Category Archives: Paul Krugman

Classic Krugman

Check out this video on Bloomberg.

The story goes something like this.  In the remark shown on the screen, Paul Krugman cautioned that he is not calling someone a name (via a Monty Python reference lost on the speaker), but rather questioning the evidence for his view.  The stunningly clueless commentator remarks that this is “classic Krugman” for “going after a person,” which is greeted with all sorts of agreement from the assembled panel brainless commentators.  She then refers to Niall Ferguson, who in his turn says Paul Krugman uses ad hominem arguments because he must have been abused as a child.  That, of course, is an actual ad hominem; Krugman’s is not.  You just cannot be this dumb.

Pundit versus pundit

It's annoying that most premier leftish or left-leaning pundits never really argue for anything–they explain.  They don't explain the cogency of their view either.  They explain different sides in a debate without making an argument for which side is the correct one.  Go read just about any column from E.J.Dionne and you'll know what I mean. 

This has really never been the case with Krugman.  Here's an excellent example: 

Arguments From Authority

A quick note on David Brooks’s column today. I have no idea what he’s talking about when he says,

The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years

Funny, I thought we had a perfectly good explanation: severe downturn in demand from the financial crisis, and a stimulus which we warned from the beginning wasn’t nearly big enough. And as I’ve been trying to point out, events have strongly confirmed a demand-side view of the world.

But there’s something else in David’s column, which I see a lot: the argument that because a lot of important people believe something, it must make sense:

Moreover, the Demand Siders write as if everybody who disagrees with them is immoral or a moron. But, in fact, many prize-festooned economists do not support another stimulus. Most European leaders and central bankers think it’s time to begin reducing debt, not increasing it — as do many economists at the international economic institutions. Are you sure your theorists are right and theirs are wrong?

Yes, I am. It’s called looking at the evidence. I’ve looked hard at the arguments the Pain Caucus is making, the evidence that supposedly supports their case — and there’s no there there.

And you just have to wonder how it’s possible to have lived through the last ten years and still imagine that because a lot of Serious People believe something, you should believe it too. Iraq? Housing bubble? Inflation? (It’s worth remembering that Trichet actually raised rates in June 2008, because he believed that inflation — not the financial crisis — was the big threat facing Europe.)

The moral I’ve taken from recent years isn’t Be Humble — it’s Question Authority. And you should too.

It's especially rare for columnists to address each other by name.  Brooks, in his usual dichotomous fashion, has set up a false bifurcation (here are two sides, whoa, this one is crazy wrong–and it's adherents make weak arguments–therefore this other one is the one we should go for).  For an entertaining comment on Brooks' dichotomizing, read this at the Daily Kos.

Krugman doesn't call him on that, rather he calls him on his total reliance on a limited set of authorities (and his disregard for the arguments Krugman and others have made).  Without judging the efficacy of Krugman's claims, I would say that this is a textbook case of good criticism: find the key inference someone makes–in this case an argument from authority–and raise a meaningful question about it.

Moar please.  

I’m not an economist

Since I'm not an economist, I can't easily judge the content of the Krugman's arguments against anti-stimulus arguments. But what makes Krugman stand head and shoulders above the rest of his fellow pundits, is that he makes arguments.

Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

Now to be fair, we can criticize the argument in a couple of ways–first, air traffic control involves a task of coordination and it isn't clear that priming the economic pump does in the same way. It isn't just that centralized air traffic control is more efficient than a "free market" equivalent. So we might ask whether the analogy holds.

Second, we might ask whether the claim that "taxpayer are the best judges of how to spend their money" (see last paragraph here) implies that all public spending should be replaced with private spending. A more moderate position might be to argue that when it comes to something like economic stimulus this principle holds true. However, Krugman is arguing against some of the simplistic and fallacious dismissals of stimulus spending, and so aims to free the discussion for substantive arguments from economists and policy makers rather than from the ideological hacks.

By the way, what is the fallacy in the argument he is attacking? Is it a fallacy? Accident, perhaps? Seems to involve the universalization of a principle that probably holds true in many cases (better to let me choose whether to spend my money on a Squeezebox Duet rather than a Sonos System, than have the government choose for me. Maybe something like "When there's no compelling public need, it is preferable to allow citizens to choose how to spend their money than have government choose." What counts as a compelling need is a political question–in the case of the stimulus plan Krugman makes the case that the public need is stimulating the economy and government spending is just much more effective than private spending in doing that.

