Clive Crook suggests that they’re at least part of the problem.
I used to have no time for the idea that economists never agree, so economics must be a bogus science and a waste of time. Of course economists disagree, I would say. … But my earlier confidence that economists are not wasting their own and everybody else’s time is diminishing. Are the leaders of the profession measuring up to the standards I just mentioned? Are they helping to improve policy, or raise the standard of public understanding? You could easily argue the opposite. … This impression of disarray – that economics has nothing clear to say on these questions – is not the fault of economics as such. It is a mostly false impression created by some of its leading public intellectuals, Mr Krugman among them. …
The problem is not that Mr Krugman questions the consensus on trade (if indeed he does), or that Mr Barro questions the consensus on fiscal policy (as he certainly does). It is that both set the consensus aside so carelessly. In doing so, these stars of the profession destroy the credibility of their own discipline. … The web, for all its blessings, is an aggravating factor. Many of the most successful economics blogs promote communication within political groupings, not across them. On the web you best build an audience by organising a claque and stroking its prejudices. Extend elaborate courtesy to people you agree with and boorish contempt to those who do not get it. Celebrate exasperation and incivility as marks of intellectual authenticity – an attitude easier to tolerate in teenagers under hormonal stress than in professors at world-class universities.
See both Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen for responses. I think that Tyler is right when he argues that blogging tends to select for people with stronger ideologies and sharper elbows (this is what the relevant scholarly research would suggest is most likely to be true). But I’m very skeptical indeed of Crook’s suggestion that this is necessarily a bad thing (and indeed I suspect that this isn’t the actual reason why Crook, whom I like and respect as a writer, is so upset).
First, blogs do reflect a greater availability of information about what economists actually think. Internal discussions within economics and the face that the profession presents to the outside world are often quite different. The former involves strong disagreement, often over quite basic issues, conducted via genteelly venomous panel discussions and clashing articles. The latter is (as Krugman describes it) often a dumbed down Ricardian Economics 101, in which disagreements are brushed over lest they unduly disturb the children and servants. The economics blogosphere – like other academic blogospheres – creates a kind of intermediary zone in which professional disagreements can be aired in ways that are accessible to non-economists. It is not surprising that these discussions will be especially heated when they may have massive real world consequences (this is arguably one of the rare moments of general uncertainty where academic debates are materially important to policy).
Second, to the extent that blogs involve less convergence on commonalities and more sharp disagreement, they can have salutary effects. As Jim Johnson noted the other day of Supreme Court appointments:
A pragmatist, after all, is not concerned with consensus, but with the robustness of debate and therefore with insuring a wide range of views can find expression therein. Put otherwise pragmatists are properly concerned with the uses of disagreement.
Crook deplores how Krugman and Barro ‘[narrow] the common ground’ and ‘further [polarize]’ their readers, leaving those in the middle thinking that economics is useless. But his piece begs the question of why this is necessarily a bad thing. We don’t have any a priori reason to believe that the truth is in the middle of any distribution of ideologies, and vigorous debate between starkly opposed positions can do a lot to reveal what the underlying problem is, and the weakness of one or another side to the argument. Yes, it makes agreement harder, but as Ross Douthat argues (in what is perhaps the first post he has ever written where I agreed with every word), moderate agreements that split the difference can sometimes be a terrible idea.
The funny thing is that Crook, usually a moderate conservative, seems to be in agreement with the underlying sentiments here. He’s just written a piece suggesting that Obama’s tendencies towards moderation may be a problem, and that we need to radically remake the banking system. He shouldn’t have a problem in principle with polarizing the debate or with recognizing that truth can sometimes lie at the extremes rather than at the center. So why is he so upset?
I don’t actually think that it has much to do with blogs and polarization. Instead, I suspect that Crook’s main beef with Krugman isn’t with polarization, but with the particulars of Krugman’s suggestion that the case for free trade is a qualified rather than an absolute one. Crook more or less accuses Krugman of being a dishonest partisan hack for saying this. However, from my limited understanding, Krugman is making claims that are reasonable ones within the internal debate among economists. Certainly, Crook doesn’t provide any contrary evidence. Thus, I suspect that Krugman’s perceived crime was to express these qualifications in the agora rather than in closed session. Which is to say that the ‘consensus’ that Krugman is setting aside so ‘carelessly’ is a political one – the shibboleth that free trade is an Unqualified Good Thing – rather than a seamless consensus that emerges from the underlying academic debates.
