There’s been a lot of chatter on the web, and I’ve received lots of e-mails from readers, concerning Arnold Kling’s open letter to Paul Krugman, posted yesterday on Tech Central Station. I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth — it’s great to see an economist take on Krugman in public. But truth be told, I think Kling’s critique fails to come to grips with what’s wrong with Paul Krugman.
For the moment, I’m afraid, I’ll have to withhold Kling’s membership in the Krugman Truth Squad.
Kling sets up a framework in which economic propositions can be argued in two different styles. What he calls “Type C” arguments are about the consequences of a particular policy (e.g., “tax cuts will stimulate the economy”). What he calls “Type M” arguments are the motives behind a particular policy (e.g., “tax cuts are just a sop to rich Republicans”).
Kling believes that Krugman cheapens economic discourse by failing to make Type C arguments (which can be debated rationally, if not to a definitive conclusion) in favor predominantly of Type M arguments (which defy rational debate, and crowd out analysis of real policy dynamics).
But if it were that simple, Krugman wouldn’t be America’s most dangerous liberal pundit.
The fact of the matter is: Krugman makes both kinds of arguments all the time. Kling cites Krugman’s Type M argument against tax cuts offered in his recent New York Times Magazine article, “The Tax Cut Con.” In that piece, Krugman argues that Republican tax-cutters want to “starve the beast” and put an end to New Deal-era social programs. But in that article Krugman also makes many Type C arguments. For example, he writes that tax cuts do not lead to faster economic growth, citing average GDP growth following Reagan’s tax cuts in the 1980s.
On closer analysis, Krugman’s rhetorical effectiveness lies primarily in his ability to do a change-up between Type C and Type M arguments within a single column; he uses his facility as an economist to dazzle the reader with the Type C argument before slipping in the Type M argument — whether or not the two are really related.
In “The Tax Cut Con,” Krugman uses many Type C arguments to establish that tax cuts have no benefits whatsoever, and therefore all the claimed benefits amount to lies. This sets him up to offer the Type M argument to “explain” why the lies were being told. In this sense, the Type M argument is, in Krugman’s hands, a Type C argument at another level. What Kling distinguishes as mere motive is just a hidden consequence.
But the real problem, which Kling either doesn’t understand, doesn’t choose to understand, or doesn’t choose to deal with, is that many of Krugman’s Type C and Type M arguments are actually Type D arguments — deceptions. For example, the Type C argument demonstrating that the Reagan’s tax cuts produced no faster economic growth necessitates that Krugman hand-picks beginning and ending dates on the economic timeline to produce the numbers he desires. The dates he cites, however, do not (contrary to his explicit claims) correspond to business cycle peaks. Nor did the tax cuts exist in all the years he includes. When the proper years are chosen, faster GDP growth can unambiguously be observed. (See the analysis on my blog, The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid.)
The Type M argument in question here is really a Type D argument. Throughout the article, and even more so in the introductory material to Krugman’s new book, The Great Unraveling, Krugman portrays the “starve the beast” approach to controlling government spending and reducing the size of government as an attempt to fundamentally undermine America. Thus he not only argues as to motives, but he characterizes those motives in a deceptive way in order to impugn them.
For example, Krugman is fond of quoting “starve the beaster” Grover Norquist out of context. Norquist, he says, wants to shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Milton Friedman avowedly has the same aims, yet he expresses himself less colorfully — and Krugman does not quote him.
If Krugman were an honest writer, I would see nothing wrong with his commenting on motives. I agree with Kling that there is little point in trying to argue against a good consequence just because it sprang from a bad motive (or vice versa, as is more often the case in the government sphere). Yet in analyses that are both economic and political at the same time, motive is not trivial. It can help explain the seeking of certain consequences, and help forecast the consequences that will be sought in the future.
Kling, in fact, has made interesting Type M arguments himself. In a column posted on Tech Central Station scarcely more than a month ago, Kling correlated the number of years spent outside academia in the careers of various economists — including Krugman and himself — with each economists’ liberalism or conservatism: the very wellspring of their motives. In the same column, Kling writes,
The Democratic Party is opposed to tax cuts. Is this a matter of principled concern for the fiscal health of the United States, or is it because “the people” that dominate the party platform — the teachers’ unions; the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; and opponents of Social Security reform — all feed from the government trough?
I see nothing wrong with such statements — either in Kling’s work or in Krugman’s — provided the statements are honest. So I have to protest when Kling writes in his open letter that, in response to Krugman’s reliance on Type M arguments, “many of your opponents are stooping to your level.” I don’t know if Kling is talking about me specifically, but I must say that I receive a lot of feedback to this effect. Some readers think I should do nothing but take on Krugman’s Type C arguments with my own Type C counterarguments, and refrain either from fact-checking Krugman’s arguments or speculating as to Krugman’s motives. Well, I don’t see it entirely that way.
I offer plenty of my own Type C arguments, although not always in the same columns in which I criticize Krugman. Those critiques are intended primarily to expose Krugman’s Type D arguments — in other words, to reveal his lies. You can’t have a rational battle of Type C arguments if one of the contestants lies. We have to start there. And since I’m just idealistic enough to continue to be shocked when people flat-out lie, I think it’s fair game to speculate from time to time as to the liar’s motives.
Strangely, Krugman would say precisely the same thing about himself. He would argue that he is exposing President Bush’s lies, and then revealing the motives behind them.
So, am I stooping to Krugman’s level? No. Because what Krugman says are Bush lies are not really lies at all — they are philosophical or policy disagreements. With the imprimatur of his Princeton professorship and the New York Times, Krugman dares to hold his own opinions so sacred that to differ with them is in fact to lie. Hence, we often find Krugman lying about lying.
What’s Krugman’s motive? Partisan politics, of course. The partisan end justifies the lying means. We can just as easily say that Krugman has a Type D personality.