De motivis nil nisi bonum

by Henry on October 9, 2003

Arnold Kling posts an essay on Tech Central Station, criticizing Paul Krugman’s punditry for deviating from sound economic theory. Kling suggests that Paul Krugman should stick to “Type C” arguments, about the consequences of policies, and that he should avoid “Type M” arguments about the motives underlying these policies. According to Kling, type M arguments are difficult to prove, and are anyway unimportant compared to policy outcomes, which are what we should care about.

Kling’s tone is reasonable and moderate, as compared, say, to the mendacious and economically illiterate ravings of Donald Luskin and his ilk. He’s still wrong.

First, is it true to say that type M arguments are more difficult to prove than type C arguments? Surely, it depends. Many type C arguments – including most of the economic policy arguments that Kling is interested in – involve very complex empirical relationships. Economists don’t seem anywhere near reaching closure about how best to model many of these relationships. These arguments can get just as diffuse as the Type M arguments that Kling doesn’t like, even if they’re conducted in technical language. Further, there are many occasions when Type M arguments are remarkably simple and straightforward. There’s a close and undeniable connection between politicians’ behavior, and the policy demands of groups that donate large amounts of money to these politicians. Correlation does not prove causation, but when there’s a consistent pattern of relationships, and an obvious, and simple explanation for the motivations underlying these relationships, it seems to me to be rather bizarre to eschew any discussions of motivations. Contrary to Kling’s implication, it’s an “empirical question” that doesn’t involve “specious reasoning.” General explanations of motivations aren’t 100% perfect. They may be wrong in some specific cases. Still, they’re an excellent guide to how politicians behave.

Second, politicians’ motivations are directly relevant to political choice. Sure, politicians are to some extent constrained from acting on their underlying motivations by the political system. But they also have a fair degree of latitude to take policy decisions independent of constraints; that’s why we elect them. Politicians’ underlying motivations are the best predictor of their future behavior; the more we know about these motivations, the better. When we vote, we’re not evaluating past policies as such; we’re evaluating how politicians are likely to behave in the future, if we give them elected office. Politicians’ previous policies can give us information about their likely future behavior but only to the extent that these policies reveal their underlying motivations. In game theoretic language, we can find out a lot about the “types” of actors we’re dealing with, from looking closely at the strategies that they choose.

And this is where Krugman comes in. He excels at exploding the type C arguments that the US administration is making, and in providing plausible, and in some cases utterly convincing type M explanations for why the administration says one thing and does another. The US administration introduces tax cuts, and keeps changing its rationale for why these cuts are justified. However, once you look closely, it’s obvious that these cuts disproportionately favour the rich over the poor. It’s hard to escape the type M conclusion that the government is more motivated by helping the rich then by looking after the poor or the middle-income folks. If I’m a middle income tax-payer, that’s information that I legitimately want to know. And I want experts like Krugman to tell me about the disconnect, and to join together the dots.

This isn’t to say that Krugman is always right. For example, Kling quotes Krugman as saying that the Iraq war was driven by the administration’s desire to make gains in the midterm elections. If that’s what Krugman is arguing, he’s wrong (although I’m not at all sure that this is what Krugman’s trying to say). But Krugman’s explanation of the rationale for the tax cuts is dead on – and I’d like to see Kling try to make the counter-argument that Bush’s tax cuts were radically unconnected to his desire to shore up his base among wealthy Republicans. Furthermore, and this is the key point, motivations are absolutely relevant to how we should think about Republicans, and indeed, politicians in general. If Krugman is right, and I believe that he is, then we know that the current administration is willing to push through tax cuts favouring the rich, even when they don’t make any economic sense. And that gives us good guidance to the current crop’s future behaviour if we make the mistake of re-electing them.

Kling is wrong. Type M arguments are not only important; they’re key to our understanding of politics. There’s a big difference between politics and policy and economists (or other social scientists) shouldn’t confine themselves to talking about the latter. We can’t assume that politicians are disinterested philosopher kings who will choose the “best” policy once the experts have reached agreement on what the “best” policy is, if indeed the experts are ever capable of reaching such agreement. Motivations count in politics- politicians are likely to be beholden to different interest groups, and to choose policies that reflect the demands of these interest groups. Krugman is doing a valuable service in using his expert knowledge of policy outcomes and processes to deduce the motivations underlying particular policy decisions. He should be applauded for it.



robert 10.09.03 at 7:37 pm

Hear, hear!


Kieran Healy 10.10.03 at 12:16 am

In my experience economists restrict themselves mainly to arguments of type MC.


bigring55t 10.10.03 at 2:54 am

Thank you. Brilliant.


