Friday, February 26, 2010

Krugman's Petulance Explained

A long New Yorker piece looks at Paul Krugman, and he clearly is one of those high functioning, socially obtuse nerds one meets all the time in quantitative fields. That is, he has some amount of Asperger's, which means he has trouble seeing things from other's perspectives. Thus, everyone who disagrees with him is 1) an idiot or 2) evil. He can't imagine it otherwise.


Anonymous said...

The New Yorker article brilliantly describes Krugman's arc.

He started as a diehard head-in-the-clouds economist completely unbothered by politics.

Later on he wrote books about economics for a popular audience, motivated partly by his irritation at those who confused politics and economics.

And eventually, some time after he received a NYT op-ed gig, he became a fierce partisan and a strong believer in the idea that politics matters.

Whether you agree with Krugman or not, it is laughable to sum him up as someone who just can't understand other points of view, given that his own point of view has noticeably shifted over time. There are plenty of economists who pine for the old "good Krugman," the guy who wrote a lot about economics and was somewhat liberal but really just didn't like politics.

There is also some irony in complaining about how X dismisses his opponents by thinking that they're either stupid or evil... and then using that to dismiss X. I mean, why stoop to calling your opponents stupid when you can just diagnose them with Asperbger's.

Unknown said...


Changing one's own viewpoint and being able to understand other's viewpoints are completely different. It's certainly possible to do one and not the other.

Anonymous said...

Robert Johnson,

The title of this post is "Krugman's Petulance Explained." Eric says that it is explained by Krugman's social obtuseness. I am saying that this explanation completely ignores Krugman's trajectory, which the New Yorker article covers in great detail.

To say that Krugman is strident about politics because of his personality is to ignore the fact that his early career was marked by a lack of stridency about politics.

And I guess I just thought the "Why does my opponent insist on thinking that I'm an idiot or a fool, when anyone with eyes can see that HE's an idiot or a fool" line of argument was pretty funny.

Jordan said...

While it's true that Krugman spouts a lot of nonsense, I am disappointed that this fine blog has degenerated to "ad hominem" attacks now.

J said...

Intelligent specialists (like Krugman) have little patience with dumb amateurs. After a while they tire of explaining once and again those "obvious" banalities. He is petulant, so what?

Eric Falkenstein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Falkenstein said...

Interesting comments. If someone says, 'you're stupid!', would you take exception? If someone says, 'you are evil', do you take exception? I do. I disagree with Krugman on most of the assumptions that matter. I try my best to be neither ignorant nor evil, but I'm sure I err on logic (rarely) or assumptions (less rarely).

So if someone calls me an idiot/devil, I don't think merely saying, 'you're wrong' is appropriate, I think saying exactly why you are wrong is. That this involves Krugman's obvious social ineptness, is not ad hominem, but rather a rational explanation as to why I'm not an idiot or evil, and this inference is from the article and my vast collection of anecdotes of people who have interacted with him.

He has a very high IQ, and is highly educated. He is also very unwise, partially because he's highly Aspergery (I am slightly Aspergery too, probably, to a lesser degree, though I probably have a lower IQ than Krugman—I wonder if there’s an explicit trade-off?). Anyway, it’s very Aspergery to think you are right and they are wrong. As Temple Grandin notes, such people can learn to overcome this inclination, but it is less natural than for non-Asperger people.

TheUnderWearBandit said...

I got the impression from the New Yorker article you link to that Krugman's vitriol is really coming from his wife.

He is a conduit for her frustrations. Academic, and asocial men like him, in my experience, are usually very deferential to their wife's opinion on matters of personal and political philosophy.

In laymen's terms, the dude is whipped.

Anonymous said...

Eric is right that his post is not an ad hominem. If someone argues that 2+2=4, and you respond that 'You just say that because you're a Catholic (Jew, Asian, girl...)' that's an ad hominem; i.e. you've failed to respond to the argument.

Personal criticism of someone is something entirely different.

Anonymous said...

If two people disagree about something that matters, you can either "agree to disagree" (i.e., the subject is hopelessly complex) or we must conclude that at least one of the two is either stupid or malicious.

"It's very Aspergery to think you are right and they are wrong." This is a great sentence, if you replace "Aspergery" with "human." Most people I know think that they are wrong and that their opponents are right, that's why arguments can get so heated.

I mean, who here really doesn't believe that they are right and that people who disagree with them are wrong? If anything smacks of Asperger's, it's thinking that this is unique to particular individuals.

