Speaking of Krugman…

In my previous post, I explored my first exposure to Milton Friedman, while comparing him with Krugman. I thought it would be fair to do the same for Paul Krugman.

Somewhere in the early 00’s, I read a Paul Krugman column for the first time. Like Friedman, in the 70s, I had no idea who he was. Instead of being impressed with his ability to have a productive discussion, I was appalled at his use of fallacies. Name calling (ad hominem) and straw men (misrepresenting/oversimplifying opposing positions) seemed to be his favorites.

Friedman struck me as someone who, if you had a question about something, you could ask him and he’d give you a good rundown of both sides of the issue and why he thought one way or the other.

Krugman struck me as someone who would twist a story to match his preconceived ideas and would do so uncivilly. I decided he wasn’t worth my time to read Krugman and I have been amazed at how much attention the twerp gets.

Liberals like him because they can use him in their own fallacies — especially the Appeal to Expert or Authority fallacy — with heavy emphasis on his Nobel prize. Disregard, however, that whatever idea of Krugman’s they are appealing to has nothing to do with what he won the Nobel prize for.

Economists seem to like to play an annoying Krugman game. How can I praise him and disagree with him at the same time? I’ve been amazed at how willing they are to overlook his uncivil behavior.

It took longer than I thought, but a couple of economists have publicly called out his uncivil behavior in their open letter to PK.

I don’t post much about Krugman here, because I find that he is not worth my time. Occasionally, I do give him another chance to see if I’m missing something, but he hasn’t changed my mind yet. I still find his arguments contorted to fit his vision and not the least bit compelling.

As just one example, here he responds to the open letter.

Krugman first claimed that these two economists didn’t do much to publicly distance themselves from politicians who may have misused their research. When they provided a record of the times they did exactly that, Krugman retreats to “if the authors ever made an effort to correct this misconception…it was done very quietly.” Rather than admitting he overplayed that point, he gives us conditional, non-admission. That’s Childhood Sibling Fighting 101.

This whole point, however, is a red herring.

I also found this to not be compelling:

It’s the difference between arguing that failure to impose an austerity program amounting to a few percent of GDP might reduce GDP a decade from now by a fraction of a percent at most — which is what the actual correlation suggests — to suggesting that it will reduce future GDP by 10 percent, which is what the threshold claim suggests.

 

While I have issues with several things in this paragraph (like the use of the word austerity,  the characterization of ‘failure to impose’ it and the underlying notion that correlations matter), a couple others stand out.

First, I thought the corrected correlation showed the difference could be 8%, no? The Herndon correction showed that countries at the 90% of GDP debt threshold still underperformed countries with less debt by 0.8%. Compounding for 10 years, isn’t that 8%?

Even at that, that’s not the key reason I don’t find Krugman’s statement compelling. Even if my 8% figure is incorrect and Krugman’s ‘fraction of a percent at most’ is, the data still shows that ‘austerity’ programs, at worst, DO NOT HURT, and may help.

So, what is the argument against austerity?

Why is there no Milton Friedman today?

This question was put to economists recently. Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution, responded here.

Here’s an excerpt of his response:

In some respects, if there is a Milton Friedman of today, it is Paul Krugman, who both has a Nobel Prize and has a very large popular audience and considerable skills as a communicator. Of course Friedman’s contributions as an economist were far more fundamental. Arguably Friedman deserves three or four distinct Nobel Prizes, while no one would say the same about Krugman, even though most of his serious critics readily would grant he deserves the one.

What about the differences in political orientation? The great policy battles of Friedman’s day were defeating communism and planning, moving away from naive Keynesianism, privatizing, and overcoming an excessive belief in regulation. And today what goals are perceived (correctly or not) as comparably important? Improving income inequality, fixing health care, and reining in the banks. The cynic might toss in ‘fighting austerity and returning to naive Keynesianism.’ It should be no surprise that today’s closest equivalent to Milton Friedman—in terms of being an iconic, popular, Nobel Prize-winning economist—should come from the left rather than from a conservative or a libertarian viewpoint.

I agree, but I would add a few observations. The differences between Friedman and Krugman run deeper than political orientation.

Friedman encouraged and facilitated productive discussion. He didn’t (at least to my knowledge) personally attack his critics. He engaged them and made his points on merit. Friedman got people to think and changed minds.

Krugman muddies the discussion with personal attacks and straw men representations of his opponents’ positions. He doesn’t encourage or facilitate productive discussion. Rather, he polarizes.

As a lad, I saw Friedman on the Phil Donahue show. I had no idea who he was. In fact, I had no cognizant recollection of seeing him on Donahue until I watched Youtube videos of those appearances in the last few years.

