Paul Krugman: Enemy of the Poor?

Paul Krugman: Enemy of the Poor? February 19, 2008

Ask your typical conservative what he thinks of Paul Krugman, and he’s likely to reply: “what a nut!” Krugman is best known among the general public for his op-eds in the New York Times, many of which contain a strident tone quite at odds with his mild mannered personal demeanor. But if you were to ask a conservative or libertarian economist about Krugman, the response is more likely to be: “what a waste!” Prior to starting his NYT’s column (or, at least, prior to the coming of the Bush administration) Krugman was widely regarded as one of his generation’s brightest and most creative economists (if admittedly a left-leaning one), and the view among at least some in the economics profession is that he has let partisanship and his hatred for Bush and the GOP cloud his judgment and/or compromise his intellectual integrity.

The latter criticism is taken up by Daniel Klein and Harika Barlett in the most recent issue of Econ Journal Watch. Klein and Barlett’s article is an examination of Krugman’s columns in the Times between 1997 and 2005, and purports to show that in these columns Krugman has placed his ideological commitments (i.e. advocacy for social democracy and collective action) above his concern for the poor. Approximately the first half of the article actually has little to do with Krugman himself, and instead is a reflection on the nature of social democracy, and why it is that some people prefer collective action not only as the most effective means of achieving particular social goals, but as an end in itself, and it’s only in the second half of the article that the critique of Krugman himself begins. According to Klein and Barlett, Krugman’s lack of concern for the poor can be seen not so much by the policies that he has advocated in his NYT column, but by the policies he hasn’t:

A comprehensive analysis of the 654 columns shows, however, that Krugman has really sided with liberalization only on the following issues: rent control (6/7/00); US agricultural subsidies (5/7/02); international trade (e.g., 3/8/02; 3/24/02; 6/11/02; 11/28/03); mildly on high-tech anti-trust enforcement including the Microsoft case (often arguing that the government just cannot do anythingto improve matters, e.g., 7/12/00; 10/22/00; 6/24/01; 7/1/01; 11/4/01); ethanol mandates and subsidies/tax breaks (6/25/00); NASA manned-space flight (it is only the manning of ships that he opposes; 2/4/03); [and] European labor-market restrictions (3/29/00; 5/3/00)….

Perhaps this is the soft bigotry of low expectations talking, but for a left-leaning columnist for the New York Times, that doesn’t seem too bad. In fact, his position on many of these issues is more pro-market than many so-called conservative politicians. Granted, Krugman’s columns on these issues are all at least several years old (and in recent years Krugman has shown a tendency to say things quite at odds with his previously expressed opinions). Still, if the charge is that Krugman has ignored advocating for policies that would help the poor because of his ideological commitment to social democracy, one wonders what specifically Klein and Barlett have in mind.

Actually, there is no need to wonder. According to Klein and Barlett:

Schooling, occupational licensing, and the FDA are just a few of the fat pitches that Krugman ignored. The number of missed opportunities to call for liberalization is practically endless. Why doesn’t Krugman give half a column to the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984, which kills many and prevents poor people (and non-poor people) from selling a kidney? Why doesn’t he protest restrictions on reproductive solutions and adoption services, which cause many couples to remain childless and unhappy? Why doesn’t he write about drug prohibition, which massively incarcerates poor people and spreads violence and disorder particularly in poor neighborhoods? Why doesn’t he protest, in addition to rent-control, other major housing and land-use restrictions that drive up housing costs? Why doesn’t he call for the liberalization of transit services including shuttle vans, express buses, taxis, and spontaneous ride-share systems, which would reduce costs, enhance mobility, and add rungs to the economic ladder?

Now I personally would favor most (but not all) of these interventions. I expect, however, that your average conservatives would meet many of them with a combination of incomprehension and horror (“school vouchers are okay, but legalized kidney sales?!”). More to the point, while the above listed policies may or not be good ideas, it seems to me that it would not be completely unreasonable to conclude that at least some of these policies would not significantly benefit the poor. I’m not an economist, so perhaps I’m just not aware of how overwhelming the economic case for these policies is, but if Krugman hasn’t advocated any of them, one has to leave open the possibility that he has not done so not because he is selling out the poor to his political ideology, but because he doesn’t think they actually would help the poor.

But Klein and Barlett aren’t done. It seems that Krugman’s biggest crime is not what he hasn’t said but a what he has:

In 2000 and 2001 Krugman favored immigration without much qualification: “I am one of those people who feel that immigration is a good thing—most of all for the immigrants, but good for America too” (5/23/01)… Krugman likened the anti-immigration movement to the ignorant anti-globalization movement and suggested that racism lies behind anti-immigration attitudes (5/23/01). Similarly, Krugman had earlier criticized anti-globalization activists and protectionists as “working against the interests of most of the world’s poor” (5/21/2000; 4/22/01).By March 2006, his view had changed: “the crucial divide isn’t between legal and illegal immigration; it’s between high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants. High-skilled immigrants—say, software engineers from South Asia—are, by any criterion I can think of, good for America. But the effects of low-skilled immigration are mixed at best” (3/31/06). He comes to the following policy conclusion: “Realistically, we’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants” (3/27/06).

At this point, many a conservative would be ready to simply throw up his hands in frustrated exasperation. I can almost hear them now: “These guys’ problem with Krugman is that he’s against low skilled immigration? That’s the one issue on which he’s said anything remotely sensible!” What can I say? Economists (particularly libertarian economists) have strange priorities, or at least their priorities can seem strange to the average layman. It just goes to show that the difference between libertarians and conservatives, even on economic issues, are wider than are often supposed.

If Klein and Barlett’s purpose in writing this piece was to convince me that Krugman is somehow a bad guy, then they failed in their goal. I actually ended up with a slightly higher opinion of the guy than I had before. I still think he’s wrong a lot, and that he sometimes lets his partisanship and anger get the better of him, but deep down he’s really just a pussycat.

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