Bill S. 10.10.03 at 3:00 am

Never posted here before, but here it goes, I think the fundamental problem with type M arguments is not that they are always wrong, but that it requires one to divine the motives of another. A very risky proposition. For example, I may disagree with liberals on many things, but the one things that never helps is to say their goal is to move us to a communist/fascist state where their self-selected elite controls all the means of production. Why is this not successful? Because it’s not true, it may often seem that way to me, but liberals (most of them) support what they do because they have a fundamentally different defination of equality and fairness. Not that one is more right or wrong, although I adhere to my interpretation. Often times, most reasoning liberal and conservative is exactly the same, the major difference is the underlying premises. A fair debate (and both sides are often unfair in debate) comes into it recognizing that both sides can (and usually do) have legitimate reasons for supporting the positions they take. Motivations do count in politics, but quite frankly, most people do not have wretched motivations in my experience.


Russell L. Carter 10.10.03 at 3:31 am

“I think the fundamental problem with type M arguments is not that they are always wrong …”

That’s very generous of you!

Now onto not very wretched motivations. I haven’t snarked on Kling’s piece because… it is really very weird. Reading it is like creeping past that vehicular-carnage on the side of the road… were there any unfortunate humans enmeshed in that metallic anarchy? Now I am quite the fan of uh ‘type M’ arguments when we’re grappling down in the political mud, but Arnold just gives us such a target rich environment that I’m… taken aback. It doesn’t seem fair, when the thing upon rereading looks like a cry for help, or mercy, or something.

The most trivial of examples is, I wonder if Krugman gave him a bad grade?


Arnold Kling 10.10.03 at 3:50 am

I won’t speak for other social scientists, but I cannot picture a scenario in which speculating about motives helps illuminate the economics of a situation.

Suppose that you support doubling the minimum wage because you have a pure heart and love the poor. I am still going to say that your policy will increase unemployment and probably lead to more poverty.

Suppose that you oppose doubling the minimum wage because you are a greedy restaurant owner. Again, I am still going to say that doubling the minimum wage will increase unemployment and probably lead to more poverty.

Your argument is that you want to choose a politician based on that politician’s motivation. I can see where that makes sense if your model of the world is that there are good politicians who care only about what’s best for the country, and evil politicians who care only about narrow constituencies.

If I perceived those sorts of huge differences in motivation, then I probably would agree with you. But my own type M view of the world is that the major Presidential contenders, for example, are all motivated by a desire to be heroes. They have different electoral strategies, and those differences in strategies affect the interest groups that they seek to get into a coalition. And they have different opinions about which policies best serve the public interest.

I believe that the best way to argue about Bush policies, pro or con, is to take his motivations at his word and then discuss consequences. Krugman certainly is capable of doing this, and he does it.

When he switches to motivational mode, my view is that he produces heat without light. I never find the type M arguments persuasive. I frequently find them offensive–as in the instance that I quoted concerning school vouchers.

Maybe there are people elsewhere in the social sciences who add value by doing type M analysis. I continue to believe that economists have a comparative advantage in type C.


Russell L. Carter 10.10.03 at 4:22 am

2-1=4: Were you persuaded?


Henry 10.10.03 at 5:23 am

Bill – I think that your underlying point is right – arguments that all conservatives are fascists, or all leftists are Stalinists, are self-defeating nonsense. But I also think that there are arguments about motivations which are subtler, and more tightly focused than that kind of argument, and that Krugman’s arguments tend to be more focused in this sense.

Arnold – I still disagree. Why shouldn’t we have type M arguments?
Your argument only works if motivations and consequences are radically disconnected. But they’re not. People do have different motivations, and these motivations have real effects on the policies that they espouse. If we look at the various (continually changing) rationales that were offered for the tax cut, we see that a number of untrue claims were made. Specifically, the administration sought to give the impression that the tax cuts favoured middle-income voters, when they disproportionately favoured the rich. The same is true of the effort to abolish the estate tax. When the administration seems to be trying to pull the wool over voters’ eyes, I think that it’s completely legitimate (a) to draw attention to this, and (b) to make informed speculations as to the administration’s motives for behaving in this way. And frankly, I don’t see any very plausible alternative explanation to the one that Krugman offers.

Consequences are of interest, certainly. But as I said, we don’t vote for policy programs. We vote for politicians whom we trust to implement these policy programs. And in order to figure out who we want to vote for, we almost certainly want a mental model of whether this politician is going to respond to our interests, or the interests of another group. Motivations _matter_ for politics.

And do you really think that economists don’t talk about motivations (they’re not necessarily the same thing as preferences after all). Public choice economics, which I have my disagreements with, seems to me to be all about motivations, and to make strong claims as to what the likely motivations of interest groups and government actors are going to be. Principal-agent models – all about differences between the motivations of agents and principals. Harsanyi-type games of imperfect information – “types” are interesting to us because they reflect different “kinds” of actors, with different motivations (payoff structures), who are likely to behave in different ways in various strategic conjunctions. And so on.


