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Sometimes the Evidence Is Not Evident Enough

I donu2019t think everyone who disagrees with me is stupid and/or evil; just the ones who actually are stupid and/or evil.

(Image: KAZANEVSKY, Ukraine / CartoonArts International / The New York Times Syndicate)

This seems to be a meta period, with reactions to how people think — or, all too often, don’t think — about economics taking center stage. Justin Fox, editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group, posted an interesting article on recently documenting something I more or less knew, but am glad to see confirmed: People aren’t very receptive to evidence if it doesn’t come from a member of their cultural community.

This has been blindingly obvious these past few years. In the post “Don’t Like the Message? Maybe It’s the Messenger,” Mr. Fox writes: “Think about that next time you hear an argument that you think is just the dumbest thing ever. Is it the argument that bothers you, or the group you think the arguer belongs to?”

Consider what the different sides in this economic debate have been predicting these past six or seven years. If you got your views from, say, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, you knew — knew — that there was no housing bubble, that the United States in 2008 wasn’t in recession, that budget deficits would send interest rates sky-high, that the Federal Reserve’s expansion of its balance sheet would produce huge inflation, that austerity policies would lead to economic expansion. That’s quite a record. And yet I’m well aware that many people — including those with real money at stake — consider The Journal a reliable source and people like, well, me flaky and unbelievable.

Much of this is politics, of course, but that’s intertwined with culture: the kind of people who turn to The Journal or right-wing investment sites can clearly see that I’m a latte-sipping liberal who probably favors gay rights and doesn’t worship the financially successful (I actually prefer good filter coffee, black, but that’s otherwise accurate), and who just isn’t part of their tribe. I suppose that in my quest to improve policy and understanding I should be trying to fit in better — lose the beard, learn to play golf, start using “impact” as a verb. But I probably couldn’t pull it off even if I tried. And as a result there will always be a large group of people who will never be moved by any evidence I present.

Actually, I had a wonderful, in a way, piece of correspondence today; the correspondent had read my new book, “End this Depression Now!,” and was having trouble finding any instances where I presented facts deceptively to support my ideological agenda. Could I please help him locate the places in the book where I do that? Oh well. We just do what we can. ‘Battle of the Beards’ Kudos to Robert Samuelson for a serious effort to grapple with the monetary policy dispute. “Besides Krugman, some other economists advocate higher inflation. But not Bernanke,” Mr. Samuelson wrote in a recent column for The Washington Post. “Krugman’s theory could be right. It responds to an understandable urge to do something about the feeble recovery and the millions left without work and hope.But in this debate, I side with Bernanke. Flirting with more inflation is treacherous.”

I believe that I’m right (but then I would, wouldn’t I?); and you should know that a lot of credentialed economists, including — I think — a majority of those who were worrying about the zero lower bound before it actually happened, are on my side. I also believe that in assessing risks, you have to bear in mind the enormous risk of letting high unemployment fester. But I wish more economic discussion was like this, as opposed to the fraudulence that permeates most of the “debate.” Or to put it another way, I don’t think everyone who disagrees with me is stupid and/or evil; just the ones who actually are stupid and/or evil.

© 2012 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 2012 The New York Times.