Paul Krugman, erstwhile historian?

Photo of Paul Krugman and Robin Wells by Tina Barney

No kidding!  See Larissa McFarquar’s portrait of Krugman in The New Yorker:

Awesome!!!  It’s all so simple!  Never mind why only certain people were enslaved, and others weren’t; never mind how slavery made ideological sense as well as economic sense to the architects of slavery; never mind what the lives and deaths of the enslaved were like; never mind how masters maintained their dominance even in the face of a massive enslaved majority of people.  It’s all just so much simpler when you look at it as an economist!  You know that old joke about economists:  “Sure it works in reality, but will it work in theory?” 

The paragraph above, about mid-way through the article, helps explain Krugman’s description of his political quiescence through the 1980s and 1990s:

Are there any historians who don’t think that ideology and politics drive economic policy?

Don’t get me wrong–Krugman’s an extremely smart person, and I’m glad he’s an economist because if he had become a historian, no one would have listened to him in the first place (like the rest of us Cassandras!  Plus, there is no such thing as a Nobel Prize in History.)  The historians who become well known in the U.S. are those who, for the most part, peddle charming myths about the Founding Fathers or other Great Men.  Their work conforms closely (if dully, in my view) to a jingoistic Whig narrative that’s designed to reassure Americans that they live in the Greatest Country the World Has Ever Known.  So, it’s interesting to hear that Krugman thought that the problem with history was its complexity, compared to economics.  (But then again, I’m sure his history professors at Yale in the early 1970s were assigning histories that were more challenging than your average trade bio of a Great American.)

Go read the whole article–and see Krugman’s take on the 2008 Democratic primary (It “was terrible, it was awful.”  As they say on other blogs–“trigger warning!”)

0 thoughts on “Paul Krugman, erstwhile historian?

  1. Are there any historians who don’t think that ideology and politics drive economic policy?

    Maybe not any more, but there’s a line someplace in Hobsbawm repudiating the idea that “economics is a ventriloquist with history as its dummy.” From the context, I think he made that explicit in order to distinguish his viewpoint from what was once a (self-described) Marxian version that tried to draw a line between “superstructural” events in ideology and politics and their “basis” in economics. So maybe MacFarquhar’s surprised that a Left-wing economist doesn’t match her preconception of how a Marxist would think?


  2. He was critical chiefly because, of the three main candidates, Obama seemed to him the most conservative (his health plan, for instance, didn’t mandate universal coverage), but it wasn’t just his policies that Krugman objected to. He couldn’t stand all the feel-good stuff about hope and dialogue and reconciliation. He hated that Obama was out there saying nice things about Reagan when what Democrats needed to do most was debunk the persistent myth that Reaganomics had been good for America. He thought Obama was completely wrong to believe that the country’s problems were due largely to partisan nastiness, and ridiculously naïve to imagine that he could bring together Republicans and insurance companies to reform health care. “Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world,” he wrote in 2007. Krugman supported John Edwards, for his emphasis on poverty, for his ambitious health-care plan, and for his rough talk about attacking the interests of the wealthy. After Edwards dropped out, he supported Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t as left as Edwards was, but at least she was a fighter, and she obviously had no illusions about bipartisan harmony.

    I think Paul managed to become a Cassandra regardless of whether he was a historian or not. 😉


  3. RKMK–yes, indeed. But, because for so long he was just an apolitical economist, he became an Important Person who managed to get a national platform (in the Times) and access into the corridors of power before he went all Cassandra on them. I guess the lesson is just to be a careerist and ignore politics for 20 years. If only I had known!

    (And even now, people use his views selectively.)


  4. I raised an eyebrow at this too. Bear in mind, though, that we’re hearing this account of Krugman’s formation at second hand. I doubt the Shrill One himself would put forth this account of slavery as fully satisfactory. Journalism, even (or maybe particularly) at the New Yorker, has a fierce drive toward intellectual closure, giving you at all costs the feeling of ends being tied up tidily.


  5. Vance–great point. I was just struck by the concept that history = complexity and economics = simplicity and simplicity = good, especially when I don’t think most people are in fact very acquainted with the complexities of history.

    Many New Yorker readers may read a history book or two per year, but I’m betting they’re more of the Doris Kerns Goodwin/David McCullough school (i.e. NON-complexity.) You’re right about the “just so” stories that are the House Style of the mag. Call it the Adam Gopnick syndrome: wrap it all up neatly, preferably with a fey anecdote about your preschool children.


  6. Oh Boy! I can’t wait until the new yorker shows up in the mailbox this week! I like Krugman. He has a couple of gigantic cats and sometimes his columns are pretty interesting too.

