Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Plus Ça Change, Plus Le Krugman

Brad DeLong links a 2002 Washington Monthly piece by Nicholas Confessore on Paul Krugman, leading Krugman to remark, "Has it really been 9 years of pushing this rock up the hill?" DeLong says the piece is "worth recalling only because (a) the fanfare of the right-wing noise machine is the same, and (b) the honesty of the right-wing noise machine is the same." Here's part of the section DeLong quotes:

Krugman is regularly attacked by fellow pundits, most exhaustively by… Andrew Sullivan and… Mickey Kaus, each of whom inveighs against Krugman….

For Krugman devotees, however, the main appeal is his proclivity for writing things before it is okay to write them. Journalists may love to break news, but they hate to contradict the narratives that crystallize around particular politicians or policies. Late last winter, for instance, the established storyline on California's energy crisis was that Left Coasters had only themselves to blame: the state had passed a flawed deregulation law…. [W]hile the press gave plenty of column inches to the Bush administration's preferred spin--that environmentalists had stymied the construction of needed generation capacity--few reporters gave credence to groups like Public Citizen, who blamed the crisis on market manipulation by energy companies, many of them based in Texas and enjoying close ties to the administration. But Krugman, noting that economists had long worried about the vulnerability of California's trading system to price-fixing, argued that market manipulation was the obvious culprit; otherwise, he wrote in March 2001, the power company executives "are either saints or very bad businessmen." Krugman was ignored at the time. Twenty months later--following the collapse of Enron, three federal investigations into the California crisis, and a passel of indictments against energy company officials--Krugman has been proved right….

"He goes against the very basic thing that people and journalists want to believe about Bush: 'Say what you want, but the guy's honest,'" says James Carville, the blunt, flamboyant host of CNN's "Crossfire." "Krugman says, no--he's a complete fraud."

DeLong also quotes part of the big finale, but I wanted to present it in greater context (emphasis mine):

On balance, Krugman's record stands up pretty well. On the topics he writes about most often and most angrily--tax cuts, Social Security, and the budget--his record is nearly perfect. "The reason he's gotten under the White House's skin so much," says Robert Shapiro, a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, "is that he's right. None of it is rocket science."

So if dismantling the facade of lies around, say, Bush's tax cut is so easy to do--and makes you the most talked-about newspaper writer in the country--why don't any other reporters or columnists do it themselves? Because doing so would violate some of the informal, but strict, rules under which Washington journalists operate. Reporters usually don't call a spade a spade, unless the lie is small or something personal. When it comes to big policy disagreements, most reporters prefer a he-said, she-said approach--and any policy with a white paper or press release behind it is presumed to be plausible and sincere, no matter how farfetched or deceptive it may be.

Similarly, among pundits of the broad center-left, it's considered gauche to criticize the right too persistently, no matter the merits of one's argument.
The only worse sin is to defend a politician too persistently; then you become not a bore, but a disgrace to the profession and its independence--even if you're correct. Thus, in Washington circles, liberal Times columnist Bob Herbert is written off as a predictable hack, while The New York Observer's Joe Conason, who vigorously defended the Clintons during the now-defunct Whitewater affair, is derided as shrill and embarrassing. Obviously, conservative columnists and pundits aren't quite as averse to being persistent or shrill. But center-left journalists do not, to put it mildly, take their cues about what's acceptable practice from conservative pundits.

That's because liberal journalists and conservative journalists have different value systems. Most liberal pundits--E.J. Dionne, Ronald Brownstein, or Maureen Dowd--came up through the newsroom ranks, a culture that demands shows of intellectual independence from politicians, especially Democrats. Many conservative pundits, on the other hand--Safire, Tony Blankley, or Peggy Noonan--come straight from political careers, a culture that encourages intellectual fealty and indulges one-sidedness. Krugman is not a journalist by training, and he's never held appointive or elective office. But like conservative pundits, he doesn't feel bound by the niceties that professional reporters do. Hence the discomfort with Krugman's methods among center-left journalists.

"He is obviously a very smart guy, basically liberal, with complicated views, who once recognized when his own side was wrong. And at some point he switched and became someone who only sees what's wrong with the other side, in fairly crude terms," says Mickey Kaus. "The Bush tax cut is based on lies. But it's not enough to criticize a policy to say that it's based on lies. You have to say whether it's good or bad for the country." True, Kaus is probably Krugman's most vociferous non-right-wing critic. But even among those journalists and politicos who enjoy his column, it's not uncommon to hear the comment that Krugman might be a little more effective if he were just a little less rabid. "It is considered the appropriate thing to say at a dinner party that, while Krugman is very bright, he's just too relentless on Bush," drawls James Carville. "Because to accept Krugman's facts as right makes the Washington press look like idiots."

These days, however, there's a good market for journalists willing to be a little relentless when it comes to the Bush administration. Of course, Krugman, like any good economist, knows that in most markets the biggest profits come from having some sort of monopoly. But monopolies don't endure; competitors always arise. Right now, when it comes to analyzing the intellectual underpinnings of the Bush administration, Krugman has no competition. But as is usually the case, it might be better for everyone else if this particular monopoly didn't last.

Pretending that Krugman only criticized the Bush administration's dishonesty without critiquing the quality of their policies is laughable, but this is Mickey Kaus we're talking about. Still, what I really appreciate is that Confessore gets the social dynamics at play. (I have a few posts in the works on this stuff.) Unfortunately, those corrosive dynamics are still rife in Beltway chatter and political coverage. That's why Krugman remains disliked in some quarters. He'll show, for instance, that "austerity" still remains the "wise" economic solution among an influential political elite, in defiance of basic macroeconomics, the history of the Great Depression, tons of recent data, and their own failed predictions. He noticed that all the people praising Paul Ryan's fraudulent plans don't understand them if they've even read them at all. Most political chatterers don't do policy analysis; they judge by cosmetics, and by the reactions of the people they admire (certain other pundits) and the people they dismiss (hippies, etcetera). As we've explored before, the Villagers believe things because they are fashionable, not because they are true; they form their opinions according to social norms and not empirical truth. The less that political progress depends on instilling humility in our shallow punditry, the better; the vanity of the chattering class is one of America's few endless resources.

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