shell game

Paul Krugman and the authority switcheroo

Eric Garland Greatest Hits, Political Trends 6 Comments

Paul KrugmanHow many of you know Paul Krugman?

How many of you know Krugman as a New York Times columnist, occupying one of the most important spots in paleo-journalism as a regular OpEd contributor who speaks about macroeconomics and Democratic politics?

How many of you know that Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his work on location theory and economic geography as a factor in trade?

How many of you could hazard a reasonable guess as to what economic geography as a factor in trade would even mean, compared as it might be with the more neo-classical Ricardian theories of national competitive advantage?

OK, now, how would you say the above credentialing of Paul Krugman applies to, for example, every single economic topic under the sun?

How we pick Important Men to Whom We Should Listen

My goal is not to hate on Krugman, whose actual work is quite useful, but to critique the way our media-authority complex picks People To Whom We Should Listen About Everything. America, and to a lesser degree, the world has used the proliferation of media to supplant notoriety for genuine expertise. We become entranced by who is talking and not about what they are saying, and the result is bad leadership and little accountability. It becomes impossible to hold someone accountable when you are not even listening to what they are saying. And so in general I wish to improve our intellectual lives by cleaning up the distinctions between naked authority and serious ideas. Because there needs to be a difference between thinking that Kim Kardashian is in good shape with firm buttocks, and thinking that Kim Kardashian’s opinion on health matters should rival David L. Bronson, MD, FACP, president of the Board of Regents for the American College of Physicians.

Rules of the media-authority game

So here’s the game that irritates me, and why I’m picking out Le Krugman. The order of operations in the Media-Authority Complex goes like this:

  1. Person does boring and impenetrable but very serious intellectual work
  2. Person, unlike painfully introverted and/or unattractive colleagues, is actually able to explain said work when cameras are present without mumbling, vomiting or having a petit-mal seizure
  3. Person is hired by mass media company to explain news events related to person’s expertise
  4. Person becomes more famous for explaining things than for original work
  5. Person is booked by more media outlets to explain things further and further from original subject of expertise
  6. Nobody checks ego and/or hubris of person
  7. Finally, person now venturing opinions based on little or no serious knowledge – but on media-authority alone

I’ll let you look around the media ecosystem to see individuals for whom this applies. Be on the lookout for people giving wide ranging opinions and for whom you’re not quite sure why they are famous. It’s a fun game to play with friends especially while watching television news.

In which I attempt to control my urge toward profanity while describing the Trillion Dollar Coin

Krugman is in need of calling out because of his recent behavior around one of the stupidest ideas in recent memories – and holy crap, is there some competition – The Trillion Dollar Coin.

trillion-dollar-coinMany of you are following the nonsensical political theater around The Fiscal Rape Pterodactyl, er, I mean the Fiscal Cliff, which was an entirely constructed non-crisis. Partisan politicians are scaring the American public (and the world’s bewildered financial markets) through their brinksmanship around the Debt Ceiling, by which Congress has to authorize bajillions of dollars in debt to pay for services that tax revenues cannot fund by themselves. Deficit spending is a mixed bag, just like any time you depend on credit – though it is made more complex given other currencies, balance of trade, bla bla bla. The long and the short is that the Republicans are refusing to authorize spending as a way to titty-twist Democrats, which is useful since neither party has a goddamn clue about why the economy is in the dumps or what to do next. Might as well get punching each other as a way to inspire PAC donations and dark money for the 2014 elections.

Then a bunch of media wiseacres started blathering about this loophole that would allow the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government to bypass Congress entirely by asking the Treasury Department to mint a one-time (LOLZ!) trillion dollar coin – and to physically deposit it at the Federal Reserve so that the government can pay its bills without Congressional approval of more record deficit and debt levels.

I thought this was a “hey, isn’t this funny guys” thing. And then from around the Internetwebz, people began to actually take this idea seriously. Including Krugman.

