Phi Beta Cons

Re: Krugman

Few more thoughts on the new Nobel winner.

One, I’m not sure that the Nobel Prize is meant to reflect some kind of cost-benefit analysis of someone’s career — rather, it’s meant to reward spectacular successes, regardless of whether they’ve been accompanied by spectacular missteps. (The committee doesn’t release its selection criteria, so it’s hard to tell.) Regardless, his commentary is done more or less separately from his work as an academic economist, so it arguably would fall outside such an analysis anyway.

Two, I really don’t think it’s in conservatives’ best interest to contend that professors’ political and policy views should bear on decisions about hiring and professional-achievement awards. We should judge professors as professors — on the strength of their academic work.

And three, while (as I’ve said before) Krugman’s column is often terrible, that’s just as often not the case when he’s dealing with economic topics; his worst writing is usually generic Republican-bashing on foreign policy and race. Sometimes, on economics, he’s actually quite enlightening: Probably my favorite column of his was when he debunked the myth that Social Security discriminates against blacks because they don’t live as long. The fact is that most of that difference is due to youth mortality — blacks aren’t living through their working years, paying tons into Social Security, and then dying just before they collect. That’s an important contribution to the public debate, even if it takes away an anti-Social Security argument.

Even the notorious “matter of arithmetic” comment isn’t quite what it seems like, given all the out-of-context quotes. Obviously, no economist thinks that wealth is a zero-sum game. He wrote poorly, but it’s clear in context what he meant:

Although America has higher per capita income than other advanced countries, it turns out that that’s mainly because our rich are much richer. And here’s a radical thought: if the rich get more, that leaves less for everyone else.

That statement — which is simply a matter of arithmetic — is guaranteed to bring accusations of ”class warfare.”

He’s talking about comparisons between countries. If country A and country B both have $100 billion in total income, and a higher share of that income goes to the rich in country A, that means a lower share goes to everyone else in country A. That is simple arithmetic, even if the way he phrased it implied that economics was a zero-sum game (a very different, and very stupid, claim). Even interpreting these introductory sentences the way I have, there’s much libertarians won’t like in that column, but it’s nowhere near the disgrace it’s made out to be.

I’m certainly not defending every economic belief the guy has. His “there is no Social Security crisis” line seems wrong to me, and I’m sure rival economists could poke holes in lots of his other ideas. But why should some “out of the mainstream” ideas on some topics prevent the guy from getting recognition in other topics where he’s actually shaped mainstream views?

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