Cowen vs. Krugman on pundits and the public sphere

The back and forth between Paul Krugman and the Marginal Revolution duo (plus the various responses from other corners of the wonkosphere) has been fascinating for many reasons. I want to highlight just one bit. Here’s Cowen:

The issue is not that Krugman changed his mind (I’ve done that plenty, Alex too).  The issue is that Krugman a) regularly demonizes his opponents, including those who hold Krugman’s old positions, and b) doesn’t work very hard to produce the strongest possible case against his arguments…

…Is it easy to imagine the current Krugman writing rich multi-voiced dialogues which extend both his points and those of his intellectual opponents?  Can you imagine the current Krugman writing something sufficiently multi-faceted that you might come away thinking — because of the piece itself — that the opposing point of view was the better one?

Krugman in his response:

Cowen apparently wants me to make the best case for the opposing side in policy debates. Since when has that been the rule? I’m trying to move policy in what I believe to be the right direction — and I will make the best honest case I can for moving in that direction.

Look, economic policy matters. It matters for real people who suffer real consequences when we get it wrong. If I believe that the doctrine of expansionary austerity is all wrong, or that the Ryan plan for Medicare would have disastrous effects, or whatever, then my duty, as I see it, is to make my case as best I honestly can — not put on a decorous show of civilized discussion that pretends that there aren’t hired guns posing as analysts, and spares the feelings of people who are not in danger of losing their jobs or their health care.

This is not a game.

Krugman is justifying himself through consequentialism. The results of his punditry matter; his only obligation is maximize his positive impact on the world. The intellectual standard to which he holds himself is to be judged on that basis. For what it’s worth, I’ve long suspected that this is how Krugman views his role. (I suggested as much at the end of this post.)

Moreover, as a consequentialist myself, I find this reasoning compelling. Or at least I think this is the right way to judge the issue. As for Cowen’s reasoning, you could defend it either by rejecting Krugman’s model, or by affirming it and arguing within it. The former would be some sort of principled/idealistic/rationalist view, which simply rejects consequentialism and affirms certain intellectual standards for public debate. The latter would embrace consequentialism but argue that in the long-term (or I suppose even in the short term though I think this would be a harder case to make) the best consequences arise in a world where the public sphere operates at a high level of intellectual honesty.

I’m fascinated by this debate because I don’t see it as obvious either way. My view is that most likely we do need both of these elements in a healthy public sphere – truly rigorous intellectual discourse AND punditry that explicitly seeks to maximize its impact on the public (still held to more basic standards of honesty) – but saying that both are necessary doesn’t answer the question of how Krugman should behave.

All I can say is that as a reader I’m more interested in the Cowen model. And it’s worth bearing in mind when you read Krugman that he’s thinking seriously about how to convince you, not just about serving up the best arguments. He may even be justified in doing so, but if you’re looking only for the best and most honest information, you may be better served reading elsewhere.


Storytelling, Trust and Bias

One intellectual rule of thumb on which I rely is that one disagrees with Tyler Cowen at one’s peril. Cowen is an economist at George Mason, and is one of the two bloggers at Marginal Revolution, a very popular blog on economics and culture. So while I won’t call what I’m about to write a disagreement, I do want to offer thoughts on Cowen’s TEDx talk on storytelling. (The talk is from 2009, but I just wandered across a transcript of it for the first time today.) Here’s Cowen’s typically interesting premise:

So what are the problems of relying too heavily on stories? …I think of a few major problems when we think too much in terms of narrative. First, narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip it way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don’t have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you’re lowering your IQ by ten points or more.

Another set of stories that are popular – if you know Oliver Stone movies or Michael Moore movies. You can’t make a movie and say, “It was all a big accident.” No, it has to be a conspiracy, people plotting together, because a story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human action but not of human design. No, a story is about evil people plotting together. So you hear stories about plots, or even stories about good people plotting things together, just like when you’re watching movies. This, again, is reason to be suspicious.

It is certainly true that we rely heavily on stories. And it’s further true that in doing so we tend towards oversimplification. The human mind doesn’t do well with uncertainty; we seek narrative coherence even where it isn’t justified. And yet stories are deeply useful. They help us process information more easily. In his recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman relied on a kind of story to relate the way we think, through the use of “characters” System 1 and System 2. The former is the intuitive mind, making quick decisions below the level of consciousness. The latter is what we think of as the rational mind, coming to our aid when we consciously reason through something. The dichotomy has some acceptance in the psychology literature (not as a distinction within the brain, but as a theoretical distinction for studying thinking) but some of Kahneman’s colleagues objected to his personification of these “characters.” Here’s Kahneman explaining his conceit:

System 1 and System 2 are so central to the story I tell in this book that I must make it absolutely clear that they are fictious characters. Systems 1 and 2 are not systems in the standard sense of entities with interating aspects or parts. And there is no one part of the brain that either of the systems would call home. You may well ask: What is the point of introducing fictitious characters with ugly names into a serious book? The answer is that the characters are useful because of some quirks of our minds, yours and mine. A sentence is understood more easily if it describes what an agent (System 2) does than if it describes what something is, what properties it has. In other words, “System 2” is a better subject for a sentence than “mental arithmetic.” The mind – especially System 1 – appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities. (p. 29)

I believe this is a better way of thinking about stories. It may be true that embedding information in stories generally leads to oversimplification or avoidance of uncertainty. On the other hand, plenty of stories can be nuanced and accurately relate complicated information. But even if storytelling does sacrifice something, it gives us the ability to digest and remember information much more quickly and easily. And the fact is that, in practice, most of us are working with very limited resources (most notably time). We need all the help we can get to process information. If stories can help, that’s generally a good thing.