Jeffrey Kramer 10.10.03 at 8:31 am

Arnold: Suppose I’m an undecided voter who is worried about the environment, and a certain “environmental protection” bill is being debated by the candidates. Candidate A supports the bill, but Candidate B says he opposes it because he is convinced it addresses a non-existent problem. I’m inclined to support the bill, though I’m not an expert on the scientific debate, but I like Candidate B for other reasons. *If* I have no reason to doubt B’s basic good faith and integrity, I might conclude “if Candidate B is elected, and overwhelming evidence appears that the problem is real, he will drop his objection.” This thought might in fact be crucial in my decision to vote for candidate B.

Now you’re a columnist who is familiar both with the scientific debate and with Candidate B’s history. I expect you to tell me what the state of the scientific debate is: your “argument C.” But if you also know that B has a history of offering reasons for doing nothing on environmental issues; that some of these reasons (like “more pollution comes from volcanos”) have been rejected as spurious by genuine experts; that other reasons (like “I don’t want big government bureaucracy interfering with people’s privacy”) are completely inconsistent with his positions in other issues (like his position on the “war against drugs”); that B has a history of appointing people with strong connections to the polluting industries to “oversight” positions over those same industries; that (etc., etc., etc….)

Are you going to steer clear of all these “M” arguments? Speaking as a voter, I wouldn’t thank you for it. If all I have are the the ‘C’ points, I can still regard B as a potential friend of the environment, and might vote for him. But that would be an ill-informed vote, becase the ‘M’ points make it reasonably clear that B will *never* be a friend of the environment. I’m a better-informed voter if you give me both.


Jason McCullough 10.10.03 at 8:44 am

“For example, Kling quotes Krugman as saying that the Iraq war was driven by the administration’s desire to make gains in the midterm elections.”

I don’t think you’re evaluating it fairly, Arnold. I don’t think “Krugman thinks Bush invaded just to get an election boost” is an accurate summary. He’s making a big argument about lack of responsibility, short run selfish (using the war for partisan purposes instead of as a unifying national event), and so on.

Oh, and something I haven’t seen mentioned on the usefulness of type M arguments: motivations are very important when something doens’t turn out as expected. If went to an all-voucher system and some of the claims made my proponents didn’t turn out to be true (improving educational opportunities for the poor, for example), then it’d be very important whether improving education for the poor was really one of the proponent’s motivations are not. If it wasn’t, then you’re going to have a hell of a time changing direction on the policy when that point turns out differently than predicted.


Doug 10.10.03 at 10:08 am

“As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be object to which the latter will attach themselves.” – Madison, Federalist 10.

Still making sense, 226 years later. Speculating about motivations should not be the sole object of an inquiry, but ignoring them completely is an invitation to folly.


Keith M Ellis 10.10.03 at 11:28 am

In my opinion, the issue is not whether “Type M” arguments are useful or necessary; it’s that they lend themselves so easily to misuse and they’re often unnecessary.

We are notoriously poor at clearly/deeply comprehending our _own_ motivations for anything other than the most trivial of behaviors. We oversimplify, we generalize, we write narratives for ourselves that are astonishingly artificial: “I ate the apple because I was hungry.” And we understand others so much less than the little we understand ourselves.

Type M arguments indulge our inherent need for narrative; our need to banish ambiguity. In a constrained, static, deeply familiar and lightly populated world, our comprehension (and assessment) of behavior via teleology is usually accurate and thus useful. In the mega-world of national politics…not so much.

Type M based arguments are, perversely, more attractive the less they are warranted. This is because the more M is known, the less it is a matter of dispute; and the less M is known, the more latitude there is for postulating an M which has maximal explanatory power. Thus, Type M arguments are ideal for psychological projection. This is why they are far, far more often than not badly misused. They provide a sense of comprehension with the least amount of expended effort; and their teleolgical nature makes them well-nigh unfalsifiable…very, very unfavorable characteristics for a non-trivial argument.


Arnold Kling 10.10.03 at 11:57 am

In a follow-up, Henry wrote in part “Public choice economics, which I have my disagreements with, seems to me to be all about motivations, and to make strong claims as to what the likely motivations of interest groups and government actors are going to be. Principal-agent models – all about differences between the motivations of agents and principals. “

Before public choice economics came about, the typical economic assumption was that government could act as an omniscient welfare maximizer to step in when markets fail. Public choice economics asked the question, “Do governments indeed act this way?”

I prefer to continue to analyze policy as if government were motivated to enhance social welfare. But I think that the gap between what government could do in theory and what it actually does in practice is worth noticing.

My reading of the principal-agent literature is that it makes the standard economic assumption about motivation–self-interest. It then looks into the design of contracts and institutions to allow alignment of interest under conditions of imperfect information. I suppose one can think of this as an attempt to change motivation, but in a sense the motivation is unchanged and the incentive structure is what is changed.


Zizka 10.10.03 at 4:04 pm

I only skimmed Kling’s recent piece, but for months I’ve been arguing about Krugman with him, Keith Ellis, and half a dozen others on Brad Delong site.

