The problem with appeals to authority

First of all let’s get one thing out of the way—mea culpa.  I’ve done appeals to authority, and I’ve attacked authority.  However I don’t recall doing both at the same time, on two closely related points.  Here’s Paul Krugman explaining the anti-Keynesian bias in economics:

I’m told by younger colleagues, in particular, that anything bearing on the business cycle that has even a vaguely Keynesian feel can be counted on to encounter a very hostile reception; this creates some big problems of relevance for proper journal publication under current circumstances.

I understand that Krugman is frustrated by the anti-stimulus bias of the VSPs who dominate the media, government, and academia.  I am too (albeit on monetary policy, not fiscal policy.)  Indeed I’m sympathetic to the pro-blogger message of his entire post.  So don’t take what I am going to do next in the wrong way—it’s OK to be in the minority.

Now let’s look at how Krugman describes the consensus, when he’s attacking conservatives:

There are, however, a lot of largely empirical questions whose answers need not, in principle, be associated with one’s position on this left-right divide but, in practice, are. A partial list:

1.The existence of anthropogenic climate change
2.The effects of fiscal stimulus/austerity
3.The effects of monetary expansion, and the risks of inflation
4.The revenue effects of tax cuts
5.The workability of universal health care

I’ve deliberately chosen a list here where the evidence is, in each case, pretty much overwhelming. There is a real scientific consensus on 1; the evidence of the past few years has been very strong on 2 and 3; there are no serious studies supporting the view that we’re on the wrong side of the Laffer curve; one form or another of UHC operates all across the advanced world, with lower costs than the US system.

Now Krugman does not say exactly what the consensus is on fiscal stimulus/austerity, monetary expansion, inflation, revenue effects of tax cuts.  But I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Krugman believes, and more importantly that Krugman’s readers are led to believe, that the modern consensus on these issues is basically Keynesian, and not Austrian, monetarist, RBC, new classical, supply-sider, Marxist, etc.

Perhaps there is no direct contradiction.  I suppose one could argue that the consensus is Keynesian on policy but anti-Keynesian on modeling techniques.  But even so it raises questions as to the reliability of appeals to authority.  If we are to reject conservatives out of hand because they don’t accept the consensus view of modern macro, what are we to make of those young Keynesians that can’t get published?

Take global warming, where I agree with Krugman.  Even the strongest supporter of the consensus on global warming would have to agree that climate science has some similarities to macro. Both deal with highly complex systems where it is difficult to do controlled experiments.

Even though I support a carbon tax, I don’t have a high degree of confidence that my preferred policy is superior to waiting 25 years and hoping for a breakthrough technology, or else doing geoengineering if we don’t get it.  (BTW, that’s the policy the world has actually decided to do, in case anyone is interested.  But I’d still sleep better at night with a carbon tax.)

I don’t expect Krugman to agree with all the conservatives mentioned in the posts he links to.  But it would be nice if he took enough time to sympathetically look at their arguments so that he wasn’t just dismissing them out of hand, as if they were a bunch of GOP lackeys.  I’ve read most of them, and they are very bright and thoughtful intellectuals.  Instead he writes posts bragging that he tries to avoid reading conservatives because they have nothing useful to say.  Krugman’s an incredibly skilled blogger in certain respects, but would be even better if he could become as open-minded as some of the other elite bloggers.



12 Responses to “The problem with appeals to authority”

  1. Gravatar of Jason Jason
    27. May 2013 at 11:14

    As I read this

    2.The effects of fiscal stimulus/austerity

    I think the “consensus” on austerity Krugman is referring to is that it ranges from negative to zero impact. I thought the consensus was that fiscal stimulus was ineffective most of the time but ranged from zero to positive impact at the zero lower bound. The “conservative” message from the GOP is that stimulus is negative and austerity is positive for growth

    3.The effects of monetary expansion, and the risks of inflation

    I think the consensus Krugman describes here is that monetary expansion is not inflationary under current conditions and that the effect monetary policy ranges from no impact at the zero lower bound to positive impact. The “conservative” message is that monetary policy has a negative impact.

    I think that Krugman is referring in general to the “consensus” as being that there are a set of views consistent with a monetarist perspective and a set of views consistent with a Keynesian perspective and that the “conservative” GOP view is inconsistent with with a consistent monetarist or consistent Keynesian view. There does appear to be a good deal of evidence that fiscal austerity is bad when combined with tight monetary policy and Bernanke has even suggested that Congress could help the Fed out with fiscal policy (at the zero lower bound) — not to say this is wrong or right. The view that monetary policy is everything is not the consensus view as far as I can tell.

    There is some room for a consistent “conservative” view that fiscal stimulus and monetary policy both do nothing in the short run (taking the zero impact options above) and that “austerity” does not hurt in the short term and will eventually lead to growth in the long run, but nobody (left or right) seems to advocate that. (AFAIK?)

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. May 2013 at 12:20

    Jason, The Keynesians and monetarists don’t agree on fiscal stimulus. So what is the “consensus?”

    You said:

    There is some room for a consistent “conservative” view that fiscal stimulus and monetary policy both do nothing in the short run (taking the zero impact options above) and that “austerity” does not hurt in the short term and will eventually lead to growth in the long run, but nobody (left or right) seems to advocate that. (AFAIK?)”

    I thought that was the view of lots of RBC and new classical economists? Although perhaps they wouldn’t claim these policies had ZERO effect in the short run, but then neither would any conservative intellectual I ever met. Or let me put it this way–it seems to me that lots of conservatives lie somewhere along the Austrian/RBC/new classical/monetarist spectrum. Don’t they?

  3. Gravatar of Felipe Felipe
    27. May 2013 at 12:44

    Even the strongest supporter of the consensus on global warming would have to agree that climate science has some similarities to macro. Both deal with highly complex systems where it is difficult to do controlled experiments.

    The methodological difference between macro and climate science would be that climate scientists a long time ago decided that an equation system that is algebraically solvable in 2 or 3 pages produces junk results, and then opted for large scale simulation.

  4. Gravatar of Petar Petar
    27. May 2013 at 13:07

    If he ever needs it, I invite Krugman to try croatian 100% “free” health care….

  5. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    27. May 2013 at 15:25

    Unfortunately on the point of GW, people are rarely clear on the question being asked and causal chain between temperature and the necessity of action.

    There is a big climb down in the works. See “Energy budget constraints on climate response” published in nature geoscience with a very mainstream author list. The punch line, the best estimate for the transient climate response in this new paper is 1.3C/doubling of CO2 (95% ci of 0.9-2.0). The canonical estimate in the AR4 was 3C. 1.3C is a number so low that partisans favoring carbon controls used to concede this magnitude was a do nothing value. Now the argument is pivoting, the claim is that there is more than enough carbon in the ground to quadruple CO2 levels, so we eventually reach doom, it will just take much longer. So we had better still act.

    Watch the pea carefully going forward, the science was always well short of a consensus on the magnitude of the warming. What we are seeing is a rehash of the oil drop experiment, expect increasingly low estimates to emerge in the future as it becomes socially accepted that the true value might be lower than had been accepted in the past.

  6. Gravatar of Syd Syd
    27. May 2013 at 17:44

    But with the exception of, perhaps, climate change, Krugman *doesn’t* appeal to authority. I notice from previous comment threads you despair for the reading skills of many of your commenters. In this case it’s you who needs to read more carefully. The operative word in Krugman’s post is “evidence,” not “consensus.” The difference renders this whole post inane. With regards to his point number 2 in particular, any casual reader of his blog/columns knows he doesn’t consider his views to be part of any consensus. The very fact that some of these issues are still up for debate when the evidence in one direction is overwhelming is, in fact, what animates a lot of his vitriol. There’s nothing even approaching a contradiction here.

