Monday, January 09, 2012

Paul Krugman and the polemical style of blogging


Just got back from the AEA Meeting, where I happened to run into a lot of cool bloggers, including Mark Thoma, Ryan Avent, Alex Tabarrok, Justin Wolfers, and Steve Landsburg. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to meet Paul Krugman.

Anyway, back to blogging! On the subject of Krugman, I've been wanting to write something about this Tyler Cowen post ever since I read it last week, but with job interviews coming up, I didn't have the time. So this post is a little late.

In his post, Cowen let loose with a broad criticism of Krugman's polemical blogging style:
Krugman a) regularly demonizes his opponents, including those who hold Krugman’s old positions, and b) doesn’t work very hard to produce the strongest possible case against his arguments... 
Can you imagine the current Krugman writing something sufficiently multi-faceted that you might come away thinking — because of the piece itself — that the opposing point of view was the better one?... 
Krugman has shown a remarkable and impressive capacity to reinvent himself, more than once.  He could reinvent himself again [to be less one-sided] and become the most important American public intellectual — and perhaps intellectual — of his time.  Or he could keep his current status as a sharp and brilliant someone who has an enormous number of followers but relatively little influence over actual events[.]
I don't know if I agree with this. Yes, Krugman writes in a polemical style. He mocks ideas that he thinks are nonsense, he accuses people of misunderstanding basic economics, and he occasionally accuses certain writers of dishonesty. Is this a bad thing?

I say: it depends on what the world needs right now.

I think you can approach an econ blog in one of two basic ways. Way #1 is to put your complete thought process on a page - to lay out both sides of an argument, and explain why you arrived at a conclusion. This is what Cowen calls the "Humean" method, after David Hume. As I see it, the Humean method is what you use if you want to get the most out of a discussion with a well-informed but fundamentally disinterested interlocutor. If your conclusion is right, then the Humean method is likely to convince such an interlocutor to reach the same conclusion. If your conclusion is wrong, it maximizes the chance that the well-informed but disinterested interlocutor will see where you went wrong and help you to correct your mistake.

But not all interlocutors are disinterested. Some have political agendas. Some have strong personal biases. And not all interlocutors are well-informed. So if one uses the Humean method of argumentation, it is quite possible that your carefully considered ideas will be opposed by a totally biased person who doesn't bother to be nearly as even-handed as you, because he just doesn't care. And this biased opponent may, through his vehemence and the artificial simplicity of his arguments, succeed in convincing many poorly-informed third party observers of his point of view, even if yours has the weight of logic and evidence behind it. And society may suffer as a result.

In this situation, it may provide the most social benefit to adopt a more Hegelian method of argumentation. Hegel's idea of how good conclusions are reached has been described as a process of "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" - two people argue their cases as strongly as possible, and observers can pick and choose the best points of each. This is how our court system works, for example. In the context of econ blogs, using a Hegelian approach means saying "My opponents are going to do everything they can to push their point of view, so I had better do the same in order to balance them out."

This seems to be what Krugman is doing. He writes:
I realized that I also wanted to say something in response to the concern trolling, the “if you were more moderate you’d have more influence” stuff. Again, this amounts to wishing that we lived in a different world. First, there is no such thing in modern America as a pundit respected by both sides. Second, there are people writing about economic issues who are a lot less confrontational than I am; how often do you hear about them? This is not a game, and it is also not a dinner party; you have to be clear and forceful to get heard at all.
In other words, he's adopting a polemic style as a Hegelian tactic, to balance out bad guys who pull no punches.

That's a pretty extreme tactic for an academic type to use. But I can understand why Krugman might use it. After all, he lived through the Bush years - he witnessed the power of loudly repeated lies to overcome even-handed reasonable argumentation, in the run-up to the Iraq War. It's hard to go through something like that, and, as a famous pundit, to think that just maybe you might have been able to stop the madness if you had been just a little more forceful and a little less "fair and balanced." It's less of a worry for me, but only because my audience is fairly limited.