The "fallacy" seems to work by arguing:

1. We accept principle x.

2. Principle x entails we should not do y.

3. Therefore we should not do y.

However, principle x is either a) not accepted as stated or b) when qualified does not apply to case y.

1. It is wrong to kill.

2. If it is wrong to kill then we should not use lethal force to defend ourselves.

3. Therefore we should not use lethal force to defend ourselves.

 But, either a) it is not wrong (always to kill) or b) it is only wrong to kill without justification.

The fallacy seems to arise when the principle is taken to be persuasive because on the surface it seems true.

But you are the man

Not long ago there was that commercial for cell phones which featured a powerful CEO type (in a corner office) claiming to an underling that his new cell phone plan was his way of "sticking it to the man."  The underling responded, but "you are the man."  One couldn't help but be reminded of that during the Republican convention.  In the department of things that had to be said (which is not a department here), Paul Krugman writes:

Can the super-rich former governor of Massachusetts — the son of a Fortune 500 C.E.O. who made a vast fortune in the leveraged-buyout business — really keep a straight face while denouncing “Eastern elites”?

Can the former mayor of New York City, a man who, as USA Today put it, “marched in gay pride parades, dressed up in drag and lived temporarily with a gay couple and their Shih Tzu” — that was between his second and third marriages — really get away with saying that Barack Obama doesn’t think small towns are sufficiently “cosmopolitan”?

Can the vice-presidential candidate of a party that has controlled the White House, Congress or both for 26 of the past 28 years, a party that, Borg-like, assimilated much of the D.C. lobbying industry into itself — until Congress changed hands, high-paying lobbying jobs were reserved for loyal Republicans — really portray herself as running against the “Washington elite”?

Yes, they can.

This is not some kind of ad hominem, as someone might think.  Romney's vast wealth-and his Harvard education and Eastern upbringing–make nonsense of the charge of "Eastern elitism."  Elitism would disqualify Romney (and Bush and especially McCain) well before it would Obama.  But Romney's charge, its falsity aside, is an ad hominem: rather than address the impact of Obama's policy proposals on regular non-arugula eating folk, Romney and his ilk have made a concerted effort to talk about the distracting and meaningless effemera of personality.

Homepwnership

I don't think Paul Krugman has been at his best lately.  Perhaps, as someone here suggested, the problem is that he's strayed too far from economics, his home base.  Well today he writes about economics, home ownership, and he seems to mess it up.  Unlike many of the people we talk about here, Krugman has shown that he's better than this.  So it's sad to see him write:

But here’s a question rarely asked, at least in Washington: Why should ever-increasing homeownership be a policy goal? How many people should own homes, anyway?

Listening to politicians, you’d think that every family should own its home — in fact, that you’re not a real American unless you’re a homeowner. “If you own something,” Mr. Bush once declared, “you have a vital stake in the future of our country.” Presumably, then, citizens who live in rented housing, and therefore lack that “vital stake,” can’t be properly patriotic. Bring back property qualifications for voting!

Even Democrats seem to share the sense that Americans who don’t own houses are second-class citizens. Early last year, just as the mortgage meltdown was beginning, Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who is one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, warned against a crackdown on subprime lending. “For be it ever so humble,” he wrote, “there really is no place like home, even if it does come with a balloon payment mortgage.”

The first question, however jarring, seems to be a legitimate one.  But it ought to be directed at our intuitions about home ownership (that it gives you more of a stake in your neighborhood, etc.).  Instead, Krugman aims this one first at what is clearly a caricature of the advocates of home ownership–one that barely even satisfies its own ridiculousness.

This is really a shame.  It's nice to have one's intuitions challenged.  Krugman could have done this well, had it not been for his George Will style "presumably" argument.

Henhouse

Today Paul Krugman writes:

Thus, when mad cow disease was detected in the U.S. in 2003, the Department of Agriculture was headed by Ann M. Veneman, a former food-industry lobbyist. And the department’s response to the crisis — which amounted to consistently downplaying the threat and rejecting calls for more extensive testing — seemed driven by the industry’s agenda.

One amazing decision came in 2004, when a Kansas producer asked for permission to test its own cows, so that it could resume exports to Japan. You might have expected the Bush administration to applaud this example of self-regulation. But permission was denied, because other beef producers feared consumer demands that they follow suit.

When push comes to shove, it seems, the imperatives of crony capitalism trump professed faith in free markets.

This would show at best that the people (like Bush or Veneman) who profess belief in free markets don't have it.  It wouldn't however show that free markets are a failure at such regulation (which is what Krugman intends to show).  In fact, it seems to me, it would make the point that regulation of the free market produces problems such as the one Krugman describes.   

