A Nobel calling

October 13, 2008 | 24 comments
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I’m very happy to see this year’s Nobel Prize in economics going to Paul Krugman, whose columns in the New York Times helped me see the importance of the discipline of economics as nothing else ever had. I think Mormon scholarship could use more scholars like Paul Krugman (quite apart from the Nobel and the weekly NYT column).

I admit, the American left has at times had a certain degree of free-market skepticism. You know the kind of thing: you say “capitalism,” I say “pollution! exploitation! imperialism!” and burn down your factory. And given our economic system’s periodic tendency towards wretched excess (cough, cough), market skepticism sometimes can seem attractive.

But Paul Krugman saved me from that. Beginning in the 1990s, his columns convinced me that about 75% of everything that matters gets said by economists; that studying economics does not unavoidably result in becoming a free-market fundamentalist; and that markets are not just compatible with a broadly liberal outlook, they are an essential tool to achieving liberal goals. Agrarian communal socialism might sound attractive at first, but in the end (sorry, Russell) I think I prefer a fair and efficient market economy where fewer lives are spent in hunger, pain, or in the service of tasks that are so boring and repetitive that any sane person would rather chew off their own fingernails. Perhaps it’s worth noting that economic arguments are regular features of at least a few of the most popular liberal bloggers; without pretending any kind of historical analysis, I’ll merely suggest that Paul Krugman has been influential in helping progressives embrace market economics and free trade.

Mormon scholars, go and do ye likewise. If there is sometimes a wariness about academic disciplines in Mormonism, it seems to me that one can accept it by doing nothing, or one can worsen it by moaning, wrist to forehead, that the devotional materials published by the church could not be published in first-tier scholarly journals, or one can try to improve the situation by showing not just that the truth is true, but that it is both compatible with and useful in promoting the goals of Mormonism. That is a devotional project that would not appear in scholarly journals, but it strikes me as a faithful scholarship that would be worth having.

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24 Responses to A Nobel calling

  1. Rick on October 13, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    Jonathan, I don’t think you said that Paul Krugman is an LDS scholar — correct?

  2. Matt on October 13, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    Is Paul Krugman Mormon?

  3. queuno on October 13, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    I think he meant to say that there should be more scholarship from Mormons that equals that from Paul Krugman.

    But I think Jonathan is arbitrarily skewing the question by the last paragraph…

    I think there are Mormon scholars producing amazing findings, but they lack a forum like the Nobel Prize to be discovered, and, they don’t write for the NY Times or other places popular with the Bloggernacle). Put another way — let’s say there were recognized scholars in diverse fields who were Mormon. Do you think the Bloggernacle would know about them (or that they themselves blog)? I.e., no one in Mormondom cares about the physicists, or the computer scientists, or the accountant-geeks.

  4. Jonathan Green on October 13, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    Rick, you correctly observe that I did not say that Paul Krugman is an LDS scholar.

    For the purposes of this post, quality of scholarship is necessary but not sufficient. It’s what you do with the quality that I’m interested in.

  5. Frank McIntyre on October 13, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    Jonathan,

    Since I was already familiar with the basic ideas of economics (and since I already knew plenty of Democrat academic economists– since they outnumber Republicans by about 3 or 4 to 1 ), all that struck me in Paul Krugman’s columns was a single-minded devotion to attacking Bush. I’m glad to see there was a silver lining to it all – namely bringing you in from the cold.

    What Krugman actually got the Nobel prize for was innovative work back in the 80s on international trade. There is no question he was a rising star at the time. I think he stopped doing research economists paid attention to sometime in the mid to late 90s when his popular career was getting going. But the Nobel has always been about stuff that was done 30 years ago.

  6. mlu on October 13, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    I knew nothing of Krugman in the 80s or 90s. When I came across him, he seemed mostly a propagandist granted a big megaphone by the New York Times.

    I’m glad to know there was a time when he did serious work.

  7. Matt Evans on October 13, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    All Krugman’s done for me is prove that academic reputation is an insufficient basis for granting someone a newspaper column.

  8. Greg Call on October 14, 2008 at 12:16 am

    Conservatives love to point out how Krugman used to be a serious academic, but now he’s just a shrill hack, etc. But if you go back and look at his columns, they hold up pretty well. In particular, back in 2005 he had several columns on the coming housing crash and resulting recession (see, e.g., http://tinyurl.com/44xl8x). Some conservative commentator said at the time that “Krugman has predicted seven of the last none recessions” or something. Forty percent off the Dow later, Krugman’s been vindicated. Sometimes academic expertise is a good thing.

  9. Velska on October 14, 2008 at 4:35 am

    That Krugman column from 2005 was Eco 101 stuff. You didn’t need to be a Nobelist to see he was right. People just don’t want to believe things for reasons like 1) because of who says it (in this case, a liberal) 2) because the conclusion would be that it’s not sensible to take out that home equity line of credit to buy a new SUV and bigger plasma TV.

  10. Velska on October 14, 2008 at 5:16 am

    Sorry, I was a bit trigger-happy there…

    I was going to say that I kind of like what the Vatican has in its science powerhouse. It has a steady supply of scientists willing to see the scientific findings from Catholic point, while giving seculars free right to challenge. The Catholic hierarchy gets apprised of the most significant ideas (I’m simplifying this for the sake of the argument I’m making) surfacing there. Perhaps the approach to science could be enhanced at, say, BYU?

    While my faith is not in science but God, I still think that the scientific method has been given us to learn more (see D&C 88:78) about ourselves and our environment (in the most expansive sense). Faithful people can contribute, because science and faith are about two different kinds of evidences. The evidences of faith are not the same as those of science – not mutually exclusive, either.