Or to put it a slightly different way, Krugman (who is personally strongly in favour of free trade), is making it clear that the case for free trade is a political one, rather than one that necessarily flows from technical knowledge. This is something that seems inarguable to me (you can’t and shouldn’t argue for or against free trade, without taking into account politics, distributional consequences, institutions etc), but is rarely acknowledged by free trade’s public defenders.
Update: Cosma points in comments to this lovely little paper by Robert Driskill which does an elegant job of deconstructing economists’ arguments for free trade and pointing out the missing bits. Interestingly, Driskill takes many of his examples of implicit pro-free trade bias from Krugman and Obstfeld’s international economics textbook.
Update 2: Crook responds to Krugman here.
Was that piece really hysterical? I believe it is the first time I have ever been called that. … as it happens I don’t think that “being reasonable means declaring, in all circumstances, that Democrats and Republicans are equally in the wrong”. Each side is usually somewhat wrong, I find, but the proportions do vary according to topic. I am very much in the Democratic camp on the stimulus, for instance. I think it is unreasonable, on the other hand, to regard everything Republicans say as definitionally wicked or stupid or both, which is the organising principle of everything Paul writes in the NYT.
…As for defending free trade, I don’t recall ever shouting “Heresy! Sacrilege!” at anyone who “even suggests that the world is more complicated than in Econ 101”. Well, perhaps I have, but only as a joke, I promise. (Odd by the way that Paul thinks Econ 101 is all you need to talk about the stimulus intelligently, but far too simplistic when it comes to trade.) In fact I agree with Paul about free trade: in the real world, theoretical reservations aside, he is for it and so am I. The problem is that he can’t just say that, because most of the progressive Democrats who adore his writings do not want to hear it. He is too good an economist, and too honest a person, to advocate protectionism, so he does the next best thing. He equivocates.
… I think Paul is disingenuous (there I go again, more hysterics) when he says that the blog-post in question makes it clear he is not in favour of acting on the short-run argument for protection. You be the judge. In my view, he says it is all very complicated. He kind of supports free trade in an ideal world—that would be an Econ 101 world—but there are circumstances, which happen to be very like today’s circumstances, in which protection could make sense. This “needs to be taken seriously”, and the case gets stronger if optimal macro co-ordination is not forthcoming (which it won’t be). Ask any Democratic congressman what Paul’s advice on “Buy American” is. The answer will not be, “Don’t do it.” It will be, “The most brilliant economist I know of thinks there’s a case.”
[plus an email exchange with Barro]
I’m not going to say that Crook is being disingenuous here; but I will say, as one of the lefties who is purportedly lapping up Krugman’s equivocation on free trade, that Crook’s interpretation is a very peculiar one. But as he himself says, see for yourself.
Krugman isn’t contrasting an ideal Econ 101 world where free trade is a good idea with the real world where it perhaps isn’t – he quite explicitly says that free trade is a good idea in the real world, and that if “we go all protectionist, [it] will shatter the hard-won achievements of 70 years of trade negotiations — and it might take decades to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.” Indeed, his case for continued adherence to free trade is precisely a pragmatic one – he is saying that even if protectionism may seem like a good idea in the short term, its long term consequences are likely to be terrible. His proviso is that if the current crisis continues without a recovery program, this short-termist policy is going to look like a better and better idea (and hence, I presume, is more likely to be implemented), despite its long term adverse consequences.
So I don’t think that he is being even slightly disingenuous – instead, Krugman is saying (a) that the best case for free trade is a pragmatic rather than an ideological one, and (b) that the pragmatic case is going to be more difficult to argue, despite its long term superiority, if we don’t see a response to the crisis. If there is a political audience for this message, it isn’t Buy America lefties (who won’t even find this to be thin gruel), but instead free-trade consensus types who are wavering over whether to support a big bailout. Krugman is saying that if a proper bailout doesn’t happen, we are likely to see protectionism all over the place. Now whether people should agree with all of these claims is a matter for reasonable debate – but I simply don’t think that Crook’s interpretation (that this post is a sop to protectionists, and that Krugman is equivocating on the joys of free trade) is at all a plausible one.