 

Clinton or Obama Rules

Paul Krugman today writes about the visceral hatred among some Democrats for Hillary Clinton:

Why, then, is there so much venom out there?

I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration — remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again.

This characterization of Obama supporters seems rather loopy, in particular because Krugman doesn't even bother with evidence.  That's a shame.  For even if you think that Krugman is wrong, he generally tries to be right.

Iceman

David Brooks, famous dichotomist, meditates on the health care proposal Hillary Clinton.  This is to say that he uses the anecdotes of a political opponent some 15 years ago to describe her as "icy" (three times in 700 some words) and nameless sources to describe her "evil look."  The column is an abomination for other reasons as well, not the least of which is the fact that Brooks accuses Clinton–Hillary Clinton I say–of being "Manichean."  Up until recently for David Brooks, being Manichean about matters of right and wrong was a virtue.  No longer:

Moreover, the debate Clinton is having with Barack Obama echoes the debate she had with Cooper 15 years ago. The issue, once again, is over whether to use government to coerce people into getting coverage. The Clintonites argue that without coercion, there will be free-riders on the system.

They’ve got a point. But there are serious health care economists on both sides of the issue. And in the heat of battle, Clinton has turned the debate between universal coverage and universal access into a sort of philosophical holy grail, with a party of righteousness and a party of error. She’s imposed Manichaean categories on a technical issue, just as she did a decade and half ago. And she’s done it even though she hasn’t answered legitimate questions about how she would enforce her universal coverage mandate.

Gee.  If Ms. Clinton has a point about mandates, then why doesn't David Brooks talk about it?  After all, that would be the foundation, so it seems (since she has a point) of Hillary Clinton's position.  Instead of a policy discussion (which, agree or disagree, you will have with Paul Krugman), Brooks treats his readers to, ironically, a little "politics of personal destruction."   

Incontinence

Paul Krugman has written much of late on Reagan and racism. David Brooks even responded, however cluelessly, to some of Krugman’s arguments. As someone at Salon pointed out, Brooks ended up giving evidence for Krugman’s position–that is, that the Republican party was cognizant of the significance of Reagan’s announcing his support for “states’ rights” at the Neshoba County Fair (site of a 1964 Klan murder). Reagan knew what he was doing, Brooks argued, he just bumbled into it. Besides, Reagan, Brooks and others argue, was not a bigot. And they go on to list all of the evidence of that. He had black friends, etc.

As Krugman correctly points out, however, that’s not the point:

>Reagans defenders protest furiously that he wasnt personally bigoted. So what? Were talking about his political strategy. His personal beliefs are irrelevant.

Indeed, one has heard stories about Reagan’s personal opposition to some forms of segregation, his friendship with African Americans, and so on. Those observations, one might argue, are red herrings. Would that it were true that these things were sufficient to make one not racist. If that were the case, no one would be racist, nor would but a few be criminals, and almost no one would do anything immoral–or, according to Plato at least, no one:

>Now we may ask (1) how a man who judges rightly can behave incontinently. That he should behave so when he has knowledge, some say is impossible; for it would be strange-so Socrates thought-if when knowledge was in a man something else could master it and drag it about like a slave. For Socrates was entirely opposed to the view in question, holding that there is no such thing as incontinence; no one, he said, when he judges acts against what he judges best-people act so only by reason of ignorance. Now this view plainly contradicts the observed facts, and we must inquire about what happens to such a man; if he acts by reason of ignorance, what is the manner of his ignorance? For that the man who behaves incontinently does not, before he gets into this state, think he ought to act so, is evident. But there are some who concede certain of Socrates’ contentions but not others; that nothing is stronger than knowledge they admit, but not that on one acts contrary to what has seemed to him the better course, and therefore they say that the incontinent man has not knowledge when he is mastered by his pleasures, but opinion. But if it is opinion and not knowledge, if it is not a strong conviction that resists but a weak one, as in men who hesitate, we sympathize with their failure to stand by such convictions against strong appetites; but we do not sympathize with wickedness, nor with any of the other blameworthy states. Is it then practical wisdom whose resistance is mastered? That is the strongest of all states. But this is absurd; the same man will be at once practically wise and incontinent, but no one would say that it is the part of a practically wise man to do willingly the basest acts. Besides, it has been shown before that the man of practical wisdom is one who will act (for he is a man concerned with the individual facts) and who has the other virtues.