But, when I re-watched them, I was taken back to my pre-AC and pre-cable TV days. On a hot summer afternoon, with five channels on TV, Donahue was a last resort from boredom…usually coming after watching Beverly Hillbilly and I Love Lucy re-runs for the umpteenth time.

While I didn’t have much idea what he was talking about, I found his style refreshing. He didn’t get sidetracked with fallacies or caught up with noise making. He simply presented his case. When challenged, he addressed the challenge instead of avoiding it, which stood out to me.

He also struck me as someone, if given a challenge that he had handled a hundred times before, would stop and think about it and give it due consideration.

 

Even at that young age I seemed to notice that productive discussion was rare. That when challenged, folks just repeated their talking points (perhaps with more fervor), but thought it best to not acknowledge the challenge.

So, while Krugman may be today’s Friedman when applying a simple filter (an economist, with a Nobel Prize and a large popular audience that matches with the political trends of the day), he doesn’t have Friedman’s penchant for productive discussion. I don’t get the sense that Krugman changes minds to his way of thinking. Rather, he provides cover for people who already think his way.

Wisdom and telling the truth

From a Harvard Business Review Ideacast (podcast) with Maya Angelou

[Interviewer]: Both your mother and your grandmother were businesswomen.

MAYA ANGELOU: Yes.

[Interviewer]: What did they teach you about good management?

MAYA ANGELOU: Well, that’s it’s wise to be fair. It’s unwise to be a cheat. And both of them were really [INAUDIBLE] fair. And, of course, by teaching that, they also taught me, or I learned from them, not to lie. And that doesn’t mean tell the truth and tell everything you know. You’re never supposed to do that. But just make sure that what you do say is the truth.

I know there are people who say, I’m brutality frank. Well, one doesn’t have to be brutal about anything. One can tell the truth and tell it in such a way that the listener hears it and really welcomes it. So I learned that from both of them.

 

Kings by committee

From Don Boudreaux’s Sunday’s Quotation of the Day

…page 123 of the 1981 Liberty Fund edition of Herbert Spencer’s important 1884 tract, The Man Versus the State:

“The great political superstition of the past was the divine right of kings.  The great political superstition of the present is the divine right of parliaments.”

Annoyed

I do get annoyed and some people are good at annoying me. David Brooks is one such person. I was especially annoyed when I saw Tyler Cowen quote and link to his column and refer to it as ‘interesting throughout.’ I found that so annoying that it made me question why I like Cowen.

Brooks annoys me because he comes across (to me, at least) as a pompous elitist who fascinates himself and rarely considers that he might be wrong.

While there was much that annoyed me about the quote that Cowen found interesting, I’ll pick on one thing.  In one part, Brooks wrote this:

So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

I’ll point out a few things I find dumb about this. I’m willing to consider that I’m the dumb one and maybe you can help me see what I’m missing.

First, his evidence of society becoming more individualistic was that the use of the word “preferences” had increased in books that Google can search over different time periods. Is it possible this isn’t a reflection of society becoming more individualistic? Is it possible that it really has nothing at all to say about society?

Second, society is breaking down, but government is trying to help? Society, seems pretty strong to me. Where is it breaking down? It appears to breaking down in the very parts where government has inserted itself the most. 

I wonder if Brooks has ever considered that it is the elitist folks of his ilk, who fancy themselves competent diviners of society’s problems and providers of solutions to those problems (of which, they never pay any direct consequences for being wrong), who may be CAUSING the breakdowns in society?

Cheating

The recent revelations about government treatment of conservative groups and reporters reminds me of the Lance Armstrong story.

Armstrong was a hero. The story was that he had a laser focus on training and used scientific to eeek out everything he could in July from his body and his bikes. He was training “right” in December, while all of his competitors were eating holiday dinners and drinking. He used “periodization” training to “peak out” for the Tour de France in July. He and his team director, Johan Bruyneel, out-strategized their opponents by building a team with specific talents and all dedicated to one goal of helping Lance win.

And, indeed, some of these things did help. After all, Armstrong wasn’t the only one racing dirty. But, the real story emerges about a decade later — btw, I cheated, too.

Reminds me of the 2012 election story. Supposedly, Democrats out-Moneyballed Republicans. They analyzed each district and sent just the right tailored message to each one to get the vote they needed. Now more of the story is emerging…btw, we cheated, too.

John Papola’s attempt at a productive discussion

This may be the beginning of a good discussion on economic worldviews (HT: Pretense of Knowledge) and is definitely worth a read.

Here’s a snippet of him responding to his opponent:

Mr. Livingston kicks off his rebuttal with a politically-charged round of ridicule complete with a barrage of buzzwords like “austerity,” “trickle-down” and “Reaganomics” whose sole purpose is to rile partisan fervor in the reader. My argument was thus hand-waved away as mere “faith” in classical economics with the assertion that “no amount of evidence” can shake me of my baseless dogma.