    To stick with what I understand to be the analogy in Jonathan’s post, the faithful scientist can give science a better name among believers, and faith a better name among scientists.

    Have you ever wondered, by the way, why so many economists seem to think that cutting taxes may not be the best and only solution to all economic problems? I mean, studying this is their strong suit…

  11. Frank McIntyre on October 14, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Greg,

    You’ve answered your own question. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. If you predict recessions often enough, sooner or later you will be right (Hence the cyclical nature of the endeavor). For much of U.S. history, I could say “there will be a recession in the next four years” and be right more often than not.

  12. Frank McIntyre on October 14, 2008 at 9:40 am

    Velska,

    When I got to BYU, one of the explicit reasons given by the Assoc. Academic VP for why we needed to be good at research is so that we could be useful to the Church, should the need arise.

  13. Cicero on October 14, 2008 at 9:42 am

    Apparently you don’t know that BYU is widely considered to have the best undergraduate program for Economists in the country.

    Prof. James McDonald is a leading Econometrician

    BYU has some of the best Economic Historians as well.

    BYU is a little weak in Growth Economics, but has recently taken steps to improve that area.

    Also, note that there is a major difference between Economist in research (who tend to be libertarian- Milton Friedman types- Chicago School of thought is still probably the dominant economic viewpoint) and Economists who show up as columnists in the media who tend to be Democrats (and Neo-Keynesian). There is certainly some kind of bias (self selecting or hiring, I don’t know which) in what kind of economists get public exposure. As Keynes pointed out, people listen to economists when it agrees with what they already believe and ignore us when they don’t.

  14. woodboy on October 14, 2008 at 10:59 am

    “Apparently you don’t know that BYU is widely considered to have the best undergraduate program for Economists in the country.”

    Wow, that’s quite a statement. According to who? I have never heard it mentioned among the country’s best econ depts.

  15. Greg on October 14, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Frank,
    I didn’t ask a question. I was simply pointing out that Krugman warned three years ago that the housing bubble, specifically, would lead to a recession. He was right.

  16. Frank McIntyre on October 14, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    Greg,

    The question was implied — “Why do these guys attack Krugman as a hack when he was right about the coming recession?” Answer — because Krugman overpredicts recessions.

    woodboy,

    BYU’s econ department’s placement in PhD programs is phenomenal. This comes from having a great undergraduate program. The reason you have never heard it mentioned among the nation’s best econ departments is because it isn’t — by a long shot. But those a re two different measures.

  17. Steve Evans on October 14, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    Frank, I hope someday those libs in Sweden get around to appreciating you as they ought, instead of that hack Krugman.

  18. John Buffington on October 14, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Are we in a recession? How come I didn’t get the memo?

    I agree that the housing bubble has caused a lot of bad economic things; not sure a recession is one of them (just yet).

    Yes, Krugman is saying Econ 101 things; he also says Finance 101 things (like make sure the duration of your assets and liabilities is more or less matched and capitalizing consumption is dumb)

    I never had an obviously lefty prof in my grad courses in economics (and that was in Canada) although there certainly are many of them out there writing columns. Interesting signalling.

  19. woodboy on October 14, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    A “great undergraduate program” I will happily concede. “widely considered to have the best undergraduate program for Economists in the country” I feel is a bit of a stretch. BYU’s general focus on undergraduate education is certainly to be commended though, without a doubt.

  20. Frank McIntyre on October 14, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    Steve,

    If they do, I could give them some good names for who should be getting Nobel prizes before Paul Krugman. But there are a lot of economists who could do the same…

  21. PaulM on October 15, 2008 at 12:35 am

    I sure hope Krugman isn’t held up as the standard for Mormon scholarship. Like Frank, I could list off quite a few names of people who have done more innovative and/or important work. I think the entire Nobel committee has gone insane.

  22. Nate Oman on October 15, 2008 at 10:30 am

    One of the things that strikes me as interesting about Krugman is that while he has made some persuasive arguments that restrictions on free trade can be welfare enhancing in certain highly specified conditions, last time I checked he was himself a fairly avid free-trader. If Tyler Cowen is to be believed, Krugman does not think that governments are institutionally capable of making the sorts of calculations and decisions necessary to use his research as a guide for policy formation.

    Incidentally, Jonathan, if you are prepared to at least give economics a hearing, I suggest Diane Coyle, _The Soulful Science_, which I got yesterday and have been reading. It is written in comprehensible English and her target readers are scholars trained in other disciplines who are inclined to dismiss economics on idealogical grounds. The book itself is Coyle — a Harvard Ph.D. who works on the UK Competition Commission — giving a run down on what she sees as econ’s greatest hits from the last two decades or so of research. There are a lot of really interesting findings in there…

  23. Mack on October 15, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    The Nobel Prize money sure beats what he got as an Enron consultant!

  24. mo3 on October 16, 2008 at 11:16 am

    Actually there are a striking number of Mormon Economists who are either finishing or have recently finished PhD’s in Econ at the top schools, not to mention several successful professors who have stayed in research. Mormons make up 10% of each of 2 “classes” of MIT Econ PhD’s right now. All of these people are contributing quite a lot to the fields, at the top levels. Pretty remarkable. Suggesting that they be more like Krugman in that they air their political opinions and fool people into thinking those opinions are based in good, solid, economic theory is not something I would do.
    I heard top economist say recently that he’s glad Krugman got the prize because of his valuable contributions to the field. However, he added, it should be clear that what Krugman writes for the NYT is politics, not Economics, and most of what he says in his editorials is just his own liberal opinions. Krugman has quite an advantage in that people commonly assume that when an economist makes a politicial statement it can be taken as verifiable fact if it has to do with labor, the economy, policy, etc. Actually, Krugman would be hard pressed to prove to another, equally talented, economist what he postulates in his editorials.