I have to pause for a minute while I let the profanity die down. *pant pant*



Sorry. What I meant to say was, it’s not shocking that Krugman was in favor of the Coin because he has never met a printing press he didn’t love – he’s an ardent Keynesian who believes in government spending juicing every and any economy with absolutely no consequences down the line. Krugman thought that the only reason the U.S. economy didn’t get better was that we didn’t invent enough debt-money out of thin air after a full decade-long debt orgy. So his love of this gimmicky bullshit idea is perhaps unsurprising – it is, for Krugman, yet another way to stimulate the economy.

But of course, this idea drew some fire from people who found the Coin idea to be complete crapola, notably one Jon Stewart.

What happens next is really important. Krugman decides to stand toe-to-toe with Stewart, and call him out for being intellectually lazy. To recap – a man who won a Nobel Prize in economics stoops down to argue peer-to-peer with a comic. Of course, if it’s a slap fight of silly you desire, the fine people at The Daily Show will oblige you – and here is Stewart’s riposte, which involves unicorns and felching.


Fighting as an expert versus fighting as a famous person

The significance of this exchange is in the participants and the gravitas they possess in their respective fields. Many people found the trillion dollar coin idea flawed, but Krugman decides to go on television to complain about getting heat from a comic. Yes, a comic who traffics in current event-based humor, but still a court jester. Remember, we have to deal with Krugman’s opinions because of his work in trade theory, serious stuff – but here he is bickering with a TV comic, as opposed to somebody with teeth, someone with a similar background.

I submit that this is because we’re not talking about serious ideas – we’re talking about being famous. It’s a big deal to Krugman that Jon Stewart is making fun of him, because his power today is derived from being famous rather than from solving problems through his intellectual work. Being mocked is a far bigger threat to Krugman than being wrong in some substantive sense. Being ridiculous would make it less likely for Regular People to take him seriously – especially since Regular People could never make heads-nor-tails of Krugman’s actual work in currency crises.

The root of this problem is that the Trillion Dollar Coin is not actually a subject of Krugman’s expertise. Yes, yes, he’s a grand economist and he is a supposed expert on the role of deficits, et cetera. But that is not really the big deal behind the Coin. The reason the Coin was important is that it would represent a grotesque breakdown of the political system, in which the White House resorts to trickery to get around the House Republicans’ bad faith. And in that, none of us are experts. We’re in new territory when dysfunction reaches such a level, and in that case people giving opinions should have some humility. We are in new, sad territory here and we are all looking for a way through it. There are major questions about U.S. economics and governance here, and we need curiosity, not dogmatism.

But that’s not Krugman’s game. When he steps to Jon Stewart by attacking his professionalism, Krugman quickly slips his mantle of Serious Guy With a Serious Method back on for the fight. One second he’s chucking out bon mots about this new Coin idea – and the next, to defend his honor, he starts pretending like the Trillion Dollar Coin was part of his Nobel work or something. Did you note the Switcheroo? It goes by so fast, you need to really be looking.

And this is the problem with authority-based intellectualism. It’s tempting, oh-so-tempting, to slip in and out character as it suits. Look – I’ve been asked to give comments on subjects that are miles from my field of true expertise, and when you get called out, it is very easy to fall back on your credentials and not the homework you did. Krugman tried to fold his desires for more stimulus funds into an ongoing discussion about the relationship of Congress to the White House, of Republicans to Democrats. When he wants to play fast and loose, he does so. And when he feels insulted that his (stupid) ideas are perceived as stupid, he goes right back to pretending that he has put the same amount of work into national competitiveness theory as he has in domestic politics.

There is a danger in all of this. It may seem like a harmless spat between a couple of liberal media types, but to me it’s part of the dark and dangerous path toward having Kim Kardashian give interviews about the new standards of care for diabetes. It is best that we know our limits – and definitely best that we know the limits of those we imbue with seriousness in today’s intellectual life.