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InsiderOnline Blog: April 2014

Question and Answer: Paul Krugman Edition

Paul Krugman, commenting on Ezra Klein’s inaugural essay at Vox last week:

What Ezra does is cite research showing that people understand the world in ways that suit their tribal identities: in controlled experiments both conservatives and liberals systematically misread facts in a way that confirms their biases. And more information doesn’t help: people screen out or discount facts that don’t fit their worldview. Politics, as he says, makes us stupid.

But here’s the thing: the lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives. Yes, liberals are sometimes subject to bouts of wishful thinking. But can anyone point to a liberal equivalent of conservative denial of climate change, or the “unskewing” mania late in the 2012 campaign, or the frantic efforts to deny that Obamacare is in fact covering a lot of previously uninsured Americans? I don’t mean liberals taking positions you personally disagree with—I mean examples of overwhelming rejection of something that shouldn’t even be in dispute. [New York Times, April 7]

Daniel Klein and Harika Barlett, after reviewing all 654 of Paul Krugman’s columns between 1997 and 2006:

Occupational licensing, it has been argued, reduces availability, selection, innovation, and quality received by consumers, while increasing prices and incomes of practitioners. It makes it harder for poor people to mount and ascend the economic ladder and, by shifting labor supply functions, depresses wages in fields not subject to licensing. Other interventions that remove low-positioned rungs include union privileges and the minimum wage, but occupational licensing is the most significant in that economists who study and judge the policy mostly reach a conclusion in favor of liberalization. Yet Krugman never addresses the policy. In fact, in all of his utterances about the tribulations of the poor, he never points to any existing intervention as a livelihood obstacle. When Krugman writes, “Can anything be done to spread the benefits of a growing economy more widely?,” he makes but one suggestion: “A good start would be to increase the minimum wage[.]”

And that’s just one example from Klein and Barlett’s article. Here’s a theory to noodle on: If there is an asymmetry between the Left and the Right, it may be that liberals lend their support to status quo government interventions by remaining silent while conservatives can oppose them only by speaking out. Thus, when a conservative makes a bad argument, it gets noticed; when a liberal has a bad argument, it doesn’t get noticed because he didn’t have to voice his bad argument in support of the status quo. He stayed silent. In other words, when Krugman points to instances of confirmation bias as examples of conservative stupidity, he’s actually engaging in selection bias. Just a theory. In any case, here is Klein and Barlett’s conclusion:

Although he claims to admire free markets, in the task of elucidating their virtues, to expose the unintended consequences of a wide variety of extant interventions, Krugman, aside from the issue of international trade, has been nearly a total loss. Krugman’s silence on many of the issues, such as school vouchers, cannot be excused as ignorance. The logic of liberalization is too compelling, the import too great, the status of debate too high, that even if Krugman doubts that the liberalization would help the poor, the opportunity to address the debate and explain his doubts is overripe. The silence should be interpreted as elision. I chalk up Krugman’s illiberalism to a status-quo mentality framed by “liberal versus conservative” memes, and, more particularly, a social-democratic ethos biased towards government intervention, especially those long sanctified by “our” democratic processes. [“Left Out: A Critique of Paul Krugman Based on a Comprehensive Account of His New York Times Columns, 1997 through 2006,” by Daniel B. Klein with Harika Anna Barlett, Econ Journal Watch, January 2008]

Posted on 04/18/14 12:33 PM by Alex Adrianson

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