Thursday, January 12, 2012

Krugman and Truth-Telling in the Media

Andrew Sullivan links to this post by Jay Rosen, which has a really excellent discussion of truth-telling in media. Rosen is commenting on another post by Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, who wrote:

"I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about... on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage. As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same? If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less: “The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”"

I'm glad he recognized Krugman's work at the Times, which despite the vilification of some, has really been a reliable source of speaking truth to political power: all sources of power. Democrat and Republican (and, yes, libertarian). There aren't many people that do that, and almost none that can enlighten people about economics the way Krugman can. Public intellectuals like this are very important. This is a big part of the reason why so many of us thought Krugman was the obvious "modern Bastiat": a champion of the liberal tradition with a deep knowledge of economics, a willingness to directly challenge politicians, and a skill for public communication. This is why a lot of us were really puzzled by the people who seemed to think "modern Bastiat" just meant "most prolific libertarian blogger".


  1. When was this "truth stage" of politics again? Since I'm just being contrarian (see a couple of threads below), it sounds like a bullshit empty phrase based on nostalgia. When was this period? Since when has "truth" been even in the top ten factrs regarding important things in politics?

    "I'm glad he recognized Krugman's work at the Times, which despite the vilification of some, has really been a reliable source of speaking truth to political power: all sources of power."

    Krugman is as reliable as you agree with him; like I stated earlier, he makes consistently outlandish claims re: climate science and shouldn't be listened to on the subject. If he is outlandish there then I assume there are other areas where he is also that way.

  2. You shouldn't put double quotes on truth stage.

  3. LV: 'When was this "truth stage" of politics again?'

    Well, there was one time when even an imperial chauvinist and soft bigot like Churchill would look at what happened when troops fired on civilians in Amritsar, fully acknowledge that unarmed innocent civilians were deliberately shot, and call it one of the most monstrous acts of the Empire.

    There were also times when top British statesmen would openly call out their own government's actions in Crimea and call it an extra-legal act of their government based on pure falsehoods assumed as legitimate reasons for foreign intervention.

  4. Looking Churchill up I see that he had no probs gassing from the air people the British were fighting in the Middle East.

    You're always going to have lone-wolf actors do that sort of thing. That doesn't say anything about some silly bifurcation of a truth and post-truth stage of politics; Krugman's claim is just dumb.

  5. So what's so bad about apologizing?

  6. Hannes,

    Nothing, unless it is too late...

  7. In the Dec 22 column PK states "Mr. Romney portrays the president as the second coming of Fidel Castro", and two sentences later PK says "he has already gotten away with a series of equally fraudulent attacks" (regarding portraying Obama in a fraudulent manner).

    But it's OK for PK to say that MR 'portrays BO as Fidel Castro', when the only mention of Castro was from PK. I find PKs writing to be rife with such complete bullshit, even when I agree with the thesis of a given article. Per the Castro example, if it is OK for PK to put words in Mitt's mouth, it must be acceptable to put words in other's mouths. Either it is OK, or it's not OK.

    And what the hell does "post-truth" mean, other than sounding vaguely bad? It means whatever you think it means in your own head, and is utterly useless for carrying a specific meaning, as he does not ever define what he means by "post-truth".

    I could not disagree with you anymore strongly on your statement that he has "a skill for public communication".

    He has a skill for writing in vague, but nice sounding, ways that allow one to project anything they want onto sentences like the last one in that article, "As I said, welcome to post-truth politics." The summary of the article might as well read "As I said, the quick red fox jumped over the lazy brown dogs." Both sentences contain exactly the same amount of data regarding politics and Mitt Romney.

  8. Bastiat wrote one good essay but other than that he was a precursor to internet libertarianism - rude, imperious and with repeated reductio ad absurdum analyses. He also couldn't see outside out of capitalism.

    Why are past thinkers looked at with rose tinted glasses?

  9. Unlearningecon: "He also couldn't see outside out of capitalism."

    It is apparently a man's flaw when he does not bother wasting his time creating or inventing fake fictional utopias and seeing how well they might work.

