Wednesday, June 18, 2014

In which Krugman borrows Martin Wolf's scalpel, possibly via Geithner

[n.b. see update in mid-post. I seem to have misread...]

In October 2010, Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf led off a column with a heroic simile to describe Obama's economic performance:
An ambulance stops by the roadside to help a man suffering from a heart attack. After desperate measures, the patient survives. Brought into hospital, he then makes a protracted and partial recovery. Then, two years later, far from feeling grateful, he sues the paramedics and doctors. If it were not for their interference, he insists, he would be as good as new. As for the heart attack, it was a minor event. He would have been far better off if he had been left alone.

That is the situation in which Dr Barack Obama finds himself...more stimulus was needed. After all, it was quite modest: fiscal stimulus was less than 6 per cent of GDP and so accounts for less than a fifth of the cumulative deficits of 2009, 2010 and 2011, while monetary policy is caught in a liquidity trap.

The truth is not that policy was foolhardy and failed, but that it was too timid and so could not succeed.
Lo, now cometh Paul Krugman to review Tim Geithner's memoir:

to use one of the medical metaphors Geithner likes, we can think of the economy as a patient who was rushed to the emergency room with a life-threatening condition. Thanks to the urgent efforts of the doctors present, the patient’s life was saved. But while the doctors kept him alive, they failed to cure his underlying illness, so he emerged from the procedure partly crippled, and never fully recovered.
Okay -- Krugman, like the rest of us, packs a lot of reading into the memory banks, and the Wolf piece appeared almost four years ago, and the metaphor is a natural enough one to revert to when describing inadequate stimulus. And -- UPDATE 6/19 -- per Tortfeasor comment below, Krugman attributes the metaphor to Geithner, if the lead-in is to be taken literally, rather than read as 'to use a medical metaphor, as Geithner likes to do,' which is how I (mis?)read it. If so, I guess it's attained the hoary status of cliche.

Whatever the provenance of this one, in a prior case Krugman seemed more clearly to help himself to a loan on the metaphoric front. On July 28, 2011, with the all-cuts Budget Control Act taking shape and poised to impose savage austerity on the country, Adam Serwer got creative:
With both parties competing for the mantle of austerity, they’re acting a bit like two crazed medeival (sic) doctors leeching a patient who’s already suffering from catastrophic blood loss.
Three days later, when the deal was announced, behold Krugman:
So those demanding spending cuts now are like medieval doctors who treated the sick by bleeding them, and thereby made them even sicker. 
 And he loved the metaphor so well, he elaborated it six weeks later:
Doctors used to believe that by draining a patient’s blood they could purge the evil “humors” that were thought to cause disease. In reality, of course, all their bloodletting did was make the patient weaker, and more likely to succumb.

Fortunately, physicians no longer believe that bleeding the sick will make them healthy. Unfortunately, many of the makers of economic policy still do. And economic bloodletting isn’t just inflicting vast pain; it’s starting to undermine our long-run growth prospects

p.s. Re the bloodletting, I plagiarized myself.
p.p.s. Krugman is also a bona fide  Cassandra, and you can't steal prophecy.


  1. Ok, so the first one was Krugman explicitly repeating a metaphor he had heard from Geithner: "to use one of the medical metaphors Geithner likes..."

    1. Hmm, I read that as signifying simply that Geithner likes medical metaphors, not that he used this one. But I have to admit your reading is more accurate, if the wording is taken literally. It's possible that Geithner absorbed it from Wolf -- or really, that it's become a cliche.