April 28, 2011

Aspie Economists

Here's a long article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells on Paul Krugman's personality, such as it is. Economists have been called "worldly philosophers," but a lot of them come across as being awfully out of touch. For example, this article uses Krugman's long relationship with Larry Summers to help explain Krugman. By contrast to Krugman, when it comes to being a people person, Summers is practically Oprah. Yet, Summers was a notorious failure in the fairly easy job of being president of Harvard. 

Wallace-Wells does do a good job of zeroing in on Krugman's best piece of writing:
Back in 2006, when he was writing The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman found himself searching for a way to describe his own political Eden, his vision of America before the Fall. He knew the moment that he wanted to describe: the fifties and early sixties, when prosperity was not only broad but broadly shared. Wells, looking over a draft, thought his account was too numerical, too cold. She suggested that he describe his own childhood, in the ­middle-class suburb of Merrick, Long Island. And so Krugman began writing with an almost choking nostalgia, the sort of feeling that he usually despises: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history …” 
Krugman remembers Merrick in these terms, as a place that provoked in him “amazingly little alienation.” “All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.” The Krugmans lived in a less lush part of Merrick, full of small ranch ­houses each containing the promise of social ascent. “I remember there was often a typical conversational thing about how well the plumbers—basically the unionized blue-collar occupations—were doing, as opposed to white-collar middle managers like my father.”

This starting point, which is awfully similar to where I'm coming from (see my post above about Mildred Pierce's L.A., in which Benjamin Schwarz eloquently describes our shared appreciation of the Paradise for the Common Man), potentially opened up for Krugman the opportunity to develop a more wide ranging critique of What Went Wrong. Was it merely tax cuts? At times, he's dipped his toe in the heretical possibility that, say, massive immigration wasn't wholly an unmixed blessing to somebody with his vision of the Good Society, only to quickly run back up on the beach.

Now, obviously, even Paul Krugman is under a lot of career pressures to Not Talk About Unpleasant Topics. But, Wallace-Wells could have pointed out the important effects of Mrs. Krugman, a blue-eyed, long-haired woman who strongly self-identifies as black, has had on keeping Mr. Krugman on the politically correct straight and narrow, and pushing him toward his present view that racism is the root of all Republican evil. There was a period in the 1990s, when Krugman appeared to be developing in an interesting direction intellectually (here's his excellent attack on Stephen Jay Gould). But the advent of Mrs. K. seems to have coincided with putting the kibosh on his tendencies toward crimethink.

27 comments:

Tino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ADM said...

"Yet, Summers was a notorious failure in the fairly easy job of being president of Harvard."

He forgot the golden rule.

"Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut."

He had the temerity to say Cornel West is a lazy punkass fraud and that sexual differences may account for lower female achievement in math and science.

Tino said...

Steve as you have figured out, Krugman almost certainly has Asperger Syndrome.

For instance, in MIT he generally didn't look people in the eye, and didn't necessarily respond when talked to.

Ray Sawhill said...

It'd be fun to make up a list of well-known economists who are known or suspected to be Aspies. They aren't rare. What is it about econ that attracts so many Apies?

The Anti-Gnostic said...

Well first, he's Aspie. Two, he's under the strain of cognitive dissonance like any intelligent Keynesian. After all, they're smart enough to realize that if, for example, the US were to follow their advice we'd end up flat broke. Right? Okay, moving along. In the third place, he's, ahem, -whipped.

FWIW, here's what one of your commenters said about Paul once.

I'm not saying this is worth anything, but since HBD is often a topic of this blog, I'd like to tell you what my woman's reaction to Krugman was the first time I ever saw him/listened to him on television and what my reaction has been each time since:

He's wussy, wimpy, sissy, easily frightened by alpha males who appear on panels with him, can't look people in the eyes--his dart around constantly.

His body language says he's sneaky too. In short--not the kind of man I put my faith in, not even a faith in any intellect.

Dutch Boy said...

The 1950s were the time when the largest percentage of men in this country were making a living wage (one you could raise a family on). Those of us alive then do well to mourn the passing of that era. Economists would do well to consider the guilt they bear for helping to undo the economic prosperity of the time with their wacky theories.

Formerly.JP98 said...

In all the possible explanations I've read of Krugman's particular brand of frothiness, I've never heard anyone point out that his wife is (sort of) black. Certain things suddenly make a whole lot more sense.

ricpic said...

