Bryan Caplan  

Dan Klein to Paul Krugman: You Can Do Better

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Krugman-bashing has become a cottage industry, but you'll have to search long and hard for a better workmanship than this piece by Dan Klein and Harika Barlett. Klein and Barlett inventory all of Krugman's NYT columns, and find a curious pattern of omissions and deviations that are hard to reconcile with Krugman's self-image as a "champion of the poor."

First, the omissions. After reviewing all of Krugman's columns in the sample, the paper finds that he virtually never advocates helping the poor by getting rid of bad government programs (even though there are plenty to choose from):

A comprehensive analysis of the 654 columns shows, however, that Krugman has really sided with liberalization only on the following issues: rent control (6/7/00); US agricultural subsidies (5/7/02); international trade (e.g., 3/8/02; 3/24/02; 6/11/02; 11/28/03); mildly on high-tech anti-trust enforcement including the Microsoft case (often arguing that the government just cannot do anything to improve matters, e.g., 7/12/00; 10/22/00; 6/24/01; 7/1/01; 11/4/01); ethanol mandates and subsidies/tax breaks (6/25/00); NASA manned-space flight (it is only the manning of ships that he opposes; 2/4/03); European labor-market restrictions (3/29/00; 5/3/00); and the Terry Schiavo case (3/29/05).

Thus, Krugman has sided with liberalization only rarely. And when it comes to established interventions, there are only two cases, rent-control and agricultural subsidies, each treated in but a single column, on which Krugman has ever advocated liberalization. Moreover, since the close of 2002 there has been no new and significant espousal of liberalization.

Second, the deviations: Klein and Barlett trace Krugman's gradual turn against low-skilled immigration. It's pretty ugly, especially for someone who claims to worry so much about "the poor":
Krugman’s illiberalism flows from the social-democratic ethos. He now minimizes the spontaneous benefits of liberal immigration: “First, the net benefits to the US economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small” (3/27/06). In that column devoted to immigration, the only recognition of the benefits to the immigrants is that “aside.”...

But labor competition is not Krugman’s main concern. “[M]odern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should — and low-skilled immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net” (3/27/06). ... “[T]he political threat that low-skill immigration poses to the welfare state is more serious than the fiscal threat” (3/27/06). Polities “with high immigration tend, other things equal, to have less generous welfare states than those with low immigration” (3/31/06).

Dan Klein tells me that, so far, his critique of Krugman hasn't gotten the attention he was hoping for. The reason, I suspect, is that attitudes toward Krugman have grown so bimodal. Am I the only economist who read this piece who genuinely felt disappointed that Krugman's creative mind and intellectual courage could give way to so much conventional demagoguery?


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
David N. Welton writes:

Perhaps with a Democrat in the white house, Krugman will improve. He seems to have fallen to the "frothing at the mouth about Bush" syndrome typical of many on the left. The evidence of Bush's incompetence and betrayal of things that everyone ought to view as American (i.e. crackdown on civil liberties, torture, spying) is so glaring that it's very easy to dwell on it, rather than trying to be a calm voice of reason about economic matters.

Want to bet that something similar happens to certain right-wing economists if Hillary is elected?

John V writes:

Well, I'm not an economist but I am a libertarian and I read the whole thing. I thought it was excellent.

Personally, I'm disappointed that more economists don't go after Krugman's descent from economist and to pundit more aggressively.

Liberal economist blogs like Thoma's simply shower him with praise while DeLong seemed to just be ambivalent.

sdfsd writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Pete writes:

Not many people would want to put their names out there for fear of being the next subject of a Dan Klein-inspired skewering. Better to stay out of it and not be a target.

Dr. T writes:

I've been reading about economics for the past 15 years or so, and I cannot think of a single time that Krugman exhibited "intellectual courage." I can think of many times where he exhibited the ethics of a corrupt, manipulative politician. Krugman made a big splash many years ago, but after achieving fame he became, in my opinion, a lying pundit in support of Democratic Party goals. The harm he has done in recent years outweighs the positive contributions he made early in his career.

Mark Seecof writes:

Yikes. You read an analysis of 654 Krugman columns, then devote about half of your comments to reviling Krugman on the one area where he has the facts indisputably right, just because they lead him to a conclusion you dislike?

Low skilled immigration does make poor American citizens poorer, and does diminish political support for welfare programs!

It's all very well to snark about putting prospective gains to immigrants "aside," but really, where else can Krugman put them if he wants to champion the cause of less-affluent (and especially Black) Americans?

