domingo, 16 de noviembre de 2003

En el The Economist de esta semana, hay una columna bastante critica acerca de Paul Krugman, uno de los economistas estrella de los ultimos tiempos, cuyas colaboraciones semanales en el New York Times, son seguidas por sus fervientes fans.

The one-handed economist
Nov 13th 2003
From The Economist print edition

Paul Krugman and the controversial art of popularising economics

“Give me a one-handed economist,” demanded a frustrated American president. “All my economists say, ‘on the one hand...on the other'”. From a mono-manual perspective, at least, Harry Truman would have loved Paul Krugman, an economist who rarely hesitates to take a bold position—even when the subject is himself. In recounting the transformation of his twice-weekly New York Times column from a genial discussion of the “New Economy” into a widely read broadside against the Bush administration, the Princeton professor recently described himself as “a lonely voice of truth in a sea of corruption.”

What is beyond dispute is that Mr Krugman is the finest economist to become a media superstar—at least since Milton Friedman or, earlier, John Maynard Keynes turned to journalism. Mr Krugman's work on currency crises and international trade is widely admired by other economists. He holds the John Bates Clark medal in economics, which is slightly harder to get than a Nobel prize. As for popularity, his new book, “The Great Unravelling”—his eighth aimed at a broad, non-academic readership—has spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

The Economist, which itself has been known on occasion to clamber off the economic fence, can hardly criticise anybody for writing hard-hitting (yet engaging and accessible!) economic analyses. But, increasingly, people are asking whether Mr Krugman's success as a journalist is now coming at the expense of, rather than as the result of, his economics. For while he has had some journalistic coups during his time as a columnist—most notably in recognising, long before most other commentators, that market manipulation played a role in the California energy crisis—perhaps the most striking thing about his writing these days is not its economic rigour but its political partisanship., a website that tracks partisanship among American political columnists, rates Mr Krugman second in the overall partisan slant of his columns, behind only Ann Coulter, a fiercely (and often incoherently) conservative polemicist. As the site documents exhaustively, the vast majority of Mr Krugman's columns feature attacks on Republicans; almost none criticise Democrats. Unsurprisingly, this has made him a sort of ivory-tower folk-hero of the American left—a thinking person's Michael Moore. But he may have even more readers among his ideological adversaries, particularly on the internet, where deconstructing his latest column is a kind of twice-weekly parlour game—albeit one so contentious it has spawned talk-show chatter and even legal threats.

He refers to these critics as his “stalkers”. Many of them spend an inordinate amount of time quibbling about minor semantic points, or trivial differences in statistics. But they cannot all be easily dismissed. The more reasonable ones allow that he is a gifted writer and economist, but also argue that these days his relentless partisanship is getting in the way of his argument. Is the American political and economic picture, they ask, really as one-sided as he paints it? And if not, should an economist of Mr Krugman's prominence be telling the public that it is?

A glance through his past columns reveals a growing tendency to attribute all the world's ills to George Bush. Regarding California's energy crisis, for example, he berated the Bush administration and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for not imposing price caps sooner—but found no room to mention Bill Clinton, who presided over a similarly inactive FERC for the first part of the crisis, nor to attack California's then Democratic governor Gray Davis for his disastrous refusal to allow consumer prices to rise. After Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, recently gave an anti-Semitic speech, Mr Krugman argued that the Bush administration's ham-fisted foreign policy had forced Dr Mahathir to make the remarks in order to shore up domestic political support—most unlikely, given that he was about to step down.

Even his economics is sometimes stretched. A recent piece accused conservatives of embracing the “lump of labour fallacy”, the mistaken claim that there is a fixed quantity of work which governments must strive to allocate equitably. In fact, the paper he cited did not commit the lump of labour fallacy. He used game theory to argue that, by criticising North Korea but not attacking it, and then going after Iraq instead, Mr Bush is “probably” encouraging North Korea to become a more dangerous nuclear power. This probably did not convince most game theorists. Overall, the effect is to give lay readers the illusion that Mr Krugman's perfectly respectable personal political beliefs can somehow be derived empirically from economic theory.

No such thing as a free lunch

Now that he is a journalist, it is perhaps not surprising that Mr Krugman seems to have embraced the concept of the free lunch—even though as an economist he should know better. Every opportunity (including lunch, and even including Mr Krugman's favoured policies) has a cost. Decision-making, not least in politics, tends to be hard because it involves trading off those costs and benefits, with the resulting net gains often marginal and uncertain. Surely one of an economist's main tasks is to remind one-handed politicians, and their constituents, that economic choices generally come in shades of grey, not black and white—even when they are made by one's political rivals.

Many of Mr Krugman's fellow economists, jealous of his celebrity, comfort themselves with the thought that his angry rants have hurt his reputation enough to ensure he will not now win a Nobel prize. They may be kidding themselves. The Nobel committee has not been averse in the past to giving the prize to economists who have achieved popular notoriety, as its awards to Mr Friedman and, more recently, Joseph Stiglitz show. Mr Krugman is probably still in the running.