Friday, June 8, 2012

Krugmania

I've been getting hot under the collar lately.

People got excited about Krugman's newsnight appearance. Fair enough. He's the Boss of economic commentators. But an economics discussion that folk were still tweeting about a week after it happened? Something is going on here. It's Krugmania.

Oh, if only politicians would listen to His wisdom. His modest ways, his stumbling speech. We trust him instinctively. He's John Peel's american cousin who got hooked on Keynes rather than the Cocteau Twins. He's a force for good against the evil of the right-wing, rent-seeking, profit obsessed, monied, warmongering, child-molesting, hamster-stamping, racist elite that conspire to make each of our lives miserable. Imagine if He was President of the World. Justice, peace and prosperity would be upon us and poverty would be history.

In case you're the one person who hasn't seen it, here's it is.



At 1:24 Jeremy makes me cringe. "I don't know why you're shaking your head." He says to Andrea Leadsom. "This is a Nobel prize winning economist!". Even John Moulton prostrates himself before the wisdom of the Krugman.

[Oh, by the way, the argument they're having is as follows. Krugman says the government should spend money to get out of recession, Moulton and Leadsom say they shouldn't.]

Anyway, I need to calm down.

And I need to say this plainly. It's not Krugman I'm annoyed with. It's You!

Have you ever seen the Life of Brian? Well, Krugman is Brian, a very naughty boy. And you lot are what propel him to the status of Messiah. Not helped of course by the twelve inch cock of a Nobel Prize that throbs in his pants. He doesn't have to get it out and slap it in our faces, he doesn't even have to allude to it. Just knowing it's there is more than enough. If you look closely enough at the video you'll see Paxman salivating at the thought of it. A man with a twelve inch cock. On My Show !

Let's forget the fact that Hayek and Friedman have got one too (a Nobel Prize that is - I'll let go of the cock metaphor now). Let's ignore the fact that they'd be saying something very different to Krugman. But please, please, let us remember Hayek's warning about the idea of a Nobel Prize in Economics*. Don't worry, no quote. Hayek's a dry old stick and doesn't deliver the snappiest of phrases. Just the title of his Prize Lecture - 'The Pretence of Knowledge'.

You can't blame Krugman for any of this. What's he to do? Refuse his Nobel Prize? Say no to the Newsnight interview because the debate won't be scientifically rigorous? He's doing his job, and doing it well. I like the cut of the man's jib. I was a bit disappointed with his response post newsnight. He claimed that his opponents in the arguments over austerity were just following a 'small government' (i.e. libertarian) agenda. I'm not saying he's right or wrong about it. There just seems little point in debating these things if you're only going to end up calling into question your opponent's motivations.

But then it's hard for Krugman. As the Blessed One, everyone wants to take a crack at him. There was a big row recently (less noticed by the mainstream media) between him and Steve Keen (who comes from a very different place to Moulton and Leadsom). Any Messiah is going to have his share of disaffected followers. If you're a wannabe messiah pitting yourself against the Blessed One is a great play. There's even an economic theory for it - it explains why the best place to set up a new shoe shop is next to an existing shoe shop. I've forgotten what its called and I don't want reminding, OK?

Of course sometimes things don't work out well for Messiahs. Especially when they claim they really are the son of God. Krugman has avoided this. In fact, when I first came across Krugman's writing as an undergraduate it was, in a sense, his humility that impressed me. He kept things simple. He wrote, as much as possible, in plain English. Said what he thought. You only have to read a few Economics blogs, a couple of newspaper articles to realise how easy most economists find it to speak in tongues. Those that don't succumb to this temptation should be cherished. Cherished, but not worshipped.

At the heart of all this there's a moral question. I think people fall in love with Krugman - I think there's Krugmania - because they like the answer he gives to that moral question. Some people are starving. "Then feed them", says Krugman. "We can grow more grain". What casts doubt in the mind of the farmers is that next year the harvest may fail, and their families may starve. If I were Krugman I'd be tempted to lead a quiet life, like most of the other Nobel Prize winning economists. I suspect that it's his believe in the rightness of his arguments and, even more so, in the righteousness of his answer to that moral question that drives him. But these are not exceptional characteristics.

No, as I said. The problem doesn't lie with Krugman, it lies with You. Or rather, it lies with Us. There's something in our social patterns that leads us to create the Messiahs. And usually it's around Money. Since civilisation began Money has remained an unresolvable puzzle - a paradox. So we look to prophets to guide us through it to the promised land - to the place where there is no longer distance between desire and satisfaction. But they're leading us blindly. And they'll have to take the blame when we get fed up of walking. Then we'll find a new Messiah.

"..money seems to be the most frequent and convenient axis on which millenarian movements turn."
Kenelm Burridge New Heaven, New Earth (1969) p.146

Can I suggest something then? Rather than Krugmania. Rather than elect Krugman as President of the World - or indeed a logical conclusion of the fetishism of the Nobel Prize would be to suggest that the Swedish Academy Of Sciences actually take over the global economy, after all they award the prizes. Rather than being propelled to walk on blindly by our belief in the possibility of economic paradise born of a technical expertise in the study of economics. Can we instead just stop a moment, and all think a little more deeply about money? After all, it seems quite important.

We could start for example by demanding that anyone who claims to be an economist tweet in 140 characters or less what they think money is (well, actually 127 characters or less once you includes the #whatismoney hashtag). It'd be lovely if other experts on Money - the ones that use it everyday (that is, all of us) - did the same. But economists particularly should be made to do it as an initiation into the Econ Tribe. Nail their colours to the mast, so to speak.

To start the ball rolling here's mine. 

"Money is to price, as gravity is to weight. #whatismoney"

I was going to go for something like, "Money is both the fundamental element and product of social reality. #whatismoney". But that's hardly plain speaking, is it? Neither would be saying that "Money is a commodity used to facilitate exchange", or "Money is a social relation expressed through exchange". I mean, tweet what you like, obviously, but I'm just trying to point out that explaining what you think money is, is no use if its meaning is buried too deeply.

Saying it simply is much more of a challenge. That would make a good Krugmantra.

One last thing. Don't start your tweet "Money is just...". If there's one thing we all know, it's that Money ain't just anything.


*The Nobel Prize in Economics was established in 1968 by the Swedish Central Bank. The other Nobel Prizes, like the one Einstein won, have been awarded since 1901.



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