I responded at length over there. The gist of my response is:

1. M-type arguments are probably useless in economics, but they are essential not only in political debate, but in political analysis and strategy. (E.G., “He’s proposing X, but I think that what he’s really trying to get is Y”. Or, “By saying X, he’s trying to distract people from Y). M-type arguments aren’t just propaganda (though they can be that), but ways of figuring out what someone is up to and what they’ll do this.

2. As a political columnist Krugman is writing about politics. This is true even when he is writing about primarily-economic political topics. As an economist, Krugman would write something judicious and thorough about Bush a couple times a year. When he writes in the Times several times a week, he’s not an economist, but a political writer.

3. It’s not only OK, but praiseworthy for Krugman to be doing what he’s doing. Political journalism is not a despicable activity; when well done, it’s a highly admirable one. There is a potential for conflict with scientific economic work, but no more so than there is in working for an investment bank or a government organization.

4. (An M-argument). I think that there is a strongly negative attitude toward political participation, democracy, and politics itself in many of the criticisms of Krugman. In some of them (not Kling, I don’t think) there seems to be a rather chilling attempt to reduce the range of political discussion. The vehemence of the attacks on Krugman baffles me; he’s so far superior in almost every way to Will, Safire, Novak, and several other of the heavyweights of the punditocracy.

5. Krugman is mostly right on the issues. Nobody can write that much and be right all the time, but he’s much better than average. And he’s right to be as vehement as he is, because Bush is as bad as Krugman says he is.


Zizka 10.10.03 at 4:26 pm

I just took a glance at the conclusion of Kling’s piece, in which he says that Krugman runs the risk of “lowering the level of political discourse”.

Where has Kling been during the last ten or fifteen years? Did he fail to notice that there were a few departures from civility and rationality during the Gingrich era, and also during the impeachment era? Has he only just now started to notice that there’s a whiff of rancor in the air?

Sometimes an M-argument can be merciful. I’m going to conclude that Kling is saying what he’s saying because he’s maliciously and blindly partisan. My only alternative would be to conclude that he’s so detached from reality that he’s incompetent and incapable of functioning as an adult, and should to be placed in custody for his own protection.


rea 10.10.03 at 4:27 pm

I don’t see how you can make policy decisions by addressing C without considering M. Does it make sense to attack Iraq? Doesn’t that depend on what the purpose is for attacking Iraq–what our “M” is? Does it make sense to cut taxes for the upper brackets? Doesn’t that depend on what the purpose is for cutting those taxes–what we are trying to accomplish–what our “M” is, again?


Classic Liberal 10.10.03 at 7:36 pm

Hey guys, thanks for debunking Kling’s essay. I’ve often been tempted to argue with leftists on the merits, but now I can go back to accusing them of being socialists and hating America!



Arnold Kling 10.10.03 at 8:05 pm

rea wrote, “I don’t see how you can make policy decisions by addressing C without considering M. Does it make sense to attack Iraq? Doesn’t that depend on what the purpose is for attacking Iraq—what our “M” is?…”

Clearly, every policy has a purpose. A type C argument would examine whether a policy is likely to achieve its stated purpose. It also would look at the unintended consequences of a policy.

Iraq is a very complicated issue. The primary stated purpose was to prevent Iraq from deploying WMD. Another stated purpose was to free the Iraqi people from a dictator. Another stated purpose was to promote positive change throughout the Middle East. A potential unintended consequence is that Iraq’s WMD’s might have been dispersed to other countries, such as Syria.

I am not sure that the war was necessary to prevent deployment of WMD, but I think that the probability is high that we would have had to go to war with Iraq eventually to stop their weapons programs. I think that the Iraqi people ultimately will be better off, but we probably will not know for years. I doubt that we will see much positive change elsewhere in the Middle East, regardless of how things go in Iraq. I think that the dispersal of the WMD into even more dangerous hands is unlikely, but a nonzero probability.

People can disagree with my view on these consequences. We may not be able to change one another’s mind. When we fail to change one another’s mind, we will be tempted to resort to type M arguments. My recommendation is to resist that temptation.


Zizka 10.10.03 at 9:40 pm

I gave quite a detailed argument why Kling’s attempt to taboo M-arguments is mistaken. My argument was ignored. My motives must be impure, I guess.

Classic liberal — go for it!


Russell L. Carter 10.10.03 at 10:28 pm

“People can disagree with my view on these consequences. We may not be able to change one another’s mind. When we fail to change one another’s mind, we will be tempted to resort to type M arguments. My recommendation is to resist that temptation.”

All I can say Arnold is you are quite naive, as illustrated by my question:

“2-1=4: Were you persuaded?”

