[UPDATE: In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t cast this post as explicitly about “intellectual honesty,” because I don’t like it when DeLong, Krugman, et al. castigate their opponents as not being simply wrong, but being dishonest to boot. So, in retrospect I wish I had written this differently, to just explain why their use of the Mellon quote troubled some of us.]
Look, I feel funny even writing this blog post, like I’m explaining why drowning kittens for sport is not cool, but apparently it is necessary.
In his Memoirs, Herbert Hoover explained that after the stock market crash of 1929, there were two schools of thought that emerged in his Administration. In Hoover’s words: “Two schools of thought quickly developed within our administration discussions. First was the ‘leave it alone liquidationists’ headed by” Hoover’s Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon.
Hoover then goes on to quote Mellon’s infamously hardhearted advice, to “liquidate stocks,” “liquidate labor,” and so forth.
Then, on the very next page (in my edition of Hoover’s Memoirs), Hoover says: “But other members of the Administration, also having economic responsibilities–Under Secretary of the Treasury Mills, Governor Young of the Reserve Board, Secretary of Commerce Lamont and Secretary of Agriculture Hyde–believed with me that we should use the powers of government to cushion the situation.”
OK, so now ask yourself, how could someone be incredibly intellectual dishonest, without technically lying? Well, he could read from Treasury Secretary Mellon’s advice (which we only know about because of Hoover’s Memoirs, so it’s possible he didn’t even say it just like that), and then lead the listener/reader to believe that this was the Hoover Administration’s official policy. At this point, it shouldn’t surprise you that that’s how Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman operate. To repeat, these guys know full well what they are doing; they don’t say anything that is technically, demonstrably false, which is worse than some journalist who ignorantly says “Hoover was a liquidationist” because that’s what he was taught in 5th grade and never heard differently.
So, when Krugman pulled this stunt in his recent NYT op ed (what I link above for him), various people went to the trouble of pointing it out–for example David R. Henderson. I wasn’t even going to get involved, because what was the point? It was a dog bites man issue.
Yet innocent Daniel Kuehn, who knows nothing of guile, can’t even see the appearance of a problem here. Why would anyone object to someone taking a quote that Hoover brought up explicitly to renounce, in order to convince people that Hoover was a Mellonite? Just as DeLong did at the time I pointed out the problem with such a move, Daniel started arguing about the budget data and whether Hoover was or was not a proponent of fiscal austerity.
OK, that’s fine Daniel. If the fiscal history makes the case that Hoover was an “austerian,” then DeLong and Krugman should use that evidence when trying to convince the public. But they don’t do that, instead they rely on “shocking” quotes from Mellon. When you realize why they chose to do that, then you will realize why it was so intellectually dishonest.
For an analogy: Look at how outraged progressives are about Obama’s “you didn’t build that” issue. To make this comparable, Obama would have had to say in his speech, “Now when it came to the stimulus package, Christy Romer pulled me aside and said Barack, those private entrepreneurs didn’t build that. That was government infrastructure. Yet Larry Summers and I knew better, that it was the capitalists whom we should thank for all of our commercial and scientific advancements.”
Now, if conservatives had taken that statement to run around saying, “OMG!! The Obama White House doesn’t think entrepreneurs built their businesses, can you believe it?!” you would get an idea of what’s going on with the Mellon/Hoover record. It doesn’t matter what Obama’s fiscal policies are; it would be ridiculous to lift a quote like that and use it against him, when we only know about it because he brought it up to say he disagrees with it.
Let me try one last thing here, knowing full well it’s futile: If I get up and say, “My barber says I’m bald, but I repudiate that!” then I am still bald. I don’t inoculate myself from the allegation, just by denying it in print. The issue here isn’t whether Hoover is, or is not, a liquidationist. The issue is, using Mellon’s quote to convince people.