    His 20 years of apolitical silence kind of mirrors economics as a whole. A friend of mine once said, “Economics is the most under-theorized discipline in the academy.” I am pretty sure that most economists from the last thirty years, except a few diehards on the left (Marxists) and right (Friedmanites), just assumed that there was no connection between politics and economics. As a discipline, economics is all about the sweet-sweet numbers and proving the model. Which can lead to some pretty epistemologically empty work lacking in any kind of self-reflection.

    Of course the Humanities went the other way for a while, where nothing made it into print without a lot of overly self-reflective navel gazing about how your own political subjectivity underpins your linguistic analysis of Albanian goat herder songs of the nineteenth century. That said, some of the best history, came from social history in the 1970s and 1980s when people had a clear political stake in their work as well as a commitment to the norms and standards of the discipline.


  7. Krugman’s own journalism shows it’s possible to write well-formed, lucid prose pieces that aren’t semantically closed — that acknowledge the existence of facts outside their own margins, and even acknowledge other writers. Of course, he’s made his career in a competitive academic environment not known for its rhetorical embrace of complexity, so it wouldn’t surprise me if, given a sympathetic listener, he might indulge in simplistic talk.


  8. The part about “simplicity is good” doesn’t mesh too well with the part about “[hard to] find things to say.” The Republicans he declined to rebut back in the day never had trouble finding things to say because they just said the same thing, a practice emanating from having everything refined down to a three-bullet crib sheet. I’m sure the “simplicity” Krugman would admit to being entranced with would have more to do with the mathematical concept of “elegance” in an equation or an explanation than with the kind of mono-maniacal sensibility that reduces everything to “small government,” or “tax and spend.” But still. The new social history of the early 1970s very much interwove with, sometimes competing and sometimes absorbing, the notion of social science history, in which the absorption with “powerful theories” that could be pretty elegantly simplictic was profound. And policy was presumed to follow from that. The rest of us just attacked the Albanian goatherd conundrum by counting goats per herder and correlating all that with the price of grain in Venice. No muss, no fuss, nobody left on base.


  9. Thinking that ideology and politics drive economic policy is as useful as stating that the earth is not plat. The real issue is the analytical tools and guidelines you derive from that fact.

    The post and the comments may leave the impression that knowledge is divided into distinct silos. Economics and history being two examples. I tend to see a overlap and collaboration between knowledge perspectives. That’s also the crux of the rationale for interdisciplinary research many of us are involved with.

    And I read Krugman often and also supported Edwards then Hillary and only in the general I vote for Obama who I was always and still convinced is a dud


  10. koshem bos: “Thinking that ideology and politics drive economic policy is as useful as stating that the earth is not [f]lat.”

    Agreed–it’s a starting point, not an ending point. My point was just that historians know that the “invisible hand” is tied to some pretty damned visible bodies and brains–something that economists don’t seem to realize. Later in the article, there’s an interesting discussion (to me, anyway) of micro versus macro economics, and how the macro people tend to have more tolerance for data and information that doesn’t fit neatly into mathematical formulas, whereas the microeconomists are very uncomfortable with anything they can’t theorize cleanly.

    I don’t want this to be a thread on bashing economists–I feel like my post was maybe leaning in that direction, and some of my comments here may too. (Then again, this blog usually mocks out more historians than anyone–save politicians, that is!)


  11. Thanks for the link. I haven’t read the whole piece yet, but the excerpt about history strikes me as valid when placed in the context of him (or a journalist) seeking to impose a narrative on his personal and intellectual evolution. I think it is annoying that the pronouncements aren’t contextualized more strongly as his perceptions in an attempt to explain his choices, but I imagine many of us would not think much before making similar statements about various disciplines when asked why we chose to concentrate on ‘this’ instead of ‘that’. A moment of intellectual laziness, perhaps, but not much more.

    While I shrug at his saying it, I appreciate the push a post like this provides to think about something critically that I probably would have just glossed over (not being an historian or an economist).

    You have a fantastic blog, by the way. I found you through my husband, and find that I am frequently compelled to share your posts with others.


  12. There’s incredible space pressure in magazines like the New Yorker. Even a featured writer like McFarquar has to fight for every sentence. Accordingly, as has been said above, there’s a natural tendency to make neat stories–especially on areas, like PK’s youth, that will interest readers less than recent times. I did think she brought out very well PK’s belief that there is contingency in the world. I’ve been on committees with any number of brilliant economists who had no room for that thought in their cosmoses.


  13. I would think that choosing the course that offers the simplest explanations isn’t necessarily the best idea, but that might be my history background showing. As a professor of mine once said, “one thing you can usually bet on is that things are more complicated than you think.”