Yet, I generally agree with Cowen’s point about stories that seem too convenient (especially Michael Moore movies!) But I’d like to propose that, rather than setting up a mental filter to resist certain types of stories, we focus our efforts on the evaluation of the sources of those stories.

Here’s where trust and credibility come in. When Kahneman says he’s going to tell me a story about two characters that make up the mind, I trust that he won’t mislead me, that he won’t overstate his case, or eschew complexity so completely that I’m left with a misguided impression. I believe that he’s trying to help me get a basic grip on very complicated information as best he can given the time I’ve allotted to learn it. That’s because he comes recommended by lots of thinkers whom I respect, and because he’s extraordinarily well credentialed. I find him credible and so I trust him.

I’d urge us all to spend more effort evaluating who we trust – whose stories we’ll buy and whose we’ll treat with Cowen-esque skepticism. And perhaps one metric for assessing credibility would in fact be to apply Cowen’s criteria (does so-and-so constantly tell black-and-white stories?) This seems a more promising path. After all, at this point if either Cowen or Kahneman told me a good vs. evil story I’d believe him.



Paul Romer and The Great Stagnation

Today I downloaded Tyler Cowen’s new e-book The Great Stagnation for $4, along with Amazon’s Kindle app for Android. It’s got both the publishing and economics blogospheres all aflutter so I’m looking forward to the read. But what kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t comment first, read later?

Cowen had an op-ed a few weeks back in The New York Times that laid out his basic claim. Here’s one bit:

The numbers suggest that for almost 40 years, we’ve had near-universal dissemination of the major innovations stemming from the Industrial Revolution, many of which combined efficient machines with potent fossil fuels. Today, no huge improvement for the automobile or airplane is in sight, and the major struggle is to limit their pollution, not to vastly improve their capabilities.

Although America produces plenty of innovations, most are not geared toward significantly raising the average standard of living…

…Will the Internet usher in a new economic growth explosion? Quite possibly, but it hasn’t delivered very good macroeconomic performance over the last decade.

Cowen is brilliant, and I’m looking forward to the longer version of his argument, but I want to consider a more optimistic take on our economic moment by another brilliant economist, Paul Romer. What follows is from Romer, interviewed by libertarians Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz in their book From Poverty to Prosperity (which I can testify is valuable and interesting even to non-libertarians).


…this may be the most important question in human history: why have we had technological change and why has it been speeding up over time? …

…it may be inherent in the process of discovery that the more we learn the faster we can learn. It’s a notion that was captured by Newton when he said that he could see farther because he stood on the shoulders of giants. That was the first model that I tried for the speeding up phenomenon, that the more we learn the more we can learn…

…So it’s that kind of analysis, thinking of ideas as recipes – really, instructions for combining together small numbers of physical objects – that persuades, I think, anybody who works through the logic that the number of things we could have even tried up to this point in time is so small compared with the number of things that are possible, that we’re just extremely early in this discovery process. For as far as you want to project into the future of humans, we won’t run out of new things to discover. And as I conjectured in the beginning, it may even be that the more we learn about this process – the science of DNA, the science of materials, or our understanding of quantum mechanics – the more we learn about this stuff, the better we get at finding new, ever more valuable mixtures…

…The second-round answer, which I think may actually capture more of the truth, is that it may get easier to discover as you learn more things, or it may not, but what we’ve done is created better institutions over time so that we now exploit the opportunities much more effectively than we used to.

I believe Cowen wants to challenge this both on whether technological change has in fact been speeding up, and whether the technological changes we’ve seen recently are the same kind of economic game-changers we saw in the 20th century. I don’t know what role he would attribute to institutions. Which model is more accurate? I have no answer to that. But the Romer interview at least offers an alternative conceptual lens to Cowen’s. (You can read the full interview with Romer here.)

Cowen also argues that America has eaten up a lot of the “low-hanging fruit”, in education for instance, as described in the clip below:

It’s an interesting point. But once again for a more optimistic take I’ll point to Romer:

We’re going through this shift in the economy where the fraction of human effort that goes into actually physically rearranging things – bending metal, doing manufacturing, and so on – is going down over time and the fraction that’s going into discovering the right formula or recipe is going up over time. And that’s a really good thing, because all of the value really comes from finding the new recipes. If you picture the innovative activity of one hundred years ago and you think of it as U.S. Steel, most of the workers there were involved in literally bending or melting metal – doing the physical rearrangement – and a relatively small number of people were coming up with, say, better ways to extract iron from ore…

…So we’re going through this transformation where a larger and larger fraction of the labor force is engaged in problem-solving, sifting through possible ideas, and a relatively small fraction of people actually stamps out the pills or bends the metal.

(That bit combined with some other comments offers an interesting take on Julian Simon’s work, both approving and disapproving of his work on population and innovation.)

So in education the question may be whether we can innovate fast enough to outpace declining marginal student aptitude. Romer’s model suggests that as more minds spend time thinking about how we educate, rather than spending that time grading tests, passing out papers, etc., that innovation could speed up. Cowen’s suggests that each student we attempt to get through school is likely to be harder than the last. Will more minds working on better educational recipes mean better education, and therefore more minds devoted to finding other useful recipes? Or have we already eaten all the low-hanging fruit?

Perhaps I’ll have more to say after I finish Cowen’s book.