Has Krugman's polemical style been self-defeating? Cowen claims that Krugman has "relatively little influence over actual events," but as evidence he cites only a link to an earlier post of his that asserts the same thing. I can see the case, of course. Krugman warned that Obama was too conservative during the 2008 primaries, but Obama won anyway. Krugman advocated bank nationalization, bigger fiscal stimulus, and a tougher policy toward China's exchange rate peg - all to no avail.

But does that mean Krugman has little influence? The idea of "Keynesian economics" has re-entered the mainstream non-economist public dialogue, largely thanks to Krugman. Fiscal stimulus, which was once advocated only in the middle of economic free-fall by technocrats like Larry Summers, has become a rallying cry for a large number of people who think policy should take a more active role. And, most of all, Krugman's assault on the macroeconomics profession itself has caused much of the public to turn on the practitioners of macro, spurring them to scramble for new ideas, new approaches, and new data.

You may think those results are good things, or not. But I think it's very hard to argue that Krugman has not been enormously influential. As to the question of whether he is the most important American public intellectual of our time...well, I'm having a hard time thinking of who else would fit that description.

31 comments:

  1. Sorry, but polemics is the domain of the austerity hawks, not Prof Krugman...

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  2. Anonymous12:58 AM

    Noah - I'd be very curious to hear how you think this blog has affected your job search (even if that is something you'd only be willing to go into after you land a gig).

    I think your blog is excellent, but I'd guess it is both a blessing and a curse. Although you are not an intemperate blogger, I suppose you've managed to offend a few folks. Also since you already have a bit of a profile and audience, I could see some academics being jealous (who does the grad student think he is!).

    Anyway, good luck and keep it up.

    DKN

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  3. Audrey1:00 AM

    Krugman has a colossal following because he knows "this is not a game", and readers know he knows this. To Tyler, Mankiw. Kling, Rowe, and so many on the right, this largely -is- a game. Because they suck contentedly on the teat of tenure, and have a largely Randian view of the way things should be anyway , they have no interest in their arguments getting through to the man on the street. Indeed they could care less about the man on the street, except as an construct whose behavior they pretend to be able to model. As Mankiw loves to point out, he's in the 1%; the hell with the rest of us.

    Krugman however understands that the job of economists is not so serve themselves, but to better the lot of humanity (a concept also lost on Tyler, Alex, Rowe, etc). So to Krugman it matters immensely that his ideas get through. He's truly willing to fight hard for a better world for all, not just those who share his privileged status.

    This, I believe, is why so many support Krugman so vehemently: while so much of the profession just sits around and convinces itself of its own worthiness (which 2008 and the Dark Age of Macro call deeply into question), Krugman is actually trying to use his knowledge to make things better in the world at large.

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  4. Anonymous2:53 AM

    While I'm a fellow econ grad student, my interest in this post is actually due to an unfortunate legal situation I'm currently in. I had to go to trial. The prosecutor went full bore against me. It was straight out of Law & Order, and honestly kind of frightening. Luckily, my lawyer argued strongly for my side in a very "Hegelian" manner, and I (rightly) triumphed. Afterward, the prosecutor was very nice to me, agreeing that I was right and wished me luck in the future. It was strange to see a man hell-bent on my incarceration switch suddenly to being my buddy, but going full-force against me was his job. I understand that. I also know that I wouldn't have prevailed if I hadn't had something going full force on my side as well.

    Sometimes, as much as us academic types stray away from it, a full-throated position from one side is what's needed. An "even-handed" position might be the congenial thing to do, but under certain circumstances politeness must take a back seat to the greater good. And, like Krugman (and hopefully like most economists), I never cease to consider that this isn't just an economic debate, but a discussion about policy that may effect the millions of people who currently fund themselves unemployed (or underemployed) going through a truly tough day-to-day existence.

    Marriages break up, kids go hungry, people lose their homes, and some people even end their lives over that matter. If you're fighting for the right side, you best do it with full gusto. This isn't the JPE, it's real life.

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  5. That analogy is interesting, but it worries me a bit.

    Lawyers picks sides first, then argue later. Lawyers aren't supposed to change their minds. We aren't (yet) lawyers. And does the court system work well? Or does the side with the "best" lawyer tend to win the case, regardless of the merits?

    Last week I made an argument about the burden of the debt on future generations. Bob Murphy thought it was a good argument, and totally changed his mind.

