Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Gleichschaltung From Ostelfenbeinturm

Today Paul Krugman peers with alarmed, gimlet eye from the highest reaches of Ostelfenbeinturm, capital of Krugmania, and into the deepest recesses of the American Republic, and sees ... YES! .... SURPRISE! .... that the nation is threatened by a CONSERVATIVE CONSPIRACY headed by President George W. Bush - a man Herr Doktorprofessor Krugman continually reminds us is an idiot, notwithstanding all those sinister and apparently limitless machinations!

What is it this time? Well, it seems Herr Doktorprofessor doesn't care for Clear Channel Communications, which FORTUNE magazine has just named one of America’s Most Admired Companies, but which he describes as "a behemoth based in San Antonio that controls more than 1,200 stations and increasingly dominates the airwaves." He says Clear Channel is "behind" some pro-American street rallies and resistance to the anti-American Dixie Chicks. There have been Dixie Chick CD-burnings, you understand, and that - to Herr Doktorprofessor - seems to be the 21st Century answer to book-burnings! Somehow this is all supposed to knit together into a plot involving the loosening of FCC media ownership rules which will allow Clear Channel to roam the earth seeking the ruins of souls everywhere by dumbing down their music!

He is alarmed and asks desperately: Why would a media company insert itself into politics this way? It's an interesting question, in a way. Assuming Herr Doktorprofessor is right, why would a media company choose to express itself by supporting public demonstrations that are distributed to the public mostly by other media companies - rather than just distort its own editorial and news coverage of the events, the way the New York Times does, for example? But Herr Doktorprofessor tarries for not an instant to consider whether Clear Channel's Iraq War coverage has been unreasonably skewed in favor of Administration policies - there probably just wasn't enough time in his busy, busy schedule to actually listen to the target of his innuendo. What he claims Clear Channel is doing is much more consistent with a simple expression of its political views, unsullied by conspiratorial intent. And, contrary to Herr Doctorprofessor's insinuations, Clear Channel has no more obligation to explain or not dissemble as to where those views are originating within its structure any more than the Times has an obligation to explain which of its opinions or acts originate with the Sulzbergers. Is Mr. Hicks - the head of Clear Channel and a supporter of Mr. Bush - causing Clear Channel to express these views? Maybe he is - and maybe he's lying about it. So what? Herr Doktorprofessor's equation - [First Amendment expression] + [support of President] + [regulated entity] = [likely Nazi-like conspiracy] - is wrong. Worse, if generally accepted by the public or the government, such a path to supposition would pose a real danger to First Amendment liberties.

But, even worse than that from a professional standpoint: Herr Doktorprofessor is entirely oblivious to the fact that he is writing a column about a topic which is informed by a fairly well-developed economic theory: regulatory capture. A lot of economic research has gone into analyzing what symptoms one should look for to determine whether a regulated business controls its regulators. But Herr Doktorprofessor ignores all that learning and structure to reach his unsupported conclusion that Clear Channel has put the fix in. But it can’t be ignored. If the “fix” is so obviously a quid pro quo, how will other media competitors take it? And why aren't other competitors trying to do the same thing? Further, federal regulation and regulatory capture works mostly through the Congress – not the Administration. But Herr Doktorprofessor just entirely cancels Congress out of both sides of his equation.

Introducing Congress into the equation would expose that Herr Doktorprofessor is also ignoring a second branch of modern economics: public choice theory - the branch of economic that concerns economic choices made by democratic societies. As so often the case with this columnist, resort to silly conspiracy charges substitutes for the hard work of applying difficult economics. He can leave that to real geniuses like Dr. James M. Buchanan, who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to public choice theory. A man has to know his limitations.

There's no need to worry about any of that scary stuff, tough, because Herr Doktorprofessor is right in one respect: There's something happening here. But what it is is pretty clear: laziness on the columnist's part. Herr Doktorprofessor's column is a rehash of much current German media coverage of the war and its coverage by the American media, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, for example: In Germany, the press has engaged in lengthy dissections of U.S. news organizations, often concluding that the U.S. media has gone through "Gleichschaltung," an ominous word used to describe how the Nazis took over key public institutions, including the media (rough translation: "bringing into line"). Hilariously, almost all of the German media involved endorse their government's policies in this matter. But, then, conscious irony has never been a German strong point.

From the evidence he offers Herr Doktorprofessor's conclusions and suspicions are absurd in the American context - most of the biggest American media are somewhat hostile to the Administration: Disney, Viacom, AOL-Time Warner, the NY Times, the LA Times the Washington Post, etc., etc. These media, however, are not very effective in their anti-War (and anti-Bush) efforts, which is frustrating to people such as Herr Doktorprofessor. It may make sense in Germany to assume that where any media outlet supports the government one should suspect a quid pro quo, but it takes a lot more than that and a Presidential friendship in the United States. Herr Doktorprofessor has told the German magazine Der Spiegel: I can always ask the [German] Federal Republic for asylum [from the United States]. I hope, you can take me in an emergency. [translation revised] His current column suggests that he has already availed himself of the move - at least in his mind.

Today’s tour of Krugmania again reveals the paranoid side of its regime. But there is a consolation: there's no economics in today’s column, since Herr Doktorprofessor ignores the entire fields of both regulatory capture and public choice theory. And that means there is no express bad economics in today’s column. His bad economics this time is all implied by omission. We should count our blessings.

MORE: Don Luskin shows that Herr Doktorprofessor's silly, ignorant version of "regulatory capture theory" would serve to indict the New York Times much more than it does Clear Channel. The Times should be very grateful that today's Krugmaniacal rant will influence no opinion of any sensible person.

STILL MORE: From Kaus, who explains that according to the New York Times whatever happens economically in Bush's term is all bad. High saving rate? Low savings rate? Birth rate or employment up? Birth rate or employment down?

It doesn't matter. It's all bad to the Times.

Bad, bad, bad.

Maybe Brad DeLong can explain it all!

AND STILL MORE: Jay Caruso tracks the decline.

LOTS MORE: Maguire.

And Bevan and Hogberg and Waters - these thanks to Hanks.

And still more Weidner and Johnson - these thanks to Luskin.

The apparent consensus: A jaw-droppingly ignorant and offensive new low in the continuing intellectual limbo-act that is Paul Krugman's contribution to the New York Times! How can he possibly outdo this one?

But somehow I'm sure we all have faith that he will rise to the task.

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