The literati truly cannot be satisfied unless they get economics back from the nerds. But they can't have it, because we nerds have the better claim.I know some nerds too. Bob Lucas: nerd. Mark Gertler: nerd. Nobu Kiyotaki: serious nerd. Ed Prescott: very serious nerd. Mike Woodford: nerd. Neil Wallace: serious nerd. Tom Sargent: incredibly serious nerd nerd.
But somewhere between 1996 and 2012, Krugman changed his tune. He stopped being defender-of-the-nerds and went over to the dark side. What happened in between? Was it like the 3 stooges where the bowling ball falls off the shelf and hits Curly in the head? Here's my interpretation of events. I can't remember exactly when Krugman began writing op-eds for the NYT, but that certainly predates the Bush administration. My memory of the early NYT period was that Krugman was pretty much in defend-the-nerds mode. The bowling ball hit the head during the George W. Bush administration. You can find an account of Krugman's political metamorphosis in this New Yorker article. I can remember reading Krugman's political op-eds during this period. They were somewhat over-the-top, but I pretty much agreed with him.
The Bush Administration period was profoundly upsetting. After 9/11, George W told us we were at war, and we knew that meant trouble. Being at war can justify all manner of bad behavior. We can invade Iraq to get rid of a bad guy. We can torture people to get information we imagine is critical for our survival. We can get our lawyers in the Justice Department to write memos to convince us that this is all OK. George W as President was a man with a lazy intellect, and little patience for the details of policymaking. Simple stories are best. No need for nuance. The world consists of evil people and good people who are easy to tell apart. We won't even discuss Dick Cheney, for fear that my tone will offend Tyler Cowen.
My mother was a smart, educated woman, calm and methodical, but with a bit of a tough side. Before she died in 2002, she told me: "George Bush is a jerk." In 2006, I met one of the nerds I mentioned above in the Corner Bakery in Chicago, adjacent to the Palmer House, where I was staying. The nerd told me: "There are two people in the world I can't stand. One is my brother-in-law, and the other is the President of the United States."
The next turning point in the Krugman saga was his September 2009 article in the New York Times. This quote tells you almost everything you need to know about that piece:
As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.Note the stark contrast with 1996:
Academic economics, the stuff that is in the textbooks, is largely based on mathematical reasoning. I hope you think that I am an acceptable writer, but when it comes to economics I speak English as a second language: I think in equations and diagrams, then translate. The opponents of mainstream economics dislike people like me not so much for our conclusions as for our style: They want economics to be what it once was, a field that was comfortable for the basically literary intellectual.So what happened? For Krugman, the financial crisis provided the same thing that 9/11 did for George W. There was now a convenient excuse to wage war, but in this case a war on mainstream macroeconomics. But how can this make any sense? The George W era produced a political epiphany for Krugman, but how did that ever translate into a war on macroeconomists? You're right, it does not make any sense. The tools of modern macroeconomics are no more the tools of right-wingers than of left-wingers. These are not Republican tools, Libertarian tools, Democratic tools, or whatever. These are the tools of Economic Science, and they can indeed be used for the benefit of mankind. No need to destroy the reputations of serious scientists among the lay public.
Here's a group project. Go through Krugman's 1996 Slate piece, and look for the corresponding contradictory statement, either in Krugman's 2009 NYT piece, or in his NYT blog. Feel free to search my blog using "Krugman" as a keyword. Then post this in the comments section.
What's the bottom line? Read the 1996 Krugman Slate piece, and read his academic contributions, and you get a picture of a brilliant scholar who is willing to devote some time to public policy discussions to promote serious economic ideas. Read the 2012 Krugman, and we see a snarly dishonest guy intent on destruction ... a man with a lazy intellect, and little patience for the details of policymaking. Simple stories are best. No need for nuance. The world consists of evil people and good people who are easy to tell apart. It's George W again. Never mind what my mother would say. This just makes me feel ill.