  7. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    27. May 2013 at 17:55

    “Take global warming, where I agree with Krugman. Even the strongest supporter of the consensus on global warming would have to agree that climate science has some similarities to macro. ”

    There is another similarity to macro: intelligent people who want to debate global warming and the options are taking to the blogosphere, because neither political party is willing to have an intelligent debate.

    Take the “consensus” question. 97% of scientists agree that carbon dioxide “affects” the climate. Great! Now what?

    It’s a completely infantile question, does CO2 “affect” the climate, but we are supposed to accept that question as the dividing line between the intelligentsia believers and the neanderthal deniers. Once we agree there’s an effect, we are supposed to have unquestioning trust that the government will solve it.

    The question that have substance are the quantification of the amount of warming we can expect, the costs of that warming, the costs of mitigation, and ways to speed innovation. All numbers questions, not “consensus” or “belief” questions.

    If you believe in EMH, you’d notice the market is already doing what you’d expect under conditions of high uncertainty: it’s refusing to invest in capital intensive projects where the capital might become stranded. These include coal and nuclear plants, pipelines (rail is less capital intensive), old solar panel tech, and electric cars that probably aren’t durable especially in very warm or very cold climates. These last two things really piss off the greens, who don’t agree with the market’s refusal to invest in likely inferior technologies.

    What is the market investing in? Efficiency (think LED lightbulbs) and natural gas turbines (low capital intensity for stranding, albeit higher operating cost, and marginally cleaner).

    If you want to do more, you have to start advocating things that really sound unpleasant. Like regulating house size, banning transcontinental vacations, or as some environmental groups advocate, reducing global population by half. Or raising a carbon tax so high that, at the margin, it accomplishes some of the former. Europe has smaller homes and smaller cars and shrinking population, but energy taxes haven’t done anything to spur innovation there; America is arguably innovating faster than Europe. This debate doesn’t make for good soundbites, though. Expect the Republicans to kick the can as long as they can get away with it, and expect the Democrats to focus on an infantile “consensus” as long as they can get away with it.

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. May 2013 at 18:23

    Syd, That’s a good point and I admit that I didn’t notice that. But if you are right it makes his entire post pretty nonsensical and meaningless.

    If there is no consensus among economists that the conservatives are wrong, then why shouldn’t Krugman consider their arguments very carefully? And if the climate consensus is important, why isn’t the anti-Keynesian consensus important? I think Krugman himself probably overlooked your observation, as it would make his post into a series of non-sequitors.

    Everyone, Interesting observations on global warming, but I don’t have time for that complex debate.

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    28. May 2013 at 05:43

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  10. Gravatar of TallDave TallDave
    28. May 2013 at 09:17

    The problem with 1. is similar to the overall problem. Virtually everyone agrees that Man has added CO2 to the planet and that said CO2 has some warming effect. But within that range there are people saying CO2 warming is logarithmic, ameliorated by feedbacks, and necessary to stave off the next glaciation to prevent the extinction of the human race and other people who claim the warming is exponential, amplified by feedbacks, and likely to cause suffering on a massive scale.

    And of course it is quite easy to find support for either position in the data, because forecasting climate is little better than guesswork, even in the past (the temperature for July 1937 changes every month, check GISS if you don’t believe me)… much like economics.

  11. Gravatar of TallDave TallDave
    28. May 2013 at 09:38

    Syd — if Krugman’s argument is supposed to be empirical, then it makes even less sense. His argument for the evidence on 1 is… the existence of consensus. The weight of the “evidence” on some of the others actually argues strongly against his claims.

    As with all things Krugman, it’s never clear whether he’s so far into the left-wing echo chamber that he honestly doesn’t realize the existence of strong evidence against his preferred beliefs or just wants his readers to be.

  12. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    28. May 2013 at 09:52


    Much as you have said “there is no such thing as public opinion”, there is no such thing as “scientific consensus.”

    If there really was a consensus, then we wouldn’t be here throwing our different opinions around.

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