  10. I think prateek and vader are the same guy


  11. Prateek,

    Dismissing analysis outside of capitalism as utopian is a great way to defend capitalist hegemony but unfortunately it doesn't fly. Capitalism was as planned as the next system and is in no way the natural state of man.

  12. Whether or not capitalism is a spontaneous or deliberately planned system is immaterial to whether substitute alternative ways for people to live are a) feasible to implement in the short run, b) whether most people will readily accept it, and c) whether something that can not be implemented in the short run is relevant to the immediate concerns of our day and time.

    Your switch in discussion to capitalism as a planned system is a non sequitur, that does not answer the charge of whether or not syndicalism or anarchism are purely utopian dreams.

    Besides, your criticism of Bastiat is not on what he did, but what he did not do. He fails to live up to your standards by not discussing utopianism. But why should he discuss utopianism, other than for meeting your personal standards? It's like saying that Einstein was a terrible thinker, because he did not discuss kittens. But kittens are only a relevant topic to those who care about kittens. Same for your charge against Bastiat - he failed to take interest in a topic that only interests you.

  13. Urgh.

    Firstly, you label anything other than capitalism 'utopian', which is simply an attempt to frame the debate your way.

    Capitalism being planned *is* relevant as it demonstrates that any economic system is tough to implement initially and will be deemed utopian or far off compared to the status quo.

    And no, it's not about 'what I was interested in' - Bastiat was supposed to be a political economist, and yet in analysing economic systems he was unable to look outside capitalism. If you're supposed to be analysing society but take existing structures as a granted then all you're really doing is making an implicit judgement that those systems are unquestionable.

  14. Unlearningecon,

    A "planned" economy has a very specific meaning - a central planning authority owns the factors of production and directs their employment. It's disingenuous and misleading to call capitalism *planned* - from what I gather you mean that the *ground rules* of capitalism need to be planned, and while I would argue that that contention is also primarily wrong, you should at least be careful when throwing around that kind of language.

  15. It doesn't strike you that many decisions about resource allocation are made in the boardrooms of large corporations?

  16. Economists have largely been interpreters of existing human society. That was all that their job profile expects them to do. To expect them to be visionaries envisioning alternative societies by writing several fat design books and to expect them to then start working on those plans as social engineers is just forcing them to undertake painstaking labour for little reward. You are expecting a man to be a complete genius about the steel industry, cocoa industry, wine industry, medical care, overseas shipping, and all else and then write a book about a new reform for every one of them.

    Does Paul Krugman talk about building a brand new society? No. He does not, and largely focuses on smaller reforms on particular sectors, if at all. He even supported the ACA, which does not seek to replace capitalism in medical care, and - in fact - reform medical care using capitalism.

    None of this takes away Krugman's status as a distinguished economist. If one of the most distinguished economists of our time does not seek to replace capitalism and build a new system in its place, why should Bastiat be held to those standards?

  17. 'You are expecting a man to be a complete genius about the steel industry, cocoa industry, wine industry, medical care, overseas shipping, and all else and then write a book about a new reform for every one of them.'

    No, I'm not.

    'Economists have largely been interpreters of existing human society.'

    Correct, but why should they take many existing structures as a granted and not adopt a critical perspective.

    You also seem to think I'm defending Krugman. I'm not.

  18. Indeed, so consider these standards we are expected to uphold here.

    For failing to consider and conceive entire alternative systems to capitalism, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Amartya Sen, Paul Samuelson, Jagdish Bhagwati, Christopher Sims, and Thomas Sargents are all unimpressive thinkers.

    To enter the realm of being an impressive thinker, you must be critical of capitalism.

    Unfortunately, criticism of capitalism is largely confined to hipster magazines like Adbusters, and the violent anarchist terrorist thugs in Greece, Spain, and Italy. It is not a trademark of many economists who are generally considered intelligent.

  19. Well, in many ways I blame (surprise surprise) neoclassical economics for taking existing structures as a granted, rather than specific people who have been taught it. It's not necessarily about being 'critical' of capitalism but economics could spend more time discussing its origins and the institutions required to sustain it.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.