Tag Archives: Paul Krugman

Crazy Train

We've all been busy here at the Non Sequitur.  But today I had a moment for a short post.

Here's Paul Krugman on George Will (via Eschaton):

Oh, boy — this George Will column (via Grist) is truly bizarre:

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

As Sarah Goodyear at Grist says, trains are a lot more empowering and individualistic than planes — and planes, not cars, are the main alternative to high-speed rail.

And there’s the bit about rail as an antiquated technology; try saying that after riding the Shanghai Maglev.

But anyway, it’s amazing to see Will — who is not a stupid man — embracing the sinister progressives-hate-your-freedom line, more or less right out of Atlas Shrugged; with the extra irony, of course, that John Galt’s significant other ran, well, a railroad.

Like Kramer on Seinfeld, I'd take issue with the last bolded comment.  This argument, such as it is, is classic Will:  The most dishonest kind of straw man used to provoke an explanatory hypothesis about the the straw manned arguer's motives and intellgence in making such bizarre and wrong-headed claims.  On the strength of this, you'll feel justified in ignoring anything else such a person would say.

This one is especially odd since trains are self-evidently awesome–and they're kind of bow-tie conservative-ish, like baseball.  Besides, as Sarah Goodyear points out, they do the same things planes do: they send you in a tube to another city.  The only difference is that trains usually drop you off downtown.

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.  

Can’t spare a square

Paul Krugman is perplexed, and rightly so I'd say, over the claim (made by some in the Obama administration) that we cannot investigate (and therefore prosecute) torture because we have too much on our plate right now–an economy in the tank, health care to reform, energy policies to write, etc.  Krugman says:

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability?

For example, would investigating the crimes of the Bush era really divert time and energy needed elsewhere? Let’s be concrete: whose time and energy are we talking about?

Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

I don’t know about you, but I think America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Seems right to me.  But I think the real problem lies with the media.  I don't think they'd be able to sustain focus on the torture investigations (which I earnestly hope for) and the pooping habits of Obama's dog.  I don't think they can spare the people.

An Army of One

Perhaps I don't need to make the point (again) that there is essentially is no mainline liberal pundit army.  There are liberal pundits, maybe lots of them, but they don't work with the kind of mission-oriented military discipline as their conservative counterparts.  They're more likely, in fact, to criticize the liberal guy than to advance his arguments.  For more on that, see here.

Having said that, all of the griping about Obama not being forceful enough in his response to McCain's sea of BS seems somewhat misplaced.  Obama is only one guy.  McCain is more than that.  He has in the first place an army of pundits who will either repeat his talking points, or invent their own arguments to advance his cause, which they may see to some extent as their cause.  While George Will, for instance, may not emphatically support McCain, he cares enough to argue that whether one is economically better off should not matter anymore as a reliable guide in the current election.  It's a ridiculous argument, but it comes out just in time to support McCain and it seems in fact that Will thought it up all on his own.  No one needs to tell him McCain needs help.  On top of this pundit army, McCain also has a television network (Fox), and legions of well-disciplined bloggers. 

On top of this, of course, Obama can't even count on the press.  Here, for instance, is an actual exchange on the TV about the McCain campaign's tendancy to make stuff up:

ROBERTS: That would appear, Paul, to end any argument over whether or not she supported the bridge initially. But why can't Barack Obama make that point stick?

Roberts, a journalist, responsible for separating the true from the false, wonders why Obama can't make the point that the true and the false are different.  That's Roberts job, at least in a normal world.  What does Roberts say?

ROBERTS: We still have 56 days to talk about this back and forth.

That's just nuts.

With that, when Paul Krugman, not a huge fan of Obama, says:

Did you hear about how Barack Obama wants to have sex education in kindergarten, and called Sarah Palin a pig? Did you hear about how Ms. Palin told Congress, “Thanks, but no thanks” when it wanted to buy Alaska a Bridge to Nowhere?

These stories have two things in common: they’re all claims recently made by the McCain campaign — and they’re all out-and-out lies.

Dishonesty is nothing new in politics. I spent much of 2000 — my first year at The Times — trying to alert readers to the blatant dishonesty of the Bush campaign’s claims about taxes, spending and Social Security.

