Friday, May 17, 2013

austerity vs history

I'm nearing the end of the on line Microeconomics course offered by Coursera.  It has been a useful introduction to the fundamental concepts and analytic techniques of the discipline.  The Melbourne-based presenter, Nilss Olekalns, did a nice job of developing the subject in a rigorous but accessible manner.  The small, embedded quizzes and the weekly tests were helpful to comprehension.  The other supplementary materials including the readings and the forums needed more structure to avoid the common internet phenomenon of random noise drowning out useful ideas.  For me, it would have been helpful to have had a good companion text, and I'll probably get one now and revisit the subject.

While I chose to take the course primarily as a way of filling a gap in my understanding of economics, I was also interested in getting an idea of how on line teaching and learning was progressing.  There is no question that we have come a long way since the inception of the Web, but it seems clear also that on line education is still in its infancy.  The technology has overcome many barriers of time, distance and cost.  What I don't see much evidence of, however, is coming to grips with the potential for following and analyzing educational outcomes and putting that knowledge to work in making on line courses effective.  There clearly needs to be more attention paid to developing learning objectives based on individual learning styles and in applying that knowledge, along with results monitoring, in the real-time learning experience.  I'm skeptical about the contribution to those efforts which can be made by universities as I think they are mostly scrambling to fit on line learning into the existing system of education which is based on limiting access to knowledge rather than expanding it in new ways.

As for Economics, I have developed some respect for it as a discipline pretty solidly based on mathematical and statistical principles along with much careful study of history.  At the same time, it seems there are still big questions to resolve in regard to some of the fundamentals.  Perhaps of even more importance is a recognition of the fact that the best efforts of the best economists are not going to ever be able to save us from political folly.

In the meantime, I haven't come across any reason yet to seriously question Paul Krugman's take on current economic issues.  Conservative acquaintances often offer the idea that Krugman's analysis is simplistic, but when pressed for details they offer moral platitudes without relation to either logic or history.

It was amusing to see Boehner recently admit publicly that there is in fact no crisis in regard to the issue of debt.  The admission followed the implosion of claims about the mythical 90% debt tipping point in the study by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff which played such a central role in the Republican economic platform.  Unfortunately for the country, the fact that Boehner, Ryan et al are left standing in that steaming pile of rhetoric doesn't seem to point to any turn toward rationality in the management of the economy.  And, of course, we can't ignore the fact that Obama is standing there with one foot in it too.

Krugman recently presented a fine over-view of How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled in an article available at the New York Review of Books web site.  In the course of brief reviews of three books on the subject he covers much of the same ground he has traversed in his editorial writings before, but he also emphasizes some issues which have not been explored in as much depth before.  For instance, he points out that the damages from the current recession didn't reach the depths of the Great Depression thanks in a large part to the social policy legacy of that era including Social Security and Unemployment benefits which served as spending buffers in the face of a drastic fall in the GDP.  Krugman's article provides a lot of other historical and statistical evidence as well, including relevant IMF charts which clearly show the failure of the current wide-spread austerity policies. It is well worth the time to read.

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