Paul Krugman’s Remarkable Lack of Self-Awareness

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on June 19, 2011

“Know thyself,” the Delphic Oracle is said to have advised. “F*** that,” Paul Krugman is said to have responded.

Consider the following Q&A, with the question to Krugman put in bold:

Wouldn’t some people accuse you of having an extremely strong belief system? Isn’t there a sense among liberals that, “We’re in the right so we don’t have to pay too much attention to conservative or Republican arguments”?

In my experience with these things – which I find both within economics and more broadly  – is that if you ask a liberal or a saltwater economist, “What would somebody on the other side of this divide say here? What would their version of it be?” A liberal can do that. A liberal can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen. We don’t think it’s right, but we pay enough attention to see what the other person is trying to get at.

The reverse is not true. You try to get someone who is fiercely anti-Keynesian to even explain what a Keynesian economic argument is, they can’t do it. They can’t get it remotely right. Or if you ask a conservative, “What do liberals want?” You get this bizarre stuff – for example, that liberals want everybody to ride trains, because it makes people more susceptible to collectivism. You just have to look at the realities of the way each side talks and what they know. One side of the picture is open-minded and sceptical. We have views that are different, but they’re arrived at through paying attention. The other side has dogmatic views.

Amazing, really. There is no one “who is fiercely anti-Keynesian” who can get what a Keynesian economic argument is? Nobody? Not a soul? The proposition beggars belief, but then, the proposition is entirely consistent with Krugman’s belief that his side–and only his side–knows the truth of what must be done in addressing the challenges of the day. Even more amazing is the fact that Krugman believes that liberals have a monopoly on knowledge and wisdom despite having praised David Hume in the Q&A for Hume’s claim that “nobody has all of the answers.” Apparently, Krugman has a suspicion that Hume actually thought that “nobody save contemporary American liberals has all of the answers.”

And yes, Krugman believes that liberals have a monopoly on knowledge and wisdom. He is fond of telling his blog audience that “the facts have a liberal bias”, but as former New York Times ombundsman Daniel Okrent famously stated, Krugman “has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults,” which dents considerably Krugman’s claim that he is “open-minded and sceptical,” and that he arrived at his conclusions “through paying attention.” It also dents considerably the silly rhetorical flourish that “the facts have a liberal bias,” which is why it is so breathtaking to encounter Krugman’s pixelated intellectual arrogance. He nearly breaks his arm patting himself on the back for virtues which he does not have.

Related to this debate, of course, is Krugman’s past, proud claim to be epistemically closed when it comes to reading conservative sites. Krugman does not believe that it is worth reading conservatives because “life is short,” but somehow, his epistemic closure does not prevent him from claiming that he and other liberals “can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen. We don’t think it’s right, but we pay enough attention to see what the other person is trying to get at.” Rarely do pundits try so obviously to have it both ways. To be fair to Krugman, he has enough trouble keeping track of what he himself has written to be able to competently keep track of what conservatives write, but he still cannot claim that he is familiar with conservative arguments, while at the same time proudly stating that he does not read conservatives. Talk about “bizarre stuff.”

Economists who actually possess intellectual rigor–instead of merely posing as though they do–can have a field day with Krugman’s comments. And Don Boudreaux accepts the invitation to do just that, addressing Krugman as follows:

Because, as you claim, you study carefully the works of non-”liberal” scholars, you surely know that the late Frank KnightLudwig von MisesF.A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman – influential economists whom you would classify as “conservative” – were all steeped in and treated seriously the writings of Keynes, Marx, Veblen, Galbraith, and other “liberal” thinkers.

The same is true for still-living influential non-”liberal” scholars.

I’d be obliged to conclude that you in fact, contrary your claim, do not carefully engage the works of non-”liberal” scholars if you insist that “liberal” scholarship is ignored by conservative and libertarian thinkers such as James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Ronald CoaseArmen AlchianHarold DemsetzAnna Schwartz, Gary BeckerVernon SmithLeland YeagerHenry ManneDeirdre McCloskey, Allan MeltzerRichard EpsteinTyler CowenArnold KlingGeorge Selgin, Lawrence H. White, and James Q. Wilson, to name only a few.

You do a disservice to scholars such as these, as well as to scholarship generally, to assert that serious thinking is done only by you and your ideological cohorts.

And David Henderson runs up the score on behalf of Krugman critics everywhere:

. . . I’m not a conservative but a libertarian, but Krugman lumps us together, which, in itself, shows a failure to listen. But I have found that both conservative and libertarian economists (as opposed to grassroots activists) have done a better job of stating “liberal” arguments and Keynesian arguments (those are not necessarily the same) than liberal economists are at stating our arguments. I think there’s a reason: we’ve seen ourselves as being in the minority for so long that we’ve had to learn the other side’s arguments. Try this test: see if you can read Krugman’s blog and NY Times column for two weeks and not find him, at least once, attributing motives to those economists he disagrees with that you are pretty sure are not their real motives.

I suppose it is worth ending with the statement that if the New York Times had possessed any sense of intellectual self-respect, it would long ago have told Krugman that the paper did not and does not wish to associate itself with this brand of easily-refuted, self-inflating nonsense, and would have cut ties with him. But of course, the Times long ago decided that come Hell or high water, it would not turn back from its decision to lash its fortunes onto Krugman’s public credibility.

Lousy call, that.

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