||Economic Culture Wars
For reasons explained below, the editor dares not
add a subtitle to this article.
By Paul Krugman
posted Thursday, Oct. 24; to be composted Thursday, Oct. 31)
writer Bob Kuttner devotes an essay
in the American
Prospect, a journal he edits, to an attack on my writings in
SLATE and elsewhere. Don't worry,
I won't respond here to that attack. If you're interested, you can read
my response in the November-December issue of Kuttner's journal.
What I would like to discuss is what I think is the true reason people
like myself and Kuttner--who also writes columns for Business Week
and the Boston Globe--have so much trouble getting along. We are
both, after all, liberals. I have even written for the American Prospect.
It is not, I claim, really a political issue in the normal sense. What
we are really fighting about is a matter of epistemology, of how one perceives
and understands the world.
If you try to follow arguments about
economics among intellectuals whose politics are more or less left-of-center,
you gradually become aware that the participants in these arguments are
divided not only by particular issues--deficit reduction, NAFTA, and so
on--but by the whole way that they think about the economy. On one side
there are those whose views are informed by academic economics, the kind
of stuff that is taught in textbooks. On the other there are people like
Kuttner, Jeff Faux of the Economic
Policy Institute, and Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Some members
of this faction have held university appointments. But most of them lack
academic credentials and, more important, they are basically hostile to
the kind of economics on which such credentials are based.
the anti-academic faction does not draw its ideas from textbook economics,
however, where does its worldview come from? Well, here's a story that
may sound trivial but which I regard as revealing. Back in 1992, I supplied
the American Prospect with an article on the problem
of growing income inequality. In the published piece, the editor,
Kuttner, improved on my drab title, but also added a dreadful subtitle:
"The Rich, the Right, and the Facts: Deconstructing the Income Distribution
Deconstructing? Why on earth
would anyone not a member of the Modern Language Association want to use
an academic buzzword that has been the butt of so many jokes? (What do
you get when you cross a Mafioso and a deconstructionist? Someone who makes
you an offer you can't understand.) How could the cause of liberal revival
be served by making me sound like a character out of a David Lodge satire?
strong desire to make economics less like a science and more like literary
criticism is a surprisingly common attribute of anti-academic writers on
the subject. For example, in a recent collection of essays (Foundations
of Research in Economics: How do Economists do Economics?, edited by
Steven G. Medema and Warren Samuels),
James K. Galbraith, a constant critic of the profession (and a frequent
contributor to the American Prospect), urges economists to emulate
"vibrant humanities faculties" in which "departments develop
viciously opinionated, inbred, sometimes bitter and tyrannical but definitely
exciting intellectual climates." Economics, in short, would be a better
field if the MIT economics department were more like the Yale English department
during its deconstructionist heyday.
Academic economics, the stuff that
is in the textbooks, is largely based on mathematical reasoning. I hope
you think that I am an acceptable writer, but when it comes to economics
I speak English as a second language: I think in equations and diagrams,
then translate. The opponents of mainstream economics dislike people like
me not so much for our conclusions as for our style: They want economics
to be what it once was, a field that was comfortable for the basically
should sound familiar. More than 40 years ago, the scientist-turned-novelist
C.P. Snow wrote his famous essay about the war between the "two cultures,"
between the essentially literary sensibility that we expect of a card-carrying
intellectual and the scientific/mathematical outlook that is arguably the
true glory of our civilization. That war goes on; and economics is on the
front line. Or to be more precise, it is territory that the literati definitively
lost to the nerds only about 30 years ago--and they want it back.
That is what explains the lit-crit
style so oddly favored by the leftist critics of mainstream economics.
Kuttner and Galbraith know that the quantitative, algebraic reasoning that
lies behind modern economics is very difficult to challenge on its own
ground. To oppose it they must invoke alternative standards of intellectual
authority and legitimacy. In effect, they are saying, "You have Paul
Samuelson on your team? Well, we've got Jacques Derrida on ours."
similar situation exists in other fields. Consider, for example, evolutionary
biology. Like most American intellectuals, I first learned about this subject
from the writings of Stephen Jay Gould. But I eventually came to realize
that working biologists regard Gould much the same way that economists
regard Robert Reich: talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right.
Serious evolutionary theorists such as John Maynard Smith or William Hamilton,
like serious economists, think largely in terms of mathematical models.
Indeed, the introduction to Maynard Smith's classic tract Evolutionary
Genetics flatly declares, "If you can't stand algebra, stay away
from evolutionary biology." There is a core set of crucial ideas in
his subject that, because they involve the interaction of several different
factors, can only be clearly understood by someone willing to sit still
for a bit of math. (Try to give a purely verbal description of the reactions
among three mutually catalytic chemicals.)
But many intellectuals who can't stand
algebra are not willing to stay away from the subject. They are thus deeply
attracted to a graceful writer like Gould, who frequently misrepresents
the field (perhaps because he does not fully understand its essentially
mathematical logic), but who wraps his misrepresentations in so many layers
of impressive, if irrelevant, historical and literary erudition that they
Unfortunately, Maynard Smith is right,
both about evolution and about economics. There are important ideas in
both fields that can be expressed in plain English, and there are plenty
of fools doing fancy mathematical models. But there are also important
ideas that are crystal clear if you can stand algebra, and very difficult
to grasp if you can't. International trade in particular happens to be
a subject in which a page or two of algebra and diagrams is worth 10 volumes
of mere words. That is why it is the particular subfield of economics in
which the views of those who understand the subject and those who do not
diverge most sharply.
Alas, there is probably no way to
resolve this conflict peacefully. It is possible for a very skillful writer
to convey in plain English a sense of what serious economics is about,
to hide the algebraic skeleton behind a more appealing facade. But that
won't appease the critics; they don't want economics with a literary facade,
they want economics with a literary core. And so people like me and people
like Kuttner will never be able to make peace, because we are engaged in
a zero-sum conflict--not over policy, but over intellectual boundaries.
The literati truly cannot be satisfied
unless they get economics back from the nerds. But they can't have it,
because we nerds have the better claim.
Nerds can write, too. Mathematically minded biologist William
Hamilton's new book of collected papers, Narrow Roads of Geneland,
was recently praised by fellow evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in
a London Times review.
(Dawkins' new book, Climbing Mount Improbable, was itself the focus
of a recent
review by John Horgan in SLATE.)
For another argument about how algebra-avoidance leads to shallow thinking,
see David Berreby's piece about the complexities
of human biology that appeared in SLATE
last month. For the latest in the Krugman/Kuttner Kontroversy, see their
debate in the new American
Prospect. And to see Krugman face off with James K. Galbraith,
see their "Dialogue"
Paul Krugman is a professor of economics at MIT whose
books include The Age of Diminished Expectations and Peddling
Illustrations by Robert Neubecker