I should begin by stating I am a sceptic, and I routinely check information and opinion by researching opposing views. No, no, no… I should begin elsewhere. I should begin by explaining why I think economics is more of a pseudoscience than a real science. No, no… that is not right either. I should begin by explaining what happened when Christendom changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calender… nope, that is not right either. The problem with making fun of Paul Krugman, Nobel prizewinning economist, popular writer, and pompous blowhard, is that it is so hard to know where to begin.
You see, I like to think of myself as a liberal. Not any old liberal, but a classic liberal. Saying you are a classic liberal is a bit like saying you drive classic cars, or that you drink classic Coke. You gesture toward the classic car on your driveway, or slightly tilt the bottle of classic Coke in your hand, and raise an eyebrow. Everybody knows what that eyebrow means. It means ‘if this ain’t a car/cola, then nothing else is’. So being a classic kind of liberal, I think I know what the word ‘liberal’ means. I have read books by John Locke and J.S. Mill, and they shaped my outlook. And then I read books by guys like Karl Popper, who also seemed to be a liberal. Popper disliked the arrogant, dogmatic, totalitarian thinking of Marx and Plato, helping me to understand why I disliked them too. Popper also introduced me to the difference between science and pseudoscience. And having read these books, I reached the same conclusions they reached: that the world is full of people who disagree, that many of those people are wrong about many things, that you have to observe the world to determine the facts, that it is good to be sceptical, that many people are not sceptical enough, and that you should never silence opposing views. These ideas are to liberalism what chrome is to a classic car, or what cocaine is to classic Coke. But when I read Paul Krugman’s blog for the New York Times I often get a queasy feeling, nothing like the pleasant sensation of cruising in a classic car with the top down, or the buzz of ingesting fresh coca leaves. Though Krugman often writes about being a liberal, and his column is entitled ‘Conscience of a Liberal’, I find Krugman has no appetite for the indispensable ingredients of liberalism, or at the very least, what used to be indispensable to liberalism.
So, to jump back to current affairs, I flipped to Krugman’s blog this Friday, even though he is not much of a liberal, because I really wanted to know what is wrong with the British economy. Though Krugman is an American writer, who works for an American newspaper, aimed at an American audience, Krugman is always writing about what is wrong with the British economy. It seems that lots of Americans with a keen interest in politics really want to know what is wrong with the British economy, because this helps them to decide which American politicians are best. And Krugman can usually be relied upon to say there is something very wrong with the British economy, just after somebody else says there is not much wrong with the British economy. A sceptic, like me, might observe an empirical pattern to Krugman’s writing about the British economy: Labour lost a general election, the Conservatives formed a government in coalition with the Liberals, that government ‘cut’ expenditure (in the sense of not allowing it to rise as fast as it otherwise would), and since then, Krugman has consistently predicted, then concluded, that there has been/is/will be something terribly wrong with the British economy. So the sceptic in me immediately thought of Krugman, when I found out Britain’s Chancellor, George Osborne, will tell the IMF:
…our economy has grown faster than any other in the G7 over the last year and is now forecast by the IMF to do the same in 2014. This is despite warnings from some that our determined pursuit of our economic plan made that impossible.
In other words, Osborne is going to crow about how successful his economic plans have been, and how doubters like Krugman are full of sh*t. But being the kind of sceptic I am, I want to know the counter-argument. I like to know why having the fastest growing economy in G7 is nothing to boast about, and why the British Chancellor of the Exchequer is talking out of his bum. Krugman behaved exactly as I predicted, stating Osborne is wrong because he is actually doing what Krugman says he should do, whilst pretending to do the opposite.
This leads me to my observation about pseudoscience. Many people act in ways that contradict their professed beliefs. Pseudoscience encourages this hypocrisy. When the world does not conform to expectations, the worshipper of pseudoscience will call upon any excuse to preserve a broken theory. That is what Marxists did, even though Marx’s predictions were all wrong. And the adherents of pseudoscience will remain firm in their stated convictions, even though their actions show they are unwilling to back their theories in practice. This is why Marxist leaders always behaved like capitalists or feudal lords, and never accepted equal treatment with their fellow citizens. Even a Marxist knows there are lots of ways to bet on economies. Interest rates, foreign exchange, stock markets, commodity prices… an imaginative person who can reliably predict the future should be able to make himself fabulously rich by betting on economic outcomes. And yet, like many other economists, Krugman earns his money by lecturing and writing. Krugman spends all his time forecasting what will happen to economies, yet instead of directly profiting from that foresight, he earns a salary by complaining that world leaders do not take his advice. Or by complaining world leaders did what he told them to do, but pretend otherwise. It is at this point that I question if the second-hand car salesman is trying to sell me a beat-up Hyundai disguised as a classic automobile. Warren Buffett follows his own advice, and is fabulously rich. George Soros follows his own advice, and is fabulously rich. Why would Krugman prefer to acquire his net wealth of $2.5mn through the difficult process of writing and lecturing, when he could make so much more, by using his insights for direct gain?
