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Monday, October 21, 2013

Ferguson v. Krugman

As I've made clear in various post and comments, I never go out of my way to read Krugman anymore, especially since various colleagues and acquaintances send me his columns fairly often.  The following four articles by Niall Ferguson (Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University; Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University) are a good example of why I don't read Krugman:

Krugtron the Invincible, Part 1

Krugtron the Invincible, Part 2

Krugtron the Invincible, Part 3

Civilizing the Marketplace of Ideas

Here is a brief excerpt from the last article:
As economists go, they do not come much mightier or more influential than Paul Krugman. A Nobel laureate who teaches at Princeton University, Krugman is also a columnist for the New York Times, whose commentaries and blog, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” are read with an almost religious fervor by liberal (in the American sense) economists and journalists around the world. He is a Twitter superstar, with more than a million followers. [...] 
Krugman has been the intellectual equivalent of a robber baron, exploiting his power to the point of driving decent people away from the public sphere – particularly younger scholars, who understandably dread a “takedown” by the “Invincible Krugtron.”
For those who find Krugman's columns powerful and true, the above articles won't convince you otherwise. However, they will give you a description from an excellent and concise historian of what some of us see when we view Krugman and his writings.  And from there, you can imagine that if you encountered someone who looked like that to you, you'd probably ignore him as well.

14 comments:

Annoying Old Guy said...

We could consider this about a NY Times editor saying "their biggest nightmare was [Krugman’s] column every week" via MSNBC. Or we could go less anonymous with Daniel Okrent, at the time the ombudsman for the NY Times, who wrote

Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults.

and

the unfair use of statistics, the misleading representation of opposing positions, and the conscious withholding of contrary data.

We don't point and laugh at Krugman because he opposes our opinions but because he's an uncivil and dishonest writer.

Howard said...

Bret,

Here is a follow up to the Ferguson take down. In the 1990s he usually focused on reasonable economic arguments. Now he is often largely political. His blog is named "conscience of a liberal" as opposed to something like "a good economist lighting the way." At least that's somewhat honest. He won his Nobel prize for work on trade. Sometime within the past year I saw an interview with another economist. He was being questioned about a recent Krugman statement that he obviously knew to be nonsense. Preferring not to make a direct attack, he simply replied that Krugman was a very good trade economist and would grant nothing further. My pet theory is that he has not yet recovered from a severe case of BDS.

Howard said...

Another example of Krugtron dis ingenuousness.

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,

As debunkings go, this is a pretty weak one. Ferguson's main points:

1) Krugman got the Euro zone crisis wrong - and he is so uncivil.

2) Krugman did not foresee the 2007 Crisis - and he is so uncivil.

3) Krugman thinks he is so much better than us all - and he is so uncivil!

As for 1, Krugman clearly made a political prediction wrong, which implies nothing to his credentials as economist - his allusion to previous two errors were all of strictly economic subjects. To think 2 is even an argument is comic.

Now, as for 3, Ferguson clearly states that Krugman's lack of humility and civility are his main point. Coming from someone who declares up there that "No one attacks me with impunity", it pretty much shows how serious we should take his humility recipe.

I am kind of used to witness academic ego wars by now, and I can tell this one is pretty cheap.

As I have made clear here before, I am very much for civil and honest discussions. Still, I recognize that usually the people most complaining about the lack of it tend to practice the opposite. You only need to witness here Erp's constant complaints about "socialists who only call people names", being herself a consistently uncivil persona, to see my point.

Bret said...

Clovis,

I didn't say that Ferguson debunked Krugman, and I'm not sure what you mean by that anyway.

My point is that Ferguson did a fantastic job of describing what Krugman looks like to ME.

Assuming you're not a masochist, and that Krugman appeared to you like he does to Ferguson and me, would you choose to regularly read his columns? If so, why?

erp said...

Clovis, Krugman is politically correct if that will make you feel better.

Harry Eagar said...

You're calling in Ferguson? Really?

Bret said...

I could either write 3 long columns myself or I could point to Ferguson to do it for me as his analysis of Krugman is very similar to mine. I chose to take the easy way and not duplicate someone else's effort.

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,

---
Assuming you're not a masochist, and that Krugman appeared to you like he does to Ferguson and me, would you choose to regularly read his columns? If so, why?
---

There are two main accusations he does to Krugman: being utterly uncivil and being dishonest. With an important caveat, he did not separate the areas where Krugman may be dishonest.

Were I convinced Krugman is really dishonest, from the academical point of view (i.e. as an macroeconomist) I would not read him at all. I am not convinced of so, and as I remarked above, Ferguson did a very bad job of proving that.

Is Krugman dishonest from a political point of view? Very probably yes, he is undeniably partisan. But then he is just human.

Now, is he uncivil? Is he a bully? Well, yes, and no. He is very aggressive in style sometimes, but he does not play as low as Ferguson implies.