The ‘C’ argument is laid out clearly in that simple equation; it was not understood, or worse, not believed. That is an undeniable fact. It’s interesting for the good of the country to understand why it is a fact. And no ‘C’ argument is ever going to explain it. (Discussion question: prove 2-1=4)

The contents of the Kay report is at the present undergoing blatent misrepresentation by our leaders. No ‘C’ argument is ever going to explain it.

I can iterate at length choosing as examples from among all of your favorite topics.

It takes a fairly high level of mutual trust to sustain substantive arguments about proposals and their consequences. A consequence of sequential lying is the erosion of that trust. The result is the mess that you complain about. If you think Krugman caused this mess, you’re as wrong as you can be. Your reply to DeLong is an excellent example: the uninformed public just knows that Larry Lindsey said one thing and apparently Arnold Kling and Brad DeLong believe another thing, so there must be no economic consensus, therefore, trust my man. Now *that* is what devalues the public perception of economics, not Paul Krugman.


JRoth 10.10.03 at 10:56 pm

Yes, classic liberal, the summary of what’s been said here is indeed that the only appropriate discourse is baseless ad hominem. We thank you for your insightful contribution.

For the functionally literate, I think a more useful summary would be that Type C arguments are insufficient in the realm of politics. Why? Because people trust their own instincts about politicians (“Honesty and Integrity”) more than they trust experts. When Krugman shows, conclusively, that Bush’s campaign budget proposal is an economy-damaging sham, nobody pays any mind, apparently because they think he’d be fun to share a beer with (that’s the right’s construction, not mine). So PK needs to address those unstated Motives so that people will accept and understand the conclusions of Type C analysis. Some may read shrillness, but shrillness is a character typical of sirens and other alarms. If the evident Motives of the current powers that be, as illuminated by examining the Consequences of their policies, were noble, then there would be no need for alarm. But only a fool or a shill would ascribe noble Motives to those whose ations result in such dire Consequences.


Classic Liberal 10.11.03 at 2:11 am


first off, you already admitted in your first point that Kling is right when you said, “M-type arguments are probably useless in economics”. This may come as a shock to you, but both Kling and Krugman are economists. Thus, if Kling disagrees with Krugman, no amount of M-type arguments on Krugman’s part will persuade him. Indeed, it will probably solidify Kling’s position because he will think that Krugman’s argument must indeed be weak if he can’t use C-type arguments to win the debate.

The second part of your first point is just obfuscation. You are trying to conflate motive with strategy and they are clearly not the same. The fact that the Bush administration has a particular strategy towards a particular goal is very different from its motivation and whether that motivation is good or evil. As for Krugman’s quality as a columnist, please remember that he used to attack the left just as vehemently when the left spouted goofy ideas on trade. I’m guessing you don’t find his attacks on the left’s motivation as endearing as his attacks on the right.

Jroth, Ha! Thanks for going right for the insult! As for whether C-type are sufficient in politics, do you have any empirical evidence to support your claim that M-type arguments are more persuasive? If not, then why use them?

Finally, guys, I really find debating with leftists a draining, unrewarding experience and that’s why I tend to post short, smart-assed comments. Please be my guest and have the last word.


Zizka 10.11.03 at 4:19 am

classic liberal: I don’t understand how you think that you have replied in any way to my fairly lengthy posts.

Motives are relevant in politics, not in (scientific) economics. Economic considerations are part of politics, not all of it. Krugman’s political writings are political, and include economic aspects. Kling would be correct if Krugman were submitting his NYT columns to economic journals, but he isn’t.

Kling may possibly feel that purely economic arguments are sufficient in politics, not a knowledgable belief at all, but it’s more likely that he disagrees with Krugman politically and his high-minded pose is fake. I have been reading Kling on DeLong’s site for months and have not been impressed.

One big rule of politics is that you don’t take political advice from your political adversaries. This is relevant here.

Can’t remember what Kling said specifically, but if Krugman is right about the economic C-points, and I think he is, how could his additional use of political M-points detract in any way from his point? If he’s got the C-points right, he can draw flowers in the margin, quote snatches of Robert Burns, tell stories about his grandmother, whatever, and the economic points remain as good as they were in the first place. As I said, the NYT is not a formal academic publication.

I am fully aware that Krugman, like Clinton and the CIA, is far to my right in every way. When I see the bunch of them being attacked relentlessly, stupidly and viciously by people from still further right, I become alarmed. But I cewrtainly know who my worst enemies are.


Russell L. Carter 10.11.03 at 4:25 am

“As for Krugman’s quality as a columnist, please remember that he used to attack the left just as vehemently when the left spouted goofy ideas on trade. I’m guessing you don’t find his attacks on the left’s motivation as endearing as his attacks on the right.”

Nope. Excellent pedigree.


