(If my French is ungrammatical, I am coining a new phrase.)
David R. Henderson asked who today’s Bastiat is. People were throwing out obvious candidates like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, but Karl Smith kept arguing that it was clearly Paul Krugman. (BTW it was an honor just to be nominated, and don’t worry I’m not noiselull.) Here’s Smith:
The obvious answer is Paul Krugman.
The style is similar and tone is similar. They are both speaking against the currents of their day and they both write intelligibly for the lay person.
Indeed, in discussing Krugman’s abrasive style – which I find unfortunate – I have had to acknowledge that Bastiat also had an abrasive style and perhaps for that reason he is still celebrated today.
As much as I wish the world rewarded humility and grace, it does not.
Now people like Don Boudreaux (also in the running) disagreed for obvious reasons. How could Smith possibly say Krugman is today’s Bastiat, when Krugman is by no means a classical liberal, falls for the broken window fallacy, etc. etc.?
But that’s not really the part of Karl’s argument that bothered me the most. (After all, as Karl suggests, Krugman thinks he’s pointing to the unseen–it’s just Boudreaux and I would say it’s unseen because it’s nonexistent.)
No, I’m bothered the way Seinfeld said, “I’m offended as a comedian!” when his dentist becomes Jewish for the jokes. I think Landsburg, Horwitz, et al.–all the people nominated in the comments–look up to Bastiat as a model of how to dismantle an opponent with rhetorical pizazz. And I’m sorry Karl, I know a masterful put-down when I read it, and Krugman doesn’t have it.
I really don’t think I’m being biased here. I can acknowledge that Krugman could be very clever, witty, and funny; his paper (written in the late 1970s) on the economics of interstellar trade is a riot.
But alas, at least for the last decade Krugman has been quite simply a hack. To give a quick example, Krugman in 2005 (HT2 Yosef) devoted an op ed in the NYT–i.e. not some quick thing he fired off on a blog post–to the case for pulling troops out of Iraq, and why Bush officials should be held accountable for falsely leading the country into war. Has Krugman written ONE WORD about foreign policy under Obama? I don’t think so, and the reason is that he couldn’t possibly say anything that his progressive fans would like, so he keeps his mouth shut. Because Krugman isn’t even a progressive, he’s actually a Democrat (capital D).
Actually that’s not quite right. I think Krugman really is a progressive, and deep down agrees with Glenn Greenwald and Jon Stewart when they point out the many ways in which Obama is just as bad, or even worse, than Bush on foreign policy and civil liberties. But (I conjecture) Krugman has decided that we live in a second-best world, and if he criticizes Obama on anything besides falling for austerian talking points, then a Republican will win the White House and that’s no good for anybody (except oil companies and cancer doctors).
Another example, narcissistic yes but it beautifully illustrates what I mean. In my “sushi article” on capital theory, I had passages like this:
[O]ne day Paul Krugman washes onto the beach. After being revived, he surveys the humble economy and starts advising the islanders on how to raise their standard of living to American levels. He shows them the outboard motor (still full of gas) from his shipwreck, and they are intrigued. Being untrained in economics, they find his arguments irresistible and agree to follow his recommendations.
…(If the reader is curious, Krugman doesn’t work in sushi production. He spends his days in a hammock, penning essays that blame the islanders’ poverty on the stinginess of the coconut trees.)
For a few months, the islanders are convinced that the pale-faced Nobel laureate is a genius. Every day, 606 sushi rolls are produced, meaning that everyone (including Krugman) gets to eat 6 rolls per day, instead of the 5 rolls per day to which they had been accustomed….
But alas, eventually the reduction in boat and net maintenance begins to affect output…..The islanders continue to get 6 [sushi] rolls per day, but now each roll has less fish in it. The islanders are furious — except for those who are repulsed by the idea of ingesting raw fish.
The islanders are a bit concerned. When they first followed Krugman’s advice, their consumption jumped from 5 rolls to 6 per day. Then when things seemed to be all screwed up, Krugman managed to fix the worst of the discoordination, but still, consumption fell to 5.5 rolls per day. Krugman reminded them that 5.5 was better than 5. He finally got the crowd to disperse by talking about “Cobb-Douglas production functions” and drawing IS-LM curves in the sand.
Because this is a family-friendly website, we will stop our story here. Needless to say, at some point the 5 islanders devoted to net and boat production will decide that they have to cut their losses….(We can only hope that Professor Krugman has been rescued by the Swedes by this time.)