    Kudos to Bob Murphy.

    In making that argument, I could easily have demonised Paul Krugman. I could easily have said he was arguing a position known to be false because he wanted to advance his political agenda. I didn't do that.

    (And Audrey would make a good argument for totalitarianism. After all, we know the other side has impure motives.)

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  6. I might take Tyler Cowen a bit more seriously if he can substantiate his claim that Paul Krugman "regularly demonizes his opponents." The harshest thing I can recall PK saying about an economist (Bryan Caplan, who was being quite obtuse) was that "Barney Frankly" one might as well try arguing with a dining-room table. That's hardly demonization. Greg Mankiw affected to be offended by the "Roots of Evil" heading on one of PK's blog-posts, but it was obviously just a harmless pun.

    Guys, less of the WATB response, please.

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  7. I'm pretty sure Krugman is just sick of the right (Lucas, Barro) dredging up the same, frequently rebutted arguments and being given the microphone just because their views favour a certain class.

    After a while, all you can do is mock them.

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  8. Anonymous6:55 AM

    Paul Krugman is not just a public intellectual; he is a respected and feared public intellectual who openly embraces liberal social stances. Furthermore, he has entered the public domain without losing his academic standing and reputation for balanced expert analysis.

    As a general reader of news and commentary, I can think of no other writer with similar credentials and influence. His position is of special importance because of the importance generally assigned to 'economics' nowadays in discussions of political ideology and social policy.

    I still think it is astounding that the NYT gave Krugman both a regular column and a blog. I believe they did so not because of his economic views but because of his humane attitude and his obvious and superb rhetorical skills. He is a great explicator.

    Deb S.

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  9. Nick - in my experience as a lawyer, the merits are almost always more important than the lawyering skill. The time the lawyers make the most difference is when it's a really close case (or when one of them makes a really collosal mistake - and even then, court clerks can often make up for that with independent research). I don't know how analogous that is to the econ field or any other academic discipline, but I still think it's worth considering.

    I also want to point out that yes, lawyers pick sides before making arguments, but we usually consider what arguments we're going to be able to make, and whether they're legitimate or not, before agreeing to take any side at all. It seems to me that academics, bloggers, etc. do the same, thinking through the reasoning and evidence before making a point. In that sense, I think the analogy holds.

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  10. "The most important American public intellectual of our time..."

    That would be Noam Chomsky.

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  11. I'm seconding Audrey, Kevin, unlearning econ, etc.

    I'd add that a lot of this is the hatred of the right for anybody who plays their game back at them (and the right's freudian projection in general), combined with a corrupt field's hatred for somebody who stands up and publicly exposes them.

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  12. Unkown touts Chomsky as "the most important intellectual of our time." Not a chance. He has the ear of a small group of intellectuals. Krugman, on the other hand, has a great platform in the Times. His blog undoubtedly has thousands of readers. I, and I'm sure others, often retweet Mark Thoma's tweets to Krugman's columns.

    Krugman keeps me hoping that someday we'll have a government that works for at least part of the other 99%. Audrey is right.

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  13. Anonymous12:17 PM

    Krugman's influence is small only relative to the billions of dollars spent to purchase influence by the "other side"

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  14. Krugman is almost unfailingly polite, even while calling an idiot an idiot. You don't get that from the right very often.

    He also tells the truth, as he sees it. You don't get that from the right very often.

    Krugman appears partisan to partisans on the other side who are ideologically blinded to the truth.

    Back in the 90's Krugman was almost totally apolitical. The Bush administration energized him politically - as it did me - because there was so much wrong that needed to be called out.

    For that reason he is viewed as a mean, shrill political hack by mean shrill political hacks.

    What was that about prophets in their own country . . . ?

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  15. Anonymous1:39 PM

    Just pull up video of Krugman at the same table as Poppa Bear or any of the other loud-mouthed non-thinkers who pretend to be public intellectuals today. Krugman is humble by comparison, at times seeming shocked at the behavior he sees. He is never what Cowen describes him to be.

    So what's up with Cowen?