Maybe some world leaders are liberals, of the sort that relies upon empirical evidence when choosing their advisors. In that case, they would have noted the research of historian Niall Ferguson, who wrote four lengthy articles for the Huffington Post, listing very many Krugman predictions that proved to be horribly wrong. Classic liberals will already grasp the point I am making here. I include the link so the sceptics can check for themselves, but they can take my word for it: Ferguson showed that Krugman has been wrong, on many occasions, about many important things. If past experience shows that a man has often made bad predictions, we should doubt his ability to predict the future. That scepticism is demanded by a scientific mind. But Krugman, perhaps because he is the worst sort of pseudoscientist, never shows any sign of doubting himself. As Ferguson points out, Krugman is the kind of man who writes:
I (and those of like mind), have been right about everything.
These words summon my queasy doubts regarding Krugman’s liberal credentials. I find myself suffering the same feeling as when drinking cola which is far too gassy; both are associated with flatulence. And what was Krugman’s response to Ferguson’s empirical research? Was it healthy, open, liberal dialogue? No. Krugman wrote:
Donâ€™t Feed the Trolls
Some readers have been asking when Iâ€™m going to reply to certain rants aimed my way. The answer is, never.
Which is a bit like a liberal defending his free speech by saying he is going home to mommy because the other kids told tales about him.
Disappointed by Krugman’s unusually lazy takedown of Osborne, I scanned down his column to see what else he has been writing about recently. And this is when I discovered that Krugman has a sense of humour. Truly, this is a marvellous scientific find, because nobody has ever noticed it before. A billion-dollar particle collider might spot the Higgs boson, but nobody has ever observed something as tiny and rare as Krugman’s sense of humour. But it turns out that is because we have been looking in the wrong place. Like many a comedian who invents characters in order to lampoon them, Krugman jokes with a straight face. And so, I was pleased to see that Krugman wrote a prank article for April Fool’s Day. Being a Nobel laureate genius, Krugman was so clever and witty that the article was not actually published on April 1st, but bear with me as I explain how the joke works. His parody article begins with the title:
Classic liberals will immediately spot the irony! Being sceptics who tend to doubt everyone, we classic liberals assume everybody is equally liable to behave stupidly. And Krugman, being a self-proclaimed liberal, must know this. So immediately, the title of this article sends a clear signal to all liberals: this must be an April Fool’s joke. And, to be clear, Krugman is parodying his own media image, choosing to be the butt of his own joke. He is showing us he knows how to make fun of his own caricature, by playing the pompous clown who says people who disagree with him only do so because they are stupider than he is.
The joke unfolds with Krugman commenting about an article by Ezra Klein, an American liberal writer who argued that American liberals, and American conservatives, are both made equally stupid by only accepting evidence that suits their ideological beliefs. The cause is well-known, and has an established name: confirmation bias. Krugman, also being a liberal, transforms Klein’s science-based observations into a classic liberal satire…
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 doesnâ€™t help: people screen out or discount facts that donâ€™t fit their worldview. Politics, as he says, makes us stupid.
But hereâ€™s the thing: the lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives.
Hilarious! Who could fail to spot this gag? Only a dullard who completely lacks any awareness of themselves, or others. To reiterate: science shows all people suffer from confirmation bias. But Krugman’s personal experience tells him that he suffers less confirmation bias than people who disagree with him. And he continues in that vein, pretending there is no possible flaw in his own argument. Hats off to Krugman, he really knows how to tell a nerdy intellectual self-referential in-joke!
But as I continued to read, I wondered if Krugman was being a bit self-indulgent. He gives a long list of examples when liberals were right, and conservatives were wrong, and uses this as evidence that liberals do not suffer from confirmation bias, whilst conservatives do. Speaking as a liberal, I got the joke in the first paragraph. Krugman gets a bit too absorbed with his reverse-Colbert comic character, and overplays the punchline to his opening gag. However, Krugman redeems himself at the end of his parody article, by posing this absurdist question:
People want to believe what suits their preconceptions, so why the big difference between left and right on the extent to which this desire trumps facts?
