Feature

Issue of the week: A spreadsheet error’s aftermath

In 2010, two Harvard economists made what many thought was an airtight case for government austerity.

“Did an Excel coding error destroy the economies of the Western world?” asked Paul Krugman in The New York Times. It looks possible since last week, when University of Massachusetts researchers announced that they’d discovered a simple spreadsheet error and highly questionable statistical procedures in “the most influential economic analysis of recent years.” The 2010 paper by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff made what many thought was an airtight case for government austerity. It asserted that national economies with debt exceeding 90 percent of gross domestic product don’t grow; they shrink by an average of 0.1 percent. Their data gave austerity enthusiasts the green light to “slash government spending even in the face of mass unemployment.” But the math was bad, meaning that “austerity has been sold on false pretenses.”

Actually Reinhart and Rogoff’s Excel error “is more of a public relations disaster than a significant slip,” said Peter Coy in Businessweek.com. The UMass researchers claim that GDP grows by an average of 2.2 percent even with 90 percent debt levels, but the Excel goof is only a small part of the difference; most of it stems from how the Harvard and UMass teams weight the data, which is another argument. Even though the UMass researchers acknowledge that higher debt is associated with slower growth, this fiasco “can’t possibly be good for Team Austerity.”

Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, said Megan McArdle in TheDailyBeast.com. The Reinhart-Rogoff paper was hardly alone in associating debt with economic slowdowns, and more importantly, it had “zero actual effect on policy.” The Harvard economists might have been “influential in American policy rhetoric,” but austerity wasn’t implemented here—that happened in Europe. “And for the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone thinks that this paper caused European governments to do anything.” The error is obviously embarrassing for Reinhart and Rogoff, but “no one should be acting as if discrediting this single number somehow defeats the hawkish arguments over government borrowing.”

Nice try, but no way, said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. “If you want to make the case that the Reinhart-Rogoff whoopsie is no big deal,” don’t suggest that their paper didn’t matter. In fact, “everybody paid attention to it”—and that was the real problem. Their paper “validated an intuitively correct notion, that debt was dangerous.” Rogoff and Reinhart provided a clear, easy-to-cite figure, which “is always handy when you’re trying to warn people of an amorphous long-term danger.” Thanks largely to this paper, politicians have waged a fiscal debate “dominated by an imaginary fear.” Their debt obsession has caused “enormous and very long-term” economic impacts, especially mass unemployment, while everyone was rattling on about this spurious notion of growth-strangling debt. We’d be better off now if politicians had been attuned instead to the six-month “doomsday clock” for getting the long-term jobless back to work. Regrettably, it’s still “ticking in the background.”

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