Paul Krugman and ‘reality TV economics’

I have been thinking a lot about whether to write this blog post or not because by doing so I will get involved in what I am trying to criticize – the emergence of what we could term ‘reality TV economics’.

Even those of us who hate reality TV know about the Kardashians – not because we go looking for news of the reality TV family, but because the media around the world would write so much about the family that it is impossible not to come across “news” of the family. In fact every country in the world has a “Kardashian” – somebody who is only famous because they are famous. They are not famous because of their intellectual capacities or because they have been successful in business or sports. In fact many reality stars are reality stars because they have failed in what they aspired to do in the first place. Just think about the number of failed actors who today have their own reality TV show, but who are also unable to get an acting job. When your agent stops calling you will try to get your own reality TV show – it is unemployment insurance for Hollywood actors.

One of the things that makes reality TV stars “interesting” is that they will do and say outrageous things. It seems like there is a genuine demand for this kind of thing. I must say I personally hate it and I try not to watch any form of reality TV, but it is not going away. In fact it seems like we are getting more and more of it every year. I am tempted to say it is market failure, but growing up in Scandinavia I have tried purely government run TV. I prefer bad reality TV to that.

Is Paul Krugman the Kim Kardashian of economics?

Unfortunately the reality TV phenomenon is spreading to the field of economics – or at least to economics blogs. The best example of this trend is Paul Krugman. He is surely the Kim Kardashian of the economic blogosphere.

The fact that Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2008 is not what makes him a “popular” economist. In fact most people don’t even have a clue about what research he did to get his well-deserved Nobel Prize. Krugman is famous for being Krugman – not for being a great trade theorist (he is). I find that extremely unfortunate, but you can only blame Paul Krugman for that.

Like the Kardashians Paul Krugman’s business model is to say outrageous things. That has made him extremely popular among leftists around the world and hated by many on the right. Lately he has succeeded in stirring up trouble by trashing both Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and belittling their contributions to economics and to the public discourse on economics.

I don’t even want to comment on Krugman’s comments on Friedman and Hayek other than saying that he has succeeded in his mission to provoke. However, his attempt to discredit two of the greatest economic minds of the last 100 years will not be successful. In 50 years nobody will read Krugman’s slanderous attacks on these two great economists, but economic students will certainly still study Hayek and Friedman. I would also hope that they will read Krugman’s contributions to trade theory and to “new economic geography”, but that is much less likely.

The unfortunate Krugman-industry

I do not read Paul Krugman’s blog regularly. The reason is that nine out of ten blog posts are about telling the readers how stupid other economists and policy makers are and how clever Paul Krugman is. That is not interesting for somebody truly interested in economics. However, I would also say that in 10% of his blog posts he demonstrates how truly great an economist he really is and these articles I always enjoy reading – both when I agree and when I disagree.

So be it. It is his choice to write in the way he wants and as far as I can see his business model has made him a very wealthy man so I can understand that he maintains this reality TV style. The fact that he is in the process of likely also destroying his intellectual legacy is another thing. I used to have respect for Paul Krugman the economist, but I have no respect for his tribalist slander of fellow economists. This is not a question about whether I agree with him or not. It is a matter of style.

What I, however, think is more critical about this is the emergence of a Krugman-industry. Hence, it is unquestionable that Krugman’s New York Times blog is the most popular economics blog in the world (mainly because it is about American political tribalism rather than economics). No economist in the world has more followers on Twitter (he is, however, nobody compared to Kim Kardashian who has 18 million followers on Twitter). The popularity of Krugman means that you can get some of that popularity – in the blogosphere measured by hits on your blog – if Krugman says you are a great guy and or that you are an idiot. In fact there is a large industry providing services to Krugman haters.

This means that if you want to greatly increase the traffic on your blog you try to be mentioned by Krugman on his blog (and no that is not what I am trying to do here…). This is what makes Krugman interesting to his fellow bloggers – whether Keynesian, socialist, Marxist, Monetarist, Conservative or Austrian – and I guess this is the reason why so many bloggers like to write about Krugman. For some it has become their business model to cheerlead for Krugman and for others the business model is to badmouth him. No matter what they are generally not contributing to economic discourse, but are rather becoming part of the ever increasing industry of ‘reality TV economics’.

I am no saint. I would love to get millions of hits on my blog and I have often been tempted to go down the path of reality TV economics (and have done it from time to time) and I know that the likelihood that one of my posts will get a lot of hits increases dramatically if I slander a fellow economist or call a policy maker an idiot (that is easy). Saying that Paul Krugman is the Kim Kardashian of economics is surely likely to increase the traffic on my blog a lot more than when I write about monetary policy in Angola. I just hope it was different.

