On April 6, I had an article in The New York Times arguing the term "supply-side economics" (SSE) had outlived its usefulness. I wasn’t criticizing SSE. On the contrary, I was celebrating its success because its central truths are now fully incorporated into mainstream economic thinking. Consequently, continuing use of the term is more of a barrier to communication than a facilitator, in my opinion.
What was really interesting about my article, however, was the reaction to it. A University of Oregon economics professor named Mark Thoma posted a long commentary on it on his blog. I posted a response, which led to many other comments, including a couple from Paul Krugman, a Princeton economics professor and New York Times columnist.
Subsequently, University of California-Berkeley economist Brad DeLong posted much of the discussion from Thoma’s Website on his and offered additional commentary, which led to further comments from me and some of those who had also posted comments on Thoma’s Website. Since then, Thoma has kept the conversation going by soliciting a commentary by James Galbraith, an economics professor at the University of Texas.
The point I am getting at is that blogging is finally maturing into a useful way for people to interact with each other to sort out differences. It’s like being in a seminar room with some of the smartest people on the planet, where we are all searching for answers to the same questions, but coming at them with very different experiences and philosophical perspectives.
But it is really better than that — because in a seminar room only one person can speak at a time, some people speak too long, others go off on tangents, while others effectively sabotage any effort to narrow differences by focusing only on those areas where agreement is impossible. With a blog discussion, these problems go away. There are no time constraints, people must write their comments, those that are off-topic can be skipped over, and those who abuse the forum can have their comments deleted by the host.
Also, in a seminar room people can sometimes get away with making outrageous claims or factual errors that cannot be responded to in that forum. In a blog discussion, no one can get away with such things. Fact-checkers will immediately swoop down on mistakes and often provide hyperlinks to original sources that can be checked by anyone for verification. The result is an automatic self-correction mechanism that helps keep everyone honest.
This is not to say that there is no downside to a blog discussion. Too often, those posting comments start arguing with each other about matters that have no relevance to the original post. Oftentimes, these commentators will follow each other from one blog to another, carrying on debates over matters that are unknown to readers other than themselves. And, of course, people sometimes get abusive and substitute name-calling for rational argument.
But these problems are really rather minor and result mainly from the blog host lacking the time or the inclination to police the comments, disciple abusers and delete their comments, and bar serial abusers from being allowed to post. Perhaps in the near future, some programmer will invent an effective method of deleting irrelevant, off-topic, and abusive comments automatically, thus improving the blogging experience for everyone.
Nevertheless, the sort of back-and-forth that my original article stimulated is extraordinarily useful. I learned a lot from those who commented on my article. In particular, I learned that many things I took for granted in terms of my knowledge of the economic experience of the 1970s are not widely shared. It has motivated me to write something more detailed that will explain the atmosphere and context in which SSE was developed.
I think if people understood the problem we were facing as we saw it, our actions would make more sense. As it is, both supporters and opponents of SSE implicitly view it in the context of today, thus leading to errors in thinking that what was true at one time is still true today — or, conversely, thinking that something that is wrong today was also wrong in the past. In terms of SSE, what was right then may be wrong now.
In terms of what SSE accomplished, I still think it was the right cure for the economic problems we were facing in the late 1970s. I also think it embodies some fundamental truths that are applicable at all times. But these fundamental truths, such as the idea that high marginal tax rates are bad for the economy, are now almost universally accepted. So I say to my fellow supply-siders, let’s just declare victory and move on. Insisting on a separate identity only makes enemies out of potential allies.