Bryan Caplan  

Krugman Between the Lines

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I'm officially pronouncing Scott Sumner the master of Krugman exegesis.  Two gems (the first level quotes are me quoting Sumner, the second level quotes are me quoting Sumner quoting Krugman):
OK, let's have some fun with this golden oldie from 2005:

And the backlash [against neoliberalism] has reached our closest neighbor. Mexico's current president, Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, is a firm believer in free markets. But his administration is widely considered a failure.

So what is Krugman saying here?  You might think; "Isn't it obvious?  He's saying that Fox implemented free market reforms and they failed."  If so, you underestimate the subtlety of Mr. Krugman.  He didn't say that Fox implemented any free market reforms at all.  He said he was a firm believer in free markets.  And who could dispute the proposition that mere belief in free markets, if not actually implemented, does not produce economic miracles?  How dare you assume he claimed Fox implemented such policies! 

...The fact is that Mr. Fox did not implement free market reforms.  Why not?  Because the Mexican legislature was firmly controlled by the opposition PRI, who had no interest in helping him... Think about it.  If you wanted to say economic reforms failed, why not just come out and say it.  Why refer to a leader who believed in market reforms, when it takes no more ink to say a leader who implemented market reforms.  (OK, 'implemented' is a couple extra letters--'enacted' would do.)

And:

Latin Americans are the most disillusioned. Through much of the 1990's, they bought into the "Washington consensus" - which we should note came from Clinton administration officials as well as from Wall Street economists and conservative think tanks - which said that privatization, deregulation and free trade would lead to economic takeoff. Instead, growth remained sluggish, inequality increased, and the region was struck by a series of economic crises.

At first glance you might think; "Aha Sumner, there's your smoking gun.  He does oppose the neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation and free trade, or at the very least thinks it failed.  Just as you said.  You've finally nailed him."  Not so fast.  He didn't say these policies were tried and failed, he said they were recommended by American officials, and he also said Latin America had not done well.  But he never actually said the policies were tried and failed.
I wish my critics read me half as closely as Sumner reads Krugman.  They might notice that I'm cagier than I sound.


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Jonathan Cast writes:
I wish my critics read me half as closely as Sumner reads Krugman. They might notice that I'm cagier than I sound.
This is commendable in your world?
GabbyD writes:

i dont understand sumner's position in quote#2.

why would latin americans be disillusioned by policies that were never tried?

Samuel Amaral writes:

Great gotcha ! Indeed Krugman don't lie he just don't present all the facts

KDeRosa writes:

why would latin americans be disillusioned by policies that were never tried?

Because people like Krugman dishonestly insuate that the policies were tried and failed. Something did in fact fail; it just wasn't neoliberal policies. BUt that doesn't stop people like Krugman from blaming the failure on neo-liberal policies.

The same thing happends up in the U.S. Almost every policy failure is blamed on "deregulation." Apparently changing regulations with perverse incentives to regulations with a sdifferent set of perverse incentives qualifies as deregulation and a failure of the market.

Jared writes:
I wish my critics read me half as closely as Sumner reads Krugman. They might notice that I'm cagier than I sound.

So you only pretend to make predictions or comments to your readers, but they're really only sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Eric Falkenstein writes:

clear talk is virtuous; it has cleaner motives and communicates a hypothesis for testing and use by others. Cagey talk is about making you, and your coalition, feel good about yourselves.

If you catch yourself being cagey, that's not a good thing.

Constant writes:

There are bad reasons but also good reasons for cagey talk.

If clear truthful talk will get you fired because hiring and firing is in the hands of people politically motivated to suppress uncomfortable truths, then cagey talk may be necessary.

bjk writes:

If this is another "Krugman has no intellectual honesty" post, I think that's been established. So why do people like Sumner still bother with him?

infopractical writes:

"If this is another "Krugman has no intellectual honesty" post, I think that's been established. So why do people like Sumner still bother with him?"

Because in the end it did take most conservatives reading 1000 "Bush is dishonest" posts before half of them recognized it. One incorrect statement does not a dishonest hack make. A thousand of them...

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

It's a joke! Just look at the picture at the top of the page. Is this the picture of a cagey person?

Daniel writes:

Summers is flat out wrong on the second quote. Look at it again.

Latin Americans are the most disillusioned. Through much of the 1990's, they bought into the "Washington consensus" - which we should note came from Clinton administration officials as well as from Wall Street economists and conservative think tanks - which said that privatization, deregulation and free trade would lead to economic takeoff. Instead, growth remained sluggish, inequality increased, and the region was struck by a series of economic crises.

