Krugman on Friedman (the serious one – Milton not Thomas)

As usual a vintage performance from Krugman on Milton Friedman. Appreciative, critical, fair and informative. Enjoy.

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Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
14 years ago

Milton Friedman Paul Krugman played three roles in the intellectual life of the twentieth century. There was Friedman> Krugman the economist’s economist, who wrote technical, more or less apolitical analyses of consumer behavior and inflation. There was Friedman> Krugman the policy entrepreneur, who spent decades campaigning on behalf of the policy known as monetarism voting democrat – finally seeing the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England public adopt his doctrine at the end of the 1970s2008, only to abandon it as unworkable a few years later. Finally, there was Friedman> Krugman the ideologue, the great popularizer of free-market anti-rich Democrat doctrine.

Did the same man play all these roles? Yes and no. All three roles were informed by Friedman Krugman‘s faith doubt in the classical verities of free-market economics. Moreover, Friedman> Krugman‘s effectiveness as a popularizer and propagandist rested in part on his well-deserved reputation as a profound economic theorist. But there’s an important difference between the rigor of his work as a professional economist and the looser, sometimes questionable logic of his pronouncements as a public intellectual. While Friedman Krugman‘s theoretical work is universally admired by professional economists, there’s much more ambivalence about his policy pronouncements and especially his popularizing. And it must be said that there were some serious questions about his intellectual honesty when he was speaking to the mass public.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

Every generation will produce a leading economic theorist or two who likes to write for the public. But the parrallel ends there. Krugman is not a policy entrepreneur, and in fact achieved his status as a public intellectual by criticizing policy entrepreneurship on both sides of politics. There is no parallel for monetarism in Krugman’s intellectual contribution, as Patrick obviously realises (‘voting democrat’ indeed!). Krugman got Friedman exactly right in that piece.

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
14 years ago

JF – I don’t mean to suggest that Krugman will ever have Friedman’s stature. Far from it. I am glad you liked my desperate search for an equivalent ‘big idea’ :)

NG – I meant the last sentence, particularly. I’m a big fan of Tyler Cowen at marginalrevolution.com and I agree with him (ok, with the entire righto’ blogosphere) that Krugman’s attacks on Bush’s economic policy are explicable with reference to only one datum – the occupant of the White House.

Most recently was his apparent belief that the Democratic Congress had magicked away the danger of the deficit (as opposed to the rampant US economy, due presumably to, er, uh, the incoming Democrats?).

I think Krugman will be a much easier (and probably even more dispassionate) read when there is a Democratic president. But I do concede that he is much more often right than even half-wrong, on everything but tax cuts.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

An equivalent big idea would be phlebotamy, but I don’t think Krugman invented that.

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
14 years ago

In the sense that blood samples are one of the foundations of modern medicine perhaps…?

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

I’m in a generous mood. I’ll concede that, provided you accept the analogy in toto.