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21 Comments

  1. Benjamin Cole

     /  August 11, 2013

    Well, being a Market Monetarist is a lonely path at times. Jeez, does Larry Summers even know about us?

    I wonder—should Market Monetarists engage in a lot more PR? Attacks?

    I have tried to advise MM’ers to use the language more provocatively, while maintaining substance. “The Fed has its polished, wing-tipped shoe planted firmly on the monetary windpipe of the national economy,” for example.

    For some reason, when people attack the Fed for pending hyperinflation, they get coverage. There is still the idea that the Fed is playing with inflationary fire.

    Should MM’ers be very aggressive in presenting the opposite point of view? That the Fed is throttling the economy? I think so.

    Krugman knows his game. It works.

    Can MM’ers play the game too, while keeping substance? I think so.

    Reply
  2. James in London

     /  August 11, 2013

    Excellent blog. I had assumed PK was just suffering from hubris. Or maybe he was moving to the next stage, nemesis, as he recognises he is losing. I hope so. Or I even wondered whether it might have been because he had been drinking. Perhaps to drown his sorrows. Either way he looked foolish. And, incidentally, discredits all economists making the public think, even more than they did already, that there is merely politics in economics and no science.

    Reply
  3. Wait…who’s Paul Krugman?

    Reply
  4. MAHE Erwan

     /  August 11, 2013

    Envoy de mon iPad

    Le 11 aot 2013 10:03, “The Market Monetarist” <comment-reply@wordpress.com> a crit :

    Lars Christensen posted: “I have been thinking a lot about whether to write this blog post or not because by doing so I will get involved in what I am try to criticizing – the emergence of what we could term ‘reality TV economics’. Even those of who hate reality TV knows about “

    Reply
  5. Lars, it seems you have eventually lost all your respect towards him. I’m in the same direction, but not yet got there. It really makes me sad that Krugman uses his 1998 article on liquidity trap to back his argument for fiscal stimulus these days. I have read tha one several times but that can be interpreted two ways. First monetary policy works at zlb as long as the central bank is willing to continue monetary stimulus and keep it for a while to raise inflation expectation. Second, the first one seems very hard, so give it up and let’s depend on fiscal stimulus. However, what Japan has shown is the second one is very terrible; running up 250% of public debt but lower NGDP than the mid 1990s. It is really frustrating to see such a great economist, at least still to me, waste his talent and time on fighting scarecrows.

    Reply
  6. PK shifted to “version II economy” himself. And there is welfare loss by his monopoly.

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/rents-and-returns-a-sketch-of-a-model-very-wonkish/

    Reply
  7. Luke

     /  August 11, 2013

    Not sure what your problem is. Is is that he is wrong, or that he gets more hits than you? Or that he’s rude about rich finance people. Not having a dig. Just really unclear what you don’t like.

    My personal view is that he is usually right but staggeringly ungracious and touchy, with a tendency to misinterpret what others have said.

    Reply
    • brendan

       /  August 12, 2013

      Luke, Krugman is a smart guy. Ask yourself, what goal does his writing style promote? He says his goal is to influence the policy debate in a useful direction, but doing that requires changing minds. Given the goal of influencing conservatives, do you think shitting on Milton Friedman is a good strategy? Or telling your readers that literally no conservative economists are worth listening to?

      Only two motivations make sense:
      1) Self promotion (job well done)
      2) Tribalism/hate. Krugman seems to be a pretty angry dude. The polarization he creates might be its own reward.

      The issue isn’t how often he is right, or how often he is wrong. It isn’t even selective rudeness. It is the consistency with which he operates as a partisan.

      Reply
  8. JJA

     /  August 12, 2013

    Although Lars Christensen is fairly right about the unnecessarily provocative style Paul Krugman uses, there are, however, some details that Lars overlooks and oversimplifies.

    In the Eurozone many influential people in the right hate market monetarists even more than they hate Paul Krugman. The reason being that it is easy to neglect PK because he recommends taking more debt. That is easy to neglect: Debt is evil, stable money is good, etc. The right in a great part of the Eurozone just ignores PK.

    The leftists in the Eurozone hate PK more than the right because PK says that the common currency is not the best thing after sliced bread, and that internal devaluation is not great. Just listen to Barroso and his friends.

    But surprisingly market monetarists are actually hated by the right because many influential people think that euro is the second best alternative to gold, people from the crisis countries just have to punished for their sins, deflation is good, inflation is the father of all economic horrors, Weimar Republic will happen if ECB prints a little bit of money, high unemployment is proper way to make the stupid workers to repel their sins etc.

    Enter the market monetarists who say that the economic crisis could be handled without unnecessary suffering, just by using proper monetary policy. That is not to be liked at all. I have heard influential people from politics and administration saying that market monetarists love inflation and want the whole Eurozone to turn into Zimbadwe. And they seem to believe what they are saying.

    The classical left/right-division does not exist in this, at least not in the Eurozone.

    Reply
  9. Tom

     /  August 12, 2013

    Actually I doubt economics students will real Friedman much in the future. I think relatively few do already. He’s already most famous for trying to show that he understood better than Fisher what caused the Great Depression, but as those who initially bought that should have learned in the last recession, Fisher actually nailed it and Friedman was only right in the parts where he restated Fisher.

    You’ve got a point about Krugman, his main weakness is he’s an arrogant prick. As for reality TV, you obviously don’t understand thing one about it and good on you. Kardashian btw in case you didn’t know broke as an amateur porn star with biracial appeal.

    Reply
  10. Your narrative reminds me of a wonderful scene from the wonderful funny movie “Austin Powers – The Spy Who Shagged Me” (1999): http://goo.gl/QEHSHO

    “Vanessa Kensington: I will never have sex with you, ever! If you were the last man on earth and I was the last woman on earth, and the future of the human race depended on our having sex, simply for procreation, I still would not have sex with you.

    Austin Powers: What’s your point, Vanessa?”

    So I can only ask, what’s your point, Lars?

    Reply
  11. miguel

     /  August 13, 2013

    See this video. Independently of agreeing or not with Pedro Schwartz, his comment about Krugman is so true. Krugman was offended.

    As a portuguese, I read your post about Angola with interest and shared it in a website forum owned by a major national newspaper.
    It would be with much interest that I would read a market monetarist’s overview on the portuguese economy.
    Thank you for writing and sharing your thoughts about economics.
    Best regards

    Reply
  12. RLK

     /  August 15, 2013

    Krugman has commented on many occasions that he considers Friedman an economist’s economist and generally brilliant. But he believes that right wingers have discarded Friedman’s argument about QE when pressed against the lower bound. For Krugman, Friedman is still an important force while for the right wing, Friedman (the economist) has become the forgotten man.

    Reply
  13. Gerard MacDonell

     /  August 15, 2013

    This post raises an excellent point. The great question of our age is the style in which economists express themselves. Krugman is a big meanie who writes as though he wants to be read.

    Thank God you finally screwed up the nerve to raise the issue. It seems you have created a firestorm in the comments section with your brave revelation. For example, that video of the guy insulting Krugman and then nervously denying he had done so was such convincing proof of Krugman’s insecurity, which is the main issue.

    I regret only that the debate here seems to have drifted away from academic semantics and into things that affect people. You warned us that might happen if you finally bravely shared your sense of aesthetics.The ultimate proof of the validity of your argument will be if Krugman mentions you in passing and spells your name right.

    Reply
  14. Lars, I’m never quite sure what you Krugman haters have in mind when you say he slanders other economists. I know that some claimed he slandered Lucas back in 2009. Yet Lucas himself accused Christina Romer of doing ‘shlock economics’-was that slander?

    I just get the sense that many Krugman haters think because they don’t like what he says and strongly disagree with him that he must be committing slander. I get that you say you don’t want to get into ‘reality economics’-full disclosure I love reality tv. Maybe you;ll say that makes your point but I don’t agree that Krugman’s posts have no value. You sort of admit the same by saying you read 10% of them-my guess is the number is a little higher

    However, by not providing any examples of Krugman’s slander it;s really just your word against his. Did he really slander Friemdan by the way? Scott hated him calling him a Keynesian but is that slander?

    If you believed that Krugman’s piece on Friedman was slander what about David Glasner’s pieces that largely agreed with Krugman-that Friedman may have criticized IS-LM but was still for all that an IS-LM theorist.

    All I’m saying is that ‘slander’ can be in the eye of the beholder when it has no examples.

    Reply
  15. Altex

     /  March 26, 2014

    Just came across this post. I understand that you don’t like krugman’s style. Fine. What’s unclear is why do you slander him by saying that he slanders people without bringing a single example. Slandering means “making false statements about someone”. I couldn’t find any false statements made by Krugman.

    Reply
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