John C. Goodman Ph.D.

Curing the Healthcare Crisis

Are We Being Unfair to Paul Krugman?

It's baffling that a Nobel laureate treats all opponents with contempt

Posted Sep 12, 2013

In the comments section the other day, Uwe Reinhardt wrote:

Krugman is not even a tenth as stupid as the supercilious commentary on this blog suggests.

Which got me to thinking. Is Paul Krugman treated fairly at this blog? In general, the blogosphere is a surprisingly congenial place. The comments can get out of line, of course, but most bloggers — right and left — are respectful of those they disagree with. At the bloggers conferences I have attended, everyone gets along just fine — regardless of political differences.

Krugman, however, presents a special problem for economists — regardless of their political preferences and regardless of whether they blog.

Let’s start with last Friday’s column. It was about the sad state of the labor market.

Since Barack Obama took office almost 10 million people have dropped out of the labor force. More than half a million dropped out in the last month alone. Today, a record 90 million people — almost one third of the entire population — are not working and not even looking for a job.

“How did that happen?” Krugman asks. One answer is supplied by University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan — one of the top labor market economists in the country and a regular contributor to the New York Times economics blog. In a new book, Mulligan estimates that roughly half of the excess unemployment we have been experiencing is due to the lure of entitlement benefits — food stamps, unemployment compensation, disability benefits, etc. In other words, we are paying people not to work. In a separate analysis, Mulligan estimates that much of the remaining unemployment may be due to other Obama administration policies, especially the Affordable Care Act.

So what does Krugman have to say about Mulligan’s study? Nothing. Nothing? Not a thing. Not about Casey’s study or any other serious study. But he rejects Mulligan’s conclusion by claiming that the fall in labor force participation

wasn’t a mass outbreak of laziness, and right-wing claims that jobless Americans aren’t trying hard enough to find work because they’re living high on food stamps and unemployment benefits should be treated with the contempt they deserve.

Hmmm. Last time I looked, economics is a science. Statements about the economic system are either true or not true. Their validity is not affected one whit by the political views of economists or other people. And facts of reality do not mysteriously become untrue even if they are treated with contempt.

Through the years, I have worked with academic economists all over the country, helping them craft editorials, statements for press releases, and various other lay descriptions of their work. In every case, the primary concern of the scholar was: What will other economists think when they read this? Most members of my profession think they have a duty to the profession. When they speak to the public, they want their colleagues to see that in the process of simplifying for a lay audience, they have fairly and accurately reported what economic research shows.

Krugman, who hasn’t done serious research for years, clearly doesn’t care what his fellow economists think. He can, without the slightest evidence of embarrassment, pretend that an entire body of empirical research doesn’t even exist. That’s his choice. However, the New York Times bills him as a Nobel Laureate in economics. So when Hollywood types read Krugman, they think they are reading economics.

This is bad for the entire profession. Krugman rarely writes a column without including a venomous attack on those who disagree with him — questioning their ethics, their honesty, and their motives. But in economics, as in the other sciences, arguments ad hominem aren’t legitimate arguments.

One more bit of deceptiveness from last Friday’s column. Krugman says the solution to the unemployment problem is more stimulus spending and (after what he admits are only back-of-the-envelope calculations) assures us that “we would be a richer nation, with a brighter future.” Okay, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

What he doesn’t say (and what readers are surely entitled to know) is that when the Congressional Budget Office estimated the 10-year effects of President Obama’s stimulus proposal it projected the long-run effects would be negative. That is, incomes will be lower, jobs less plentiful, the federal deficit higher, etc. because of the stimulus! CBO projections, by the way, are the standard Congress is required to use in estimating the effects of the legislation they vote on.

As I’ve pointed out more than once, when it comes to health policy Krugman is almost always wrong. That by itself is not remarkable. Most health policy wonks are also usually wrong in the way they think about health economics. But Krugman is the only person I know who can’t resist insulting an entire political party, or the 40% of the population that calls itself “conservative,” or other scholars who disagree with him in the process of being wrong.

Once in a while I refer to him as Paul (if-you-disagree-with me-you-must-be-evil) Krugman. But on the whole, we usually pull our punches at this blog (as do most other bloggers). On balance, Krugman gets off lightly. He deserves much worse.

It would take a lifetime to sort out all the people Krugman owes an apology to, based on insults slung here and there on the basis of bad information or faulty reasoning. However, I for one would be willing to wipe the slate clean in return for a Jimmy-Swaggart-type-plea-for-forgiveness delivered at the Republican National Convention.

The tears would have to be real, of course.

[Cross-posted at John Goodman's Health Policy Blog]

About the Author

John C. Goodman, Ph.D. is Research Fellow at The Independent Institute; President in National Center for Policy Analysis, & author of Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis.

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