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March 13, 2007

DeLong on Friedman

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Brad DeLong writes a lovely, short appreciation of Milton Friedman. (PDF alert. Link thanks to Marginal Revolution.) It's informative, elegant -- and an instructive contrast with Paul Krugman's recent New York Review of Books essay about Friedman, which I highlighted and had a wrangle with here.

Krugman and DeLong are similarly brilliant and have semi-similar political points of view. In their pieces, both include much in the way of acknowledgment of Friedman's contributions and importance. Yet, once all that has been said, what a difference between them.

In his piece, Krugman shows his usual inability to disagree without personalizing. When Krugman differs with someone, he seems to consider it a moral imperative to attack the character of his opponent. He and Friedman didn't differ; no, Friedman was "intellectually dishonest." (I've read a lot about Milton Friedman, including many bitter criticisms of him. Krugman is the only writer I've ever encountered to accuse Friedman of intellectual dishonesty.) Going aggressively on the personal attack is such a compulsive reflex for Krugman that I'm tempted to overdramatize and use the word "pathological" to describe it.

In his piece, DeLong provides helpful information, sincere appreciation, and a few nudges to his companions on the Democratic neolibby-left. "Hey," says DeLong, "it's genuinely worth wrestling with this Friedman guy, much as you may think of him as a devil figure. If you let yourself confront the Friedman phenomenon directly instead of dismissing it out of hand, you'll wind up at the least a better and a smarter Democrat."

But DeLong also doesn't hold back. He leaves you in no doubt about his disagreements with Friedman, which seem as substantial as Krugman's. He's also specific and direct about where he thinks Friedman's thinking comes up short. His piece is at least as forceful as Krugman's. Friedman and DeLong were opponents, after all. Yet DeLong, by contrast to Krugman, presents his differences with Friedman in a self-posssesed and urbane way. There isn't a word of personal attack in his piece, let alone any attempts at character assassination. He keeps the discussion on the plane of intellectual debate.

Incidentally, two quick points in an attempt to forstall potential detours. First, my quarrel isn't and wasn't with Krugman's politics or economics, which I have some sympathy for, but with his manner, which I find appalling. Second: I rather enjoy the popular, pro-wrestling side of politics. Michael Moore vs. Anne Coulter? Give 'em both bazookas and let's relish what follows. It's trashy spectacle, and (occasionally) good entertainment of a junky kind. Besides, I'm almost always happy when the political class disgraces itself. But aren't we -- 99% of the time, anyway -- entitled to expect civilized behavior from our public intellectuals?

Here's Brad DeLong's blog. Hmm, what to make of the fact that, at the top of his blog, he declares himself to be "A Fair and Balanced Economist Member of the Reality Based Community"? Is describing yourself in this way useful? Or kind of presumptuous?


Michael B., who is without any doubt whatsoever a "fair and balanced member of the reality-based culture-yak community"

UPDATE: Anna Schwartz and Edward Nelson protest Paul Krugman's NYRB essay on Milton Friedman, and Krugman responds.

posted by Michael at March 13, 2007


I'm going to remind myself that you do consider all points of view, Michael.

And, yes, I'm looking forward to seeing your film.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 13, 2007 12:13 PM

"Fair and Balanced" is a joking reference to Fox News' old mantra, and "reality-based community" has its origins in a old quote from a Bush aide mocking lefty journalists as living "in what we call the reality-based community". You can wiki both terms. Just FYI

Posted by: Steve on March 13, 2007 2:05 PM

I did enjoy Delong's essay, and prefer it to Krugman's for many of the reasons you mention, without necessarily thinking that Krugman's essay is as vile as you make out. As I recall, DeLong published a nice obit on Friedman at the time of his death as well.

I particularly liked the following observation: "And, if Friedmanís detailed study of the banking sector led him to make an exception from laissez-faire for this industry, who is he to say that a similarly detailed study of other industries would lead to similar conclusions about useful deviations from laissez-faire?"

DeLong is far from a wild-eyed government interventionist, but he does offer cogent critiques of market-only solutions to problems like the health care mess. You can see the influences that he's absorbed -- including Friedman -- in his own writing.

Posted by: Steve on March 13, 2007 3:02 PM

I think of it as kind of presumptuous...

This *is* the blogosphere, after all.


Posted by: Brad DeLong on March 13, 2007 3:11 PM

ST - All points of view and then some, darn it.

Steve -- That is a good passage, isn't it? DeLong makes a lot of good points.

Brad -- Where's your entrepreneurial spirit? A really sharp economist would turn that line into a logo and sell it on t-shirts.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 13, 2007 7:46 PM


I completely agree with your contrasting characterizations of the style of pop or policy econ argumentation of DeLong vs. Krugman.

I pretty much can't (or anyway don't want) to read Krugman anymore, because he's so often just so venemous. Unless that is I get the sense from others I respect that he's got a really insightful article up about something that't not primarily a hatchet job. I don't read DeLong all the time either, but I have no such aversions. The reason isn't political differences by style differences. Big time, consequential style differences.

Krugmen in his pieces for the NY Times and similar left of center higher IQ popular organs is so incredibly tendentious. He's arguing a political/econ brief, not weighing the evidence from a point of view. I just don't trust him. Pretty much ever.

Posted by: dougjnn on March 13, 2007 8:04 PM

If Krugman is the only economist you've seen accuse Friedman of intellectual dishonesty, I guess you haven't seen Murray Rothbard's take.

Basically, Friedman systematically positioned himself as the very image of a modern libertarian economist, and did everything he could to delegitimize the Austrian School (Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, etc), whose ideas he had an unfortunate tendency to take credit for. It's not too much of a generalization to say that all of Friedman's good ideas come from Mises, whereas his bad ones are his own (or, more often, Irving Fisher's).

As for DeLong, he is certainly preferable to the egregious Krugman, but he also has a bad reputation for abusing the moderation of his comments section. Beware.

Posted by: Mencius on March 14, 2007 12:34 AM

If Brad DeLong is "Fair and Balanced" then so is Rush Limbaugh, but you're right; DeLong certainly has a political point of view, but he puts forth actual arguments in support of it, and his positions are sometimes heterodox. Krugman increasingly just slings mud, and I pretty much know the position he's going to take before I even read his column. You get the idea that DeLong believes that someone could disagree with him, and still be an intelligent, honorable person; Krugman seems to impute malice or stupidity, or both, to all who might disagree. I don't agree with either of them, but if DeLong had Krugman's column, the NYT would be a better paper...

Posted by: tschafer on March 14, 2007 3:43 PM

Nice you picked up on this column, no question it's much more gracious than Krugman's.

Posted by: MQ on March 15, 2007 1:47 AM

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