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Possible Questions for Elizabeth Warren

Felix Salmon: Krugman vs. Bishop

Felix Salmon explains why Sam Tanenhaus has a lot of explaining to do:

Felix Salmon: Paul Krugman was not happy with the choice of Matthew Bishop to review his new book in the NYTBR, and the main locus of the disagreement seems to be, at heart, how much respect Krugman should give to people who disagree with him. Here’s Bishop:

No opportunity to preach to the choir is missed by the populist Mr. Krugman, nor any chance to mock those he calls the “Very Serious People” who disagree with him…. Krugman’s habit of bashing anyone who does not share his conclusions is not merely stylistically irritating; it is flawed in substance…. [D]oes Krugman really need to take passing shots at Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the chairmen of the widely respected bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Commission on deficit reduction appointed by President Obama? Maybe his case for stimulating the economy in the short run would be taken more seriously by those in power if it were offered along with a Bowles-­Simpson-style plan for improving America’s finances in the medium or long term. Instead, Krugman suggests cavalierly that any extra government borrowing probably “won’t have to be paid off quickly, or indeed at all.”

I can see why Krugman finds this annoying. Krugman’s whole point is that Bowles, Simpson, and the like are wrong and dangerous. And as he reminds us today, he was right and they were wrong, two years ago. He should get credit for that. But Bishop, the kind of person who loves nothing more than schmoozing important people at Davos, thinks that Krugman “would be taken more seriously” if he were more polite to “widely respected” people with the word “chairman” in their names.

This criticism is off-base for three different reasons, I think. Jared Bernstein deals with the substance very well:

Krugman has been consistently empirical on this point. His argument is not that investors’ sentiments don’t matter. It’s that they’re embedded in prices and can be followed on an hourly basis. Those numbers—the bond yields on sovereign debt—show that markets judge US debt to be safe…. If you want to criticize Krugman on this count, you need to explain what’s wrong with the markets themselves—why they’re giving the wrong signals….

This is a point I myself tried making to Bishop back in April, with no visible success: Bishop’s convinced that when it comes to gauging future inflation expectations, we should for some reason trust the volatile and largely-insane gold market at least as much as we should trust the most liquid and efficient market in the world….

[T]he entire Obama administration deals constantly with calls for fiscal prudence and austerity, and takes them very seriously. There’s something of a bipartisan consensus on the issue — so if like Krugman you think that the consensus is bonkers, the only real way to get your point across is to be very clear that no matter how grand these people are, they’re simply wrong, and do not deserve to be taken seriously.

And then there’s the whole class-based undertone to the discussion…. [R]ich people… don’t actually worry much about unemployment…. What they do worry about is inflation, since that erodes the value of their dollars. And so when Krugman calls for a nice dose of inflation to help cure the economy’s ills, what he’s really calling for is for a significant chunk of the fixed-income portfolios of the rich to be devalued in real terms.

The rich don’t like that, and the austerity consensus is in large part a closing of ranks — one of the few areas where left and right can agree, at least at the upper end of the income spectrum. And that’s why my own review of Krugman’s book was a pessimistic one. When rich liberals and rich conservatives agree on something, that thing is going to happen. Especially when that thing is in their own self-interest.

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