So this morning, for the first time in my almost 54 years on this planet, I was polled. It was an automated poll on medical marijuana, an issue that has decent support in Illinois, an issue that has twice been voted down in the state legislature despite support from both the left and the right within the legislature and is going to be attempted again. The automated poll asked three questions, all of which I answered in the affirmative. But it was the second question that gave me pause. It was phrased in such a way as to ask if you support what will likely be the language of the next push in the legislature, i.e., medical marijuana for specific illnesses, no growing your own, strict regulation and enforcement, etc. You were only given the option of answering yes or no. Now, I don't support that language, I think marijuana should be okay for anyone to grow and partake in however they choose. But to vote no would be indicating that I don't support marijuana at all, so I'm forced to indicate that yes, I support the restrictive version, even though it doesn't come close to what I truly support.
And this takes me down the rabbit hole and through the back door to a marvelously entertaining reading experience: an argument on another blog about Paul Krugman. How, you are certainly asking yourself, do we get from a poll on marijuana to an argument about Paul Krugman and back again? Follow me down the rabbit hole and over the Fleur de Kos and you shall see.
I should give you some context on where I'm coming from on the following tale. I am not a political scientist, nor do I play one on TV or any of the various blogs I read. Economics falls into the category of "numbers and math" for me, and numbers and math bore me. In the various pursuits of my life numbers and math are quite important, but I do my best to not acknowledge that as such because that acknowledgment leads to boredom and boredom leads to my studiously ignoring those pursuits. So I try to cleverly disguise the necessity of numbers and math in my daily pursuits and pretend when using them that it's something entirely different so as not to focus on those things long enough to let it get the better of me.
Nevertheless, I like to stay informed. And it's impossible to stay informed without at least doing a cursory reading of political science and the numbers games that ensue. So every morning I get up and open Firefox, which then opens the 18 tabs across one browser window that I will studiously read throughout the day. Almost all of these tabs are in some way political (although there are a couple of frivolous ones because you've got to cut the sour taste with something sweet, eh?) and one of those tabs is Paul Krugman's blog, The Conscience of a Liberal. I chose Krugman as my go-to guy on economic issues because he is a liberal (so says the name of the blog) and because he believes in morality when it comes to economics and politics. This gets him a lot of abuse, but he gives as good as he gets.
A daily reading of Krugman will send me looking at other material that doesn't find it's way into my 18 permanent tabs. For instance, if I see him referring to "VSP"s (Very Serious People) concerning an economic issue I know I should seek out what the loathesome David Brooks has been saying. He rarely refers directly to Brooks because they are both columnists for the NYT and the NYT has a strict policy of not having interpersonal brawling on its opinion pages. Or sometimes I'll read Digby (another permanent tab) and she'll refer to Krugman and other economists such as Brad DeLong, which sends me off to see what DeLong has said. So over the course of time I've read quite a few different poli-sci/economics websites simply by being pointed either directly or indirectly by Krugman or those who read him. You get the picture.
Earlier this week Krugman posted this column that takes to task the political elites of this country for forcing all manner of bad policy decisions on the American electorate, decisions that led to the financial crisis, the housing disaster, high unemployment and so on and so forth. And he named some of those policy decisions, such as deregulation of the financial sector, the Bush (now Obama) tax cuts and the disastrous war in Iraq. He rightly pointed out that these policies were implemented not because the American public was clamoring for these things but because in each case a small group of elites wanted these things for their own nefarious reasons.
So far so good, right? Ah, but hang onto your hats, folks, we haven't gotten to the fun part yet.
Enter one William Kindred Winecoff:
I am a third year PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. My major subfield is International Relations, within which I focus on International Political Economy.
My current work focuses on the interplay between domestic and international financial regulatory regimes, and how state power and the structure of the international financial system influence policy decisions.
Now if you want to plow through the tedious ruminations of this young fellow you can do so here. I must admit that reading through his posts makes my eyes roll back in my head, but others may have better luck at this than I did. It's not all bad, just somewhat naive and cants to the right. And one thing that is abundantly clear is that young Mr. Winecoff is obsessed with Dr. Krugman, and not in a good way. What seems to be the bone of contention for Mr. Winecoff is that Krugman injects morality into the discussion, and that's just wrong. Political science should be viewed through the lens of the emotionless scientist and morality should play no part in policy decisions. Krugman is "shrill," you know. And that's bad, very very bad.
So how, you may ask, did I come to be reading this person? Well, it's all thanks to Dr. Krugman pointing towards the rabbit hole and in effect saying "hop in and have a look":
Annals of Creative Misreading
A pretty amazing comment thread about yours truly on Crooked Timber. No need for me to weigh in.
