Somewhere in his writings Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist, talks about anti-evolution types who argue from personal incredulity — they say, “I just can’t believe that chance could create something as complex as an eye,” and think that they have scored an important point. All they’ve actually done, of course, is rehash their prejudices. (Simulations show, by the way, that chance plus selection can indeed create an eye, in a relatively short time as evolutionary history goes.)
I’m getting the same kind of thing a lot on issues macroeconomic. People write and say, “I can’t believe that you are asserting that X. You must be an idiot.”
Here X might be the paradox of thrift, the claim that a rise in desired saving leads to lower investment (which is closely linked to the case for fiscal stimulus, which in turn is closely linked to the argument that wars and other bad things can be expansionary). Or it might be the paradox of flexibility, which says that under current conditions a fall in wages would lead to lower, not higher, employment and output.
The point, of course, is that your personal incredulity counts for nothing. I’m basing what I say on a model; the model may not be right, but it does represent some hard thinking conditioned by evidence. If you have a different model, fine; but if all you have to counter my model is a set of prejudices, you don’t have an argument.
Unfortunately, the argument from personal incredulity isn’t restricted to right-wing hacks. My sense is that a lot of what’s going on in our ongoing policy disaster is that important people, up to and including the president, just find it implausible that such a big crisis could be essentially a problem of coordination, whose fix need not, in fact should not, involve inflicting a lot of punishment on working Americans. And so our whole policy discourse has shifted to pain and punishment, gratuitously.
But back to my main point: if you just can’t believe I’m saying the things I say, at least consider the possibility that you’re the one who just doesn’t get it.
Coal Mines and Aliens
Nobody seems to have noticed that my suggestion during a recent appearance on the CNN program “Fareed Zakaria GPS” that a fake alien threat would end the economic slump was nothing more than an updated version of John Maynard Keynes’s “coal mine” thought experiment. According to his “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”: “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.”
Mr. Keynes then goes on to explain that the actual business of gold mining — in which basically useless
ore is mined and refined at great cost, then sent to sit idle in the basements of central banks — is for all
practical purposes identical to his coal mine idea.
He was right then, and I’m right now — and if you find it strains your personal credulity, so what?
¬© 2011 The New York Times Company
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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.
Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007).
Copyright 2011 The New York Times.