Jagdish Bhagwati is a poster child for multiple intelligences. He is famous for having manipulated the equations of neoclassical trade theory with consummate skill, but whenever he jumps into a verbal argument he makes embarrassing errors of reasoning and commits the greatest sin of the disputant, failing to understand the views of the other side. When you read his screeds, you wonder why anyone pays attention.
So the first response I had to his latest outburst, Feeble Critiques: Capitalism's Petty Detractors, was to delete it. But then I thought, maybe there is something to learn from a critique of this guy—he can’t be that vacuous, can he? So I read it again. No, he is that vacuous, but now that I’ve invested the time I feel I have to say something about the experience.
Bhagwati is defending “capitalism”, by which he means a primary reliance on free, unconstrained markets in national and international affairs. He seems to be reacting especially against Joe Stiglitz, who has written widely on the inadequacies of neoliberalism, especially in the wake of the ongoing economic crunch. In typical Bhagwati fashion, he introduces his nemesis by mentioning that he shared a Nobel prize with George Akerlof, and then spending several sentences praising the latter to the skies, with nary a mention of the former. (I’m a big fan of Akerlof, but Stiglitz’ innovations in economics are of the highest order.) In other words, pure pettiness.
Then Bhagwati gets down to argument, sort of. He says that the current crisis is just a temporary speedbump on the path to universal riches—but, of course, to simply assert this is to assume what needs to be proved. He should read up on “begging the question”. (Perhaps his background in trade theory, a giant piece of question-begging in its entirety, has preconditioned him in this respect.) He invokes China and India as examples of countries that have adopted liberalism and prospered, without being aware that his critics dispute this. (To regard China as “liberal” is bizarre, and Dani Rodrik has written persuasively on why liberalization should not be seen as the basis for India’s accelerating growth rate.)
There are many pixels spilled over the effort to tar all critics of neoliberalism with the experience of the Soviet Union: you are either with us or with the Stalinists, for free markets or for central planning. What this has to do with someone like Stiglitz I can’t imagine. Add to Bhagwati’s reading list Whither Socialism?, Stiglitz’ post mortem on the formerly-existing mode of production.
What about the claim that trade competition from the poor countries, and especially China, have depressed wages in the US? Bhagwati cites his own work and that of two other authors, but does not given even a brief explanation for why his results should be regarded as a refutation of those who come up with something else. (He does make an ad hominem swipe at Paul Krugman: K’s paper on trade and wages was commissioned by Larry Summers, and, well, you know about him.) Homework assignment: look up “cherry-picking”.
We learn that the Washington Consensus was not imposed, but was taken up “with gusto” by India, China and Russia. This gusto business is a strange descriptor for the ex-USSR, as is “liberalism”, but the main problem is that critics of the Washington Consensus never claimed that China or India were bullied—rather, that most of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia were. To put it simply, debt was the lever, and China and India were the only two developing countries not laboring under massive debts to western banks (thanks to the policies Bhagwati deplores).
A few paragraphs later, Bhagwati launches into an attack on financial deregulation. It was an intellectual error, he says, and reflected not only cognitive capture by what he calls the “Wall Street–Treasury Complex”, but also “old-fashioned lobbying”. I was starting to warm to him, but then he attributes regulatory failure to leftists and protectionists. Hank Paulson, you see, is an “ardent environmentalist and graduate of liberal-leaning Dartmouth College” (guilt by matriculation) and Charles Schumer (the only politician identified by name) is a serial Japan-, then India-, then China-basher. If you’re Bhagwati, this proves financial deregulation was a conspiracy by the forces opposed to free markets.
In case you were wondering, it was not the private sector that gave us subprime mortgages either. This was a conspiracy hatched by populists within the government, who wanted to maximize home ownership. Granted, there have been many public programs that unwisely pushed people into mortgages who should have put their scarce savings somewhere else, but surely the folks at Countrywide had something to do with it too, not to mention the securitization bandwagon that was entirely of Wall Street’s doing. And is Bhagwati aware that housing bubbles have had a tendency to appear in the buildup to financial crises throughout modern history, or that there have been recent housing meltdowns in other countries (Spain, Ireland, England) with different sets of laws and policies? Add Reinhart and Rogoff to the man’s bookshelf, and maybe also Chapter 3 of the IMF’s latest World Economic Report.
Bhagwati concludes with a call for charity on the part of the rich and a safety net for the poor. This will keep the population pacified, he hopes, so that economists of a critical bent cannot “enjoy a success that they do not deserve.” Do I hear a rumbling among the ranks? Increase their rations and they won’t cause us any trouble....
On third thought, deletion would have been the best choice.