It is safe to say that Paul Krugman is much smarter than I am, and that he understands more economics than I do. He generates a great deal of incisive analysis about the economy, and has often had a gift for stabbing straight through to the one underlying piece of data that gives lie to an otherwise plausible economic theory.
I want to get that out of the way, because otherwise my readers (left and right) might assume that this post is a "libertarian economics blogger makes fun of liberal economist's poor reasoning skills" special, and that's not at all why I'm writing it. Paul Krugman is a brilliant and interesting analyst. He also, like everyone else, can be wrong.
There's an interesting phenomenon that often happens when I blog something critical of Paul Krugman: some of his bigger fans turn up in my comments to argue that I am not worthy to talk, because Paul Krugman is a brilliant insightful analyst who has forgotten more economics than I will ever learn--all undoubtedly true. Over and over, they say, Paul Krugman gets it right when other commentators get it wrong. And as proof of this rare perpicacity, they offer the fact that . . . Paul Krugman called the housing bubble in May 2005.
There is rich irony in the belief that Paul Krugman must be right, and I must be wrong, because he had the foresight to call the housing bubble. That's because I saw it in 2002. As you can see, I blogged quite a bit about it before Paul Krugman wrote his first column on the topic. Neither of us, as far as I can tell, understood what that meant for the financial system. But both of us saw it coming, me a little sooner.
This is not that surprising, actually. Lots of people saw it coming. You hear people asking a lot where the financial journalists were--how they could have missed the housing bubble--and the answer is that they didn't! The Economist was writing about it even before I did, thanks to Pam Woodall, the brilliant economics editor who really may have been the first commentator to identify the global phenomenon. Housing bubble stories and op-eds regularly appeared in newspapers like, well, The New York Times. But most people weren't reading the financial press (or this blog) in 2005, and so when they discover that Paul Krugman was writing about the housing bubble way back then, it seems like amazing foresight.
Meanwhile, today I stumbled across another example of Paul Krugman's "foresight", via David Henderson. Chris Alden, a co-founder of Red Herring, blogs about an article Krugman wrote for them back in the 1990s:
He went on to make some specific predictions, all of which were either mostly or completely wrong:
"Productivity will drop sharply this year."
Nope - didn't happen. In fact productivity continued to improve, as this chart shows:
"Inflation will be back. ...In 1999 inflation will probably be more than 3 percent; with only moderate bad luck--say, a drop in the dollar--it could easily top 4 percent."
"Within two or three years, the current mood of American triumphalism--our belief that we have pulled economically and technologically ahead of the rest of the world--will evaporate."
Nope -- that didn't happen, either. Though September 11th, which happened more than three years after this article, and the Lehman Brother's collapse, which happened more than 10 years after this article was written, have certainly reduced American triumphalism. Here is where I think Krugman may have been the most right, albeit it way too early.
"The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in 'Metcalfe's law'--which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants--becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other!
By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet's impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine's."
"As the rate of technological change in computing slows, the number of jobs for IT specialists will decelerate, then actually turn down; ten years from now, the phrase information economy will sound silly."
"Sometime in the next 20 years, maybe sooner, there will be another '70s-style raw-material crunch: a disruption of oil supplies, a sharp run-up in agricultural prices, or both."
Meh. While have seen oil prices spike (although they have yet to reach the annual peak we saw in 1980), this was not due to a crunch or disruption or running out of oil) but rather growth in demand.
I'm inclined to be more charitable than Alden on a couple of these, but there's no question that Krugman got some things really, really wrong.
But it doesn't follow that Krugman is an idiot who should get no respect--any more than calling the housing bubble made him an infallible genius. Krugman remains a giant intellect who is well worth reading on virtually any economic topic. He is also capable of being badly wrong about things.
You often hear people complain that pundits or analysts aren't punished for getting things wrong. But this is why they aren't: everyone gets things wrong. The question "How can you expect us to listen to Pundit Y when he got everything wrong, and our guy called things correctly" only reveals that the person asking it has managed to forget all the blunders "our guy" made.
What pundits give you is not a perfect map of the future--the only people who succeed in that are characters in historical novels written by an author who already knows what happened. What's important is their thought process--do they point you to arguments you hadn't considered? Do they find data you ought to know about? Do they force you to challenge your own decisions?
Paul Krugman succeeds on that score, even if his crystal ball is a little cloudy.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
For some, abandoning expensive urban centers would be a huge financial relief.
Neal Gabler has been a formative writer for me: His Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity was one of the books that led me to think about leaving scholarship behind and write nonfiction instead, and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was the first book I reviewed as a freelance writer. To me, he exemplifies the best mix of intensive archival research and narrative kick.
So reading his recent essay, "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans," was a gut punch: First, I learned about a role model of mine whose talent, in my opinion, should preclude him from financial woes. And, then, I was socked by narcissistic outrage: I, too, struggle with money! I, too, am a failing middle-class American! I, too, am a writer of nonfiction who should be better compensated!
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
The billionaire’s bid for the nomination was opposed by many insiders—but his success reveals the ascendance of other elements of the party coalition.
In The Party Decides, an influential book about how presidential nominees are selected, political scientists John Zaller, Hans Noel, David Karol, and Marty Cohen argue that despite reforms designed to wrest control of the process from insiders at smoke-filled nominating conventions, political parties still exert tremendous influence on who makes it to general elections. They do so partly through “invisible primaries,” the authors posited—think of how the Republican establishment coalesced around George W. Bush in 2000, long before any ballots were cast, presenting him as a fait accompli to voters who’d scarcely started to think about the election; or how insider Democrats elevated Hillary Clinton this election cycle.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Home,” the second episode of the sixth season.
Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
Don’t expect Hillary Clinton to stay above the fray in the general election—her campaign plans “sustained and brutal attacks” on Donald Trump.
As they look ahead to the general election, some commentators envision a campaign in which Donald Trump attacks viciously and Hillary Clinton makes a virtue of her refusal to stoop to his level. “I think Trump’s method will be to turn on the insult comedy against Hillary Clinton,” declared GOP consultant Mike Murphy earlier this week. “Her big judo move is playing the victim.” Vox’s Ezra Klein speculated earlier this year that “Trump sets up Clinton for a much softer and unifying message than she’d be able to get away with against a candidate like [Marco] Rubio.”
I doubt it will play out that way. Rope-a-dope isn’t Clinton’s style. When facing political threats, her pattern has been to strike first—and with great force.
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.