THE ABSENCE OF THE PROFESSORS: Don’t do it, Krugman was told!


PART 2—PLANET OF THE PROFESSORS: It’s very easy to be disinformed in this particular country.

In part, it’s easy to be disinformed because of the professors.

Has any group failed you more reliably over the past several decades? As more and more parts of our public discourse have been seized by disinformation, you could always count on the professors to stay away from the field of battle. No explanation or clarification was likely to come from their refined aeries! Just consider a few basic areas where the professors have failed to help:

Medicare cuts, mid-1990s: Was Newt Gingrich’s GOP proposing “cuts” to the Medicare program? Or were they proposing that we slow the rate at which the program would grow? For two years, this inane discussion dominated the political wars.

Al Franken explained the matter in his book, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. But the nation’s “journalists” couldn’t. In their hands, the discussion ended up where every discussion did in this era—with the claim that Clinton was lying again, although rather plainly he wasn’t.

Which professors stepped forward during this era to clarify this gong-show discussion? Which health care experts? Which logicians? Keep searching for a name!

Campaign 2000: For twenty months, the national press corps worked very hard to make Candidate Gore a liar. (Just like President Clinton!) They did this by inventing a series of ludicrous paraphrases of innocuous things Gore had said. Rather, they adopted a series of paraphrases from the RNC, which was scripting the national press during that gruesome campaign.

(Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! Except actually, no—he didn’t.)

Which professors stepped forward during this era to clarify this rolling gong-show? To explain how reasonable paraphrase works? Which “logicians” stepped up to the plate? Go ahead! Search for a name!

The future of Social Security: For three decades, a relentless disinformation campaign has surrounded the Social Security program. A string of deceptive talking-points has left the public deeply confused—disinformed—about the future prospects of this venerable program.

This problem was clear by the early 1994, when a survey showed that younger voters didn’t believe they would ever receive Social Security benefits. (Famously, they were more likely to believe in UFOs.) Which professors have ever stepped forward to clarify this decades-old gong-show? Go ahead! Name all their names!

The cost of American health care: Every American is getting ripped off by the costs of American health care. Most Americans don’t understand this fact. They certainly don’t know the reasons why we pay so much for health care.

In 2009, the nation spent a year pretending to discussing health care. Go ahead! Name the professors! (You can’t name Michael Moore.)

We could list other topics, but you get the general idea.

People! Where are all the professors? In theory, the country is crawling with learned folk who are expert in various disciplines. Why don’t they lend their expertise—if it exists—to the national discussion?

We’ve been asking this question for years. Last week, we read a profile of a well-known, very public professor. The profile seemed to shed some light on this matter.

The professor in question is Paul Krugman, who has thrown himself into the public discourse over the past dozen years. The profile appeared last year, in the New Yorker, although we don’t recall seeing it at the time.

In the profile, Larissa McFarquhar traced the route by which Krugman became involved in the public political discourse. As noted, Krugman has been deeply involved in the public debate over the past dozen years. But in her profile, McFarquhar described Krugman’s attitudes and beliefs before his somewhat belated political dawning.

It seemed to us that this profile may have answered some of our questions about the defiantly useless class from which Krugman emerged.

McFarquhar interviewed Krugman and his wife, Robin Wells, for her detailed profile. (Wells is an economist.) In the following passage, Krugman describes his attitudes early in his career:
MACFARQUHAR (3/1/10: In his columns, Krugman is belligerently, obsessively political, but this aspect of his personality is actually a recent development. His parents were New Deal liberals, but they weren’t especially interested in politics. In his academic work, Krugman focused mostly on subjects with little political salience. During the eighties, he thought that supply-side economics was stupid, but he didn’t think that much about it. Unlike Wells, who was so upset when Reagan was elected that she moved to England, Krugman found Reagan comical rather than evil. “I had very little sense of what was at stake in the tax issues,” he says. “I was into career-building at that point and not that concerned.” He worked for Reagan on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers for a year, but even that didn’t get him thinking about politics. “I feel now like I was sleepwalking through the twenty years before 2000,” he says. “I knew that there was a right-left division, I had a pretty good sense that people like Dick Armey were not good to have rational discussion with, but I didn’t really have a sense of how deep the divide went.”
In the past twelve years, Krugman has played a major role in our public political discourse. But during the 1980s, he was “career-building,” he said. “I feel now like I was sleepwalking through the twenty years before 2000,” he told McFarquhar.

Krugman has emerged from that dream. Other savants have not.

