Cool It, Krugman
In the January/February 2020 issue, Sebastian Mallaby reviewed Paul Krugman’s new book, Arguing With Zombies—and explored what drove the Nobel Prize–winning economist’s journey from technocrat to polemicist. “Week after week,” Mallaby wrote, “he shakes his fist righteously at Republicans and anyone who defends them.”
Sebastian Mallaby’s article, while cogent and seemingly thoughtful, is nevertheless fundamentally flawed based as it is on the common fallacy that polling of attitudes can be relied on to accurately reflect what people will, and will not, do. Pew research on Republican attitudes notwithstanding, the fact is that, when it comes to taking a public position, Republicans have not broken ranks with the current president on even the most racist, misogynistic, or scientifically ignorant of positions. While Lindsey Graham and Matt Gaetz may make statements that, according to Mallaby, reveal “that the men’s consciences are still flickering,” until Republicans can extract themselves from their current immersion in the cult of Donald Trump, Krugman’s “Trump Derangement Syndrome” will ring truer than Mallaby’s claim that it is “ridiculous simplicity” to describe Republican pandering as something other than what it clearly is: flickering consciences offering neither real power nor light.
As a longtime devoted reader of Paul Krugman’s contributions to The New York Times, I found Sebastian Mallaby’s recent observations on the trajectory of Krugman’s writing invigorating. Krugman has, in fact, landed many arrows close to the bull’s-eye by relying on “ridiculous simplicity.” But reliance on blanket generalizations doesn’t work so well in the imperfect and complex world of real community. Often, it also fails to stand up to closer critical inspection.
Krugman’s own intellectual history illustrates his capacity for fundamental change. Here’s hoping that he can take a break from polemics to reevaluate some of the underlying assumptions of his own economic thought in ways that will enlighten, rather than alienate, the readers who have remained loyal to his “substantially correct” points of view.
Sebastian Mallaby replies:
I share Jon Siegel’s dismay at President Trump’s conduct and the willingness of congressional Republicans to back him. But the question is: What to do? Isn’t it best to attempt to persuade Republican voters to support better leaders? Aren’t the chances of persuasion minimized if commentators start from the presumption that all Republicans are deplorable? And even if Siegel wishes to dismiss opinion surveys, doesn’t his own observation of human nature teach him that most people are neither good nor evil, but rather some suggestible mixture of the two?