Summers has his smoking gun.
If they "bought in" that means they enacted the policies. Buying in is an action. I might agree that GE is a great business and be disillusioned if it went bankrupt without buying stock in it. But if I bought in, I adopted the policy that I recommended with my praise of the company.

Swimmy writes:

Daniel: I thought the same thing. But "bought in" could likewise mean that they believed they should enact those policies without successfully enacting them. It would be an obtuse use of language, but that's the point.

Doc Merlin writes:

A few countries in latin america did enact neoliberal reforms... Chile, Columbia, and to some extent Brazil. Which countries in latin america are doing the best? You guessed it Chile, Columbia, and Brazil.

jc writes:

Fwiw, I think I read it the same way Swimmy did (or close enough).

When studying institutional change in Russia, for example, a favorite trick of those opposed to certain reforms was to: (1) negotiate just enough to make sure that a veneer of reform (rather than true reform) was implemented, w/ enough half hearted or internally inconsistent measures to ensure failure, and then (2) blame the reforms, rather than their poison pills, when the situation didn't improve. "See! We tried it their way, and it didn't work."

The public, and many officials, buy into the reform talk. What they get, though, is not true reform. When the veneer fails, the public, and many officials, are disillusioned, mistakenly assuming that true reform failed.

A recent example given by some in this very blog might be our own healthcare reform*, if the future actually does unfold like this: (1) pass rules that result in the higher expenses for insurance companies, (2) when insurance rates go up, say, "See! We tried to play nice and do things w/o a public option, and those greedy, profit driven companies raised the cost of healthcare yet again!"

* Alternatively, of course, we may simply be outsourcing the dirty work of price controls to insurers, making them put the squeeze on providers, e.g., recent denials of rate hikes in Mass. But that's not as fun as conspiracy talk... :) Still, even if many don't believe conspiracy laced political stuff like this goes on in civilized America, I'm sure it's not much of a stretch for most to believe it does goes on in places like Latin America.

James A. Donald writes:

Bryan Caplan writes

I wish my critics read me half as closely as Sumner reads Krugman. They might notice that I'm cagier than I sound.
Jonathan Cast writes:
This is commendable in your world?

Just as Krugman wants to be able to deny he told an “inaccuracy”, Bryan Caplan wants to be able to deny he told a forbidden truth

In Academia, truth is dangerous. Some examples:

1. Until the Soviets collapsed, 99% of Academia enthusiastically agreed that the Soviet Union's command economy was growing much faster than the US's old fashioned semi market economy, and the remaining 1% agreed that it was growing at least as fast – or at least that is what they said when anyone was listening. Since the general consensus outside of Academia was that the Soviet Union was a festering economic basket case whose central plan existed only on paper, collapsing into disorderly pillage in actual practice, one wonders what happened to any academic inclined to say that the Soviet Union was a festering economic basket case, whose plans and statistics were utterly disconnected from the chaotic and destructive reality.

2. Before 1972, every historian of science agreed that Darwin's big idea was natural selection, and those of them that addressed the issue of Lamarck and common descent agreed that Lamarck proposed common descent.

Natural selection, however tends to lead to disturbing thoughts and disturbing words, for example “Once the superiority of races with a prevailing aversion to incest had been established by their survival ...” Superior races! Oh the horror, the horror. Natural selection suggests endangered species have it coming to them, that women are not naturally equal to men, that genocide is, if regrettable, nonetheless natural and in the long run frequently inevitable, and lots of similarly horrifying stuff like that, and I have left out the really shocking stuff to avoid offending the readers too much. So it was progressively de-emphasized to students in the textbooks. But if you de-emphasize natural selection, this leaves a mysterious gap. What was Darwin famous for?

So in 1972, history was corrected, Winston Smith style. Darwin got common descent to fill the gap left by the removal of natural selection, just as Winston Smith invented comrade Ogilvy to replace the vaporized unperson Comrade Withers, and common descent was taken away from Lamarck. The textbook “Biology today” page 638

... in the Origin of Species. The central claim of that book can be fairly simply stated. According to the Darwinian theory, any natural group of similar species-all the mammal species, for instance-owe their common mammalian characteristics to a common descent from a single ancestral mammalian species.