Maybe it is something about academic culture, Bret. I am used to deal with complete jerks, who you would prefer to not even look at, but who happens to have some very good and challenging arguments regarding his research. And you need to process that to understand his points and check your own. I am no masochist but I keep reading them, it is part of the search for knowledge. The same is true for Krugman. It is an unfortunate fact of life that many bright minds happen to be awful human beings.

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "...from the academical point of view (i.e. as an macroeconomist)"

Where I find Krugman by far the most honest is in the name of his NY Times blog: "Conscience of a Liberal". Note that the word "economics" (or any variant thereof) does not appear in the title. I don't really see his columns as focused on economics.

In contrast, among others, I read the following "economics" blogs regularly:

http://www.themoneyillusion.com/ , written by an economics professor at Belmont College, he focuses on NGDP growth. His last post title: "A note on exchange rate regimes and macro outcomes"

http://marginalrevolution.com/ , written by two economists at GMU, writing on a wide range of subjects. The last post title: "The economics of declining Somali piracy"

http://www.arnoldkling.com/blog/ , written by an economist who has held a wide range of jobs in economics from teaching to working for the Federal Reserve. A recent post title: "Greenspan and the Housing Bubble"

While also ideological, the vast majority of the posts at these blogs have economics at the center of the post. Sometimes discussing economics research and academic papers, sometimes applying economic principles and reasoning to current events, and sometimes wandering off-topic.

On the other hand, Conscience of a Liberal has as its main focus, well, the thoughts of a liberal, with economics at the periphery. And what I've learned primarily from Conscience of a Liberal, is that the main point is that not being a Krugman style liberal, I'm an evil moron. I'm a quick study, so, okay, got it. There's not much reason to read further, unless, of course, I'm a masochist, which I'm not.

Clovis wrote: "...he does not play as low as Ferguson implies."

In my opinion, he plays exactly as low as Ferguson implies, that's why I linked to those articles by Ferguson. Much easier than writing it myself.

Clovis wrote: "Maybe it is something about academic culture...

Hmmm. Not in robotics. I have yet to meet a single academic in the field of robotics (and I've met with many dozens) who wasn't reasonably civil, not only to me, but to most others as well, at least in my presence. Actually, I take that back. Minsky was nasty to a lot of people, but he was a rather singular exception. And he was preeminent before robotics was particularly practical. I wonder if it's more theoretical academics that's less civil? Economics is certainly less practical.

With Krugman, I wouldn't hesitate to read his peer-reviewed academic papers. Indeed, I have. And they're good. It's his political writings in the NY Times that I find devoid of useful content.

One of his columns that resonated the most with me was Other Stuff I Read where he writes: "Some have asked if there aren’t conservative sites I read regularly. Well, no. I will read anything I’ve been informed about that’s either interesting or revealing; but I don’t know of any economics or politics sites on that side that regularly provide analysis or information I need to take seriously."

I assume that he doesn't need to take it seriously because we're stupid and always wrong and he's brilliant and always right. But thinking about it, I decided that he's right about not reading the other side, so I have learned something from him :-). While I enjoy debating the other side, I do find it's pointless to just read the other side because it's obvious I'm simply going to disagree with the vast majority of it anyway, and if it's insulting and degrading like Krugman's writings, there really is no point in reading it at all - unless you're a masochist.

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,


I do not agree that Krugman's blog is devoid of economics material. He regularly publishes his more technical thoughts under the "wonkish" headline, and if you browse through them, you'll notice they are markedly less political in content.

Krugman is also a popularizer of his field, so he intentionally tries to translate the technical stuff to simple language and concepts, and I believe he is pretty good at that. But the fact he mixes it with his jabs against non-Liberals may shut you out. Or, maybe, since you look to know far more economics than I (I never studied it in any formal way), the appeal of popularization does not touch you.

As I remarked before here, you may dislike all his politics, but it still remains the fact that his simple models rightly explained a few non-intuitive things in the last few years. Not everyone understood, for example, why the quantitative easing would not generate inflation. If it was obvious to you from the begin, congratulations, but it was not for me, and apparently for a lot of economists too - many of them associated to conservative politics. Maybe in your place I would keep reading him to search for this level of information, and ignore the rest.


---
I wonder if it's more theoretical academics that's less civil? Economics is certainly less practical.
---
I don't know if this is the explanation. Experimental Physics can provide quite unpleasant enviroments too - although my own field, theoretical Physics, is way worse in that aspect. I can think of few renowned big shots on it who are pleasant enough to talk with. Try someday to talk with Ed Witten (of superstring fame), you'll see Krugman is quite a gentleman. In fact, everything you complain about Krugman is pretty mild next to what I am used to.



