Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Krugman's mistake

The case for austerity

Sharon linked to this and I wanted to mention something that I find hilarious about the argument Paul Krugman and Brad Delong and a few others are having with, well, with everyone who disagrees with them.

A long time ago I wanted to be a university professor.  Other kids wanted to be firemen or rock stars; I wanted to teach theoretical particle physics.  And then I went to graduate school - I decided later on against physics because it was too practical - on an affirmative action program for white trash and, to be honest, I was perhaps the worst graduate student* in the history of my program, or possibly at the very fine institute of higher learning I was paid to attend for four long years. 

But one day about halfway through my grad school career I realized that I had unknowingly signed up with a monastery.  Oh sure; I was in the California sunshine surrounded by attractive young Benneton models and fake sandstone all done up in a combination Florentine/Byzantine style, but I had one of those moments that was part Garcia Marquez, part-Matrix, where my vision telescoped across the Quad and I saw in my current preoccupations an unbroken line back to 12th century Europe.  Three things became obvious:
  1. I was ruined for my course of study, which from a purely mechanical standpoint consisted of arguing with other grad students whether a problem was a new problem or whether the problem dated in fact to 1895.  Instead, I was able to instantly reduce all the current arguments to their 12th century antecedents, which were primarily about the existence of God.
  2. I was not really going to fit in, because I saw which parts of the fence were electric and which weren't, and while I was forever blundering into the electrified bits I could very simply end all that by escaping the pasture.
  3. I saw that what I really wanted to do, which was blog for a small-to-non-existent audience of people who couldn't stop thinking "shouldn't he put a period in there somewhere?", was really not what I was going to be doing.  Which was being a monk, recopying manuscripts, teaching other young initiates the canon, and arguing over whether what we all read in the Nth copy of a manuscript was an error in copying, a genuinely original thought, or the original words.
In the course of that career and many times since I've become quite familiar with the public intellectual.  Indeed there was once great hope in my family that I might become a public intellectual of note.  The public intellectual is distinguished from the mere university professor in that the former is convinced there's some value to explaining the truth of science and/or the humanities to the public, while the latter is usually not convinced there's any value, even if they pay for it.  In the very old days, at the end of the telescope I looked down all those years ago, these people might have been saints or prophets.

Its instructive to keep that image in mind: the public intellectual from the modern university system in the modern era is the very same kind of person who would have been a saint or a prophet in 12th century Europe.  

Paul Krugman, god love him, is a public intellectual, perhaps one of the few left in the US.  I turned on Hillary Clinton's candidacy during the '08 election when she went after Krugman.  He's really about the truth, or at the very least about what evidence says the truth is, and he's incredibly pissed off when people continue to say that something is so when the evidence says it clearly isn't so.

But that's because Paul Krugman is an economist, a scientist who studies monetary transactions.  To be really specific, a scientist who theorizes about the exchange of use value between human beings.

The people Krugman are arguing against aren't economists, they're actors.  Plato used to rail against the Sophists, or people who were hired to argue positions, any positions, and these people are like Sophists only far less interesting.  When you look at a debate between Paul Krugman and pretty much anyone who argues for austerity, you're usually looking at a debate between a scientist and someone who's got tenure at the Heritage foundation and an endowed tenure at some major university that comes in exchange for funding a hundred scholarships for poor kids.  They may do "research" but more likely they don't, and the research they do is designed to rationalize a given policy.

It would be simple to say these people are consequences of the Powell memo.  But actually for the most part that's exactly what they are.  They are the result of an arrangement between the university system and the Chamber of Commerce, wherein the CoC gets a head start and a bit of extra credibility in the race between real honest-to-god reality and the narrow legal defense of a business model that turns out to be lethal to some significant percentage of someone's customers.

So Krugman can make the case with all the acerbic wit and elegant models he can muster, it won't make any difference.  They don't care what he says.  They are paid to say austerity is best, taxes are bad, and the rich should be left to their own devices all the time and everywhere.  They're mob lawyers.

That is Krugman's mistake, to believe he is arguing in good faith. 

*And when I say "worst," I don't mean oh you could have just tried harder worst, I mean hilarious episode of Friends worst.

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