"Our craft is bankrupt," the veteran economist passing through here observed the other day. "Economists have nothing more to say. The bright academics fiddle with elegant mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. The policy-minded have run out of ideas."
This harsh judgment, now heard with increasing frequency on both sides of the Atlantic, is likely to be strengthened by the pair of reports emanating this month from prestigious organizations.
One comes from the Bank for International Settlements, the central bankers' very own central bank, and is supposed to reflect the collective wisdom of top money managers. The BIS annual report, sad to say, offers the world advice that cannot be followed, in either logic, mathematics or economics.
The document praises the Germans and Japanese for achieving surpluses in their international payments and urges everyone else to follow their virtuous example.
Unhappily, all nations cannot be in surplus at the same time, a surplus for one nation must be balanced by a deficit in another. Either some nations are perpetually in surplus and others perpetually in deficit or they take turns.
This is why President Carter, Prime Minister Callaghan and others have urged the Germans and Japanese to expand their economies faster, taking in more imports from the deficit sinners. Oh no, says the BIS. Germany is entitled to hold back on expansion in order to curb inflation.
Perhaps so. But then the surplus nations must allow their exchange rates to rise. As their currencies become costlier, they will suck in imports and even strengthen their battle against rising domestic prices. But no. The BIS insists that it is somehow up to the deficit countries to bear the burden of adjustment.
More important than this peculiar exercise is the report of the "Wise Men" just published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Eight distinguished economists from the United States and seven other relatively rich nations were charged with a formidable mission: Determine what has gone wrong in the prosperous West and tell us how to set it right.
After two years of labor, the Wise Men conclude that what has gone wrong is some bad luck and some bad management, nothing more. It can all be set right by doing what everybody is already doing, only better.
If only Lyndon Johnson had paid for his war and social programs with taxes instead of printing money, if only there had not been some bad harvests, if only oil companies and Arabs had not gotten greedy, if only Anthony Barber in Britain and other finance ministers had not tried to buy electoral victory with funny money - then all would still be right with the world.
The man in the street, who has lived through seven lean years of slump, inflation and unemployment - broken only by feeble recoveries - is entitled to be skeptical.
Clearly stock-market investors who have drastically reduced the price they will pay for each dollar of corporate profits have decided something more than accident and clumsiness is involved.
Indeed, the Wise Men suggest as much themselves. They had produced a new tool, a "discomfort index" that crudely adds unemployment rates to inflation rates in the rich, OECD countries. The resultant sum is supposed to show how well or badly off the West is.
Even this strange device shows a distinct upward trend in "discomfort" since 1967. The fact that the index makes equal the distress of one million jobless Americans and a one per cent rise in U.S. retail prices is something that does not bear close examination.
The reassurance flowing from the OECD report is understandable. Marxists, ecological apocalyptics, some right-wing monetarists and run-of-the-mill sensation-seekers have insisted that what is happening in the 1970s presages the imminent collapse of capitalism and democracy. The evidence is all the other way, as the Wise Men insist.
But the recent experience does suggest something fundamental has happened; something has taken place to halt 20 years of almost unbroken growth, high employment and stable prices.
As in most OECD documents, particularly those supervised by its chief economic adviser, Stephen Marris, an answer of sorts can be found. This time, however, the hunt is more difficult than usual because a red herring has been placed on the trail.
The red herring is this: "Restrictive demand management policies are decideldly effective against the type of inflation in product markets we have been experiencing." In plainer English, governments can stop price rises by General Motors, U.S. Steel, Exxon and their sisters by squeezing the supply of money, increasing taxes or cutting federal spending.
More realistically - if inconsistently - the report recognizes that there is market power in the world, that big corporations (as well as unions) can push up prices no matter what happens to demand. The lat John Blair's doctrine of perverse pricing is illustrated in every slump.
That is exactly why the realistic, as opposed to the reassuring, section of the Marris report strongly urge governments to discuss price and wage targets with the business and union chiefs who set them. If demand management worked so splendidly, there would be no need for talks.
This, then, is the central question that the Wise Men never answered. Has increased concentration in Europe, coupled with the bigger appetites of Exxon and other semimonopolistic U.S. corporations, created a new rigidity in the system? Is this why the West now confronts the dilemma of choosing between high employment and dizzying inflation, and high unemployment and moderate inflation.?
Robert Lekachman was the first economist to proclaim the poverty of the discipline. "When bright people say stupied things," he wrote, "the question inevitably arises: Why is their perception of reality so blurred? . . . The world will continue to astonish economists so long as they concentrate upon the small, incremental changes in purely economic magnitudes to which their training has habituated them."
Anticipating the buried portions of the OECD report, Lekachman asserted: "Inflation, like unemployment and income distribution, is rooted in concentrations of power and relationships."