“The economy” is an abstraction, a way of talking about billions and billions of discrete activities and transactions that are too complex and fast-moving to be aggregated into something that politicians can shape through policy. It’s something like that famous mess of mousetraps and ping-pong balls used to illustrate atomic fission in those old educational films, except that the reaction never ends. Economics is a way of trying to describe the economy, which is a very different thing from trying to manage the economy. If there were some set of policies that could be enacted in Washington that would provide everything that politicians and the rest of us would like to see in our economy — strong and steady growth, low unemployment, low and stable inflation, etc. — then they probably would have been enacted by now, regardless of which party or president holds power. There’s not much political upside to economic stagnation for anybody in power. You can assemble a basket of economic factors with great subtlety and complexity — top tax rates, government spending as a share of GDP, monetary policy, you name it — and you will not find much consistent correlation with positive economic outcomes over long stretches of U.S. history: We’ve had good economies with higher tax rates and with lower tax rates, with higher levels of spending and with lower levels of spending, with looser money and with tighter money. Spend enough time looking at the charts and you may conclude that those little islands of economic bliss that have from time to time emerged from the stream of history were not much more than happy accidents. That’s true at the global level, too: Within certain broad limits defined mainly by property rights and honest courts, countries with highly dissimilar economic policies — Singapore vs. Sweden, the United States vs. Germany — will have fairly similar outcomes, with periods of stability and growth punctuated by recession and the occasional crisis.
But still the politicians — and, worse, such intellectual enablers as Paul Krugman — treat the economy as though it were a piece of machinery that only they know how to operate: Do x and enjoy y result. When things go off the rails, it’s “We didn’t know!” But when it’s election time, it’s: “We know! (So give us power!)” The federal government very generally does not know what it is doing or what it should be doing — it does not know what its own agents are up to most of the time, much less how those agents should go about interacting with firms and citizens engaged in all manner of activity about which said agents know approximately nothing. The generalization is triumphant, the details forgotten: “We know what to do about veterans’ health care, but we have no idea what our veterans’ doctors are up to,” or “We know exactly what to do about health care, but we didn’t even read the law we passed to empower us to do it, and so we don’t really know if we’ve legally empowered ourselves to do exactly the things that we know — because we know — are what needs doing.” Etc. The wisdom of Solomon as executed by the Three Stooges.
What we have here is a mapmakers’ dilemma. If you wanted to make a map of Houston that was entirely accurate and complete, the map would have to be the size of Houston — which, at 600 square miles, would be difficult to fold. To make a map manageable, you have to leave some things out, to simplify, to oversimplify, to reduce, to condense. Sometimes, making a map more useful means misrepresenting the actual territory, as in the case of the distorted Mercator projection. The mistake our policymakers always stumble into is mistaking the map for the territory, as though rearranging the bits of policy also rearranged the atoms of reality in a fashion that is if not precisely parallel then predictable. You could spend ten years locked in a barn in Muleshoe, Texas, poring over maps of Paris, but if you show up on the rue de la Paix one fine morning looking for work as a Parisian bus driver, your perfect, comprehensive knowledge of the map is not going to get you the job, especially if you don’t speak French, know the routes, or know how to drive a bus. You have a great deal of knowledge, but it is the wrong knowledge. You know the map, not the streets. There’s a reason that even in an age of ubiquitous GPS, people in Southern California engage in those wonderfully self-parodic conversations about which streets to take to get to which destination — the shortest route is not necessarily the fastest. Reality is not on the map. The problem confronting politicians who would manage the economy is not only the quantity and complexity of the relevant information but the question of where that information is to be found. The useful stuff is contextual, specific, local, and often temporary.