Edward Hugh 10.11.03 at 8:21 pm

“Krugman’s explanation of the rationale for the tax cuts is dead on”

Look, it may not cut any ice, but for what its worth I actually had an exchange of mails some months ago with K on this topic. Basically I was playing around – yes playing in the ludic sense – that you could make a good type M argument that Bush and Co were following K’s own advice, and more specifically advice contained in a thesis he partly supervised by Gauti Eggerston, to the effect that the best way to avoid deflation is by the politicians over-riding the central bank, and in an enthusiastic bout of crazed irresponsibility provoking a serious inflation fire. Gauti’s paper is called ‘Committing to Being Irresponsible’ (and is now published as an IMF working paper, where you can also find Gauti working as one of the deflation ‘experts’).

This theory is as good as the ‘provoked trainwreck’ one. But my point is not to advocate it. My point is we have no decision procedure.

Look, the important point is this: in 2001 K felt he couldn’t speak out too much about Argentina, since he might cause a run. I think he was wrong, but that is beside the point. Now he tells the world that the US is going to have an Argentina style crisis, and no-one outside the political arena takes a blind bit of notice. Who is bothering with K now, Arnold Kling and Larry Lindsey. I think it’s a tragedy. Maybe there are 5 really good economists out there who can hack both the theory and the practice. We lost one earlier this year in Rudi Dornbusch, now we’ve lost another in his own ‘unravelling’.

K could have had an impact on Japan, that could have been important. Throwing away your mind like that in a street brawl with GWB and co, it’s so irresponsible. It’s worse it’s self-immolation.


Zizka 10.12.03 at 7:21 am

I found Edward Hugh’s contribution to be essentially unintelligible.

According to Brad DeLong most economists agree with K, or at least, almost none agree with the Bush administration. This doesn’t square with “no-one outside the political arena takes a blind bit of notice. Who is bothering with K now, Arnold Kling and Larry Lindsey”.

I ahve no way of understanding what Hugh means about “losing Krugman”.

Frankly my confidence in the economics profession is quite shaken. What DeLong and Krugman are saying seems quite sensible. And very few say they are wrong. But they get a tremendous amount of flak from within the profession simply because they are saying out loud what they are saying. This seems entirely medieval to me, as if we are ruled according to mysteries.


Edward Hugh 10.12.03 at 8:22 am

“most economists agree with K, or at least, almost none agree with the Bush administration.”

Zizka, this is the whole point. These are apples and pears. No-one in their right minds (I hope) imagines that ‘the Bush administration’ are Nobel prize material in economics.

“Economic considerations are part of politics, not all of it. Krugman’s political writings are political, and include economic aspects”

I think this is why you find what I am saying unintelligible. Your argument is reductionist, everything boils down to politics. But some of us do not agree.

Would you want to say the same thing about chemistry, or physics, or genetics……or anthropology, philosophy, sociology etc? Is there no such thing as science, only politics?

Mein Gott! I happen to think that both Heidegger and Sartre were wonderful philosophers, but I wouldn’t go near the politics – in either case. In fact their philosophy went downhill as soon as they started getting involved with politics.

So the loss is to science. Krugman is doing no original work, the problems are there (and they are not all created by GWB: the US is going to have to make a more or less ‘painful adjustment’ to its present reality whoever is in the White House – although Brad has been informing us that the ‘US is great, the US is powerful’ so maybe that will solve the problem). You see here we have another problem produced by collapsing economics into politics, politics tends to think in terms of short term fixes, a bit more fiscal here, a shot of monetary policy there, when what we may need is some long term strategic thinking. I happen to think that this is what intellectuals are for, putting the memes into circulation which can change things ten, twenty years from now, that’s why its better for them to stay out of politics.

Let’s put this in some perspective. Almost fifty years ago Robert Solow wrote a simple equation which subsequently changed the way that most economists working today think about growth, Franco Modigliani did something similar for the way we think about saving and consumption. Most people who use their work have little idea of what they thought about politics at the time. A few weeks ago Solow, Samuelson and Modigliani signed a short but dignified denunciation of Berlusconi’s ‘re-interpretation’ of Italian fascism. They won’t be remembered for the letter, of course, but for their contribution to their science. K, on the other hand, will be remembered for playing fisticuffs with Bush. That may be his gain, but I’m suggesting it is probably our loss.

Nearly a century ago the German artist George Grosz produced a work which changed in some ways our conception of art: it was entitled ‘the street fight’. Some years later Antonin Artaud explained to us that Aristotle got it wrong, art doesn’t immitate life, but life art. K is now giving us an ‘installation-type’ real-time demonstration of how right Artaud was.


Keith M Ellis 10.12.03 at 9:27 am

Edward, I really like your comments and you’ve said some things I’ve been trying to say, only more successfully.

I asserted (over on DeLong’s site) to Zizka that today’s political landscape wouldn’t look any different had Krugman not written his NYT columns. Zizka strongly disagreed. And here is the very nub of the problem. To Zizka, the spectacle of politics _that he’s watching_ is where all the action is. He reads Krugman’s NYT columns, so he assumes they matter. He’s not a working economist, as you are, and he can’t really imagine how the work you do, and that Krugman isn’t doing, could really matter.

