fredag 19 augusti 2011

Paul Krugman: The Accidental Theorist

What is a public intellectual? According to Wikipedia, it is (roughly) an intellectual who takes important debate to the public.

(This is a pretty darn awful cover, if you ask me.)

I'd add a rider to that definition: the public intellectual needs to be doing so in an intelligent, elucidating manner. That rider eliminates quite the number of so-called "public intellectuals" who are merely propagandists (like most of the op-ed writes of the Weekly Standard, the National Review or the Wall Street Journal) or cranks either blowing up personal hang-ups to ridiculous proportions, or putting out a lot of garbage under the pretense that it's worthy of somebody's attention. (I'd nominate somebody like Jan Myrdal in this category, for – for example – going to China and being totally snookered by the Maoist dictatorship, and then propagating that vicious regime as some sort of "model" for the rest of the world.)

Paul Krugman is, to me, pretty close to the ideal of what a public intellectual should be. He is a prolific writer with not only a twice-weekly NYT column and a blog, but several books under his belt as well – some of them economics textbooks, some of them essays on current economic history – and a number of articles, in journals as well as aimed at the general public. The Accidental Theorist falls under the "collections of essays aimed at educating the general public" banner. In it, Prof. Krugman tells us, among other things, that

• No, losing jobs in one sector of the economy due to productivity growth doesn't mean that the whole economy is tanking; rather, other sectors will usually pick up the slack if you don't have policies that actively work against job creation. (This doesn't apply to the current crisis, where the job loss is in practically all sectors of the economy and not caused by increased productivity.)

• Programs that help the working poor is a Good Thing, and should be fought tooth and nail for.

• Fine phrases will unfortunately never overrule the reality that hard, realistic analysis describes. You have to base your policies on that analysis, not on your own wishful thinking. (This point was made in connection with French economic policy, but also got me thinking of the back-of-the-envelope calculation Prof. Krugman did of the stimulus the Obama administration was trying to get through Congress despite the united obstructionism of the Republicans and some unwilling Democrats as well as the demand loss that it was supposed to compensate for, and how he – from the numbers, mind you, not ideology – concluded that the stimulus was too small and wouldn't be enough to kick-start the economy. It did stop the bleeding – see, for example, here – but it wasn't enough. His prediction was validated by events, unlike the ideologically driven and/or just plain paid for "stimulus doesn't work, stimulus doesn't work"-chanting of bought-and-paid-for pundits like the ones at the Weekly Standard or the National Review.)

• No, the right-wing meme that tax cuts pay for themselves isn't true; nor was it when it was used by the Reagan administration to get the US started on its current, long-lasting huge deficits trajectory. (And no, the economic recovery under Reagan wasn't particularly awesome.)

• Right-wing propagandists like Richard Armey et al lie frequently, and shamelessly. Exposing those lies is pretty much a full-time job, since the lies – being useful to a rich and influential segment of society – return again and again; again, frequently being mouthed by bought-and-paid-for pundits (and so-called "scholars" of equally so-called "think tanks"). Yes, that applies to supply-side economics as well. Especially to supply-side economics.

• Globalization isn't ruining the world; the rich world has to accommodate to the fact that competition is increasing, but that can be done without crashing our economies or our socio-economic safety nets, and the many millions of people in the Third World whose standard of living improves if they can get relatively decent work and use trade to improve their living standards are better off than they would be if locked into the previous status quo.

That's pretty much half the book right there; the second half, you'll have to read all on your own. And you should. If you're a liberal, for affirmation and for getting the necessary arguments to stand up against strident left- and right-wingers. If you're a left- or right-winger, to get a different perspective from your own, and one that is very, very well argued.

Professor Krugman is indeed a gem of a public intellectual, writing clearly and understandably on important subjects. (Here is a recent example of him performing that important task yet again.) This book is warmly recommended, and I'll wind this down by quoting it directly:

"Particularly depressing for anyone who would like to believe in intellectual progress is the reappearance of decades- or even centuries-old fallacies, stated as if they were profound and novel insights – as if those who propound them have transcended conventional views, when in fact they have merely failed to understand them."

Another review of the book can be found here.

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