You can call immigration restrictions a form of protectionism if you like, but that just means they act as a species of tax. Krugman is happy to apply, say, income taxes to more affluent Americans and redistribute the proceeds to less-affluent ones. You don't cavil at that; why do you think income redistribution is more respectable than refusing to import more low-skilled immigrants? You sound like someone who thinks that a cap-and-trade emissions-permit scheme is shockingly immoral but an emissions tax would be just fine!

I don't like Krugman's columns much, but Krugman has not espoused the goal of getting Americans to tax themselves to support all the poor people of the world. That's too tall an order even for him. Krugman wants to influence American politics to redistribute more wealth inside America. Krugman reasonably perceives increased low-skilled immigration as an obstacle to accomplishing his fairly mainstream (if leftish) goal. Why are you guys so upset?

Maybe you should calm down a little. When you criticize Krugman for almost entirely neglecting regulatory relief (chiefly, relief from the pernicious side effects of successful rent-seeking by elites) I and many others agree with you.

When you quiver on the brink of hysteria because Krugman doesn't share your eagerness to bring all the illiterate peasants of the world into the USA to put our Black fellow citizens out of work, use our emergency rooms and schools without paying, and drain our social-service budgets; well, you may find fewer readers cheering you on.

David N. Welton writes:

Maybe I just got lucky with it, but this essay is an excellent one in defense of free trade:

http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/smokey.html

I think I find our economist bloggers more interesting when they "go against party lines". If Dr. Caplan writes about the free market being a good thing... well that's not exactly news nor unexpected. Krugman promoting free trade in the face of many on the left who distrust it, or Mankiw supporting a carbon tax are cases where they appear to be putting economics ahead of politics. When they do that, I pay more attention. And as of late, it seems to me that Krugman has done much less of that, focusing his energies on the awfulness of Bush, which is a waste of his talents - anyone can sit around and rant about politics.

David Friedman writes:

Krugman wrote that Polities “with high immigration tend, other things equal, to have less generous welfare states than those with low immigration”(3/31/06).

That's precisely the argument I've been making in favor of free immigration for quite a long time. See, for instance, this post, made, oddly enough, a day after Krugman's (and no, I didn't read his).

It's a pity that Krugman puts the welfare of (relatively) rich Americans over that of poor foreigners, but that isn't a fault in his economics.


http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2006/04/welfare-and-immigration-flip-side-of.html

Steve Sailer writes:

I don't like Krugman personally -- in my experience with him, he's rude and arrogant -- but I have to give him a lot of credit.

1. His maniacal obsession, even when Bush was riding high, with figuring out how the President is screwing up has left the country better off because the President really was screwing up.

2. On immigration, he has a classic case of ethnocentric nostalgia for open borders, _but_ he finally read the studies and the facts started to change his mind (unlike certain other economists' who have a lot of opinions on immigration without actually knowing anything about the subject other than Julian Simon's theories).

3. He delved deeply into evolutionary theory in the mid-1990s. His putdown of Stephen Jay Gould as the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject is wonderful:

http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/evolute.html

Steve Sailer writes:

David:

The problem with immigration is that you end up with the worst of both worlds: you don't get useful welfare like a rational health care system, but you do get vast amounts of corruption and handouts to ethnic interests. That's what we saw in immigrant cities with Democratic machines like Tammany Hall, and what we're seeing again -- just look into what an excessive fraction of the current mortgage defaults are by protected minorities.

Daniel Klein writes:

Thanks to Bryan for opening discussion of the piece.

I encourage people to submit critical commentary to Econ Journal Watch. It could be a letter for the Correspondence section, or perhaps something longer as a "Follow Up" for the "Character Issues" section of the journal.

A letter or comment could pick at parts of the piece, but it should do so in a way that sees the whole argument. It should frame any such picking as speaking to the whole argument.

Dan Klein, editor Econ Journal Watch

Scott Scheule writes:

For the life of me, I can't see where Mark has erred in his comment.

Caplan describes Krugman's turn on immigration as deviation--how so? Did he previously state that his goal is enriching the non-American poor?

David J. Balan writes:

This "discovery" that Krugman's columns reveal a lack of concern for the poor is really pretty silly. His support for the poor comes principally in the form of his support for standard liberal pro-poor programs, most importantly universal health insurance, about which he has spilled buckets upon buckets of ink.

The worst that can be said about him is that he advocates policies that favor the relatively rich American poor over the much poorer foreign poor. People can argue about whether or to what extent it is OK to do this, but it makes very little sense to equate a thumb on the scale in favor of Americans over foreigners with an indifference towards the poor. Moreover, that thumb on the scale is pretty light if it exists at all; he now says that the main reason he continues to support free trade, in light of the mounting evidence that it contributes substantially to low-end wage stagnation at home, is that it provides such large benefits for the foreign poor. Klein just hasn't got the goods.