---
But thinking about it, I decided that he's right about not reading the other side, so I have learned something from him :-).
---
I think you are taking him too literally. He obviously reads the other side, for he is batling them constantly. His rift with Greg Makiw is famous, you can say Makiw is the anti-Krugman, and yet he references him (either his blog and technical papers) in not few posts.

I do try to read both sides of every debate, it is the most basic way to walk through it. Our minds are set to operate by measuring "opposite things". But I understand if you prefer to read less "offensive" material than Krugman's.

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "...the appeal of popularization does not touch you."

That's true in that I don't need economics spoon-fed to me, having spent ten years working with a futures trader and having read thousands of pages on economics, markets, and finance during that period, and applied that knowledge to the challenging problem of generating high returns from futures markets.

However, my problem is that I'm pretty sure Krugman's goal is not to popularize economic concepts. In fact, I strongly believe his goal is to ensure that as few people as possible actually think through economic concepts and to keep people as ignorant about economics as possible. I believe he successfully does this with the message, "I'm always right, here's all you need to know, and if anybody tells you differently, they're wrong, immoral, and stupid." That's what Ferguson is saying. I see this not only in Krugman's writing, but in interactions in a wide variety of forums, where I often get, "But Krugman said X and he's always right, therefore you're wrong," without even being willing to look at the facts and evidence I present or considering my reasoning. It's the ultimate "appeal to authority" fallacy and Krugman has been brilliant at cultivating it.

You are, in fact, one of the very few people I've encountered who follow and like Krugman, while also being at least a little bit willing to consider that he's not infallible and to at least occasionally consider what others, who disagree with Krugman, have to say.

Clovis wrote: "...everything you complain about Krugman is pretty mild next to what I am used to..."

I can't imagine why you put up with it. Physicists generally do quite well in Robotics. You might consider switching.

Clovis wrote: "...you can say Makiw is the anti-Krugman..."

No, I really, really couldn't say that (and I assume you mean Mankiw). Yes, Mankiw is more conservative than Krugman, but they're both Keynesians, which in economics is (or at least should be) more defining than political ideology. The dot product of the multidimensional unit vectors describing those two is significantly greater than zero, in my opinion, and certainly greater than -1. I used to read Mankiw's blog daily until he got rid of comments a few years ago.

Peter said...

Clovis, even though I minored in the dismal science, I still find trying to grasp economics to be like trying to grasp a handful of mercury. Indeed, I am suprised regularly at how persuasive completely opposite views can be to me. The essence of Krugman is not whether he is right or wrong about this or that, it's his smug preening, oversimplifications and unconcealed contempt for anyone who doesn't see how brilliant he is. He's the Dawkins of economics.

I stopped taking Keynesian economists seriously when I realized that I had never heard one say: "Hey, we're clearly doing things right and the land is strong. Time to make paying down the debt the priority".

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,

---
However, my problem is that I'm pretty sure Krugman's goal is not to popularize economic concepts. In fact, I strongly believe his goal is to ensure that as few people as possible actually think through economic concepts and to keep people as ignorant about economics as possible.
---
Maybe you can made a similar case for many other complex topics where popularization necessarily leads to oversimplification and bias. I see it happening in Physics too, a supposedly more objective topic.

So I correct my point: Krugman is a very good popularizer of Keynesianism. He does not really put in much effort to clarify other strands, or when he does, it is usually in a negative light. But if you think through it, he is doing just what he is supposed to do: to sell as well as possible his worldview. Ferguson, who is another popularizer himself, is in fact whinning because Krugman is much better than him at that. The marketplace of ideas, to use his words, is free and wild out there, he can try to reach 1 million twitter fans too. Or use his wide access to the media to make his worldview known. Well, he already does try all that, so in effect his main complaint is that a more aggressive and bigger competitor outdoes him.

It is under the above context that I see Ferguson's arguments, so I do not take him that seriously.

Now, I understand you are genuinely resenting the loss of freedom for ideas that Krugman's may have generated around you. I think you are already giving as good as answer to that as you can: what attracted me to your blog was the high level of the arguments you present on many things, economics included. There are too many trolls out there in the internet, and you won't convince them all, but any honest reader will stop to pay attention to good arguments. Or that's at least my naive hope :-)


Peter,

I think you've made a good comparison, Krugman and Dawkins. Both have a powerful oratory coupled to an aggressive take down of contrary opinions - and also a very solid academic background to sustain their arguments.

I also think both are an answer of the Liberal establishment to a previous challenge: the end of the 90's and begin of the 00's was marked by the growing influence of a conservative/right wing kind of media that started to play a much more aggressive game. The rise of Fox News and similar media (in print or television), using a much stronger language and aggressive behavior, is representative of that in the political and economical front (where Krugman operates), and the influence of the American Christian Right in those times is another (where Dawkins operates).

So, I am no fan of Dawkins (by the contrary), and I do not take joy in Krugman's more aggressive strikes, but I do place them in the above context.