And has for Lamarck, he got the shaft. Page 641
Lamarck's theory is not a hypothesis of common descent, which ascribes the common characteristics of a particular species to their common descent from a single species. ... He claims that ... although all mammals are descended from reptiles, they are not descended from the same reptiles

Somehow, after 1972, no one in Academia was able to mention that before 1972 everyone thought that Lamarckism is the doctrine "that all plants and animals are descended from a common primitive form of life." (Century Cyclopedia)

Before 1972
After 1972

Just as one wonders what happened to academics before 1980 who were inclined to doubt the great success of central planning, one wonders what happens to academics after 1972 who remember that before 1972, the history of science was different.

We have always been at war with Eastasia

Someone in Academia received an order like that given to Comrade Winston Smith, and all of Academia fell into line, and remains in line to this day, a thousand megaphones attached to one microphone.

The reporting of Big Brother's Order for the Day in The Times of December 3rd 1983 is extremely unsatisfactory and makes references to non-existent persons. Rewrite it in full and submit your draft to higher authority before filing.

… Withers, however, was already an unperson. He did not exist: he had never existed. …

… To-day he should commemorate Comrade Ogilvy. It was true that there was no such person as Comrade Ogilvy, but a few lines of print and a couple of faked photographs would soon bring him into existence.

Kevin writes:

Funny I was just commenting the other day about sophistry being PK's stock in trade. Looks like the man is developing a reputation.

jc writes:

@ James A Donald: thanks for your post

Krugman, of course, also notes that what's academically kosher to say and/or believe changes over time, with or without evidence compelling enough to warrant such changes (though I don't remember, offhand at least, him alluding to an actual rewriting of history ala 1984).

Of course, in this context he'd be referring to the trendiness of believing in neoliberal ideas, while waiting for the cultural winds to start blowing towards increased levels of government intervention and redistribution again. (We've had a gust in that direction; he may want a permanent wind stream.)

Why do we collectively think one thing before, say, 1972 and another thing afterwards? (Or why is it OK to openly say what we think before, but not after?) Maybe we're more enlightened than our dull predecessors, e.g., the common sentiment that slavery is immoral today. Maybe sometimes there is compelling evidence, e.g., the fall of communism. Maybe noncompeting elites try to manipulate public sentiment in ways that benefit them?

Or maybe it really is simply some sort of 'novelty' gene in each of us expressing itself, as fashionable modes of thought change just like fashionable styles of dress, music, etc. do? And that new lens, sculpted by fashion, filters all the data we look at?

Reminds me of one of my favorite Orwell quotes: "there are some ideas so stupid that only a very intelligent person could believe in them." If you're smart enough, you have enough grey matter to justify just about anything so that it better fits what you want to see under that shiny new lens. If you eschew that lens, though, you may find it in your best interest to be quiet...or if you must speak the truth, then yes, be cagey enough to say it in a way that allows you, if it comes to that point, to deny you told a forbidden truth. (Whether what he said was true or not, I wonder if Rand Paul wishes he'd been cagier.)

jc writes:

re: Orwell quote, I meant "wrong", not "stupid", of course. (That's what I get for multitasking.)

Jonathan Cast writes:

James A. Donald:

Disagreeing with an official position, but carefully crafting private statements (not statements made on behalf of a sponsor) to imply, but not actually state, that disagreement, is still intellectually dishonest.

If Dr. Caplan's conscience does not prevent him from pretending to agree with a false consensus, that is a flaw in his moral character.

Ryan Vann writes:

"Whether what he said was true or not, I wonder if Rand Paul wishes he'd been cagier."

Why? He is most likely winning the Kentucky Senate seat.

GabbyD writes:

uhm, brian, you should seriously re-think quote #2.

you cannot be dis-illusioned by something you didnt try. so sumner's interpretation is flatout wrong

when you bring in a policy, that means u use it. there is NO ambiguity.

James A. Donald writes:

jc writes:

Why do we collectively think one thing before, say, 1972 and another thing afterwards?
If the Climategate files are any indication, thinking certain things are very good for one's career, and thinking certain other things can be very bad for one's career, and the man whose career is going very well will drop a gentle hint to the man whose career is going badly and about to take a marked turn for the worse as to what his results should be.

James A. Donald writes:

Jonathan Cast writes:

If Dr. Caplan's conscience does not prevent him from pretending to agree with a false consensus, that is a flaw in his moral character.
It is safer for me to say things that anger people than it is for Bryan. He is right in the belly of the beast.

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