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.