If the bourgeois paradise of the fifties so appealed to Krugman why has he spent his life a member of the relentless rat pack attack on it? I'll tell you why: modern intellectuals are the present day equivalent of the priest class. They hunger for some great overarching meaning: the one thing that bourgeois society - which provides so well for a decent life economically - does not provide. An unforgivable lack in the eyes of those, like Krugman, who must have, who in fact are lost without an "explanation." So they proceed to systematically destroy the decent life and the decent world in pursuit of a...chimera.

pat said...

I'm currently reading "The Myth of the Rational Voter" by Bryan Caplan. In it he devotes a lot of paper to the the systematic differences between professional economists and the general public on a variety of economic issues.

He uses "The Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy" (SAEE).

Question #4 is: "There are too many immigrants."

Of all the questions asked this one has perhaps the largest divergence between the expert and the layman. So perhaps Krugman is not exhibiting Asperger's but merely the conventional opinion of his profession.

Caplan dismisses the public fear of immigration as part of a pattern of irrational fear of foreigners. He points out that having an uneducated Mexican maid frees up the educated US woman to produce more in the workforce.

I have become sensitive to economic ignorance lately because Bill O'Reilly once again is blaming gas price rises on evil speculators. The guy should really cut back on the stupid pills.

In general I agree with Caplan - the public is deeply and systematically ignorant about economics, but I also think that economists themselves can be quite provincial about biological differences among populations. Just as fundamentalists ignored and opposed automobiles because they were not mentioned in the Bible, economists ignore and oppose race because it wasn't mentioned in Smith and Riccardo.

Sometimes things are right there in front of you. When I was in Drumheller looking for dinosaurs, the guide took us out in the field but we saw no fossils. Then he told us to bend at the waist and then to get down on our knees. We were standing on fossil bones and shells. They were everywhere. This was Jack Horner's great insight. The egg shell fossils weren't missing - you just couldn't see them standing up. Look properly and they are there - everywhere.

Similarly economists who carefully adjust the market basket for quality improvements ignore quality differences among peoples. Like paleontologists before Horner - they don't see what's all around them.

Albertosaurus

Tino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luke Lea said...

"What is it about econ that attracts so many Apies?"

Numbers. They think it is all about numbers.

Anonymous said...

What is it about econ that attracts so many Apies?

Economics promises to take all that scary, unpredictable human behavior and make it as soothing and predictable as a Newtonian trajectory.

eh said...

Yet, Summers was a notorious failure in the fairly easy job of being president of Harvard.

Mr Sailer,

I see others have seized on this, however a couple of questions:

1) Why do you believe he was a "failure" at being president of Harvard? (Of course I know about 'the incident', but I think that should not be enough to label him a failure.)

2) On what basis have you concluded that being president of Harvard is "easy"? (Although I can imagine it is not 'rocket science' difficult.)

Dave said...

"2) On what basis have you concluded that being president of Harvard is "easy"? (Although I can imagine it is not 'rocket science' difficult.)"

The main job of a university president (besides being the public face of the school) is fund raising. Since rich folks throw their money at Harvard (despite Harvard having the largest endowment of any school already), it follows that being president of the school should be an easy gig.

Anonymous said...

Steve, the basic fact is that economists just aren't very sophistacted as thinkers and just parrot the party line all the time.
One the party line has been junked (because it was proven to be a failure due to massive economic dislocation), they will gradually in time parrot a different party line, but generally they are only 'wise' in hindsight.
Where are all the people who praised marxism and soviet central planning to the sky in the 1960s?
'Criminologists' and 'sociologists' are just the same incessantly parrot their pet theories, call everyone else stpid, until the time when they are found out.Then they go quite for a few years and parrot the diammetrically opposed line with just as much vehemance, but shamelessly to boot.
Open borders and 'free trade' happen to be the shouted mantras of today - the magic solution to all our problems.

corvinus said...

But, Wallace-Wells could have pointed out the important effects of Mrs. Krugman, a blue-eyed, long-haired woman who strongly self-identifies as black, has had on keeping Mr. Krugman on the politically correct straight and narrow, and pushing him toward his present view that racism is the root of all Republican evil. There was a period in the 1990s, when Krugman appeared to be developing in an interesting direction intellectually (here's his excellent attack on Stephen Jay Gould). But the advent of Mrs. K. seems to have coincided with putting the kibosh on his tendencies toward crimethink.