Scott Scheule writes:

Well, now I'm confused, David. If he supports free trade programs because it helps foreign poor, but doesn't support free immigration despite how much it helps foreign poor, isn't that a significant tension?

David J. Balan writes:

Scott,

I'm not aware that Krugman has ever explicitly specified how he trades off the welfare of the American poor against the welfare of even poorer would-be immigrants or trade partners. And I'm also not sure what the current evidence shows about the wage-depressing effects of trade vs. immigration. So I'm not sure whether his mix of policy positions is optimal, even by his own lights. But the bottom line is that he probably does care somewhat more about what happens to poor Americans, but is still very far from being someone who puts no weight on the welfare of foreigners. This is probably a fairly common posture among moderate American liberals. Whether you agree with that posture or not, equating it with a lack of concern for the poor is just a deliberate and tendentious misunderstanding of what he's all about.

Scott Scheule writes:

David,

That may be. Klein's paper, however, is more considerate in its reading of Krugman, simply recognizing the tension between social democracy and caring about the poor. That's fair. Perhaps Bryan's characterization is unfair--though if so, the error is not egregious.

Daniel Klein writes:

Krugman defenders:

Read the whole paper.

How do you square conern for the poor with silence on school vouchers, occupational licensing, the FDA etc etc? It is straight-forward that liberalization of those and many, many other interventions would be good for the poor--is it not?

So why doesn't Krugman address them, ever? As shown in the paper, he almost never has espoused liberalization aside from free trade and a few individual columns--that's out of 654 columns.

The immigration stuff is when we hear a noise. But it is the silence that is deafening.

What would Krugman say about school vouchers?

Why don't we know?

What would Krugman say about occupational licensing?

Why don't we know?

Ask yourself.

David J. Balan writes:

"It is straight-forward that liberalization of those and many, many other interventions would be good for the poor--is it not?"

Well of course it is not. The issues that Klein mentions are ones that are hotly contested all the time. It may seem obvious to Klein that his preferred policies are all pro-poor ones, but it is not obvious to me, and I doubt very much that it is obvious to Krugman.

And that's the problem with the Klein paper. He is so convinced that no reasonable person could doubt that a libertarian policy agenda is pro-poor that he simply *assumes* that Krugman must agree that it is, and then takes Krugman's silence regarding those policies as evidence that Krugman doesn't care about the poor. Isn't is much more likely that Krugman simply disagrees with Klein about which policies are good for the poor, and has opinions on this subject that are typical for a moderate lefty of his (and my) stripe? Wouldn't it be more consistent with the evidence (Krugman certainly spends an awful lot of time talking *as if* he cares about the poor) to say that what's going on here is nothing more than that Krugman believes, broadly speaking, that liberal policies are the best way to help the poor? And isn't this all kind of obvious?

Daniel Klein writes:

To David Balan,

What makes occupational licencing or government monopolization of schooling "liberal" policies? I'd say they are illiberal policies.

The literature on the issues are much more conclusive than you realize.

Krugman ought to know that. How can anyone think that government monopolization of schooling, as opposed to putting purchasing power into the hands of poor families, is good for the poor? Wake up.

Similarly occ licensing and the FDA. You don't know because you don't want to know.

Bill Stepp writes:

For the life of me, I don't understand why anyone has a high opinion of Krugman. The guy is either
intellectually dishonest or incompetent. I find the latter impossible to believe.

Two or three weeks ago, he had a NYT column about Germany, and how its economy has done comparatively well in recent years. He omitted all three factors that caused this: lower taxes, less burdensome labor market regulations, and the lowering of barriers to international trade.
If he had written that in a class I taught, I would have flunked him.

I read him once in a while, and consider it time wasted.

David J. Balan writes:

It seems to me that one of the following four things has to be true: (i) Krugman disagrees with Klein about whether Klein's preferred policies are in fact pro-poor and is right; (ii) Krugman disagrees with Klein and is wrong; (iii) Krugman agrees with Klein, understands that Klein's preferred policies are in fact pro-poor, but opposes those policies anyway because he doesn't care about (is actively hostile to?) the poor; or (iv) Krugman agrees with Klein but opposes Klein's policies for some other reason.

Klein seems to think that (i) can't possibly be true, that the evidence that libertarian policies are in fact pro-poor is beyond any reasonable dispute. He also seems to think that (ii) can't possibly be true either, that the evidence for Klein's positions is not just persuasive, but is so overwhelming that no fair-minded observer could possibly fail to be convinced by it except through a willful act of denial. And that, according to Klein, leaves (iii) as the only remaining possibility, and so he concludes that Krugman is anti-poor. That is, Klein does not allow (iv) as a possibility at all.

