With all eyes and all headlines fixed so intently upon Boston’s two Caucasian Bombers, hardly anyone has been paying attention to revelations of a far more devastating disaster that unfolded close nearby, but which were generally buried on the inside pages of our major newspapers.
I refer, of course, to the Harvard Spreadsheet Glitch, the discovery of a calculation error in the early 2010 research of celebrity-economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart. The Rogoff-Reinhart findings had been cited by officials and international agencies throughout the world as proof of the devastating economic impact of accumulated national debt. As a result, most governments focused their Great Recession response on the need to minimize deficit spending and cut budgets rather than try to reduce unemployment via Keynesian pump-priming, which according to the study led to disaster. But Rogoff-Reinhardt had made an error in their calculation, so Oops!
Now I am as absolutely far from being a trained economist as it is humanly possible to be, never in my life having taken so much as a single economics course or even opened the pages of a textbook. But simple common sense and reading the newspapers tells me that the glitch in question had major world consequences, given how widely the austerity prescriptions were believed and followed by our ruling elites.
It appears that countries containing nearly a billion people were substantially affected by that widely promoted spreadsheet error, with trillions of dollars misdirected and probably many millions of citizens driven into deep unemployment and poverty. Given that prolonged economic stress significantly lowers life expectancy, the premature death toll from that defective Rogoff-Reinhart spreadsheet likely reaches far into the hundreds of thousands. Whichever drunken grad student typed in the wrong numbers has much to answer for, or perhaps we should just prosecute Bill Gates for selling a genocidal weapon such as Excel.
Now anyone can make a numerical mistake, and I have certainly made many in my own day, a source of permanent humiliation and guilt. But consider that none of our financial, media, or academic elites bothered checking or confirming those erroneous calculations based as they were upon publicly available data. Instead, they just endlessly trumpeted the results in news stories and speeches, once again manifestly confirming the total arrogant incompetence of those who rule our world.
The obvious reason for this ridiculous situation was that the Rogoff-Reinhart findings fit so perfectly well into the orthodox economic theories and perceived reality of established elite opinion that they were naturally assumed to be correct; if they had predicted something else, they surely would have been checked and rechecked and re-rechecked until even the slightest small error was found. Our academics and journalists believe certain things to be true, and simply tend to discard or ignore evidence that does not conform to that framework, while our politicians read whatever speech the teleprompter sets before them, just like the network newscasters they increasingly resemble. My impression is that the Brezhnevian Era of Soviet stagnation followed a similar pattern, though their politician-rulers were much far less photogenic and talkative.
What will be the negative consequences of this devastating discovery for the careers and credibility of Rogoff, Reinhart, and all their supportive colleagues and promoters? None whatsoever I expect. Once a few weeks or months have gone by, and more Chechen terrorism or celebrity scandals have washed away any lingering memories, then new and improved Rogoff-Reinhart economic predictions from their same Harvard spreadsheets will be just as widely distributed and believed as had been their previous ones, with the same economic pundits touting them in newspaper columns or cable television debates. The famous words of Talleyrand regarding the restored post-Napoleonic French Bourbon monarchs comes to mind: “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
Given our current national trajectory it wouldn’t much surprise me if a sufficiently irritated and immiserated citizenry will eventually consider applying a very Bourbon outcome to our ruling elites, dealing with them in the same late eighteenth century fashion as was visited upon roi, duc, and comte, with the process perhaps garnering astonishingly high ratings on national reality-television.