Stiglitz' intellectual credibility and experience combined with his tendency to tell unwelcome truths in high places is why he's such a valuable voice. What this little panegyric is getting to is a broadside that Stiglitz has just fired contrary to other former presidential CEA chairs who had banded together in a joint "letter" to promote the much-touted opinions of Deficit Commission co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson - pushing an agenda of "compromise" cutbacks to reduce budget deficits long-term. 

"Social Security is a milk cow with 310 million tits!"
Commission co-chair Alan Simpson, you might recall, is the terminally grouchy public scold who makes cracks like, "Social Security was never a retirement" and "it was a good idea when it started, but may no longer be so" - that is when he's not babbling about "the green weenie","sparrow belch" or how "a lot of blood, hair, and eyeballs have to lay on the floor before we (the Simpson-Bowles commission) finish." (Simpson's lips are so loose and he's so dyspeptic there's a StuffAlanSimpsonSays.com website.) Why President Obama chose  - along with "corporate Democrat," former Clinton staffer and investment banker Bowles - this disgruntled old coot to head a key commission looking at the future of Social Security, among other major long-term budget issues, is one I'll never understand.

But back to Joe Stiglitz.  Arguably he's no more the diplomat than Simpson, but his tongue is connected to his brain, not his spleen.  Stiglitz calls the Simpson-Bowles proposals a "near suicide pact" and "a set of unprincipled political compromises that would lead to a weaker America — with slower growth and a more divided society."

Strong stuff. And the substance of Joe Stiglitz' "counter-letter" to his fellow former CEA chairs regarding the deficit commission is compelling: