Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Over a year ago - how did I miss this?

Matt Stone and Trey Parker are Keynesians - I will hear no dissent on this one.

Maybe they're libertarians or maybe they're not. They've been reluctant to be very declarative on this. All that seems clear to me from what they've said is that they don't like the right or the left. That's fair enough, and a lot of people think that means they're libertarian. I'm a little skeptical of that as a guy that's frustrated with the right and the left and not a libertarian. But fair enough. If they are libertarians, they are Keynesian libertarians.

The mockery of classical thinking is throughout (including of the idea that interest rates were kept too low in the boom), but the good stuff starts at 13:20.

Stan gives us a critique of the politicians
Kyle gives us Keynes


  1. The "economy is not real...yet it is real" part is wholly absurdist in itself, and I am not sure if there was ever a point to this episode other than wacky stuff happening.

    If we really reach too hard for meaning in some things, we could eventually come to the conclusion that Star Wars was an endorsement of Jim Crow laws!

    Ascetic life and cultist leaders were one of my favourite themes, when I used to watch television a billion years ago. One of my favourite parodies of the topic was done by the Simpsons, in which an entire town was brainwashed, conned, and looted by a Star Trek cult.

  2. That line was a little weird (although not that weird - his meaning was clear), but I think you're taking that to the extreme here, Prateek. There are clearly some ideas about the economy they held up as absurd and some they held up as reasonable - and they were coherent ideas that you hear people talk about all the time. The reasonable positions held up were:

    1. Real debt burdens prevent spending
    2. Spending deficiencies cause downturns
    3. Bailing out banks is a bad idea but bailing out households is a good idea.

    I'm not sure whether I agree with number three, but this wasn't just an absurdist, meaningless wackiness. The episode had a pretty clear point.

    And the position it held up for ridicule was the idea that people should cut back on spending during a downturn. Sorry, I don't buy it. When South Park latches on to something in society they consider absurd and offer a better alternative through Stan and Kyle it's pretty widely acknowledged they're making a statement about what they think is unreasonable and stupid.

  3. I suppose I should emphasize - this is just underconsumptionist Keynesianism, which I've come out against before. But since Matt Stone and Trey Parker aren't economists like Casey Mulligan and Russ Roberts, and since peoples' spending in South Park can be interpreted as an artistic stand-in for all spending (investment and consumption), I'm not going to hold it against them that they didn't develop a fully coherent theory of interest rate determination :)

    At the very least, it's just Fisherian rather than Keynesian.

    It's not that Keynes was not an underconsumptionist theory anyway. It's just that it was more nuanced than that.

  4. Ah ha! So you start off by saying there is no dissent on them being Keynesians, but you are the one who dissents against the idea!

    Now, as for the plot's theme of people being charmed by a charismatic leader into ascetism - I am going to guess it is a criticism of austerity?

    That's what I find interesting. Messrs. Krugman and Stiglitz have been trying to find bogeymen where they don't exist, for example. There is no austerity policy in Britain - they are increasing government spending by 45 billion pounds, for heaven's sake. There is no austerity policy in Ireland, in Germany, in Spain, or in Greece. Although Merkel has occasionally used the rhetoric of tightening one's belt, her general long run behaviour in public policy is not actually in that direction. The leaders of those other countries have never even used such rhetoric or put in such policies. Paperandou and Zapatero have resisted attempts to cut spending.

    What many commentators call austerity is somewhere in an arbitrary line between increasing spending significantly and not increasing it too much.

    The only country that pursues anything close to that is Estonia, determined to rid clean anything that reminds of them of their Soviet past. The Economist magazine has noted that for some reason, the hardcore libertarian (to use American terminology) leader of Estonia is one of the longest serving politicians in Europe and has reduced government spending to 8% of the GDP without a single riot or anger from opposition. Queer...

  5. re: "Ah ha! So you start off by saying there is no dissent on them being Keynesians, but you are the one who dissents against the idea!"

    Aha! You caught me! Yes, they are actually underconsumptionist proto-Keynesians that get along much better than any other idea on the market (with the exception of underconsumptionist proto-Keynesianism itself of course). Then again, perhaps I am conceding defeat too soon. They never said they were explaining Keynesian theory, after all - and even though they don't provide a theory of the interest rate they never reject a Keynesian approach to that question. It's all unknown at this point. So I suppose the jury is out - we know they are at least underconsumptionist proto-Keynesians, and we'll have to wait for upcoming episodes on interest rates to learn more :)

    As for Europe - I think this is a lot like the debate over Hoover's legacy. In the end, both sides are probably right about what Hoover was not but both sides are wrong about what he was. Hoover was not a liquidationist. Hoover was not a Keynesian. I imagine the same applies to most of these European leaders. Politicians are rarely the archetypes we make them out to be.

    As for Estonia - I think we have to keep in mind that they're coming out of Soviet-style communism. I think everyone in the liberal tradition would agree that rolling back the state is good policy. Implementation may be wise or it may be unwise in any given case, of course. But I wouldn't necessarily hold this up as anything other than "Soviet communism doesn't work", which I'm quite sure most classical liberals were aware of. These sorts of countries start from fundamentally different starting points than Germany, the UK, and the US, and I think we ought to keep that in mind as we all celebrate the dismantling of the Soviet legacy.