In the following passage, McFarquhar describes Krugman’s political horizon during the 1990s. In the argot of the 1960s, Krugman still hadn’t been politicized. We’ll offer a fairly large chunk:
MCFARQUHAR: When Krugman first began writing articles for popular publications, in the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton was in office, and Krugman thought of the left and the right as more or less equal in power. Thus, there was no pressing need for him to take sides—he would shoot down idiocy wherever it presented itself, which was, in his opinion, all over the place. He thought of himself as a liberal, but he was a liberal economist, which wasn’t quite the same thing as a regular liberal. Until the late nineties, when he became absorbed by what was going wrong with Japan, he believed that monetary policy, rather than government spending, was all that was needed to avoid recessions: he agreed with Milton Friedman that if only the Fed had done its job better the Great Depression would never have happened. He thought that people who wanted to boycott Nike and other companies that ran sweatshops abroad were sentimental and stupid. Yes, of course, those foreign workers weren’t earning American wages and didn’t have American protections, but working in a sweatshop was still much better than their alternatives—that’s why they chose to work there. Moreover, sweatshops really weren’t the threat to American workers that the left claimed they were. “A back-of-the-envelope calculation…suggests that capital flows to the Third World since 1990…have reduced real wages in the advanced world by about 0.15%,” he wrote in 1994. That was not nothing, but it certainly wasn’t anything to get paranoid about. The world needed more sweatshops, not fewer. Free trade was good for everyone. He felt that there was a market hatred on the left that was as dogmatic and irrational as government hatred on the right.

In writing his first popular book, “The Age of Diminished Expectations,” he became preoccupied by the way that inequality had vastly increased in the Reagan years…After the book was published, in 1990, various people denied that inequality had increased, and this really annoyed him. He began to get into fights. He was taken aback by the 1994 midterm elections, and during the impeachment hearings he began to think that the Republicans were getting pretty radical, but he still wasn’t angry about it. “Some of my friends tell me that I should spend more time attacking right-wingers,” he wrote in 1998. “The problem is finding things to say. Supply-siders never tire of proclaiming that taxes are the root of all evil, but reasonable people do get tired of explaining, over and over again, that they aren’t.”

Certainly until the Enron scandal, Krugman had no sense that there was any kind of problem in American corporate governance. (He consulted briefly for Enron before he went to the Times.) Occasionally, he received letters from people claiming that corporations were cooking the books, but he thought this sounded so implausible that he dismissed them. “I believed that the market was enforcing,” he says. “I believed in the S.E.C. I just never really thought about it. It seemed like a pretty sunny world in 1999, and, for all of my cynicism, I shared a lot of that. The extent of corporate fraud, the financial malfeasance, the sheer viciousness of the political scene—those are all things that, ten years ago, I didn’t see.”
In McFarquhar’s account, Krugman was still largely distanced from partisan politics during this period.

In the late 1990s, the New York Times approached Krugman about writing a column. McFarquhar records a fascinating reaction from his professional colleagues:
MCFARQUHAR (continuing directly): When the Times approached him about writing a column, he was torn. “His friends said, ‘This is a waste of your time,’ ” Wells says. “We economists thought that we were doing substantive work and the rest of the world was dross.” Krugman cared about his academic reputation more than anything else. If he started writing for a newspaper, would his colleagues think he’d become a pseudo-economist, a former economist, a vapid policy entrepreneur like Lester Thurow? Lester Thurow had become known in certain circles as Less Than Thorough. It was hard to imagine what mean nickname could be made out of Paul Krugman, but what if someone came up with one? Could he take it?
Quoting Wells, McFarquhar records a fascinating reaction from the other professors. Frankly, ick! Why would any Serious Person want to write a mere newspaper column? Why would any serious person want to speak to the rubes?

According to Wells, the unseemliness of such conduct was impressed upon poor Krugman. Luckily, Krugman made the right decision. But that passage offers a fascinating look at the culture of the important people who have failed you so reliably, for so many years.

Darlings! It just isn’t done! Who would write a mere newspaper column? A column for the unwashed!

Finally, McFarquhar describes the process which produced the Krugman of the present day. He has become a fallen man. He gets upset about public lying—lying to average people:
MCFARQUHAR (continuing directly): It was the 2000 election campaign that finally radicalized him. He’d begun writing his column the year before, and although his mandate at the outset was economic and business matters, he began paying more attention to the world in general. During the campaign, he perceived the Bush people telling outright lies, and this shocked him. Reagan’s people had at least tried to justify their policies with economic models and rationalizations. Krugman hadn’t believed the models would work, but at least they were there.

After the election, he began to attack Bush’s policies in his column, and, as his outrage escalated, his attacks grew more venomous. Krugman felt that liberals were unwilling to confront or even to acknowledge the anger on the right with some of their own, so he was going to have to do it. “He saw that it had been very, very painful during the nineties to get American fiscal policy in order, and he saw all of that being thrown away callously and with very little thought,” Brad DeLong, a professor of economics at Berkeley, says. “And it turned out to be true that Alan Greenspan was going to meetings at the White House saying we’re going to regret this. Paul was simply six years behind those of us who had worked in the Clinton Administration, who found the collapse of reality-based Republicanism coming much earlier.”
As Hector said of Paris, "Silly man!"