Now, Crooked Timber is a fine website in its own right whose writers are academics across many fields of discipline. I read there from time to time, although it's not one of my 18 permanent tabs. Maybe it should be, especially after this little adventure. Even the origin of the site's name is of interest, a quote from the 18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant:
"Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."
Kant was full of interesting quotes, by the way, but I digress.
Now I've entered the rabbit hole to see that Crooked Timber's Henry Farrell, a political scientist at George Washington University, has wandered across a post by young Mr. Winecoff and found it wanting. In a piece titled Count Me In With the Unsophisticated Six Year Olds Farrell takes young Mr. Winecoff to task, quoting directly from his piece:
What interests me about this isn’t that Krugman is playing fast and loose with his factual claims, or even stacking the deck in a blatantly partisan way. That’s par for his course. It’s that he thinks that a simple political explanation is just not feasible. Instead, some moral lesson is needed. If something bad happens, it must be because bad people are doing it. This is the political sophistication of a six year old. … Occam’s Razor can help us here. If there are tax cuts, maybe it’s because people wanted tax cuts. If there is Medicare Part D, maybe it’s because people wanted Medicare Part D. If there is a housing bubble, maybe it’s because public policy was skewed in ways that home ownership attractive, because that’s what people want. This might not work all the time, but as a first approximation this sort of thinking holds up fairly well. In the examples Krugman gives, it’s batting 1.000.
To which Farrell responds, in part:
Um, getting away from the invective, not so much. I like much of Winecoff’s blogging on IPE, but the relevant political science here seems to me to support Krugman far more than it does Winecoff. International political economy scholarship (the field that Winecoff specializes in) tends to have an extremely stripped down, and bluntly unrealistic account of how policy is made.
However, actual work on how policy gets made suggests that this doesn’t work. On many important policy issues, the public has no preferences whatsoever. On others, it has preferences that largely maps onto partisan identifications rather than actual interests, and that reflect claims made by political elites (e.g. global warming). On others yet, the public has a set of contradictory preferences that politicians can pick and choose from. In some broad sense, public opinion does provide a brake on elite policy making – but the boundaries are both relatively loose and weakly defined. Policy elites can get away with a hell of a lot if they want to.
The result is that the relevant literature on policy making (located largely within comparative political economy and a growing debate within American politics) argues that elites play a very strong role in creating policies. Take one of the issues where Winecoff argues that Krugman is wrong – the Bush tax cuts. Here, the arguments in the political science literature do not start from the proposition that these cuts were driven by public desire for lower taxes. Instead, they involve debate between those who suggest that the cuts were deliberately crafted in ways that distort public perceptions and those who claim that this was unnecessary, since American public opinion on taxation is so inchoate as to give elites wide room for maneuver.
Let me make it clear that I don’t want to bag on Winecoff in particular. He doesn’t like Krugman, and describes him in pretty harsh terms – but then Krugman’s own revealed preferences suggest that politesse is not a necessary condition for good debate. The problem here is a more general problem with the field of international political economy, which frankly (and I say this as someone who writes in the field and teaches it) has an extremely weak understanding of how policy is made.
The whole piece is well worth reading, but it's not the most interesting thing here. The truly fascinating part, to which Dr. Krugman points us, is the comment thread. And it's fascinating for two reasons: the comments weren't written by your average Joe's, and young Mr. Winecoff decided to show up and defend himself. What follows is one of the most intellectually focused instances of kicking someone's ass that I've ever read. The commentators surgically trim around where Mr. Winecoff's head is planted, remove his aforementioned ass, slice it thinly and with precision, then hand it back to him on clean white paper.
I highly recommend anyone with even a passing interest in the subject of political science, economic study and the making of policy read the entire thread. But I must warn you that it is, as of this moment, 266 comments long and most of the comments are longer than the average diary here on Daily Kos. I've been a Rescue Ranger for five years now, I can read pretty fast and extract content with alacrity, and it took me a good four hours of steady reading to make it to the end. So I suggest sitting down to read with that in mind, make yourself a snack and a drink and just enjoy the sight of smart people having a go at someone young and foolish.
Now, young Mr. Winecoff was not without his defenders in this thread. He had a one champion who tried to thrust and parry on his behalf. And Farrell himself was not unsympathetic to Winecoff's plight, although he clearly loses patience with him. Here are excerpts of comment 177, where Farrell spanks Winecoff, but good:
Dude – what Phil said in 166. There is a substantial difference between “Krugman concedes the point” and “Winecoff bollocksed up his interpretation of Krugman.” Let me explain the difference.