I’m hard pressed to think of a single pundit, at least since WWII, that I would be willing to credit with making a truly important difference in American political life. But let’s assume for the moment that such a person could exist. Is Krugman that person? I say he’s not that remarkable in that capacity.

On the other hand, I can think of a few economists, even since WWII, that have made important differences in American political life by virtue of the contributions to economics. Krugman is widely considered to be talented enough to be one of those people.

He’s concentrating his efforts on the wrong thing. That’s your argument, and that’s my argument.

But for Zizka, all that matters is that Krugman is “speaking truth to power” when so few are doing so.

What amazes me is that from my perspective, Zizka seems remarkably naive and idealistic (along with a touch of narcissism). Yet, he (or she) feels himself to be hard-headed and pragmatic. Liberals shouldn’t fight with kid gloves on, and all that. But it’s like cheering on the concert pianist in a fistfight with a bully out of relief that someone is taking on the bully. What a waste.


Antoni Jaume 10.12.03 at 3:09 pm

Edward, I have distinct memories of reading –years before GWBush,probably before Clinton– that were the USA another state, they would be in as bad a shape as Argentina. The USA should be able to steer out of this situation, but only if they are aware of it that can be done with the least amount of damage.



Zizka 10.13.03 at 4:22 am

Edward : You have the reductionism idea utterly backwards. I did NOT say that economics could be reduced to politics. I said that economics is part, but not all, of politics, and that politics cannot be reduced to economics, and that politics is a legitimate activity. I am not in any way a reductionist.

I am completely in favor of economists doing economics. I do not understand why anyone should think that respect for economics should require the kind of contempt for politics that you and Keith display. (One which is only assumed and asserted, as if self evident.) Krugman has a choice between two kinds of honorable contributions, and at the moment (not forever) he’s doing more of one of them than the other.

Krugman’s activity is mostly, at this point, not an attempt at “a short term fix”. It’s an attempt to forstall major political initiatives which will make things significantly worse. Sometimes in your statements you make it seem that you think that the whole political sphere is so epiphenomenal that no political event can have any effect whatever. But political disasters have an effect, whether or not political initiatives do any good.

Beyond the charge of purist elitism which I think you deserve (bizarre, considering that economics is, or used to be, perhaps the most worldly of the disciplines), I suspect that both of you think you live in an ahistorical, apolitical world. But you don’t. The dream of a world without politics has taken many forms, but it’s erroneous.

“He’s not a working economist, as you are, and he can’t really imagine how the work you do, and that Krugman isn’t doing, could really matter”. Keith, that’s insulting, and it’s utter bullshit. You have absolutely no reason for saying that. Not one word I have said justifies that.

Both of you accuse me of what you do yourselves. Keith, you groundlessly accuse me of having contempt for Krugman’s economic work, while dripping an ignorant contempt for Krugman’s political work. Edward, you accuse me of reducing economics to politics, which I don’t do, but my bet (I can’t prove it) that you reduce politics to economics (or something else). The significance of the Grosz/Artaud citation escapes me; are you a critical theorist or something?

Keith, I still have no idea what makes you tick. You did your little bit of name-calling just now, and consider yourself repaid in kind.

I am not guilty of what you accuse me of. You both need to learn to read.


Keith M Ellis 10.13.03 at 6:51 am

Zizka, you’re earnest and you mean well, and so I feel bad about “name calling”. But you automatically and vehemently impugn the _motives_ of anyone that disagrees with you about Krugman. Which sort of proves the general point that Kling, and others, are trying to make.

No one is arguing that motives aren’t relevant. But thinking chiefly about motives, as I get the strong impression you do, is a bad intellectual habit. It’s what Bush is doing, not incidentally, when he judges Putin as “decent man”. Thinking that one has a strong grasp on what makes someone “tick” allows one to dramatically cull the tree of possible interpretations of someone’s behavior. That is, in fact, the argument that you and other people are making in its defense. And it _is_ hugely useful, assuming that one is correct in one’s judgments about another person’s inner state. But my observation is that a) people aren’t as successful at those judgments as they think they are; and, b) the fact that the method is convenient becomes, eventually, its own raison d’etre–as in the case of Bush and Putin. It’s so much easier for Bush to assume he can “look into” Putin’s “heart” than it is to, you know, deal with a complex reality.


Zizka 10.13.03 at 5:09 pm

I have continued my presentation over at DeLong.

Neither I nor Krugman speaks only about motives. Motives are included in what we speak of, and that is legitimate.

What’s at issue here is whether Krugman is right in writing thje way he does (using M-arguments). You have not made the point that he isn’t. The larger issue is whether he’s right to go into the political arena, and you have not made the point that he isn’t right in that, either.

Your comparison of me and Krugman to Bush is a clever rhetorical trope. I’m sure that there’s a Latin name for it.

