Cowen vs. Krugman on pundits and the public sphere

The back and forth between Paul Krugman and the Marginal Revolution duo (plus the various responses from other corners of the wonkosphere) has been fascinating for many reasons. I want to highlight just one bit. Here’s Cowen:

The issue is not that Krugman changed his mind (I’ve done that plenty, Alex too).  The issue is that Krugman a) regularly demonizes his opponents, including those who hold Krugman’s old positions, and b) doesn’t work very hard to produce the strongest possible case against his arguments…

…Is it easy to imagine the current Krugman writing rich multi-voiced dialogues which extend both his points and those of his intellectual opponents?  Can you imagine the current Krugman writing something sufficiently multi-faceted that you might come away thinking — because of the piece itself — that the opposing point of view was the better one?

Krugman in his response:

Cowen apparently wants me to make the best case for the opposing side in policy debates. Since when has that been the rule? I’m trying to move policy in what I believe to be the right direction — and I will make the best honest case I can for moving in that direction.

Look, economic policy matters. It matters for real people who suffer real consequences when we get it wrong. If I believe that the doctrine of expansionary austerity is all wrong, or that the Ryan plan for Medicare would have disastrous effects, or whatever, then my duty, as I see it, is to make my case as best I honestly can — not put on a decorous show of civilized discussion that pretends that there aren’t hired guns posing as analysts, and spares the feelings of people who are not in danger of losing their jobs or their health care.

This is not a game.

Krugman is justifying himself through consequentialism. The results of his punditry matter; his only obligation is maximize his positive impact on the world. The intellectual standard to which he holds himself is to be judged on that basis. For what it’s worth, I’ve long suspected that this is how Krugman views his role. (I suggested as much at the end of this post.)

Moreover, as a consequentialist myself, I find this reasoning compelling. Or at least I think this is the right way to judge the issue. As for Cowen’s reasoning, you could defend it either by rejecting Krugman’s model, or by affirming it and arguing within it. The former would be some sort of principled/idealistic/rationalist view, which simply rejects consequentialism and affirms certain intellectual standards for public debate. The latter would embrace consequentialism but argue that in the long-term (or I suppose even in the short term though I think this would be a harder case to make) the best consequences arise in a world where the public sphere operates at a high level of intellectual honesty.

I’m fascinated by this debate because I don’t see it as obvious either way. My view is that most likely we do need both of these elements in a healthy public sphere – truly rigorous intellectual discourse AND punditry that explicitly seeks to maximize its impact on the public (still held to more basic standards of honesty) – but saying that both are necessary doesn’t answer the question of how Krugman should behave.

All I can say is that as a reader I’m more interested in the Cowen model. And it’s worth bearing in mind when you read Krugman that he’s thinking seriously about how to convince you, not just about serving up the best arguments. He may even be justified in doing so, but if you’re looking only for the best and most honest information, you may be better served reading elsewhere.

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