Monday, December 09, 2002

Sometimes a critic reveals more about himself than about the guy he's trhing to crtique. Take Daniel Drezner, for instance, who wants economists who criticize the Bush administration, in which he served for a bit, to stick to their knitting

The economist who has been most subject lately to Drezner's sort of critique ("sound on economics, shrill on politics") is Paul Krugman --- and despite a personal connection, Drezner doesn't stint. One recent post has been touted by Mickey "No Permalinks" Kaus as a "sophisticated exegesis" of Krugman's New York Times columns, perhaps because it uses words like "exegesis", at least in proclaiming itself to be one. As it happens, it's using the word wrong. An "exegesis" is a detailed examination of a text. But Drezner's soi-disant "exegesis" doesn't specifically cite the text of even one Krugman column. It dances around them, talking for instance about how Krugman's "production process" could lead to repetition and error, without deigning to mention any particular thing that Krugman has repeated too much, or citing any actual error. (You see, Krugman has to write often, and not always on the subject of his academic research, so quality must necessarily suffer. Strange complaint from somebody writing a blog).

The closest Drezner comes to actually engaging Krugman's text is to claim that

Krugman, along with many economists, has some serious blind spots in his political analyses. He's consistently shocked when politicians engage in strategic or opportunistic behavior. He's always stunned when leaders take actions that maximize their own power rather than benefiting the greater good. ...

Economists that focus on politics eventually begin to acknowledge these sorts of motivations. Krugman, however, seems perpetually befuddled when politicians act politically. Since his readers trend in the politically savvy direction, this failure to learn has become an ever-increasing handicap.

No evidence is offered, perhaps because the evidence, if examined, would cut the other way. Among Krugman's earliest popular writing was an entire book ("Peddling Prosperity") whose main thesis was precisely that politicians and their pseudo-academic suckups (collectively "policy entrepreneurs") advocate bogus policy nostrums for strategic and opportunistic reasons, generally to maximize their own power --- with examples from the Clinton administration, in power at the time, which had no cause to see him as a friend. Krugman may be disgusted by the way the process has worked itself out in the current administration, but he is certainly not surprised.

If Krugman sees anything shocking in the current administration, as opposed to the one which preceded it, it's not the presence of opportunism, but the total absence of principle. It's not as if Bill Clinton could ever be accused of paying too little attention to shifting political winds. But at least, when he was putting forward a serious policy proposal, he tried to make sure that the numbers would add up. That has never troubled the current regime; when Al Gore pointed out in the "fuzzy math" Presidential debate that Dubya's social security proposal only works if we pay the same trillion dollars to both current and future recipients, Dubya didn't seem to even understand the argument. It is this sort of chicanery that sees Krugman at his most savage, denouncing proponents of the Social Security plan as refugees from a Monty Python skit who can't handle grade-school arithmetic, or describing one particularly laughable gimmick in the Bush tax cut legislation as the "Throw Momma from the Train Act of 2001"

And Clinton did occasionally go against his political base when he thought the needs of the country truly demanded it. He defied his own union base by liberalizing trade policy, and in his first two years, more or less discarded the tax cut and stimulus package which he had campaigned on, because the Fed had convinced him that sound fiscal policy was more important. (Vicious Republican criticism of these moves, particularly the tax non-cut, was key to their gaining control of the House of Representatives). Compare that, as Krugman has more than once, to the current administration, whose trade policy is a collage of tariff benefits for its benefactors, and which has sold the surplus for a mess of pottage for plutocrats.

Drezner faults Krugman for repeating things, an apparent reference to Krugman's continual harping on these simple points. I say apparent, though, because he doesn't say which Krugman repetitions he finds so objectionable. His "exegesis" would be more worthy of the name if he would actually cite the repetitions that bother him. It would be better yet if he would say why he feels that consistent talking points in political commentary are a bad thing --- after all, repetition worked just swell for Newt Gingrich. (Drezner's Strunk and White reference would be on point if he were complaining about repetitive writing within a single column, but he's not). It would be a lot more interesting if he could make a decent case that Krugman's oft-repeated arguments aren't basically right.

In sum, Drezner's critique doesn't teach us much about Krugman. What have we learned about Drezner? He doesn't confront Krugman's arguments head-on; instead, he claims ex cathedra that they are unsound, and speculates on how they might have come to be that way, without having done anything at all to demonstrate that they actually are. He hasn't provided a real answer to Krugman, but if all you want is an excuse to ignore him, it'll serve.

Even that, though, apparently counts as serious work for Drezner. "Sociological exegeses", he imperiously declaims, "are exhausting". If it will be a little while before he can manage more of the same, I think the world can afford to wait.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

good analysis of Drezner's mo. I am writing an essay¨on his work and find he often attacks opponents with examples of giving references.
Will send to you when I've finished.

10:52 AM  

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