    I have to say, though, that I don’t really understand the near-compulsion among many professional historians (and students of history) to attack the more traditional type of history that focuses on influential individuals and major political and military events. I first got fascinated by history by reading the traditional narrative/biographical style of history, and I still love reading some of the very old school historians like Edward Gibbon and Francis Parkman. It’s still fascinating stuff for me, as long as one always keeps in mind the biases of the author and realizes that it is far from the whole story. There’s something about history as a real narrative story that just draws in my interest in a way that the more analytical, theoretical, or statistical style of modern writing doesn’t, even though I know that the modern approaches reveal all sorts of things that the traditional approach ignored. In any case, it was a bit of an unpleasant surprise in grad school to see that at least half of the professors and students seemed actively hostile to the kind of history that I found most appealing. There seems to be a sort of zero-sum attitude, like if someone wants to study history from the older political/military/diplomatic/biographical angle, that makes them more or less the enemy of someone who wants to study history from a social/cultural/race/gender angle.

    Sorry, bit of rant there, but it’s actually meant more as a question – why the hostility?


  14. Thanks for the link to the Nobel site — I hadn’t known til following it that there’s no Nobel Prize in Economics either. Only the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel,” set up in 1968.


  15. The bulk of Krugman’s _The Conscience of a Liberal_ is an explanation of twentieth-century political history realpolitik of shifting class, race, and geographical antagonisms. Krugman is both nuanced and straightforward in describing America’s political and economic history as a functions of these factors. I’m surprised that book hasn’t come up in this discussion or in the article.


  16. In the interest of “complicating” things (like a good historian) I think a little nuance is in order. When you say “economist” I think you are referring to “mainstream neoclassical economist” (of which Krugman is one and which dominates the discipline–both micro and macro). There are other varieties of economists (institutional, feminist, etc.) that are more to the liking of us historians.

    Likewise the term “simplicity” in econo-speak is closer to “elegant” than to “easy” (since the econometric models that are their bread and butter are anything but). It’s a bias in favor of models–attempting to explain human phenomena in mathematical terms patterned after physics–that has driven neoclassical economics since the late nineteenth century. Phil Mirowski (an economist) has elegantly laid out this history in _More Heat than Light_…in all its complexity!


  17. Tom–thanks for the clarification. Economists are very varied, but as you note, the discipline is dominated by those who believe that the Market is God. And Geoff: I’ve never read Krugman’s book, but that’s my impression of his political writing in the Times. He shows that he’s very attuned to recent American history and that he has a sophisticated understanding of how power works–not unlike most good historians.

    Paul asks “why the hostility?” I think my hostility comes from the fact that these “marquee” historians engage in bad behavior, publicly and in their research, and there are never any consequences for it. Goodwin is an admitted plagiarist, Joseph Ellis is a fabulist, and David McCullough pretended like he had discovered Abigail Adams as a fascinating historical subject when his John Adams book came out. It’s a free country–they can write whatever they write with whatever level of integrity they’re comfortable with, but I’m not obliged to respect them the way I respect historians who do the difficult spadework of uncovering and analyzing new knowledge, instead of publishing simplistic and filiopietistic bios of “celebrity” Americans.

    I think it’s totally unfair to lump Parkman and Gibbons in with the teevee historians listed above, BTW. It’s the celebrity biographers I was referencing–although my analysis of the wars between New England, New France, and Northeastern Indian country differs widely, to say the least, I absolutely respect the amazing amounts of research Parkman did in four nations (at least), and the copious research notes he left in the Massachusetts Historical Society as a gift to historians like me. (See–that’s the kind of acknowledgement of debt to a previous historian that never seemed to occur to McCullough while he flogged his bio of Adams. Never once that I saw or heard did he ever acknowledge the mountains of feminist research on Adams, or the research and insights by people who publish in history journals or with university presses. But, I’m a classy person, so as much as I disagree with Parkman, I admire his achievements, I recommend his books, and I absolutely am indebted to him for leaving his transcriptions of documents from the Archives de la Marine in Paris at the MHS!)

    I’m not against the “grand narrative.” I’m against the lazy and the unethical.


  18. More on hostility: The other aspect of teevee celebrity historians that irks me is that these folks are largely what passes for public intellectuals in this country. While I have nothing against critical biographies of important figures, the reification of Great White DooDz of American History by these “public intellectuals” creates the view that this is a) still the “best” kind of history out there; and b) the “best” narrative of American history (ie one that neglects women, the poor, people of color, etc. as important historical actors). Both of these views further marginalize the efforts of real intellectuals seeking to create an accurate and full picture of American history (and on their failure to do so, see the ongoing and much-publicized debate re: Texas history texts and the complete contempt exhibited by the school board for those to whom they refer as “so-called experts).


  19. Right on, perpetua. What does it say about the teevee historians that there are so many ethical violations among them? Personally, I’d like to think that it’s a recognition that even they are bored by what they’re writing. (Thus, the plagiarism/farming out the research to others/lying in the classroom/etc.)


