Cosma Shalizi on Kleiman on Krugman on Obama

One of the nicest things about keeping a blog is that I have lots of readers who are much, much smarter than I am: for example, Cosma Shalizi of Carnegie Mellon. Like several other readers, Cosma would like me to calm down about Paul Krugman. Let me now turn the floor over to him:

I think the explanation has much more to do with (1) Krugman’s views about how to deal with the right, (2) a certain suspicion of charisma as such and (3) a certain habit of argument, rather than any calculation of advantage, however unconscious. Specifically:

1. Krugman thinks that the only way to deal with the mobilization of the right is intense and unapologetic partisan counter-mobilization, both as a matter of political strategy and on the example of the New Deal. He’s fond of quoting the FDR line about “I welcome their hated”. Obviously, if this is your baseline, a candidate who makes a big appeal about everyone coming together is going to start off at a disadvantage in your eyes, especially if you have a lively memory of the fact that the last time someone succeeded by promising to be a “uniter, not a divider”, it didn’t work out well for the country, or indeed the world. (One might take that analogy as evidence that Obama would in fact be vastly less conciliatory than some of his rhetoric suggests, which frankly is what I hope.)

Notice that if anything Krugman started out leaning towards Edwards, not Clinton.

2. Krugman doesn’t trust charisma. And one can see why: it involves a huge amount of projection on the part of followers and, under modern circumstances, the media. (See: Reagan, G. W. Bush.) It’s not a good guide to selecting people who will implement good policies. This is another strike against Obama in Krugman’s eyes.

3. Finally, the psychology. Something you may have noticed about Krugman is that he simply does not give up. There are many people like this who, once they get into an argument, are not going to let themselves loose, come what may. They may have to shift the ground they occupy, but they simply will not concede, and encountering more opposition just makes them more certain they’re right. I paint this tendency in somewhat unflattering colors, but it’s not exactly something I’m a stranger to. From the inside it can feel very much like a burning need to defend truth and principles in the face of opportunism and/or self-delusion.

Now, after all that, I think you can fill in how I see this story going: Krugman starts off seeing Obama as less good than Edwards, critical writing about Obama arouses opposition, and this makes Krugman dig in his heels and become more set against him, etc. As someone who supports Obama and deeply admires Krugman, I find this a very unfortunate turn of events, but I don’t think interest played any role in it. (It’s not, after all, like Krugman had the ear of Bill Clinton.)

I think that’s substantially right. (Another reader points out that the Obama campaign’s silly “oppo research” directed at Krugman might play a role in Krugman’s continuing hostility, which would be natural.) Of course, if your concern about Obama was that he was going to be too much “kumbaya,” his recent successes at getting under John McCain’s skin ought to be somewhat reassuring. But, as Cosma notes, “Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: