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.