David Henderson Has Balls

On EconLog, David Henderson answers my question, why he reads Paul Krugman. I am the Seth he refers to in that post.

I thank David for taking the time to answer. His answer was better than I expected. More on that later.

There are several reasons I don’t pay much attention to Krugman.

Mark Twain sums up the main reason:

Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.

Also, it’s unproductive.

I know. Who am I? I must be crazy to think that a Nobel Prize winner and successful New York Times columnist is stupid. But, I do. And, maybe I am crazy. I’m open to that argument. But, for the few times I’ve tried to read Paul Krugman, I’ve found it difficult to get past his first logical fallacy, which usually comes in the form of a straw man or ad hominem. Logical fallacies are markers of poor arguments.

I expect more of a Nobel winner. If he can’t be careful enough to state his opponent’s position accurately, I’m done. I have much better uses for my time.

His apologists stretch to overlook these transgressions to productive dialogue. For example, they point out that ‘technically’ some whacko holds the view that Krugman constructed, but we all know that doesn’t address the real issues or the actual disagreements, so it’s not productive. Waste of breathe.

Which brings me to another reason I don’t pay attention to Krugman. Henderson laid it out well in the post that started this topic, Krugman Kontradiction:

 …when he [Krugman] appears to contradict himself, without ever admitting it, which he often does appear to do, he can usually get out of it because when you go and read him carefully, you find that he didn’t really contradict himself but, instead, misled his audience into thinking that he said something that he didn’t quite say.

Or, it’s like 9-year-olds arguing. You said that. No, I didn’t. Yes you did. No I didn’t. Again, not productive. I don’t have much time for people who express thoughts just so. It’s adolescent. I coach a youth sports team. I get enough of that level of discussion at practices.

In his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Taleb expresses another reason I don’t pay attention to Krugman (which this post clearly violates): There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Taleb explains that the success of Ayn Rand’s books is owed, in no small part, to her intense critics. I don’t wish to be responsible for Krugman getting any more attention.

Another reason I don’t pay attention to Krugman is that he’s never wrong, or at least he doesn’t seem to think so. I have enough know-it-alls in my life who squirm their way out of being wrong by using their clever intellects. In my view, these people have lived their whole lives with others telling them how smart they are. Their ego depends on it. When they are wrong, they kick their smarts into high gear and go into ego-protection mode.

The last reason (that I’ll mention) why I don’t pay much attention to Paul Krugman is that his job is easy. It doesn’t take a lot of balls to convince people that elites and government can solve their problems. That seems to be what they want to believe anyway. So, if a Nobel Laureate is telling you what you want to hear, it seems, there’s really no reason to check him or think about it too deeply.

It’s much more challenging to convince people that they can and should solve their own problems and that they will be better off if they do so.

Now, why was Henderson’s answer better than I expected? Because Henderson didn’t bow at the altar of Krugman. Henderson said because Krugman is one of the most important economics bloggers, which I take to mean that he is widely followed, not that he is the most talented or even deserving of being followed. Just that he is widely followed.

I am interested in economics. But, I prefer to learn from economists like David Henderson — not because I like Henderson’s biases (which I do), but because he has the balls to take on the fundamental disagreements directly, rather than construct straw men. He admits when he’s wrong, and doesn’t get blinded by his own ego and desire to be right. He encourages his students to think deeply and challenge him, rather than depend on him as the tea-leave-reading expert.

Economists like Henderson don’t expect you to take their word for it. They want to move the dialogue forward, not distort it.

6 thoughts on “David Henderson Has Balls

  1. Do you think by not reading Krugman you risk becoming irrelevant to the larger conversation? (Like a aspiring director who refuses to watch any Spielberg films?)

    • I have about as much at risk as the kid who blurted out that the Emperor wasn’t wearing clothes.

      And, I don’t refuse to read Krugman. I do, on occasion, try. I do, on occasion, delve deeper into the intelligentsia mental tennis match of “What did the Krugman really mean?” I do, on occasion, give him another try having convinced myself that I must be missing something.

      But when I find incredibly unproductive discussion, I’m reaffirmed. I’d rather spend my time reading folks like Henderson and his cohorts, who have proven themselves champions of productive discussions.

      I also want to be clear. I don’t think this is unique to Krugman. I think, as a society, we have a tough time having productive discussions.

      I’d much rather that society give greater appreciation to Henderson’s style than Krugman’s, so that’s where I choose to spend my time.

  2. Years ago, there was a stock broker who would call me periodically in an attempt to gain my business. I would put him on speakerphone and listen to his sales pitch and current recommendation as I went about my business. After a few months, it became evident that whatever he was recommending would soon tank. Whether this was due to his ignorance or his attempt to unload some of his clients’ stocks on some new dupe was unclear. The one thing that was clear was that shorting his “picks” was a way to make money.

    David Henderson’s comments regarding why he reads Krugman sounds very similar. It’s not that we have any real respect for Krugman (or the broker) or even think that they are correct. It’s simply that what they have to say can be put to use. To put it bluntly, the usefulness in reading Krugman seems to stem primarily in understanding what bull$h!t the masses are being fed.

    As a professional economist (Henderson, not me), I appreciate the trade-off Henderson makes in reading Krugman. For me, however, the trade-off (reading Krugman and being annoyed versus ignoring Krugman and not being annoyed) favors not reading Krugman. As Seth put it succinctly, for me it’s unproductive.

    I wish I had $1 for every time Henderson rolled his eyes when reading Krugman.

  3. Pingback: The (kids) gloves are coming off? | Our Dinner Table


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