This argument doesn't even work on its own terms, as (iv) is a real possibility. That is, even if you accept that Klein's evidence is so strong that only someone with an agenda could possibly dissent from it (and of course I don't remotely accept this), why is it so obvious that the agenda has to be lack of support for the poor? Isn't the standard knock on Krugman that he's a shill for the Democrats? Maybe he takes the positions that he does in order to bolster their prospects, and maybe he does this precisely *because* he thinks that on balance the Dems are better for the poor. I'm not saying that I think this is what's going on, only that Klein's argument is fundamentally flawed even if you accept all his premises.

Niccolo Adami writes:

Generally speaking, I enjoy reading Paul Krugman - though I agree with very few of his points. I thought it was a thoughtful article and one I can see much truth in as a semi-avid reader of Krugman's work.

Daniel Klein writes:

To David Balan:

You list four possible states of the world, labeled (i), (ii), (iii), (iv).

In the paper, I'm saying the following:

State (i) is false--I am presupposing that the liberalization occupational licensing, FDA, and the socialist school system would be good for the poor. If you wish to argue otherwise, have at it.

State (ii) could be true to some extent, but that would reveal how distorted Krugman's thinking is. Yet he frequently postures as being above ideological distortion.

State (iii) I reject because of the way you phrase it. I don't mean to suggest that Krugman has an animus against the poor. (Also, I don't see a clear distinction between (iii) and (iv).)

State (iv), which you say I neglect as a possibility, is actually congruent with with my main contention. Krugman, while perhaps not consciously agreeing with me about those policies, has shied away from them, because, even if he would have to admit that they would be good for the poor, he opposes them for reasons in spite of the good they would rain on the poor. Those other reasons are things like the social-democratic political ethos, the people's romance, and the organizational view of the polity.

Now, if you're saying that he has to remain silent on those issues and the many similar opportunities for advancing well-being by liberalization in order to help Democrats prevail over Republicans, and that from the larger strategic position the rhetorical strategy advances the interests of the poor in the larger, indirect way, then I say, as I did in the paper, that it flies in the face of his posturing as a forth-right, ideology-free analyst of economic affairs. That is, this defense tries to rescue him by the following combination of conditions (a) the Dems are better for the poor than the Repubs, (b) if Krugman were to enlighten thinking on the liberalizations it would measurably harm the Dems' prospects of beating the Repubs, and (c) he is a shill for Dems and refrains from enlightening thinking on such matters.

That defense, it seems to me, would admit that he is a deeply ideological creature, which is something he postures as not being. He routinely condemns others for such strategic discourse and dissembling.

Further, that defense would have some explaining to do: How is it that enlightening people that occ lic, FDA, and the school monopoly are bad for the poor would be bad for Dems, AND that the Dems are significantly better the poor than the Repubs? Wouldn't a real exponent of the poor simply condemn policies that are bad for the poor, and not play politics?

At the very least, it is clear that Krugman is playing in deep ideological waters.

So rather than exposing weaknesses in my argument, you seem to be retraveling and validating it.

The classical liberal presumption of State indifference yields the beneficial policy in so many areas that free marketeers overgeneralize.

1) Value is determined by supply and demand, therefore a world in which human life is precious is a world in which human life is scarce.
2) The world's human population cannot grow without limit.
3) The world's human population will stop growing when either (3.1) the birth rate falls to meet the death rate or (3.2) the death rate rises to meet the birth rate.
4) Voluntary programs for population control selectively breed non-compliant individuals.
5) No country's politicians will address an excess birth rate (greater than replacement) so long as they have another country available as a sink.
6) The world's instantaneous maximum possible human population is greater than it's maximum sustainable human population.
Expect a sharp drop in the world's human population before the world's human popuation stabilizes.
7) The world's maximum sustainable human population leaves little room for wilderness.
Absent mandatory controls on immigration and natural increase, expect a sharp drop in biodiversity over the next 200 years.

Build a wall.

PS. School vouchers would be a big step up from the current State-monopoly school system but accord too much respect to current institutions for my taste. I refer a policy I call Parent Performance Conracting (your legislature mandates that school districts must hire parents on personal service contracts to provide for their children's education if the parents apply for the contract).

Sorry for the previous incomplete thought.
Edit. Insert material below as...

5) The world's human population will stop growing as a result of (5.1) deliberate human choice or (5.2) other.
6) Deliberate human choice may be (6.1) democratically determined or (6.2) other.
Your choices are limited.
Build a wall.

and renumber.

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