He's virtually alone.  If Obama is having trouble, this is part of the reason why–there seems to be only one top shelf pundit making actual arguments in his favor.

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.

Krauthammer and Krugman

I began writing this thinking that I was going to accuse Krauthammer of suppressing evidence when he  argues for drilling in ANWR and lifting the moratorium on outer continental shelf drilling since at first glance he seems to completely ignore the environmental argument based on global warming.

His argument runs like this:

  1. Reducing dependence on foreign oil is in the national interest.
  2. Opening up domestic energy resources for development will reduce dependence on foreign oil.
  3. Therefore we should open up ANWR and the outer continental shelf for development.

Notice that this isn't McCain's silly and discredited argument that opening up these resources will address pump prices. Instead it looks like perfectly nice argument: A practical syllogism arguing for a means to an end. Presumably he is arguing that 2 is the best means to achieve 1. If that's so, then he should consider alternatives such as reducing our consumption of oil.

Consider: 25 years ago, nearly 60 percent of U.S. petroleum was produced domestically. Today it's 25 percent. From its peak in 1970, U.S. production has declined a staggering 47 percent. The world consumes 86 million barrels a day, the United States, roughly 20 million. We need the stuff to run our cars and planes and economy. Where does it come from? 

Skipping the results of several hours of reading DOE reports on the oil resources (see comments) it looks like the best case from opening up both of ANWR and OCS is around 1 million barrels of oil per day in the late 2020's. That's pretty significant given our current imports of 15 million barrels a day (7%)–roughly equivalent to the imports from Nigeria this year). So, it seems that we must grant as plausible that these measures would reduce dependence on foreign oil.

But the interesting part of the argument is this

The net environmental effect of Pelosi's no-drilling willfulness is negative. Outsourcing U.S. oil production does nothing to lessen worldwide environmental despoliation. It simply exports it to more corrupt, less efficient, more unstable parts of the world — thereby increasing net planetary damage. 

I had thought that he was just ignoring Pelosi's real concern with opening up these resources, that is, I believe, their contribution to anthropogenic global warming. He only focuses on "environmental despoiliation" which looks at first like the effects local to the extraction and transportation of oil, and not its consumption.

The assumption he makes is that the rate of consumption of oil will be unaffected whether we open up these resources or not. The question then is merely one of where the oil is extracted. And, if opening up these resources has as little effect on price as opponents of drilling say, then it can't be argued that not exploiting these resources will contribute to a reduction in consumption.

The argument opposed to drilling has three options it seems to me:

1. NIMBY (we just don't want to mess up our environment–we're happy to let others do it).

2. Detailed argumentation that opening up ANWR and OCS have a likelihood of greater local environmental damage than drilling in Nigeria etc.

3. The total carbon consumption argument. Any increase in access to carbon based fuels is undesirable because of the the dangers of climate change.

I probably believe that 3 is a good argument (1 is probably a good argument though it might have moral difficulties, and I don't know enough to judge 2). But, if we really believed it (generally) we would probably have to support capping of imports or bans on importing oil from new developments. We would have to either accept that oil prices should continue to increase or that the rest of the world should stop developing. 

Krugman attacks McCain's ridiculous claims linking the moratoria on OCS development and gas prices. But he draws a more significant lesson from this.

Hence my concern: if a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though Mr. McCain apparently doesn’t know that), and really would raise energy prices.

The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral. Incidentally, that’s why I was disappointed with Barack Obama’s response to Mr. McCain’s energy posturing — that it was “the same old politics.” Mr. Obama was dismissive when he should have been outraged.

This doesn't address Krauthammer's security based argument, but it does point out that we are still far from ready to defend never mind implement the consequences of the total carbon consumption argument. To oppose ANWR and OCS exploitation on these grounds commits us to an argument that no new carbon fuel resources should be developed and that the only way to address rising fuel costs is to reduce demand worldwide.

If there is a flaw in the argument it is this: The argument that Krauthammer needs to address, however, is whether it would be a better means to energy independence to reduce consumption by those same 1 million barrels a day in 2030 than to open ANWR and OCS to drilling. 



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.


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.