Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Niall Ferguson Wags His Tongue at Paul Krugman. Like, Why?

Krugman, left, and Ferguson, right (both literally and figuratively).

One guy who mystifies me is the increasingly loathsome Niall Ferguson, economic history professor at Harvard. He's a smart guy, should feel comfortable in his skin, so why does he feel the need to let his tongue wag thusly?
In my view Paul Krugman has done fundamental damage to the quality of public discourse on economics. He can be forgiven for being wrong, as he frequently is--though he never admits it. He can be forgiven for relentlessly and monotonously politicizing every issue. What is unforgivable is the total absence of civility that characterizes his writing. His inability to debate a question without insulting his opponent suggests some kind of deep insecurity perhaps the result of a childhood trauma. It is a pity that a once talented scholar should demean himself in this way.
I am confounded at Ferguson's behavior because I admire Krugman, find him not only right a great deal of the time but also notice his willingness to confront his occasional errors, and have come to rely on not just his judgment but his predilection to couch his pronouncements in ample data well displayed. So in this regrettable public clash it's hard not to call out Ferguson.

It was inevitable that Krugman would have to react publicly, and he did so:
What a pathetic response. Notice that he is doing precisely what I never do, and making it about the person as opposed to his ideas. All I have ever done to him is point out that he seems to not know what he is talking about, and that he has been repeatedly wrong. I would never stoop to speculating about his childhood! If he can't handle professional criticism -- which is all that I have ever offered -- he should go find another profession.
Since I've followed Krugman's blog and columns for years and years -- all the way back to his Slate years before the Times, I know that what Paul says is true. He attacks ideas and not people. He's got Niall nailed to the wall on this one.

If Ferguson has even the barest point to make, that Krugman represents a "total absence of civility," let's let Krugman explain why:
I’d like to say a bit more about the use of vivid language in economic discourse. Partly I use striking and sarcastic metaphors to break through the complacency of officials. But I also, more broadly, have an Orwellian purpose — as in George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, which everyone should read. [Here Krugman offers an example.]
Similarly, in reverse, rather than refer to
an economic view that has unfortunately retained considerable influence, possibly because it has a political appeal to some parties, despite extensive empirical evidence that appears to refute the proposition
why not just refer to it as a “zombie idea”? It’s not just shorter, it conveys the sense of what is happening much better — and it places the idea in question in the context of other zombie ideas.
Now, of course, some people get offended when you refer to their ideas as zombies. But if you’re worried about giving offense, you should be an official spokesperson, not an independent commentator.
I'm with Krugman, as usual, on this one, largely because I agree with him on this particular point but also because I like that he takes on false presentments with vivid language. "Zombie lies" versus "childhood trauma?" No contest.

Ferguson, who is Scottish, could have taken the high road, to reference the old Scottish song. Instead, he took the low road, and once again he's done himself and his reputation no favors. Oh, well.

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