THE PROFESSORIATE FAILS US AGAIN: Proposing the theme of Malick’s next film!


Part 5—The absence of the professors: Did Professors Reinhart and Rogoff do what Krugman says they did?

According to Krugman, the famous professors made an unfortunate claim in early 2010, in a paper which became influential on a world-wide basis.

According to Krugman, the professors “purported to identify a critical ‘threshold,’ a tipping point, for government indebtedness. Once debt exceeds 90 percent of gross domestic product, they claimed, economic growth drops off sharply.” For more detail, see yesterday’s report.

Did the famous Harvard professors make that unfortunate claim in their famous study? We’ll have to admit we aren’t sure. Professor Krugman says they did, and we’re inclined to believe him.

But uh-oh! When the professors got their chance to respond, they pulled a classic switch! They wrote an op-ed piece in the Times—and they seemed to play games with Times readers.

Just how clever was the professors’ non-denial denial? In the following passage, the professors seem to reject Krugman’s claim while failing to note that Krugman has made it. And how odd! Suddenly, they were discussing a different paper from the one which was under review:
REINHART AND ROGOFF (4/26/13): The academic literature on debt and growth has for some time been focused on identifying causality. Does high debt merely reflect weaker tax revenues and slower growth? Or does high debt undermine growth?

Our view has always been that causality runs in both directions, and that there is no rule that applies across all times and places. In a paper published last year with Vincent R. Reinhart, we looked at virtually all episodes of sustained high debt in the advanced economies since 1800. Nowhere did we assert that 90 percent was a magic threshold that transforms outcomes, as conservative politicians have suggested.
Nowhere did the professors “assert that 90 percent was a magic threshold that transforms outcomes, as conservative politicians have suggested!” Or so the professors now said. But how odd:

Craftily, the famous professors failed to note that Krugman himseolf had said that they made that assertion. Cagily, they said they had been misunderstood by “conservative politicians.” And that wasn't all!

Slickly, the famous professors switched their field. They denied that they had made this assertion in a paper they presented last year—not in their famous paper from 2010, the paper which has been under review.

On the streets of New York, this sort of thing is known as “the shell game,” or perhaps as “three-card Monte.” In that city’s greatest newspaper, this crap is par for the course.

You see, the New York Times has a very bad jones for the nation’s professors. Tomorrow, we’ll show you what happened just this Monday, when the Times let three professors respond an op-ed piece about the needs of low-income students.

We’ll put that off till tomorrow. That said, the results are rarely pretty when the Times consorts with the nation’s professors. Once again, let’s recall two episodes from the last few weeks:

On April 13, Harvard assistant professor Jal Mehta penned a lengthy op-ed column. In it, he offered a grossly cherry-picked account of the nation’s most reliable test scores.

Mehta’s account was grossly misleading. On the bright side, it advanced a Thoroughly Standard Narrative about the gross mediocrity of the nation’s public school teachers.

For whatever reason, the power elite simply loves that story. With a grossly misleading set of data, Mehta furthered the tale.

That’s what happened on April 13. Thirteen days later, Professors Reinhart and Rogoff wrote the column in which they seemed to reply to their critics. In the process, they played a form of the shell game, or of the three-card trick.

The glorious Times let them do it.

By our count, that’s two misleading presentations by three big professors in just two weeks. But then, our ranking professors have thoroughly failed us since the start of the Clinton-Gore years.

It isn’t just their errors of commission—errors which often seem to advance the lines preferred by the power elite. It’s more the errors of omission!

Let’s consider three cases:

In 1995 and 1996, the nation’s discourse centered around a Republican Medicare proposal. Endlessly, the nation’s journalists and broadcasters argued a basic question:

Was the GOP proposing “cuts” to the Medicare program? Or would their proposal merely “slow the rate at which the program would grow?”

Night after night, month after month, the nation’s journalists showed that they weren’t bright enough to resolve this very basic question. Did any of the nation’s professors step in to clarify things?

Surely you know the answer! For links to our own three reports on this basic question, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/99.

The nation’s professors had nothing to say about that very basic question. And then, the War Against Gore began, driven by an endless series of bogus paraphrases.

Did Al Gore say he invented the Internet? Did he say he inspired Love Story? Actually, no—he did not. But did any professor step in to clarify the discussion? Did any professor address the bungled attempts at paraphrase which ruled our public debates?

Surely, you must know the answer.

Today, a study has appeared concerning the effectiveness of Medicaid. Bungled accounts are being spread about what this new study shows. As usual, a lot of the confusion turns on a very basic matter—in this case, on the application of the concept known as “statistical significance.”

Over at his site, Kevin Drum is trying to clarify this matter. Will any professor do the same in the glorious Times?

Surely, you know they won’t! It’s our impression that the professors simply don’t care. Nor is it clear that they have sufficient skill to help, even if they wanted to try.

Meanwhile, we get to hear all sorts of crap about the life-changing Professor Sandel, whose famous lectures are now on-line, where anyone can watch them.

Yesterday, we watched Lecture 1. In the next few weeks, we’ll report, letting you decide.

Tomorrow, we’ll show you what happened in Monday’s Times, when three professors offered their thoughts about that column on low-income students. For today, we make a plea to our old friend of a friend, Terry Malick, whose course on Husserl, Heidegger and Kierkegaard we took in the street-fighting 1968-69 school year.

Millions of people now say they took it. We were actually there!

A few weeks ago, we saw Malick’s new movie, To The Wonder. This new film was so unusual that the nation’s critics were finally willing to admit it: They found the film boring too!

(According to one script which emerged, critics were required to say that the main character “twirled.” Click here. Then also click this. Why not click this too? As that last piece correctly notes, there are other examples.)

Malick continues to ponder the silence, the absence of God. Terry! Back to first things! A better film could perhaps be made about the absence of the professors!

Why have the professors been silent during all these many bad years? For some folk, God has been absent too.

But good lord! Those absent professors!

Tomorrow: The Wanderers Three! To read ahead, click here.


  1. This is a quote from their paper: "Our main result is that whereas the link between growth and debt seems relatively weak at “normal” debt levels, median growth rates for countries with public debt over roughly 90 percent of GDP are about one percent lower than otherwise; ...."

  2. As others have pointed out, whazzup with TDH and "professors?" He reads some op ed columns, or learns about a paper by 2 economists, that are seemingly dumb and then lumps together the entire class of professors as being at fault. Professors don't have free rein to publish whatever they want in the NYT or other papers. It's possible that many professors have a head in the sand approach and should contribute their wisdom (to the extent they have any) to the public better, but THD seems to be completely reductionist in going on and on about "professors." It could be that various professors have spoken out or published articles or books that cogently address various important issues; it's not clear what more they are supposed to do, or how THD can impugn the entire class based on a such a tiny sampling. (I'm not a professor).



    1. I think we have a new X-man member here.

      It's Literal Man!

    2. And you can be Snark-O-Lantern. Or Conscendo.

    3. And you can forever be the victim.

    4. What's with the snark, CeciliaMc? Let the hate leave your body and mind, and learn to love your fellow man. Unless, of course, anger and resentment as your best friends ever. Sad really.


    5. CeceliaMc:

      You can be Ms. Fuzzy Wuzzy, this is a fun game


    6.'s like getting admonishments on moderation from Lawrence O'Donnell.

    7. Yup, that reads just as condescendingly douchey when I write it about you, as when you write it about me (and others).


  3. I think Somerby is just pushing back against the attitude that being a professor automatically gives credence to their writings. There is also an unspoken belief that professors are above the political fray, and this is pretty much obviously false.

  4. "For whatever reason, the power elite simply loves that story."

    The liberal weathy, especially, must have a solid belief that the public schools are a failure. If they weren't, how could they square their liberal views with taking their own kids out of the common horde, and placing them into St. Hoity Prep.

  5. "especially"? Seems true of all the "wealthy" elites as opposed to just "The liberal wealthy".
    These same elites want private (and often religious) schooling paid for by tax dollars (THAT is what the whole voucher program is about. Well that and starving the public schools to make them worse, so they can be easily handed over to private businesses to run--and the teachers unions busted, of course).


  6. "Over at his site, Kevin Drum is trying to clarify this matter. Will any professor do the same in the glorious Times?"

    Is Drum right though? Is the number of the study participants unusually small in these sorts of studies?

  7. What vehicle counts? Brad DeLong is a professor, as is Krugman, Mark Thoma, Mike Konczal and others, and they seem to jump on this stuff as fast as they can.

  8. I guess it's churlish of me to protest now that my ox is getting Gored (pun intended and yes I am a professor), but by THD's own standards, it seems like one group of elites has indeed performed better than another. Somerby constantly bemoans the fact that the fourth estate still hasn't come clean about the War on Gore, but academia has debunked the work of Reinhart and Rogoff thanks to the efforts of a grad student and TWO professors (shout out to urban legend for insisting on this fact). Granted, it took three years, but that's better than thirteen years and counting. For the record, there are plenty of justifiable critiques of academia (poor teaching is at the top of my list) but slamming professors for not being better journalists is a little silly.