Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Why I Don't Like Paul Krugman 

Ever since I've been aware of him, I've had a dislike for Paul Krugman. I know he's a very accomplished scholar, and has done some respected research (none of which I am familiar with), but most people's exposure to him, myself included, comes from his New York Times column. I'm a regular reader, although I don't read every one. Some are fine, some are uninteresting to me, and many are painful to read, for reasons I have never quite been able to articulate. They simply cause me to roll my eyes and give up. Given that I often don't disagree in principle with Krugman, it's been quite baffling.

Without looking for it, this morning I found my way to this article by Arnold Kling (written some time ago) that has put a name to my dislike for Krugman's articles. For me, he's absolutely nailed it.

For example, suppose I were to say, "We should abolish the minimum wage. That would increase employment and enable more people to climb out of poverty."

There are two types of arguments you might make in response. I call these Type C and Type M. A hypothetical example of a Type C argument would be, "Well, Arnold, studies actually show that the minimum wage does not cost jobs. If you read the work of Krueger and Card, you would see that the minimum wage probably reduces poverty."

A hypothetical example of a Type M argument would be, "People who want to get rid of the minimum wage are just trying to help the corporate plutocrats."

Paul, my question for you is this:

Do you see any differences between those two types of arguments?

I see differences, and to me they are important. Type C arguments are about the consequences of policies. Type M arguments are about the alleged motives of individuals who advocate policies.

In this example, the type C argument says that the consequences of eliminating the minimum wage would not be those that I expect and desire. We can have a constructive discussion of the Type C argument -- I can cite theory and evidence that contradicts Krueger and Card -- and eventually one of us could change his mind, based on the facts.

Type M arguments deny the legitimacy of one's opponents to even state their case. Type M arguments do not give rise to constructive discussion. They are almost impossible to test empirically.

For many years, Milton Friedman wrote columns in which he tried to explain economic reasoning to a mainstream audience. In order to educate and maybe change minds. Hal Varian still does that today, and in the same newspaper as Paul Krugman. I love economics because the insights it provides can be incredibly beneficial to society. Part of the obligation that goes with having that much power to do good is to "spread the word." In fact, you can often see the pained look in economists' faces when they see people doing things that they know will make them worse off, simply because they're confused. This morning, Arnold Kling wrote:

...in economics there are issues on which experts have imperfect knowledge and disagree with one another. Our arrogance should be tempered. In my book, I quote Herbert Stein, who has written that "economists do not know very much about economic policy...non-economists know even less."

I believe that economists have a right to feel that we have superior knowledge on issues of public policy. However, the implication of this is not that we should be given deference and power. Instead, I believe that economists have an obligation to explain our thinking to novices, and novices have an obligation to attempt to understand economics.

I see that willingness to explain in Varian's articles, and in Steven Landsburg's articles on Slate. Take their views for what you will, I have yet to feel like I've learned something from Krugman's columns.

That's interesting: about two weeks ago I came upon the same Kling article. (This was after I read Krugman's The Accidental Theorist, which has a nice discussion about monetary policy by using a babysitting co-op as an example. The Slate article is nearly identical to the book chapter: http://www.slate.com/id/1937 . Maybe you already knew his point, but I didn't; so it would be fair to say that Krugman does indeed write for the everyday person.)

Anyway, I think it's true that Krugman sometimes will discuss motivations as opposed to (or in addition to) consequences (and sometimes he'll give books or movies better reviews than they should have had). But one of the reasons I read and like Krugman so much is because he reveals the motivations. For example, I've been trying to wonder why the hell some people would like to see the gold standard return. In his book, Krugman explains how the gold standard would benefit the very wealthy and also shows how that would be bad in general. There's nothing wrong with giving M arguments if you also provide the C argument.

So, while the every day person should know more about economics than they do, there are some of us who want to know exactly why some in the Right do the things they do. While you are trying to wrap your head around Krugman, I've been trying to wrap my head around the Right. In that quest, I've found some of what they're talking about makes a lot of sense, and I've also found some to have no solid foundation at all.

Given what good fiscal conservates would want, I just can't figure out why Bush is so popular with them. At best you'd think it'd be the same relationship far-left unions had with Clinton.

I dunno... maybe his writing style can be annoying to you? It would be similar to Reason articles for me. Something that would otherwise be an intelligent discussion and defense for a point of view can often include unecessary jabs at the Left, for no real reason. That can only serve alienate readers.
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