  20. Doesn’t a lot of the motivation of “teevee” historians boil down to money and exposure? One of the things that struck me in the coverage of Niall Ferguson’s little dalliances was how damned rich the guy is. He rakes in what, about 10 million pounds a year? And what’s his reputation in the historical community? Granted, I’m not familiar with his economic histories, which is where he first made a name for himself, but I know WWI scholars don’t think too much of his books on the conflict. They were incredibly popular, though (and profitable).

    There is a great, albeit very depressing, article in the latest Nation by Jon Wiener on how Big Tobacco has hired some 40 historians as expert witnesses to testify in their favor. One historian got half a million dollars for his trouble. And, of course, most of the research was farmed out to graduate students, at least some of whom were unaware of the true nature of their work.

    While I think there’s something wrong with selling oneself to the tobacco companies, there’s nothing wrong per se with writing popular history. When money and exposure are the motivating factors for doing so, however, it will lead many to abandon their ethical integrity and often to shoddy and simplistic history.


  21. @Historiann. There’s an even more fundamental reason to question McCullough’s lack of engagement with other scholars: it weakens his work, in fundamental ways. I remember reading Josh Marshall’s mini-review of _1776_ on Talking Points Memo (the erstwhile early Americanists taking a break from his political commentary duties). JMM wrote about how the book showed a depth of archival research and a strong narrative, yet also seemed to have a real ignorance of everything historians have written about the Revolution in the last two decades or so (a lot).

    Celebrity dood historians often make a big deal about how they aren’t just writing in dialog with other scholars, but for a general audience. But if they were paying more attention to other scholars, they would write better books. That’s what intellectuals should want to do! (Heck–why do you think I am reading all this other stuff? I want to learn more and do better work of my own!)

    But the money factor is a big deal (as Divad points out) and I think connected to the bad ethics as well. Put simply, there’s a lot more incentive to act badly when you’re getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for it. I remember when Stephen Ambrose was caught lifting a few pages from a book by Thomas Childers at Penn. I don’t believe the response went any further than “My bad. It was my research assistant’s fault.” I don’t believe there was any financial compensation (if there was, it was kept quiet). The $500 advance I got for my book didn’t tempt me to lift from anyone to tart it up a bit. But if it had been $500,000 would I have been tempted to “cut corners”? I’d like to say no, but cash is good to eat, as they say.


  22. Divad: I’ll have to check out that article at The Nation. (Jon Wiener’s columns are the only reason I ever miss my subscription!) Thanks for the tip. FYI, “Big Tobacco and the Historians” is available on line!

    I’m sure you are right, Divad and John S., about the influence of money. It’s just that it’s so foreign to my values that I find it hard to believe that people love money more than a good name and professional self-respect. (Well, maybe that’s unfair. They’re very good at what they do–it’s just that we’re in very different professions.)


  23. I’ll admit that I wasn’t even thinking about the ethics and scholarship of individual authors when I wondered about the hostility. I had assumed that you were expressing a hostility to the whole style of history that focuses on narratives, the most influential individuals, and political and military events – that’s why I brought up Parkman and Gibbon. I was all wrong about that.

    I still don’t think that the type of popular/biographical history written by McCullough, Goodwin, Ellis, etc., is necessarily in conflict with more inclusive social history, and I’ve never seen it as particularly “Whiggish” either. As far as I know, for all of their faults in scholarship, none of the “mass audience” historians claim that their subjects are more important than other fields of history – if anything, they seem to have been trying to make the point that the old subjects are still worth studying and should not be dismissed out of hand.

    (I apologize for the delayed response – this might be too late for anyone to look be looking at these comments.)


  24. Late to this post, but I was interested in your observation (accurate) that historians are usually influential only to the extent they help us celebrate our illusions about ourselves. You called it a “whig” sensibility. I just finished Daniel Walker Howe’s “What Hath God Wrought” about the US from 1815-46, and he spends a lot of time on Whigs as social critics of their country on issues ranging from slavery to women’s rights to treatment of Native Americans. Any thoughts on that? It seemed a little inconsistent, but my history BA is 20 years old and I’m just into it for fun now, so I’m curious to hear the professional take. Thanks! 🙂


  25. Pingback: Lessons of History « The Edge of the American West

  26. I know this is an old thread, but people in this thread have developed a serious misapprehension. He’s been writing about politics since the late 80s. His book on how much Reagan sucks, Age of Diminished Expectations, came out in 1990, long before he got the NYT gig (1999). Far from being an apolitical careerist, throughout the 90s he attacked many of the world’s leading economists (including Milton Friedman) for their right-wing ideas. Honestly, I think the only reason he got the NYT job was that he also attacked the Clinton administration’s flirtation with industrial policy (a la Japan), so they could imagine he was bipartisan.


  27. Pingback: Saturday round-up: Sunshine, Unicorns, and Tumbleweeds edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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