Indeed. Krugman has set up his clown character to take a big pratfall. Now he needs to follow through…
One possible answer would be that liberals and conservatives are very different kinds of people â€” that liberalism goes along with a skeptical, doubting â€” even self-doubting â€” frame of mind; â€œa liberal is someone who wonâ€™t take his own side in an argument.â€
Pure. Comic. Genius. This paragraph alone entitles Krugman to a Nobel Prize for funny literature. Buffoon-like pseudo-scientific pseudo-liberals, like Krugman’s stooge alter-ego, inevitably struggle to think of occasions when they were guilty of confirmation bias because they doubt themselves so much. This is a masterstroke of character-based comedy, when placed in the context of a man who seriously wrote:
I (and those of like mind), have been right about everything.
And then refused to respond to a historian’s authoritative account of historical errors and mistakes.
Who would foolishly argue that Krugman is lacking self-awareness? Nobody is this lacking in self-awareness. You have to distinguish Stan Laurel, the actor, from his screen persona. You have to distinguish Peter Sellars from Inspector Clouseau. And now, we must distinguish Paul Krugman, with his seriously liberal conscience and seriously world-saving economics, from the comic character he has created for the New York Times. This article was truly a bravura performance, and an April Fool’s to beat all others.
But, as noted before, this piece was published on April 7th, instead of April Fool’s Day. Some doubting Thomases might think this is evidence that Krugman expects to be taken seriously. How foolishly wrong! Do your research, and you discover the inventiveness of Krugman’s playful mind. Not satisfied with writing a brilliant parody of both liberalism and of his own column, Krugman even makes an in-joke about April Fool’s Day. Any fool should know that April 1st became April Fool’s Day in 1582, when Christendom changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Before the switch, April 1st was celebrated as the start of the New Year. In fact, new year celebrations began on March 25th, and ran through to April 1st. Following the switch to the Gregorian calendar, the start of the year moved to January 1st. Some people persisted with the week of celebration that culminated on April 1st, but they were ridiculed as the original April fools. So now, it becomes perfect clear that Krugman has served the cleverest April Fool’s prank of all time. The original April fools were first mocked for celebrating on March 25th. And 25th March 2014 in the Julian calendar equates to 7th April 2014 in the Gregorian calendar we now use. So by writing on April 7th, Krugman intentionally wrote his April Fool’s prank on the historically authentic April Fool’s day!
What is that you say? My argument about changing calendars is ridiculous and full of holes? You fear I am also suffering from confirmation bias? You still worry that Krugman’s article really was serious, that he was not playing a very clever joke? Let me reiterate why that is not possible. Like I wrote above, I am a sceptic who always checks my facts and reviews all points of view. I also suffer from too much self-doubt. That is how I know I am a true liberal, and that I must be right!
You and Mr. Niall Ferguson have done the world a great service by vivisecting the arguments and intellectual trickery of Mr. Krugman. Thank you.
It’s worth observing — for readers on both sides of the Atlantic — that the word “liberal” means entirely different things in Britain vs. America. The Brits have it right: liberalism is the love of liberty, freedom, and limited government. But in America, conservatives (the closest U.S. political term for classic liberalism) somehow let “progressives” like Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt, LBJ, Carter, and Obama hijack their namesake.
And what’s particularly confusing in the U.S. system is that the Republican party is not a true opposition party. The Republicans advocate a modestly progressive agenda while the Democrats push for a strong progressive agenda.
Plus, the political landscape has changed over time. John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, was by all rights a conservative by today’s standards. He pushed for lowering the income tax rate, for example.
However, the good news is that the tide is turning. The fact that only 7 million people have registered for Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act — and even fewer actually buying insurance from the ACA — is a firm lesson that writing a law is very different from making the citizen follow it.
But all this has been seen before. In fact, American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about it back in 1860, giving us one of the best mission statement for liberalism:
“Wealth brings with it its own checks and balances. The basis of political economy is non-interference. The only safe rule is found in the self-adjusting meter of demand and supply. Do not legislate. Meddle, and you snap the sinews with your sumptuary laws. Give no bounties: make equal laws: secure life and property, and you need not give alms. Open the doors of opportunity to talent and virtue, and they will do themselves justice, and property will not be in bad hands. In a free and just commonwealth, property rushes from the idle and imbecile, to the industrious, brave, and persevering.”
“I laughed out loud at [Krugman’s] recent lame excuse that his model couldn’t have been expected to predict the action of the European Central Bank. What an awesome model: one that predicts everything about a monetary union except the action of the monetary authority.” Niall Ferguson