Grasping Reality

One of several blogs that I follow on a fairly regular basis is Grasping Reality with Both Hands, by Brad DeLong, Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley. The subtitle of his blog is “The Semi-Daily Journal of Economist J. Bradford DeLong: Fair, Balanced, Reality-Based, and Even-Handed“, which I guess is to say that he sees himself in pretty much the same way that most people see themselves. I think it’s also fair to say that Prof. DeLong has a liberal view of the world and that he is inclined to take a pretty acerbic tone when it comes to commenting on people and policies he doesn’t agree with. Another blog he writes claims to offer “punchy liberal analysis and evisceration–especially evisceration“.

A week ago, DeLong posted an article quoting almost in full (less one paragraph) a New York Times op ed by Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning Professor of Economics from Princeton University (and who I’ve mentioned before). Krugman’s piece, as I understand it, essentially suggested that the success of Keynesian economic theory has itself led people to underestimate its importance. The substance of the article was interesting enough, but what caught my attention was the following comment, talking about changes that have occurred in the assumptions many economists make about how the economy works –

The result was what I’ve called the Dark Age of macroeconomics, in which large numbers of economists literally knew nothing of the hard-won insights of the 30s and 40s – and, of course, went into spasms of rage when their ignorance was pointed out.

Krugman routinely excoriates people he disagrees with, so this comment, particularly the second part, struck me as pretty consistent with his usual style, one that personally I have always found disappointing and unhelpful (for example, in an article in July this year, he described people he disagreed with as “a coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused“). To be fair, the latest case was just one sentence in a fairly substantial article and no doubt the way I read it was influenced by some broader frustration on my part. Nonetheless, the comment was certainly typical of a consistent tone in Krugman’s writing that I have long felt does little to move public debate in a positive direction.

So I decided to post a comment about it on DeLong’s blog. The comment sparked a number of remarks from other readers, and later on I posted a follow-up. However, Prof. DeLong evidently didn’t find my input much to his liking, as he later chose to delete both comments. I was a little taken aback, since the point I was trying to make was both serious and, in my opinion, important. DeLong has a comments policy on his site, which indicates that he will remove any post that is “offensive, upsetting, or just plain unpleasant“, so I guess he felt that mine fell into one of those categories (though not Krugman’s of course).

Of course, the blog is his – he is absolutely entitled to do with it whatever he chooses. Nonetheless I found the experience rather disappointing. Naturally, I no longer have the actual text of what I wrote. I really wish I did, but it didn’t occur to me to make a copy of it since I never imagined it might get deleted. However the gist of what I said was that Krugman’s comment illustrates why I struggle to take him seriously as a public intellectual, as the only way he seems to know how to engage with people who disagree with him is through attacking their competence, motives or morality, and now also their emotional stability.

In my follow-up I noted that there is a segment of the population, people like me if you will, who are not economists but are genuinely interested in understanding what economists try to tell us about the world, yet who insist on understanding all sides of an argument, who reject simplistic dichotomies and refuse to accept things simply because people tell us they are true. The point I made was that for these people, rhetoric like Krugman’s simply doesn’t do anything useful. I know that it’s natural to feel antogonism towards people you disagree with and I understand well enough the impulse to vent, but it just doesn’t do anything to help people like me actually understand critical and complex issues more deeply.

My point was not that Krugman is not an important public intellectual. Plainly he is, by virtue of both his academic stature and the sheer volume of public exposure given to his views (and Foreign Policy magazine have just ranked him at #26 in their top 100 global thinkers).  However the way he chooses to play his role makes it impossible for me personally to take him seriously as someone I can rely on to help me develop a clearer understanding of the way the world works. The way that he engages in public with people he disagrees with (in many cases highly credentialed economists) involves painting complex issues in absolute, black and white terms, admitting no possibility of uncertainly about the impact of different approaches to policy or even a basis for reasoned debate. And by routinely ascribing dishonorable motives and culpable ignorance to his opponents, he denies any willingness to entertain meaningful conversation with those people and actively discourages people from considering the possibility that other points of view might offer useful insights. Here are a few examples of his style from just the past few weeks –

  • Nov 28 – describes Republicans as “a powerful political faction” who demand that the Fed stop trying to promote economic recovery and that this “amounts to a demand that we voluntarily put ourselves in a Spanish prison” (a reference to Spain’s financial problems).
  • Nov 22 – claims the GOP has “no interest in making America governable, unless it’s doing the governing”, that it “isn’t interested in helping the economy as long as a Democrat is in the White House” and is “trying to bully the Fed itself into giving up completely on trying to reduce unemployment”. Says it also “opposes anything that might help sustain demand in a depressed economy”, that their opposition is purely political and that they are willing to endanger the nation in order to sabotage the President”.
  • Nov 18 – accuses the Republican Party (and China and Germany) of trying to “bully the Federal Reserve into calling off its efforts to create jobs” and having “highly suspect” motives. Calls them unreasonable and the “axis of depression”. Calls Republican objections “odd” and “incoherent”.
  • Nov 11 – accuses the chairmen of the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform of having hijacked the Commission “on behalf of an ideological agenda”. Accuses them of ‘smuggling’ an agenda of cutting taxes for the rich and eroding a social safety net “under the guise of facing our fiscal problems.” Tells them to fold their tents and “go away.”
  • Nov 7 – calls people concerned about the potential inflationary impact of loose money supply “domestic inflationista’s” (I presume alluding to the Sandinistas, the guerrilla group that overthrew the Nicaraguan government in 1979). Characterizes people who are skeptical of Quantitative Easing as having “opposed every effort to break out of our economic trap” and calls them “the Pain Caucus”.
  • Nov 4 – accuses Democratic critics of the President of intellectual cowardice and the President of lacking the courage of his convictions.
  • Oct 31 – calls people he claims are responsible for the economic slump moralizers and muggers. Claims they fly into a rage when challenged. Suggests that the President either lacks courage or is intellectually lazy.

Of course there is nothing fundamentally wrong with having strong opinions about either policies or people – I have a few myself (though as I’ve said before I think attributing motives to people is a pretty lazy way of arguing). And plenty of the substance of Krugman’s economic thinking may be quite correct. But in my view, the world is a complicated place and there are often multiple competing objectives to public policy. I think it is to be expected that different people, reasonable people, will reach different conclusions about the kinds of measures that are appropriate in a given situation. And I think it’s wise to have a little humility and acknowledge that there are some things we don’t have a complete understanding of – ‘experts’ included. Opinions are important, but I, and I think many people, value opinions most when they are expressed in a way that demonstrates both careful, dispassionate analysis and a willingness to engage respectfully and constructively with people who see the world differently. We look for ‘pubic intellectuals’ who can provide that for us. However Paul Krugman is plainly not one of those people. He is welcome to take the approach he does and he is hardly alone in doing so – political operatives on all sides behave in essentially the same way. But the absolutism of his rhetoric makes it impossible for me to see him as a useful source of balanced analysis.

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