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  16. What's wrong with Cowan is that he fears writing an editorial that Paul Krugman might skewer. This greatly hampers Cowan in his propagandistic goals, which are probably both personal and professional (Koch financed.)

    It's much harder work writing editorials when you cannot employ the blatantly fallacious tripe from the right-wing echo chamber. No doubt Cowan wishes that Krugman was genteel enough to not publicly embarrass propagandistic opponents.

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  17. Noah,

    I think what people are objecting to is the personal aspect of Krugman's writing. He can state his opinions as strongly as he wants to, but when he ventures into misrepresentation of the views of individuals, casts their motives as evil, he crosses the line. It's rather silly of Krugman to be arguing that it is necessary that he do this in order to get attention. A New York Times column gives one plenty of visibility. Maureen Dowd does not seem to feel it is necessary to badmouth people so that readers will notice.

    Steve Williamson

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  18. Steve,

    I don't know, I guess I'm just not as bothered by it. Maybe if I were on the receiving end, I would be.

    - Noah

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  19. What I think is missing here is the recognition that much of the Republican rhetoric is neither Humean nor Hegelian, but Sophist.

    Indeed, Republicans run for office on the basis of having poor academic grades and irrational beliefs: they do not subscribe to rational discourse. They are frankly Sophists.

    Stephen Williamson claims that Krugman is too personal, but the entire point is to call out and label Sophists as Sophists: it has to be personal. But to point to the airhead Dowd as an example for Krugman is going beyond the pale.

    In my opinion what we are seeing is a conflict between Rationalists whose fundamental essence is a Sophist dogma, versus Empiricists whose fundamental essence involves logical reasoning and physical evidence.

    Thus Krugman argues historical evidence, citing data, with a rational explanation of the circumstances: i.e. the liquidity trap. He is arguing against people who primarily cite dead European White men such as Ricardo without reference to reality or logic: i.e. Sophism.

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  20. mcarson1:42 AM

    Krugman is the only econ blogger I read who writes in a way high school graduates can understand.

    I'd like it if the Chicago guys were right, because they're obviously running the world I live in, and I NEED things to get better.

    They are often liars, and they read others lies and don't correct them. They allow people to be misled, and for an educated person to deliberately confuse someone and lie to them should be embarrassing.

    I don't know how these people can live with themselves. You have no idea how many people hunger for knowledge. We can't go to school, but that doesn't mean we don't want to know things. We read the papers, and the internet. We watch the science documentaries, and buy star maps to show our kids the constellations at night. And then we find these lying, cheating, thugs, shilling for greedy dishonest businessmen.

    Some day somebody is going to get fed and hurt them. And they'll deserve it.

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  21. Now now, no advocating violence in my comment thread!

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  22. Stephen Williams:

    "He can state his opinions as strongly as he wants to, but when he ventures into misrepresentation of the views of individuals, casts their motives as evil, he crosses the line."

    He misrepresents whose view where?

    And as for evil, a lot of these guys *are* frankly evil. That's an additional irritation on their part - it's sweet to be evil, but not have people be allowed to point that out.

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  23. Sorry, 'Stephen Williamson' - I was too hasty.

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  24. There are other issues too. These include:

    1) You often get very little reader time. The longer you make a post or article, the less people will read it.

    "Way #1 is to put your complete thought process on a page - to lay out both sides of an argument, and explain why you arrived at a conclusion. This is what Cowen calls the "Humean" method"

    Do you have any idea how long that could be for a major issue? You could still do very valuable educating just by debunking one or two key arguments made on the issue, even if you don't go into everything there is on the issue. Rome wasn't built in a day. You can really understand an issue well by getting a general chunk and later adding pieces and modifying, instead of all at once in one epic book.

    2) Krugman often does say what the other sides arguments are – and then why they're wrong. He's smart enough to know this is powerful for persuasion.

    3) If a professional geologist claims the Earth is flat (because it makes more likely some policy supporting his ideology), you know he knows better. And often it's best for society to let them know this man is an intentional liar (for his ideology). Truth and clarity are more important than nicey-nice when great harm can be done.

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  25. vimothy2:04 PM

    "But not all interlocutors are disinterested. Some have political agendas."

    Indeed--Paul Krugman has a political agenda. No?