“Krugman concedes the point” implies something like the following. Krugman loudly announces, while twirling his waxed radical-crazy mustachios, that “the public has no role whatsoever in setting policy.” Kindred Winecoff detects that this is the argument of an unsophisticated six-year old, and announces that the Krugman has no clothes, to cheers and gasps of awe from the plain peoples of the Internets. Krugman cries out, “Foiled again! If it weren’t for you damn kids, I’d have gotten away with it” and hops into his Hot Tub Time Machine (they hand ‘em out with tenure at Princeton) to go back a few days into the past so that he can retrospectively write a blogpost with qualifications about Medicare Part D, and hence minimize the damage to his reputation.
“Winecoff bollocksed up his interpretation of Krugman” works as follows. Kindred Winecoff reads Krugman. He then writes a blogpost calling Krugman an unsophisticated six-year old, because (in his not especially impartial interpretation) Krugman believes that the public plays no role in determining policy. Winecoff then advances his own alternative argument, in which Medicare Part D etc happen because the public want them to happen. People come along and point out that Winecoff’s alternative argument isn’t very good, and that his interpretation of Krugman isn’t any great shakes either. Winecoff partially concedes on the former, but doesn’t want to concede on the latter. When it is pointed out to Winecoff that Krugman has made specific arguments on Medicare Part D that are precisely the opposite of those that Winecoff attributes to him, Winecoff doesn’t see this as evidence e.g. that his initial claims about Krugman were based on a rather obnoxious and demonstrably false caricature, but instead as some sort of ‘concession’ that Krugman is making to Winecoff’s argument. Imaginary Paul Krugman – the one who believes that the public has nothing, ever, to do with politics, could never say such a thing. Therefore, by definition, Imaginary Paul Krugman hasn’t said it. Quod. Erat. Demonstrandum.
Less sarcastically – I didn’t address most of your arguments, because they are based around a demonstrably fallacious claim – that Krugman, in your words, “thinks that democratic politics does not exist.’ To the contrary. His argument is entirely compatible with a theory of democracy in which one believes that democratic controls on elites in the US exist but are sometimes weak, and are particularly weak with regard to issues such as taxes (which, as I have noted, are highly technical and poorly understood by the public), financial regulation (ditto), and war (where any argument that the US invasion of Iraq was driven by public demand seems to me to be a complete non-starter). It could plausibly be that Krugman puts too much weight on elites, and too little on public opinion. That is a reasonable argument that you can have with him. It could not be that Krugman believes – as you have repeatedly claimed he does – that the public has no role whatsoever in determining policy. He has explicitly argued to the contrary. As several commentators have pointed out, you are building a straw man here, and insisting that he is not a straw man, even as the stuffing starts to bulge out through the seams.
I really suggest that you should listen to Salient (and my earlier advice) and try to think more clearly about your overall position here. As I see it, you wrote a polemical blogpost that was based around an uncharitable and erroneous interpretation of someone whom you obviously don’t like. You’ve then tried to defend that erroneous interpretation through arguments that don’t really add up. That makes it awkward to climb down and admit that your original post was wrong. But it gets more awkward, rather than less awkward, as time goes on. I know this because I’ve been there, as have most others who get involved in vigorous internet debates. You stake a claim to something, and don’t want to give up on it, even when you are not at all sure of your original ground (the famous XKCD cartoon should maybe have gone ‘I can’t. This is important. Someone on the Internet says I’m wrong’). But it actually is easier to admit it and go on in life. To put it another way – try to think through how your arguments in your original post, follow-up and in this thread had been made not by you, but by Paul Krugman (perhaps when he was criticizing someone who you took seriously). Do you think that you would find this logic of argument convincing if it were coming from Krugman, not from you?
That's only part of one comment, so you can see that this is rather a long reading session with 266 comments as of this posting, most of which are like this. But then there are those commentators that, after losing all patience with Winecoff, just let him have it in a bare fists kind of way:
candle 05.12.11 at 11:52 am
Brooks: Air is composed purely of oxygen.
Krugman: Actually, it is pretty well established that air is predominantly nitrogen, even though it has oxygen in it as well.
Winecoff: Why did you say that air contains no oxygen? Are you a six-year-old?
Farrell: Er, what? Nobody is saying that.
Winecoff: But Krugman specifically said air is predominantly nitrogen.
Farrell/Commenters: Yes, and…?
Winecoff: Well, obviously there is nitrogen in air, but there is oxygen too!
