You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

tomtomorrowI don’t know how rarely it is that a Nobel Prize winner has a piece published in a magazine that is devoted to pop culture in the larger sense of the term – I guess Playboy may have published that kind of stuff, too, and I also understand that Krugman has already published a few anti-Bush articles in RS before he received the Nobel-Prize -, but here it is in the last issue of Rolling Stone: Paul Krugman’s advice to the new President.

I will not comment the article to a large extent and want to leave it for your consideration. However, I have just two or three remarks. It is quite striking that Krugman cites a lot of politicians but not one economist (not even Keynes) to strengthen his argument. He doesn’t even cites his sources when he provides figures (though he refers to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities at the beginning of his article). It strikes me, but doesn’t hurt me, either … after all, Krugman is known as a sharp columnist by a large audience and a columnist is not supposed to cite any technical material or refer to the state of the art in the discipline he writes about. That is fine, except that Krugman is not presented by RS as the New York Times columnist but as the “Nobel-Prize-winning economist” who “examines the profound challenges facing [the] new president” (my emphasis). Should his new Prize give him a different kind of authority and then responsibility as an economic writer? I was having a look at a small paperback volume called Economics From The Heart: A Samuelson Sampler and it shows that Samuelson’s columns in Newsweek were far less polemical and often referred to some economists (his colleague Robert Solow, but also his former  teacher at Harvard Alvin Hansen, as well as the alternative Newsweek columnist, Milton Friedman). Whereas Samuelson’s columns aimed at showing the powers of economics as a prescriptive science, Krugman harshly criticizes Bush’s economics (and even goes further at the end of his article) and, like many other polemicists, invokes the Great Depression as the example everybody must look at to solve the current crisis (two pictures that are not reproduced in the electronic version of RS emphasize this parallel).

A few weeks ago, I saw Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC Morning Joe, calling Krugman a “very hateful guy” who is “weighed down by his Nobel Prize”. It seems that Krugman’s turning into a political pundit doesn’t please much his new colleagues.

PS: I think I should say something about the comic strip above. It is called “This Modern World” and is drawn by Tom Tomorrow, the pen name of editorial cartoonist Dan Perkins. This cartoon is regularly published in The Independant Weekly, a liberal tabloid distributed throughout the Durham-Raleigh area. This is not the first time I see Krugman being mentioned in it.


7 thoughts on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

  1. Nice title. Bringing the reference full circle I see.

    I am not convinced the problem is so much with Krugman, intrinsically, but there does seem to be some feedback loop between him and the audience his popular pieces court.

    Can anyone recommend a good article comparing Samuelson and Friedman’s essays in Newsweek (or in any way discussing them in detail)?

  2. I have made a quick search on Econlit and did not find anything that matches. I remember thinking that the book by Szenberg & ali. (2005) is very short on Samuelson’s involvement with the medias and politics (well, in fact, it is short on everything …), and all the other collective books that have been devoted to him do not explore his non-academic contributions. I don’t know the vast bibliography on Friedman but I guess the same could be said. That makes a huge empty field just in front of us.

  3. In my opinion, it is not so much the position (Nobel prize winner) that drives the form of argument than the media that conveys it. As I do not believe in the great divide between science and other types of intellectual activies, I see no conflict here between his two roles as scientist and opinion maker. And thanks Yann for this nice post, I enjoyed the cartoon very much.

  4. What kind of questions come to mind in a comparison between Friedman and Samuelson at Newsweek? (Full disclosure, I may be exploiting you for my own research benefit…)

  5. Seems like there might be some hypothesis about Friedman’s objectivity, choice of topics, rhetorical style, appeal to some standard tool of analysis – Chicago public economics / welfare economics approach.

    It seems like there might be a nice comparison there with Samuelson. What descriptions were used in this rhetorical environment? What we have here is someone who sees themselves as center and someone who sees themselves as somewhat right of center using the same venue for communication. Over the course of the articles maybe they talked about the same topics. The choice of analytical tools might be interesting. It might also be interesting to categorize the articles in terms of propositional or oppositional in reference to party politics — Did Friedman become propositional about Nixon type legislative reform? Did he switch his rhetorical style when defending these types of programs.

    There is a lingering question in my mind about the extent to which ideology shapes choice of argument and rhetorical tools used to convey the argument. My ex ante hypothesis having read not one word of the Newsweek articles is that there is something there that might help to understand these differences. Samuelson did not go out of his way to be friendly to the liberals, but he did read their arguements. How does the rhetoric differ?

  6. To Loic: Maybe my post is not very clear, but I don’t mean that there is necessarily a conflict between Krugman’s economics and his pieces in popular daily news and magazines, nor that I believe in “the great divide”. What I find interesting is that Krugman, unlike many other economics, does not use his columns to promote his discipline. That’s very different from Samuelson and that’s also very different from the kind of vulgarization that Steven Levitt does … In other terms, Krugman does not write the kind of stuff that will make high school students want to enroll in college economics programs.
    To Tiago: I think that what I would like to read in a comparison between Samuelson’s and Friedman’s columns, is whether there is any difference in the “image” of economics they project. One may assume that Friedman would emphasize the role of economics as a policy-making discipline and Samuelson would give a more “scientific” and “neutral” image of the discipline. I began to read some of Samuelson’s contributions in the Sampler I bought and as usual with Samuelson, things are not as simple as one would expect.

  7. I have read some of these columns while scanning them. (I am a sort of hoarder of digital paper.) My purpose is to do a content analysis so some of the things you find interesting I play out. Very superficially, the Samuelson and Friedman are formally different. Samuelson always plays out arguments for and against for every issue, the Ben Franklyn lists. Friedman goes to the throat, one view crisply stated. But, again, this is the skin, this is a large corpus that needs work.

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