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  26. Anonymous4:23 PM

    @Steve Williamson:
    I don't think Krugman intentionally misrepresents anyone's motives. He does posit motives on occasion, but IMO only when warranted.

    I don't see how you can possibly consider Maureen Dowd to be an exemplar of rhetorical practice. Her writing is often personal and frequently juvenile.

    I think Krugman writes forcefully and clearly about complicated topics in a limited space for a general audience. And I'm glad he does.

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  27. Anonymous8:54 PM

    It's pretty sad how badly you want to protect Paul, Noah. In any other situation you would be condemning such acts, but certainly not for your hero. Oh no. When someone else acts that way in any other scenario-say, Richard Dawkins?- they are "squawking, condescending diatribes against religion [who] are unlikely to convince even a single person to abandon their beliefs in favor of science-based rationalism."

    That's your "Wanted: Better atheist PR" post. I think you said it best yourself, Noah.

    Now, let's look at you today:
    "Yes, Krugman writes in a polemical style. He mocks ideas that he thinks are nonsense, he accuses people of misunderstanding basic economics, and he occasionally accuses certain writers of dishonesty. Is this a bad thing?

    I say: it depends on what the world needs right now."

    Oh of course. Drastic times call for drastic measures, right? You, Krugman, and Joe McCarthy are just fighting the good fight, right? Forget all that science or rational discussion talk! The ends justify the means! and so on and so forth.


    Of course, I'm being unfair. You did post that a while ago, and for all I know you've completely changed. I haven't been around this blog long enough to understand who you are beyond a mere superficial level.

    But I think the point still stands. For all of your talk advocating "science-based rationalism", you actually support politically-based irrationalism. No matter how badly you to attach it to Hegelian tactics, or justify it by saying "two people argue their cases as strongly as possible, and observers can pick and choose the best points of each." The result is the same.

    But let's look at that anyways. It says who can argue their cases as "strongly as possible." This isn't a justification for straw-manning, or baseless personal attacks, or condescending remarks. "Strong", in this case, isn't what you've distorted it to mean for political convenience. Strong refers to evidence and logic. Everything else is irrelevant.

    This is all really sad, though. I was looking for an actual liberal blogger to lay out a convincing argument in support of his/her ideology. Afterall, I'm here for rational discussion to either 1) beat my own ideology into shape, or 2) discard it altogether. If you're just going to join the ranks of partisan hacks, then what's the point? You'll go down the same road that quite a few other great economists went down. Remember when Paul used to be an economist? Yeah, me neither. There is still a pretty good history of the great economist that used to be, though.

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  28. Anonymous6:24 PM

    How many blog posts and long comment threads will we have about Krugman unfairly demonizing his opponents before anyone provides a single example?

    When someone is stupidly wrong about something, carefully explaining why is not demonization, even if you actually go ahead and call their stupid statement stupid.

    If Krugman "regularly" calls people stupid without providing ample evidence, well, about everything he writes is online, so let's have a link. Even one.

    Krugman called your pet theory stupid? Boo-hoo. Don't whine about your hurt feelings; tell me why it isn't stupid. Preferably actually address the (probably excellent) case Krugman has laid out.

    If someone explains why he thinks your theory is stupid, and your only response is "Hey, don't call me stupid, that hurts my feelings!", your theory is probably stupid, and you probably know it.

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  29. Anonymous2:07 PM

    As columnists go Krugman provides a lot of factual detail especially in the blog. The columns, too, are fact based. A lot of debate 'debate' today is basically rhetorical strategy rather than reality based debate. Right wing economists even Nobel Prize winners will absolutely stoop to rhetorical strategies. A lot of the time the other side really has no point to make. To engage the rhetorical strategy is to basically throw in the towel as the 'debate' is then interminable and pointless. Krugman cuts the Gordian knot and that can 'cut' but if Krugman is going to address the World rather than engage in mindless 'debate' Krugman has to be forceful.

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  30. Anonymous6:07 PM

    I want to say this is a REALLY good post.

    I linked over cold from a blog post by Krugman ... I'm really impressed.

    I hope we'll get through the prolonged period of abysmal public rhetoric we've been in since 9/11.

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