So Krugman comments on the above by saying:
Someone, I don’t know who at this point, sent me to this post by Robert Murphy, which is the best exposition I’ve seen yet of the Austrian view that’s sweeping the GOP — and I mean that sincerely, never mind the puerile insults aimed at yours truly. As regular readers know, I’m a stylized-example kind of guy, and Austrians tend to prefer lots of words instead; but in this case Murphy does offer a little story that is, in a way, a counterpart to my story about the baby-sitting coop (although my story was based on an actual real-world example).
Now you might have thought I was mad about the economics, but no I didn’t care about that. I couldn’t believe Krugman characterized my jokes as “puerile insults.” How the heck can someone use “puerile” in the same ZIP code as a joke involving a Cobb-Douglas production function? “Geeky,” “eye-rolling,” “smug,” I’ll give you all those. But puerile?
But my reaction is like Jon Stewart taking offense that Donald Trump thought he was actually doing an impression of Herman Cain. No, Trump didn’t think that (and didn’t think Stewart was being racist). Just like Krugman didn’t really think I was throwing “puerile insults” at him. He just said that, because he can’t be too subtle with his readers. He is a man on a mission, and he has to keep them in line.
You think I’m reading too much into this? OK then why does Krugman say things like this?
From the op ed that made someone compare Krugman to Bastiat (and which prompted David R. Henderson’s blog post):
Let’s face it: a large part of our political class, including essentially the entire G.O.P., is deeply invested in an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels, and actively hostile to alternatives. This political class will do everything it can to ensure subsidies for the extraction and use of fossil fuels, directly with taxpayers’ money and indirectly by letting the industry off the hook for environmental costs, while ridiculing technologies like solar.
So what you need to know is that nothing you hear from these people is true. Fracking is not a dream come true; solar is now cost-effective.
Or this line from a recent blog post, talking about conservative think tanks on the question of income inequality:
Look, let me make a public service announcement: if you rely on bought and paid for sources on income inequality, you’re going to embarrass yourself again and again. These people never get it right, because their whole reason for being is to obfuscate. You should never, ever, trust what they say on this issue.
And of course there was the infamous blog post (I’m not going to bother digging it up) where Krugman openly said that the right and left aren’t the same, that he doesn’t even bother reading right-wing blogs etc. because they have nothing interesting or intelligent to say (I’m paraphrasing but that was definitely the spirit of what he said).
Oh what the heck, this jumped out at me too when I was looking for the above posts. In this post Krugman is complaining about what hypocrites right-wingers are:
There’s a big difference between the left and the right in such matters, one that I don’t fully understand, although I’m trying. Here’s how it goes: if a liberal politician is caught behaving badly — enriching himself while preaching the need to help the poor, or just in general showing himself less than admirable by having an affair, visiting call girls, whatever — his career is over.
But if a conservative politician who preaches stern traditional morality is caught engaging in actions that are at odds with what he preaches — buying sex, taking wide stances in restrooms, or, in this case, stiffing his family even while preaching family values — he may well ride right through the scandal. Witness what’s going on now with Herman Cain.
Yeah, I can’t think of any liberal Democrats who ever had scandals involving call girls or cheating on their wives, whose political careers weren’t immediately over. I’m racking my brains here, but I’m coming up with nothing.
In contrast, here’s Bastiat zinging his opponents:
To the Honourable Members of the Chamber of Deputies.
Open letter to the French Parliament.
You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.
We come to offer you a wonderful opportunity for your — what shall we call it? Your theory? No, nothing is more deceptive than theory. Your doctrine? Your system? Your principle? But you dislike doctrines, you have a horror of systems, as for principles, you deny that there are any in political economy; therefore we shall call it your practice — your practice without theory and without principle.
Surely you see the difference, Karl.
Last point: It occurs to me that Karl is more familiar with the collected writings of Bastiat than I am, and maybe he will point out that Bastiat was indeed a jerk to people (by name) in print. Two things:
(1) The very fact that I don’t know shows that this isn’t what Bastiat is remembered for. So maybe a hundred years from now people will look back on the babysitting co-op article. They won’t be looking back on Krugman’s posts on Paul Ryan.
(2) Even so, I’d like to see Bastiat’s biting remarks. I am going to go out on a limb and say they were far wittier and devastating than, “The thing you need to know is, these people are liars. Don’t believe them.”