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.

The case for mockery

Note: this is NOT an endorsement of mocking your political opponents. But Karl Smith has a post at Modeled Behavior from a few days back that I want to address. He writes:

Krugman mocks James Pethokoukis’s reply on business uncertainty and the recovery. I think that mocking is not the best strategy for getting people to give up even ridiculous positions. It raises the cost to them of admitting that they were wrong.

Its like your facing a wrath of zombie ideas and your solution is to tightenmonetary conversation policy. And, I should note that I believe Krugman is doing it for the same reason that people are pushing for tighter monetary policy – he is letting is moral sense get in the way of his practical sense.

People with bad ideas should be mocked. But, intellectual discourse is not a morality play. The goal is to increase understanding, whatever the source of misunderstanding is.

So, how should we be dealing with an idea like “Business uncertainty is the cause of the slow recovery?”

Well, we want to lower the cost to rejecting this idea and so we should divorce rejecting it from rejecting other ideas that people hold dear.

There’s good stuff in here, for sure. In particular, the last line really matters, perhaps in a way beyond Karl’s intention. Divorcing self-worth from the policy idea in question is a crucial part of changing anyone’s mind (as I mentioned in this Atlantic piece, and as Chris Mooney covers here.)

But to take a step back, I think Karl is missing the practical point of mockery. I think the point is not to change the mind of the opponent being mocked. The point is to discredit that person so that others – less stringent in their beliefs – feel pressure not to associate with them by sharing the belief.

Imagine you’re a business person generally open to the idea that regulatory uncertainty is holding back the recovery and you’re at a party where the subject is being discussed. You hold no strong view and so you didn’t start the conversation. But a Krugmanite, whom you know personally, is discussing the issue, taking one of the two potential tacts.

In the Karl Smith scenario, your Krugmanite acquaintance says something like “I’m not sure about this regulatory uncertainty thing. I just can’t see the case for it.”

In the Krugman scenario, the Krugmanite acquaintance says, “I just don’t believe the quacks on the right are still parroting that regulatory uncertainty argument. I mean, the economy is complicated, and heck if I know how to fix it, but these loons keep going back to that argument, despite zero evidence for it.”

It seems possible that in the first scenario, you the undecided business man remain somewhat sympathetic to the regulatory uncertainty argument. It was, after all, framed as being in the realm of debate at least. But in the latter scenario, presuming you have some measure of respect for – and desire to be liked by – your Krugmanite acquaintance, you feel compelled to dismiss it. You might disagree with that Krugmanite on many issues, but perhaps you accept his framing of the debate that the regulatory uncertainty argument is out of bounds.

I happen to think that Krugman, in his mockery, is thinking very practically. Maybe the model I’m describing in favor of mockery works and maybe it doesn’t. And, again, whether it’s justified is a separate question I won’t try to answer here. But I suspect this model is a better explanation for why Krugman and some others (Yglesias?) indulge in mockery of their opponents. The aim is to discredit a certain argument or group of arguers in order to more favorably frame the “legitimate” debate.

Ideology, pragmatism and sacred values

Ezra Klein had a post this week titled “Obama’s budget is policy, not ideology” that contained this bit:

Obama’s budget is not philosophy…it is the product of a negotiation process, as opposed to an opening bid. It is, in other words, policy. You could argue that this is a philosophy, and that philosophy is pragmatism, but I think that’s getting too cute. This is the sort of policy that night pass and might work.

Ryan’s budget is purer, but it is also more fantastical. It posits the government it wishes were possible, and the policies it wishes would work. It is an opening bid so ideological that it leaves little room for a process of negotiation.

Krugman took issue with this general framing (not just by Ezra) in a post titled “Everyone Has An Ideology.” His basic point:

But I’d also like to register a philosophical protest. There’s an old joke to the effect that you’re an ideologue; I’m just being sensible. The point is that everyone has an ideology — which is another way of saying that everyone has (a) values and (b) some view about how the world works. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

As a philosophical matter I believe Krugman is correct. There is no policy without ideology/philosophy. Yet Ezra offers a relevant distinction between ideology and policy: the former ignores the prospects of an idea becoming law while the latter takes that into account.

Ezra’s distinction is potentially useful, and shows that we tend to define “ideology” and “ideological” in ways other than its purely philosophical designation. I want to offer my own definition of “ideological” in the context of modern politics and then tie it back to a previous post on how we identify values in political arguments.

How I think about ideology in modern politics

To me, a person is “ideological” to the extent that they place value on government’s role in a certain sphere of policy, on one side or another. For instance, if you place value on government not involving itself in the provision of healthcare, that makes you ideological. It may still be that once the facts are considered, you end up supporting a role for government, but your starting point places initial value on finding a solution that doesn’t require government. Your scales for considering the issue come pre-weighted against government involvement.

Or take the issue of taxation. If you place strong value on private property, you might approach taxation with the scales pre-weighted against raising rates; arguments in favor of more taxation thus have a higher bar to overcome. These values are perfectly legitimate; but I call them “ideological” because they approach one of the major questions of modern American politics, the appropriate role and scope of government, as at least partially a question of values. (This can occur on both left and right, though I tend to think the right is more likely to apply values to this particular question.)

It is in that sense that I believe Obama is truly a pragmatist. On the question of the scope of government he is likely to ask “what does the government do well, and what does it do poorly, relative to our other goals”, whereas a more ideological figure would ask “does government do x well enough/poorly enough to overcome our presumptive value for/against its involvement in this sphere”.

Identifying ideology

So what’s the point of all this? I wrote a post a while back on Exposing sacred arguments that touched on something similar. As I wrote then:

I see the identification of sacredness as a crucial challenge in the public sphere, and therefore a crucial challenge within media.

I want to use the definition of ideology that I’ve laid out to give a semi-concrete example of what I mean. Let’s assume that when it comes to healthcare, Obama is a pragmatist in the sense I’ve discussed. He’s worried about welfare, equality, etc. but approaches the question of the role of government in healthcare pragmatically. But does Paul Ryan approach that question in the same manner? Or is it possible that when considering the appropriate role of government in healthcare, Ryan’s scale comes pre-weighted, perhaps even just slightly, against government involvement. Perhaps limited government is a “sacred value”, in a Haidtian sense, to him and to his supporters.

If so, that’s something we, the public, should know. So how do we find out? One way is simply to get the facts straight. If we weigh the arguments on the unweighted scale, find the argument for government involvement compelling in that context, and then see Ryan still favoring less government, that might suggest the existence of a sacred value. So classic fact-checking and analysis can help us back into the identification of values.

But I wonder if we might also do some work on the opposite end, by identifying the values first. And I wonder whether that might help us back into our analysis of the issue. If we can identify up front that Ryan places inherent value on limited government (what I’m calling an ideological approach) then we can treat his arguments about the pragmatic merits a bit differently. Perhaps it means we are less likely to trust certain arguments of his. Perhaps we just bear in mind that in his view arguments against government involvement have a lower bar to clear. In any case, it’s something we want to know and something we may be able to use media to help uncover.