Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

O, My! Are Paul Krugman And Michael Kelly Partisan?

Why in God's name would anyone - especially the often-shrill TAPPED - have a problem with a columnist just being partisan or shrill? I'm sorry, but simple shrillness, as such, is not much of a crime for a columnist, especially shrillness in the mind of those who are not sympathetic to the columnist's views. Shrillness in a political columnist is often like the exaggerated fashions presented on Paris runways - the point is to make the statement clearly and entertainingly, if somewhat more emphatically than most people would be willing to wear. The prêt-à-porter politicians take it from there.

Of course, Paul Krugman is shrill - very shrill. But I always thought that the big problem with Paul Krugman's column is that he repeatedly serves up bad, wrong, pretentious economics in his columns - thereby implicitly trafficking in his academic legitimacy and Princeton's reputation. He pretends to be a popularizer - but he is often just a shill bearing serious errors and omissions to close the sale. In this sense he engages in false advertising. His "shrillness" is only a problem to the extent it constitutes exaggeration to the point of error - a point a typical Krugman column positively burns rubber to blow by. It's true that his bad, wrong, pretentious economics is normally put to the purpose of his partisan ends - but it’s not the partisan end that is the problem. The problem is the increasingly egregious and obvious error and the fact that he is willing to engage in such error. It is correct that Professor Krugman be subject to more criticism for error because he purports to root his arguments in putative economic science, either explicitly or implicitly - and science just has more right and wrong answers than does pure political commentary. At their limit these considerations lead to the distinction between fact and opinion.

A columnist presenting even a marginal opinion supported by general, non-technical claims to factual accuracy is a great deal more difficult to tag as "wrong" or "shrill" than somebody who attempts to invoke the mantle of science to craft some false version of a part of factual reality in which he supposedly has expertise. Consider two neighbors. One loudly explains that you should sell part of your property to him at a low cost. This neighbor is like Michael Kelly and he is highly opinionated and partisan. The second neighbor argues that he is an expert surveyor employed by the county (where he assures you he has lots of friends and connections) and that a proper analysis of the real property records proves that part of what you think is your property already belongs to him - he tells you you must get the heck off - but his arguments keep falling apart when you look at them closely. This neighbor is like Paul Krugman and he is dangerous and shrill.

Most economists have political views deeply affected by their understanding of economics. And many of those views are "partisan." Milton Friedman and Gary Becker are often - even usually - "partisan". Isn't advocating big, general tax cuts "partisan?" But they are almost never obviously wrong - nor do either of them willingly or fatuously engage in error or incomplete analysis in some misguided and counterproductive attempt to advance some larger partisan cause led by others. (And, of course, neither of them is ever "shrill" - but neither of them is primarily a political columnist, either.) But Paul Krugman does all of that - over and over and over. And he does it with a phony patina of academic economic legitimacy.

That's why he gets taken to task.

A lot more.

And more.

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