Is Paul Krugman the Left’s Milton Friedman and Should We Argue With Him?

krugman army

In response to my previous post on Paul Krugman I got two negative responses; they are the two negative responses I always get when I criticise Krugman.

One is from what I call the Krugtrons. These are the people who seem to hold Krugman up as a sort of infallible deity. They remind me of the libertarians who worship Ron Paul (Paulbots) or those on the left who adulate over Obama so much that they defend him on policy stances that would drive them crazy if a Republican were doing them (Obamanoids). The Krugtrons typically attack you personally, pick up on minor errors or engage in obfuscatory arguments to prove that either you’ve misunderstand the Words of the Krugman. It’s a bore but I’m used to it and I couldn’t really care less.

The other criticism is from those on the left who might actually agree that Krugman is wrong but nevertheless think that anti-austerians should have some sort of United Front against the austerity-brigade. This argument I’m far more partial toward even though I ultimately disagree with it. I disagree with it because I think that arguing against Krugman makes no difference to the politics of austerity. Indeed, no matter how many people agree or disagree with Krugman the politics of austerity will not change. Nor will Krugman himself with his columns in the New York Times change these policies (I’m not aware that Krugman has any policy influence, frankly).

No, I think that it is far more important for economists of the anti-austerity type to trash out their differences and have a real debate. I think its instructive to look to the figure of Milton Friedman in this regard as Friedman is the economist who, more than any other, changed the economic landscape from the center-left Neo-Keynesian orthodoxy of the post-war period to the center-right, neoliberal orthodoxy of the post-Bretton Woods era.

There are other parallels too. Friedman and his monetarism was, as I have written about before, the acceptable face of a far more radical program of economics; that is, the Austrian school of von Mises and von Hayek. Some might say that Krugman is the acceptable face of ideas — such as those about income distribution, private¬† debt and fiscal policy — that have long been the bastion of the heterodox Keynesian economists.

Krugman, however, is no Milton Friedman. And I say this for a number of reasons.

First of all, Krugman is not an innovator like Friedman was. Whatever you think of the doctrines of the monetarists — and I think very lowly of them — it was a whole new paradigm. The manner in which Friedman used the weaknesses of the old Neo-Keynesian orthodoxy against itself were quite ingenious. Krugman, by comparison, is nothing more than a tinkerer. He has no new paradigm that might capture peoples’ imaginations (I would argue that the only ones that possess this are the MMT economists).

Secondly, and more importantly for the criticisms I received for my piece, Krugman does not engage with those that largely agree with his policy stances but want a far more radical rethinking of economics; that is, Post-Keynesian economists. Friedman did engage with those who largely agreed with his policies but wanted a more radical rethinking of economics and he did this through the Mont Pelerin thought collective.

Milton Friedman was then a much more skilled leader-figure. He had a whole new paradigm that he flogged both in the popular press daily and to policymakers. While at the same time he formed a United Front at home not by exclusion, but by inclusion; by engaging others in debate (and probably profiting from this himself in many ways). Where Friedman was a naturally unifying figure, Krugman is a naturally divisive figure. By not acknowledging others who broadly agree with him he sows the seeds of frustration and discontent. And, at the end of the day, the whole thing becomes about Krugman himself rather than about the development of a new set of ideas.

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About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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4 Responses to Is Paul Krugman the Left’s Milton Friedman and Should We Argue With Him?

  1. Tom Hickey says:

    Milton Friedman was then a much more skilled leader-figure. He had a whole new paradigm that he flogged both in the popular press daily and to policymakers. While at the same time he formed a United Front at home not by exclusion, but by inclusion; by engaging others in debate (and probably profiting from this himself in many ways). Where Friedman was a naturally unifying figure, Krugman is a naturally divisive figure. By not acknowledging others who broadly agree with him he sows the seeds of frustration and discontent. And, at the end of the day, the whole thing becomes about Krugman himself rather than about the development of a new set of ideas.

    Phil, I think this cuts to the core of it. PK has no interest in being another Friedman or Hayek. He is not on fire with ideas to change the world, as they were, and even Keynes was to a degree owing to the role thrust upon him. But Friedman and Hayek were flogging a neoliberal agenda that they strongly believed in with religious fervor. MT and FH were out to convert people, while Keynes’s objective was to influence policymakers whose ear he had gained in order to avert disaster and make capitalism more user-friendly. PK is in that mold but without the intellectual stature of JMK. PK is useful in some ways and a drag in others. While he is pushing Keynes, Minsky, etc. he is essentially a neoclassical monetarist, e.g., in his commitment to IS-LM, hence, part of the opposition.

    Strategically, the usefulness of going after PK is it increases exposure of one’s own message. So well aimed hits may make tactical sense.

    • Again, no. Krugman is not a Keynes figure. Krugman has no new paradigm. Keynes did. Also, Keynes would engage with anyone in debate and promoted unusual ideas (like Sraffa’s) in his immediate circle.

      Krugman is a pretty mediocre guy with an ego by my reading. Not much more.

      • Tom Hickey says:

        Yes, I agree. I did not mean to imply otherwise in saying that PK is in the JMK mold rather than MF or HF. PK’s ideas are an inconsistent mish-mash of Keynesianism and neoclassical monetarism. As you say, he has no new paradigm. I suspect that he realizes this and knows that he is no MF, FH, or JMK.

        The neoliberal paradigm spearheaded by MF and HF in particular is now dominant and there is no contesting paradigm on the left philosophically, economically or policy-wise, and there is no effective counter on the left to the dominant neoliberal paradigm on the right other than the Libertarian one on the far right. The left is in disarray in the US and has no champion or compelling vision-narrative at present. So neoliberalism is running its course and threatens to morph in the Austrian-Libertarian direction.

    • Detroit Dan says:

      Tom– I enjoy your comments. However when using abbreviations, please be careful as they can be confusing. In this post you say “MT and FH…”. In another comment below, you say “MF or HF”. I think you’re talking about Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek in both cases, but it’s taking me too much time to figure this out…

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