For all your intense rationalism, your responses to me scarcely ever respond to anything specific thatv I have said; they mostly consist of reiterating your initial erroneous characterization of my position.

To the extent that I speculate about your motives, it’s because I find your attitude entirely baffling, since you have made it clear that you accept most of Krugman’s political analysis. I really do not know what makes you tick. But I think that DeLong is right about what makes Lindsey tick; it’s a much easier case.


Edward Hugh 10.14.03 at 9:09 am

“made it clear that you accept most of Krugman’s political analysis”

Zizka, I presume this is directed at Keith Ellis, because I certainly don’t accept K’s political analysis. I think he’s driven himself mad with his own obsessions, and that’s what I am lamenting.

I haven’t entered the C/M arguments because I left all this behind years ago. Pragmatically I think you should all take note of the arguments from the right welcoming your decision to accept M arguments. I think this is the terrain they love, that’s why I think its a silly decision to go down that road.

In fact this isn’t the first time Henry has advocated this. The first time I met him was over at Brad’s place, where he responded to a post of mine about Marty Feldstein and the Euro explaining that F’s economic arguments about the problematic nature of the euro were wrong because he was trying to help the Republican party. I happen to share Feldstein’s concerns (as to some extent I suspect Brad does) but I can assure you I have no connection whatsoever with, or sympathy for, the US Republican Party.

What am I trying to say is simply that you waste a lot of time with these arguments, and no-one gets to learn any economics.

My Indian co-blogger Kaushik just took one of those political aptitude tests and discovered he came bang in the centre. I guess that’s where I’d be. I’ve never seen a motives analysis for being in the centre. Since we tend to take flack from both sides I can think of a psychoanalytic one: masochism.


Edward Hugh 10.14.03 at 4:04 pm

“are you a critical theorist or something?”

ooooooh I missed this one. Thanks for the complement.

“The significance of the Grosz/Artaud citation escapes me”

Just take a look at the Grosz drawing, you’ll soon get the point.

“I found Edward Hugh’s contribution to be essentially unintelligible.”

Funnily enough, after an exchange of 3 e-mails K had the same problem. I must be obtuse or something. If so let me be explicit. K’s principal problem is deflation (aha, not many of you had even understood that from the NYT articles).

K’s solution to deflation. Provoke strong inflation expectations. Put everyone in a cold sweat that the central bank and the treasury have gone mad, coz that’s the only way to convince you that they mean business and won’t reign-in at the last moment. This is the way out of the ‘liquidity trap’. This could be what Bush is doing, I don’t say it is since I have no idea of his motives. But he sure as hell has convinced K, who has taken out a fixed rate mortgage on the basis of what he has seen!


Zizka 10.14.03 at 6:10 pm

Edward Hugh — in this discussion and the ancestral discussions at Brad DeLong Krugman’s economics have rarely been the issue. Almost all the criticisms have been about whether he should be writing journalism at all, whether he is too shrill, and whether (in principle) he should impugn the motives of his adversaries. Many criticize Krugman’s political writing while endorsing what he’s actually saying.

As far as I know, none of the discussion to date has been about “Krugman’s cure for deflation”. Yours is the first suggestion I’ve seen that Bush’s economic policies are a shrewd way of scaring us out of the deflation trap. It strikes me as a long stretch, but what do I know?

In any case, I am not able to critique Krugman’s economics or yours. I know him as a political writer and have been appalled by the fierce and, as far as I can tell, almost always unjustified attacks which have been made upon him, not only by conservative adversaries but also by purist professionals. That has been my topic and in that context, your most recent response is off-topic.


Zizka 10.14.03 at 6:21 pm

Edward: Responding second to your first post: I’ve said over and over again that Krugman’s columns are not economics but politics. In politics M-type arguments are appropriate. Not in economics. Economics is part of politics, but not all of it. Politics is not part of economics. Things are permissible in the non-economic part of politics which are not permissible in pure economics. So of course, when Krugman or DeLong impugn Lindsay’s motives (and they DO NOT impugn the motives of everyone who disagrees with them) — OF COURSE he doesn’t teach any economics. That’s politics. And (this is the sticking point) politics is a valid activity, even for an economist. Krugman is wearing two hats (and, of course, does a better job of the economic part of politics than pretty much anyone else).

Economists do not not get all heated up about the consulting activities of other economists. Robert Merton’s consulting got him a felony, making him the first Nobel Prize felon to my knowledge. BEFORE his indictment, I do not think that he got anywhere near the heat Krugman is getting for his (Krugman’s) laudable political involvements. Isn’t there something wrong here?


Jesse 10.22.03 at 12:27 am

The contents of the Kay report is at the present undergoing blatent misrepresentation by our leaders. No ‘C’ argument is ever going to explain it.

Kay himself said that the _media_, not the administration was wildly misrepresenting his report.

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