Truth-Telling and Persuasion: The Case of Paul Krugman


This morning I read (in print!) The Atlantic‘s review of Paul Krugman‘s new book Arguing With Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future.  The reviewer, Sebastian Mallaby, spends most of his review trying to figure out why Krugman is angry all the time.  Here is a taste:

In the introduction to this collection of mostly journalistic writings, Krugman contends that he didn’t change. Rather, politics did. Republicans lost respect for facts and data, turning politically neutral technocrats into involuntary foes. “In 21st-century America,” Krugman writes, “accepting what the evidence says about an economic question will be seen as a partisan act.” He began to feel this viscerally before the period covered in this volume: George W. Bush anticipated the revolt against experts when he sold his tax-cut proposal dishonestly during the 2000 election campaign. But since then Krugman’s frustration has only grown deeper.

In the Obama years, technocrats determined that the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying in a depressed economy wouldn’t generate dangerous inflation, but “the official Republican view,” Krugman tells us, was that the Fed was being irresponsible. In the Trump presidency, technocrats have pointed out the lack of support for the claim that tax cuts for high earners will generate prosperity, but Republicans have preached this gospel regardless. Commentators in this post-evidence, post-truth environment find themselves “arguing with zombies,” to cite Krugman’s book title. They confront “ideas that should have been killed by contrary evidence, but instead keep shambling along, eating people’s brains.”

Faced with these alarming undead adversaries, Krugman has concluded that politically neutral truth telling is not merely impossible. It is morally inadequate. He duly sets out four rules for engaged public intellectuals. First, they should “stay with the easy stuff,” meaning subjects on which experts have achieved consensus: This is where an authoritative commentator can improve public understanding by delivering a clear message. Second, they should communicate in plain English—no controversy there. Third, and a bit more edgily, Krugman insists that commentators should “be honest about dishonesty.” If politicians deny clear evidence, they should be called out for arguing in bad faith. Finally, Krugman proclaims a rule that flies in the face of traditional journalistic tradecraft: “Don’t be afraid to talk about motives.”

Read the entire review here.  It is a very interesting reflection on how to balance truth-telling and the defense of facts with persuading people to your point of view.  Krugman’s points about engaged public intellectuals is also helpful..