Paul Krugman, Niall Ferguson and the norms of public intellectualism in a digital age

The academic blogosphere had been getting a bit boring ever since the Chomsky and Zizek spat came to an end. Fortunately, Niall Ferguson decided a couple of days ago that it was time to take his longstanding feud with Paul Krugman to the next level in an earnest essay, syndicated on the Huffington Post weirdly enough, which largely amounts to an extend accusation that Krugman is a bully who hides his frequent errors through the ferocity with which he is alleged to attack advocates of austerity.

Much of it is remarkably dull, with the end result of the countless hours Ferguson has clearly spent reading through the archives of Krugman’s blog looking remarkably like the sort of thing you find on pg 50 of a bad tempered debate thread on a bulletin board that takes itself far too seriously. In essence Ferguson is self-consciously pursuing this as a clash of public intellectuals concerning the norms of public intellectualism. But what’s remarkable is the banality of much of the discussion and I found it difficult not to wonder if the internet might have been spared this diatribe were Ferguson only to have become acquainted at the right moment with the xkcd cartoon on the left (which has personally saved me from becoming embroiled in pointless internet disputes on more occasions than I can count).

But while I utterly failed to engage with the body of Ferguson’s essay, it was hard not to be interested in the final section where he effectively got to his point after the long preamble:

So we public intellectuals should not brag too loudly when we get things right. Nor should we condemn too harshly the predictions of others that are subsequently falsified by events. The most that we can do in this unpredictable world is read as widely and deeply as we can, think seriously, and then exchange ideas in a humble and respectful manner. Nobody ever seems to have explained this to Paul Krugman. There is a reason that his hero John Maynard Keynes did not go around calling his great rival Friedrich Hayek a “mendacious idiot” or a “dope”.

I assume he’s correct about this. Though that might be because they were friends rather than any inherent reticence to name call on the part of Keynes. But nonetheless I’m interested to see how Krugman responds to this:

When Paul Krugman first began his attacks against me, he made it clear – as if almost proud of the fact – that he had read none of my books. (Quote: “I’m told that some of his straight historical work is very good.”) This was a mistake on his part. I have read his books. If he had read mine, he would perhaps have thought twice about seeking to discredit me on the basis of a few articles and interviews.

Krugman’s unabashed ignorance of my academic work raises the question of what, in fact, he does read, apart from posts by the other liberal bloggers who are his zealous followers. There is a ratio that really would be good to have as a metric of the seriousness of a public intellectual. It is the ratio of words read to words written. Ideally, I would say, that ratio should be between 100 and 1000 to 1. But in the case of the Invincible Krugtron, I begin to suspect it has now fallen below unity. (When he does read a book, he mentions it in his blog as if it’s a special holiday treat.)

In the past few days, I have pointed out that he has no right at all to castigate me or anyone else for real or imagined mistakes of prognostication. But the fact that Paul Krugman is often wrong is not the most important thing. It is his utter disregard for the norms of civility that is crucial here. I am not alone in being dismayed by Krugman’s “spectacularly uncivil behavior”. It is “my duty, as I see it, is to make my case as best I honestly can,” Krugman has written, “not [to] put on a decorous show of civilized discussion.” Well, I am here to tell him that “civilized discussion” matters. It matters because vitriolic language of the sort he uses is a key part of what is wrong with America today. As an eminent economist said to me last week, people are afraid of Krugman. More “decorous” but perhaps equally intelligent academics simply elect not to enter a public sphere that he and his parasitical online pals are intent on poisoning. I agree with Raghuram Rajan, one of the few economists who authentically anticipated the financial crisis: Krugman’s is “the paranoid style in economics”:

All too often, the path to easy influence is to impugn the other side’s motives and methods … Instead of fostering public dialogue and educating the public, the public is often left in the dark. And it discourages younger, less credentialed economists from entering the public discourse.

Where I come from, however, we do not fear bullies. We despise them. And we do so because we understand that what motivates their bullying is a deep sense of insecurity. Unfortunately for Krugtron the Invincible, his ultimate nightmare has just become a reality. By applying the methods of the historian – by quoting and contextualizing his own published words – I believe I have now made him what he richly deserves to be: a figure of fun, whose predictions (and proscriptions) no one should ever again take seriously.

And I’m finding it hard not to wonder about the read:written ratio of many authors now! Mine has diminished over the last couple of years but is still probably relatively healthy. The disturbing thought this provoked was that with the rise of eReaders, increasingly sophisticated reference managers and the move away from paper, the only practical obstacle to consistently measuring this is a lack of standardisation about what and how different people are reading. How long before the F(erguson) index comes to supplement the H index et al on Google Scholar profiles…..?

Categories: Digital Sociology

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