An Appreciated, and Rare, Reversal of Economic Doctrine

Bruce Bartlett is a mensch.

A mensch, at least as I was taught the term, is someone who takes responsibility for his actions, including his mistakes. Alas, “menschlichkeit” is a rare virtue in modern America, certainly in the political sphere, where nobody ever admits to being wrong about anything.

So all hail Mr. Bartlett, who has written movingly in The American Conservative magazine’s December issue about how he came to realize that conservatism and its economic doctrine weren’t what he imagined them to be, and in particular how he came to realize that Keynesian analysis had a point. Mr. Bartlett’s essay only drives home, of course, how very few economists — whether in the policy/think tank world or in academia — have been willing to do the same. You have to wonder in particular about the prominent economists who threw their support behind Mitt Romney in his late, unlamented campaign.

They have to have known that Mr. Romney was talking nonsense, that his numbers didn’t remotely add up; and some of them made what sure look like patently disingenuous arguments about taxes, the business cycle and more. Was it a case of political allegiance trumping professional standards? Or was it personal ambition above all? And no, it’s not symmetric: President Obama and his people do play some number games, but not to anything like the same degree — it’s more about packaging than about trying to tell a fundamentally false story.

Anyway, I have in the past been a bit hard on Mr. Bartlett, wondering why it took him so long to see the obvious. But never mind that: he has shown character, in a nation where that is hard to find.

The Fake Skills Shortage

Kudos to Adam Davidson for some much-needed mythbusting about the supposed skills shortage holding the American economy back.

“The secret behind this skills gap is that it’s not a skills gap at all,” wrote Mr. Davidson on Nov. 25 in his weekly column in The New York Times Magazine. Mr. Davidson wrote that he spoke to factory managers who said “that they had a hard time recruiting in-demand workers for $10-an-hour jobs.”

Whenever you see some businessperson quoted complaining about how he or she can’t find workers with the necessary skills, ask what wage they’re offering. Almost always, it turns out that what said businessperson really wants is highly (and expensively) educated workers at a manual-labor wage. No wonder they come up short. And this dovetails perfectly with one of the key arguments against the claim that much of our unemployment in the United States is “structural,” due to a mismatch between skills and labor demand.

If that were true, you would see soaring wages for those workers who do have the right skills. In fact, with rare exceptions you don’t. So what you really want to ask is why American businesses don’t feel that it’s worth their while to pay enough to attract the workers they say they need.