Like your previous post on Sowell, this post boils down to "My side is humble and modest, while the other side is unrestrained, out-of-control, and lacking in decorum. When we wage war, we do so defensively, out of necessity, with heavy hearts and with great regret; they, on the other hand, are fierce savages filled with metaphysical certainty and no respect for other viewpoints." Primitive tribalism with fancy words.

Eric Falkenstein said...

I don't think my disagreement is symmetric. I think most of those who disagree with me on macro issues have good faith and are intelligent. I just think they are wrong. I contrast, I sense most liberals think people with my views are evil or stupid.

Anonymous said...

I prefer to keep it simple, and just say that Krugman is a raging a-hole.....

najdorf said...

I doubt anyone who's disagreeing with you about Krugman being a bit Aspy has read the article or even looked at any picture ever taken of Krugman (the one in the article is a gem). The guy is a nerd. That's ok, because usually people who aren't somewhat rigid nerds have a hard time applying any amount of rigor to difficult problem solving like econ. They just argue their preconceived notions or get swayed by those who seek to influence them for selfish or political reasons. But the downside is that he's going to argue with people he sees as less rational ALL THE TIME. I taught kids with Asperger's and have quite a bit of it running through my family, and there really is a difference between the amount that the average person thinks they're right and will argue with idiots vs. the amount that someone who is multiple SD to the right in intelligence, ridigity, and self-focused perspective will argue.

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AHWest said...

It's not social obtuseness that is Krugman's fundamental problem. He's an ivory tower thinker in economics, and an unquestioning Keyenesian, and his wife who edits his writing appears to be an angry leftist hippie who pushes him further into combative politics.
Krugman is now what he feared he would become, a hack like Lester Thurow, with more respectability due to a couple of questionable academic papers and a prize from long ago. Ten years ago Krugman used to anger me, now I'm totally indifferent to him - he preaches to his little dwindling choir among the NYT readers.

Jim Glass said...

You are on the money with PK.

"it is laughable to sum him up as someone who just can't understand other points of view"

"To say that Krugman is strident about politics because of his personality is to ignore the fact that his early career was marked by a lack of stridency about politics"

Krugman has always been "strident" about launching personal attacks on those with other points of view.

Say: Laura Tyson, Thurow, Stephen Jay Gould(!), Fraga, David/Arrow, the list is endless. His problem in those days was that taking shots at people like Tyson cost him jobs he wanted, and people like Fraga and Arrow shot back at him with live ammunition.

But once he became a newspaper writer about politics, wow!, opportunities became endless. And he never has to say he's sorry (as Fraga's lawyers made him do).

How Krugman's mind works is shown by the tale of an early Times columns. He wrote:

"the revenue that will be lost because of the Bush tax cuts ... would have been more than enough to 'top up' Social Security and Medicare, allowing them to operate without benefit cuts for the next 75 years."

When it was pointed out that his claim was wrong by a mere 14 digits dollar-wise, he never published a correction. Instead on his web page he ran through a cycle of excuses before settling on: he had been accused of dishonesty and his critics "owe me an abject apology. Hey, we can always fantasize".

What happened is that PK had read an abstract of a CBPP paper saying the tax cuts would have covered the Medicare Part A trust fund deficit, much the smaller part of Medicare. He didn't bother to read the whole paper so he didn't notice the limitation -- and rushed off to use it to bash evil lying Bush and the incompetent press.

When his mistake was pointed out, he took it that he'd been accused of lying, of evil -- so the evil doers who did such a bad thing owed him an apology!

Mistakes and differences of opinion don't happen in PK's world. If somebody makes a mistake it must be dishonesty. To point out a mistake is to accuse someone of dishonesty -- even if the mistake-maker was him! (In fact, especially then.)

Thus, no correction for a deca-trillion dollar mistake printed in the Times, only a demand for apologies from those who pointed it out.

"Intelligent specialists (like Krugman) have little patience with dumb amateurs".

False. Milton Friedman was famously engaging with dumb amateurs. I can point to Georgist "tax utopian" web sites on which he participated by sympathizing with their intents then politely explaining his differing opinion. Reaching the audience of average people -- really average, not already-part-of-the-partisan-choir people -- was important to him. And you do that with patience and tolerance.

"Intelligent specialists" have the same range of personalities as other people do.

Krugman is now what he feared he would become

The Slate Krugman:

"I do not think of myself as an all-purpose pundit.

"I remember once (during the air phase of the Gulf War) seeing John Kenneth Galbraith making pronouncements on TV about the military situation, and telling friends that if I ever start pontificating in public about a technical subject I don't understand, they should gag me. "

Although I think this was projection even then.