Sunday, March 08, 2015

Pseudo-Knowledge

I am reading an old book at the moment: Paul Krugman's Pop Internationalism. I often find that "in the moment" books like this one (Pop Internationalism's moment is probably 1994 or so) are really valuable reads later on if they're written by people who really know their stuff. Like reading Habermas on the socio-economic transition of the 1970s. It doesn't have the benefit of temporal perspective, but it does have a better connection to the lived experience, and folks like Krugman and Habermas provide a lot of interesting perspective just in how they contextualize an issue.

Krugman was in an interesting place in the early 1990s--he was respected, he had written some very good economics on trade, he was a good writer, and he was a liberal. But he found himself feeling like an outsider as the Clinton administration geared up in 92/93.
"My epiphany came at that famous economic summit in Little Rock in 1992," Krugman said. "A lot of stuff said there was clearly silly. I had been aware that pop economics writers had a much bigger audience than good economists. But I did not take that seriously because I thought that anyone who really mattered would know the difference. That turned out not to be the case."
Several of the major tenets of the economists pushing Clinton's domestic policy, were, according to Krugman, completely false. Demonstrably false. In fact, well known to be false among other economists.

What is surprising is how much traction the bullshit view (that trade was the major cause of America's economic dulldrums) could get in the face of the fact that it couldn't really justify itself to anyone with even a little skepticism. In fact, Krugman, who was representing mainstream economics against the champions of wishful thinking (Lester Thurow, among many others), gets labelled a "contrarian" in the supposedly sophisticated policy press.

Groupthink in action? I've seen it myself--executives who take a "facts don't matter, this is what we're doing" approach (though they don't have the honesty or courage to say that, of course), but it is interesting, and pretty scary, to see it taking place at the highest levels.

I am reminded of the ascendancy of Henry Kissinger, who rose as an academic as the hot young foreign policy realist, but when he started to make his way in Washington he started advocating and championing completely un-realistic foreign policies and pretending they were realistic by constantly making reference to "credibility" as a justification. It was kind of an intellectual black hole.

People who fear technocrats can be reassured--experts are only in Washington as window dressing. No one listens to actual expertise.