  6. Confirmation bias or delusion?

  7. The latter I think is relatively unlikely, but the former is always a risk.

    Care to elaborate?

  8. Exactly! You are right about both Hoover and leaders like Sarkozy, Merkel, and Cameron.

    Herbert Hoover used a lot of limited government hyperbole and paranoid "Socialism!" rhetoric. But he himself sneakily got away with being a model for a modern day style activist government leader. He wasn't quite a Teddy Roosevelt style class warrior and wasn't quite a Frederic Bastiat.

  9. Trying to find this sort of meaning in a South Park episode is absurdist in itself. What one can say about Matt and Trey is that they are anti-elitist, anti-sacred cow, into locals running their own lives, etc.

    Anyway, here are Parker and Stone on the episode:

    Note that largely what they were going for was the funny - as is the case in all their episodes. Trying to see their episodes as anything else generally means you are missing the point and that you sort of have your head up your ass.

  10. - People who obsess over hybrid cars are snobs and more interested in peoples' perception of their status than the environment.

    - Free speech shouldn't be stifled out of worries that someone might be offended or even out of worries that they might retaliate.

    - Scientology is a cult

    - Alarmism around global warming is dumb

    - Immigration can hurt certain groups of native workers but it is also important because people from poorer societies immigrate to better themselves, so a reasonable approach is to improve the condition of poorer societies.

    - People get overfearful about safety and crime and react irrationally when most crimes against children are perpetrated by parents themselves.

    Ya - these blatantly, painfully obvious underlying messages are just an absurdity. It's totally crazy to think that the kids' parents in the show are stand-ins for a gullible public that overreacts to everything. It's totally crazy to think that Stan and Kyle are the designated voices of reason. It's totally crazy to think that Cartman is a stand-in for the really crazy people out there.

    Of course South Park's whole schtick is ridiculous, absurd humor that makes a mockery of political correctness. There's no denying that. But there's equally no denying that a major point of the show is to highlight really obvious, reasonable truths that a bipolar, obsessesive American public regularly blows out of proportion or reacts to irrationally or with hyper-sensitivity.

    South Park slays sacred cows. You're right. One of those sacred cows is a moralizing view of the economy.

  11. What's amazing about your claim here is that when Trey and Matt make an episode with a moral (and not all of them have it - some of them are just pure comedy), they practically spoon-feed it to you. And the foils are ALWAYS the same, so there's never any ambiguity at all about what they're saying.

    1. This is what a hyper-sensitive, argumentative, tribal, easily frightened, or irrational society says about X.

    2. We think a reasonable position on X is Y.

    When Trey and Matt want to make a statement it's usually pretty straightforward. If you think the show is just about meaningless jokes and they're not trying to say something with it, I have to wonder how often you watch the show.

  12. Der MenschenfreundMarch 16, 2011 at 6:07 PM

    Coordination Problem had a post on this, too.


  13. "Ya - these blatantly, painfully obvious underlying messages are just an absurdity."

    No, what is absurd is obsessing over finding some meaning to particular episodes that runs much deeper than "the funny." The gag is what is important primarily, not the message. Which is why Matt and Trey are always poking fun at people like you who try to find a message in their work.

  14. Der Menschenfreund -
    Nice! Yes, the haphazardness of the Treasury through 2008 is the great uniter :)

    They seem to have been notably silent on Kyle's role!

    Gary -
    re: "No, what is absurd is obsessing over finding some meaning to particular episodes that runs much deeper than "the funny."

    Oh chill out man. I can write a blog post about an episode that mocks the austerity crowd. The guys have opinions and they don't hide them. I'm not writing an extended essay about it the way your precious did when it became convinced they were libertarians. I liked the damn episode. You'll get over it. Stop taking everything so seriously.

  15. I should also add that if the average, non-economics enthusiast, layman third party were viewing these comments, they would not know what the difference between Gary and Daniel is.

    They might even see them as one and the same and of the same mold of thinking.

    "Okay, so both of these are some kinds of wonkish economics-and-politics guys who only differ on whether South Park has any additional meaning. Let's carry on."

    And then if they saw Austrian Economists Typepad and this blog, they would not know the difference between these two either and have a similar thought.

    "Okay, some kind of liberal-libertarian-social-democratic folks suspecting their ideas imitated in South Park. Let's carry on."

  16. Prateek, you are one of my Lovecraft guys... what are you doing bringing sanity to this madness???

  17. Daniel,

    Au contraire; you're the one taking things seriously.

  18. And it seems that every blog is based on a love-hate relationship. The most dedicated commenter (or one of them) is the ideological opposite of the blogger, but he is the one most thrilled at getting attention.

    It comes to a point where we'd suspect life would not be the same for Joanna Liberation without Mike Huben's blog, for AP Lerner without Bill Anderson's blog,.etc.

    And life would not be the same for Anderson, Murphy, and company without Paul Krugman. Thankfully, Brad DeLong is there to do Krugman's job, but Murphy called him the poor man's Krugman.


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