For the record, the “outright lie” which played the largest role in this conversion seems to have been Candidate Bush’s repeated misstatements about the basic outlines of his own budget proposal. In the fall of 2000, Krugman devoted three columns to this topic (September 24, October 1, October 11). Needless to say, these columns were ignored by the rest of the press corps. The rest of the press corps was busy inventing several more “lies” by Gore:

Al Gore lied about the union lullaby!
Al Gore lied about the cost of his pet Labrador’s arthritis pills!
Al Gore went to those Texas fires with Unknown Person X, not with Unknown Person Y!

That’s what the “press corps” was yapping about as Krugman wrote those columns.

Back to our original question: Where have those lofty professors been? Relentlessly, this group has failed you. McFarquhar described the process by which Krugman left them behind.

Tomorrow, we’ll show you how bad things can get before a professor makes this break. It has been extremely easy to get disinformed about Social Security.

Krugman himself was a bit out to lunch before he abandoned Versailles.

Tomorrow: The autumn of 96


  1. Didn't know that about Krugman's past. It explains a lot.

    I wonder, though, how an economist can possibly think that the "left and the right as more or less equal in power." The left, by definition, is on the side of labor and the right, by definition, is on the side of capital. (If that's not so today, it's only because we've become promiscuous with our use of the word "left.") Capital is, by definition, more wealthy than labor, and in the US wealth is power. This is why rightwing information campaigns are better organized and better funded than leftwing information campaigns, why rightwingers fund their own universities while public schools are "balanced" and "liberal" at best, etc. I learned that in high school civics; a PhD in economics should be familiar with the concept.

    I'm glad he eventually got to the place where he is today, but his past does explain his nonchalance towards poverty and his inclination to talk about getting people in jobs (instead of getting people incomes) all the time.

    There are quite a few former Republicans with prominent positions in the liberal world, it does seem to affect their current approach to politics even if they do back the same candidates as people who've always been liberal.

  2. "If he started writing for a newspaper, would his colleagues think he’d become a pseudo-economist, a former economist, a vapid policy entrepreneur like Lester Thurow?"

    How prescient. Add in "disingenuous partisan shill" and you've got a pretty accurate description of Krugman today.

  3. The relentless disinformation campaign continues in tandem with a state of impenetrable ignorance. The Social Security Trustees annually publish three - not one - three forecasts of the possible prospects for the trust fund and for the program's capacity pay full benefits. In keeping with the legendary laziness of journalists, only one of these, the Intermediate, is discussed in the media. The High Cost and Low Cost projections are ignored because the former would terrify its readers and because the latter would persuade many that Social Security is in good shape for all the years to come. That would mean no frightening tale with which to lure, delude, and inflame a gullible public. It is the projections of the Intermediate that provide the myth of trust fund exhaustion in 2036, reduction of benefits by a quarter until 2085, and the unspoken implication of the abyss afterward.

  4. And for his pains, Krugman gets a massive ration of abuse from the right-wing blogosphere.

  5. At some point I will find the time and energy to describe here some of the transformations of the larger academic world I have witnessed since I got my first position back in the 1970's. Maybe when I retire (should that day ever come) and no longer have classes to prepare, papers to grade, reports and recommendations to write, students' emails to reply to well into the night -- forget my own research. For now, I'll just say it's been distressing to witness the big C of my youth enacted over time in academic life: co-optation.

    Yet when it comes to the issues cited here -- Medicare, SS, health care -- we (citizens) look most to those academics -- economists -- who have almost never in my student or adult life been public intellectuals (or, for that matter, true intellectuals; the word "technocrat" seems more appropriate for most). Krugman's evolution into one is unusual, perhaps exceptional not just for recent years but for many, many.

    The growing dominance of economics departments in liberal arts colleges and universities over the last decades has been something to behold, btw. Not least in my own college, even as it has shed its token "radical left" position in economics. And these economics professors don't lead the lives the rest of us lead, since they get all kinds of "course relief" for the grants they get and the work they go off to do for this acronym or that think tank. I'm not sure why many of them are even called academics.

    I'm rambling and will stop, except to say that back in the day, in the 60's and 70's, it was the realpolitik "political scientists" who held sway. (The designation "government" was being abandoned.) The Kissingers, for instance. I doubt that was any better.

    Meanwhile, most professors continue to be busy teaching their students, the ones they meet everyday in the classroom or their offices. That's what the academics have been doing.