Spot on. Being hitched to a black harpy would definitely do it. Especially if he has a strong emotional bond to her.

B.O., of course, is hitched to a black harpy too, but that had less of an effect because B.O. is leftist himself. It's cases like Krugman's that are more entertaining, where the new S.O. causes the man to drift more toward her way of thinking.

Crawfurdmuir said...

Economists like to believe that economics is a science, but as an intellectual discipline it is at about the same point that astronomy was before it became completely disentangled from astrology, or where chemistry was before it abandoned the notions of transmutatory alchemy.

The analytical part of economics, which explains how markets work, how supply and demand set prices, the function of money and banking, and other such matters, contains nothing which is beyond the ken of any reasonably perceptive small businessman or community banker - nor does a command of this knowledge suffice to make one a celebrity economist like Paul Krugman.

But the predictive part of economics is quite another proposition. Everyone hangs on the word of its practitioners. Unfortunately, it has often demonstrated itself to be as wildly inaccurate as astrology. Economic advisers relying on the theories of macroeconomics have proven as ill-equipped to replenish modern public treasuries as seventeenth-century alchemists were to fill up the coffers of their princely patrons.

Most high-profile economists today occupy a role in society comparable to that of astrologers and alchemists, rather than astronomers and chemists. When we think of the prominent astrologers and alchemists of four or five centuries ago - Nostradamus, John Dee, Paracelsus, and their ilk - what strikes us is that they were very odd people indeed. Why should it be any less so today with people who purport to be able to foretell the future and to bring about prosperity by means of their hieratic knowledge?

MQ said...

If the bourgeois paradise of the fifties so appealed to Krugman why has he spent his life a member of the relentless rat pack attack on it?

This is not true at all -- I'm guessing you know almost nothing of Krugman's work.

Anonymous said...

Tyler Cowen has certain aspie mannerisms as well. For example he speaks in a monotone.

Anonymous said...

Caplan dismisses the public fear of immigration as part of a pattern of irrational fear of foreigners. He points out that having an uneducated Mexican maid frees up the educated US woman to produce more in the workforce.

The educated US woman was not working as a maid to begin with.

In this as in so much else, libertarians display their obsession with arguing from first principles - from their first principles. The fact that the real world bears almost no resemblance to their theoretical one never seems to bother them in the slightest.

Anonymous said...

Found out everything I needed to know about Krugman in an article I read about him once. He said as a teenager he fell in love with Asimov's Foundation books, with their emphasis on the predictability of human nature. A proto-leftist in love with the idea of being able to control whole societies, what a shocker. This means however that unlike some lefties like Howard Zinn who seemingly hates everyone with power, Krugman is the type whose main objection to power holders is that they don't think like he does and/or they didn't make him a member of the club. In this regard, he is very like his hero, John M. Keynes.

SFG said...

I've always seen economics as the modern equivalent of medieval Christianity: rather than telling everyone the current social order is ordained by God, they cite the efficient markets hypothesis and the invisible hand.

Anonymous said...

He points out that having an uneducated Mexican maid frees up the educated US woman to produce more in the workforce.

And then the uneducated Mexican maid gets the right to vote and votes for policies that take money and property away from the educated US woman. . .

Anonymous said...

" Wallace-Wells could have pointed out the important effects of Mrs. Krugman, a blue-eyed, long-haired woman who strongly self-identifies as black, has had on keeping Mr. Krugman on the politically correct straight and narrow, and pushing him toward his present view that racism is the root of all Republican evil. "

Is this an indication that Krugman is of Polish descent since his relative earning power as the typical economist type who doesn't benefit financially from his greater knowledge of how the economy works would preclude him from being targeted by gold diggers?

Anonymous said...

'Employing a maid frees up an educated woman'.

I wish 'economists' would stop arguing from anecdotes (silly, contrived and improbable anecdotes at that), and would start arguing from facts and axioms.
Basically, the fact is that GDP per capita is a function of productivity per capita.Adding low productivity workers does nothing to increase productivity per capita - anecdotes about JAPs and maids not withstanding.

Vain Saints said...

"Overarching meaning?"

If you want to understand Krugman, google the words "Krugman" and "Enron" and don't forget to write.

Miguel Madeira said...

By the article, seems more Schizoid Personality Disorder than Asperger's.