Krugman Badly Reviewed

It will not surprise readers to know that I’d enjoy a good smash of Paul Krugman’s book Conscience of a Liberal but historian David Kennedy’s negative review in the NYtimes is more trash than smash.  First, there is a bizarre attempt to argue that Krugman is not an economist because he is not laissez-faire!

And yet maybe Krugman is not really an economist – at least not
according to the definition offered more than a century ago by Francis
Amasa Walker, the first president of the American Economic Association,
who wrote that laissez-faire “was not made the test of economic
orthodoxy, merely. It was used to decide whether a man were an
economist at all.”

Most modern economists continue to celebrate
Walker’s orthodoxy, and behind it, the classical doctrines of Adam
Smith, whose fabled “invisible hand” regularly works wonders of
production, distribution, innovation and efficiency, provided it is
kept free of the meddlesome “nanny state.” Against the constant threat
of encroachment from that benighted quarter the free-market faithful
are ever vigilant.

Admittedly, even though this view is nonsense it’s nonsense that is repeated often enough so that an outsider could be forgiven for drinking the heterodox cool-aid.  At this point I was willing to forgive.

Unfortunately, the rest of Kennedy’s review has very little meat.  If the best that historian Kennedy can say against Krugman’s "factually shaky" history is that "Kansas, whatever its other crimes and misdemeanors, is not customarily
regarded as the birthplace of Prohibition; the Voting Rights Act passed
in 1965, not 1964." then maybe Krugman is on to something.  (For the record, the first point is arguable the second point is a trivial error.)

Worse yet, Kennedy agrees with Krugman when Krugman is wrong.  It’s not true, for example, that Americans "have become markedly less [secure] in
recent decades."  Nor is it true that "A tidal wave of risk-shifting – from defined-benefit to
defined-contribution retirement plans, and from employer-financed to
individually-paid health care insurance, to cite but two examples – has
set millions of American families anxiously adrift on a sea of
uncertainty."   (See e.g. Tyler here and here).

I don’t understand the divisions within the liberal fold which explain Kennedy’s review (he is no right-winger) but I know something is up when Tyler says "The Conscience of a Liberal is um…not that polemic.  It’s not that shrill."  While liberal Kennedy says "Like the rants of Rush Limbaugh or the films of Michael Moore,
Krugman’s shrill polemic may hearten the faithful, but it will do
little to persuade the unconvinced or to advance the national
discussion of the important issues it addresses."

My ultimate response to Kennedy’s review?  I bought the book.

Addendum: Brad DeLong points out that Kennedy blows the Walker quote as well.  Walker, in 1889!, was pointing out that economists were not doctrinaire proponents of laissez-faire.


Krugman somehow decided to mention Kansas and Prohibition. Why isn’t clear, at least to me. Does anyone know?

Kennedy then reviews the book and offers the following, quite correct, statement

“Kansas, whatever its other crimes and misdemeanors, is not customarily regarded as the birthplace of Prohibition†

For better or worse, Kennedy’s statement is accurate. Typing prohibition and history in Google turns up any number of histories of Prohibition in the United States. I didn’t find any that treated Kansas as the keystone state of the movement. Presumably Krugman could have done the same thing and found the same information.

Unfortunately, Krugman make his position worse by referencing two factoids. First, that Kansas was the first state to include Prohibition in its state constitution. Second, that Carrie Nation attacked saloons in Kansas.

Unfortunately, both of the (valid) data points diminish Krugman’s argument. The Oregon territory implemented Prohibition 38 years before Kansas. Maine was only 34 years ahead. Any number of other states implemented (or tried to) Prohibition before the Civil War. The fact that Kansas amended its constitution decades later just doesn’t make it “the birthplace of Prohibition†.

The reference to Carrie Nation also undermines Krugman’s argument. Carrie Nation was protesting the failure of Kansas to enforce its Prohibition laws. Her first attack on a saloon was in 1900, 19th years after the constitutional amendment. Once again, saloon attacks 57 years after the first Prohibition laws just don’t support a claim about “the birthplace of Prohibition†.

Of course, Carrie Nation was never more than a local leader of the WCTU. The actual history of the WCTU further undermines Krugman’s thesis. The WCTU was founded in 1874 in Cleveland, Ohio. The WCTU website offers the following capsule history

“In many towns in Ohio and New York in the fall of 1873 women concerned about the destructive power of alcohol met in churches to pray and then marched to the saloons to ask the owners to close their establishments. They met with success but it was only temporary so by the next summer the women concluded that they must become organized nationally. This led to the founding of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union - the oldest continuing non-sectarian woman's organization in the world.†

No mention of Kansas. The history of the Prohibition party is also revealing. It was founded in 1869 in Chicago and held its next convention in Ohio. The subsequent history of the party reveals no special connection to Kansas. The same holds for the Anti-Saloon league founded in Oberlin, Ohio in 1893.

I did find one interesting counterpoint. In 1887, Prohibition Party member Susanna M. Salter of Argonia, Kansas, became the first female mayor in the United States.

If Krugman had connected Prohibition and Ohio he might have been able to make his case. However, with Kansas he struck out.

So let’s summarize here. Krugman chooses (for unknown reasons) to obsess over the 19th century history of Kansas and Prohibition. Kennedy rightfully corrects Krugman. Rather than honorably backing off, Krugman digs a deeper hole with factoids that only worsen his case.

However, the real point is why is Krugman mentioned Kansas and Prohibition in the first place? Does anyone kinow?

"First, there is a bizarre attempt to argue that Krugman is not an economist because he is not laissez-faire!"

I think this is a mis-reading, though it seems to be a common one. Kennedy's target is not Krugman, but a caricature of "orthodox" economics. He says *"maybe"* "Krugman is not really an economist" because is not one of the "free-market faithful."

Kennedy (thinks he) is merely providing NYTBR readers with background info in the first few paragraphs. It isn't until he says "[Krugman's historical narrative] is as factually shaky as it is narratively simplified" that the review proper begins.

Whether you agree with Krugman's politics or not, no one in the field would deny that Krugman is a very good economist. His work in labor and regional economics is fascinating, and he is evidently very intelligent. I'm not sure if he will win a Nobel award in the next 30 years, but if he doesn't it is only because of the areas he chose to study. It is not for lack of talent.

George Stigler wrote that the study of economics makes a man conservative. Is he wrong too?

"MoveOn was formed when the Republicans impeached Clinton on a party line vote in the house..."

I've heard this before. It goes something like "But mmmmmom, he hit me first!"

Which just goes to show (to continue my thought) how far to the right radicals has dragged the GOP.

If you thought Mike Dukakis was a radical leftist then yes, MoveOn and Daily Kos probably qualify as "radical". At most those groups want to move the Democratic goal posts back to the pre-Clinton era.

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