Commenters: Yes, and Krugman explicitly said that. Maybe you should back down?
Winecoff (@136): I won’t back down until someone proves that air contains no oxygen!
Now, who in this exchange most resembles a six-year-old?
But Farrell hasn't quite given up hope on our intrepid young man yet, and tries to throw him a bone:
Henry 05.12.11 at 7:29 pm
Bloix – I do not know Winecoff’s political predilections, but I suspect from some comments above that he is on the left; certainly, he seems to have no principled objection to specific explanations which invoke nasty behavior by the one or the other interest group. I really think that this is much less about ideological performances for masters of one sort or another, and much more about someone having dug themselves into a hole. And as someone who has done the same thing more than once, I have some real sympathy.
Eventually Winecoff concedes it was a bad idea to venture into this crowd with his strawman in one hand and a torch in the other. He tries desperately to wave a shiny object with which he tries to draw the attention of the crowd and lead them over to friendlier turf, where his original salvo on this had compatriots that might again have his back.
Kindred Winecoff 05.12.11 at 11:29 pm
Well, the consensus view is that I should just shut up, so I will. I’ve got other things to do anyway. But I enjoyed the conversation, and learned a few things. I’ll concede that some of my real-time reacting doesn’t hold up (the comparison of long-run Part D costs to short-run tax cut costs, eg), although I remain unreconstructed on the main argument that elites deserve all the blame rather than some of it. (A few said this wasn’t the argument; well it was my argument, and it was certainly Krugman’s thrust. To the extent it’s not the argument, or is not an argument worth having, I’ll also concede.) I’ll have one last post at my place that attempts to sum up the main disagreements in this thread for those that don’t want to plow through 200 comments, plus one or two new thoughts related to the recent posts by Nexon and Drezner. It’ll go up whenever Blogger comes back online. If someone’s got a question or disagreement I’d be happy to take it over there.
Thanks for your patience, those of you that were patient. I had a good bit of fun with this exchange.
"I had a good bit of fun with this exchange," he says. The young man is clearly a masochist. And he really doesn't leave the thread, not yet anyway. Krugman posts the link to Farrell's post and thread, which riles him further, and people keep responding to him. He can't leave it alone, so the bludgeoning continues apace for a while longer.
kabosht 05.13.11 at 1:15 am
“Well, the consensus view is that I should just shut up, so I will.”
Finally, Winecoff comes up with an example of something genuinely responsive to broad public demand.
Popeye 05.13.11 at 1:39 am
I see that Winecoff has a Hayek Fund grant and something from some Liberty Foundation thingy on his CV.
What a shock.
As a rule I find liberal academics to be extremely sensible in their areas of expertise. And yet there seem to be a decent number of libertarian academics who are supposedly experts about economics and politics who are actually completely clueless about their supposed specialties. I wonder how this could possibly be.
I’m sure it’s just the will of the people.
Anon 05.13.11 at 5:25 am
“Now I may just be a simple hyperchicken…” but isn’t Occam’s Razor not what Wincoff thinks it is?
kris 05.13.11 at 7:04 am
Perhaps people have previously pointed this out in their comments, but it seems to me that “policy X happened because a majority of people were in favour of it” seems perilously close to a tautology.
Also, opinion polls are hardly unambiguous indicators of public opinion. There is a very nice (and funny) clip from Yes Prime Minister that illustrates some of these problems:
Aaannnddd...we've magically worked our way down through the rabbit hole and come home through the back door to the poll I took this morning. Follow that YouTube link and have yourself a good laugh while contemplating the kind of young intellectuals who will be expounding on policy decisions that will affect you, your children,and your grandchildren and the kind of polling data they'll rely on to do it.
And for all the hubristic young whizzes like Kindred Winecoff out there lining up to dazzle us with your brilliance on the plight of the great unwashed masses, pause to consider the wisdom of embracing misleading polling data as a guide to what people really want. Excogitate why the working poor would ever be grateful that Wall Street plunderers have been saved to cheat them another day while they're being thrown out of their homes and into a tent city. Ruminate on why the simple folk would want the garishly wealthy to get even more tax cuts while they themselves toil away at three jobs trying desperately to make ends meet. Riddle me how it's "the will of the people" to spend more and more on wars and less and less on education. Ponder the idea that the elites of this country are clearly bowing to the will of the people when they strip the rights of women or deny old people and young children decent medical care or shroud the planet in oil slicks and toxic fumes or any number of things that get polled in the most dishonest way possible.
Reckon me that, young up-and-coming political science and economic geniuses. Take your time, now. Nothing other than the fate of the world depends on it.