The Krugman Function

October 17, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

Fresh thinking is difficult to perform and is often poorly received, but is not without some pleasures as well.  One can expect a distinct combination of frustration and satisfaction when toiling from within a new paradigm that is struggling for its first foothold on the long and hopeful ascent towards conventional wisdom and widespread acceptance.  Such frustrations become more acute, and in some cases reflect mortal danger, when the old-guard starts hurling large rocks and boulders down upon you, without bothering to see who is coming up behind them, nor why.   

This asymmetry between power and influence, on the one hand, and awareness and insight is, perhaps, the crux of this matter.  If you are a fresh thinker, you know who the old-guard is and what they believe.  You are familiar with their assumptions, techniques, and their writing and thinking strategies, and have organized your own ideas with a broad understanding of the similarities and differences, the various presuppositions and unquestioned assumptions, and a far more comprehensive understanding of the historical context which you share in common.  The old-guard defenders of a broken paradigm and worn-out conventional wisdom, in contrast, seem not to understand their own thought, and they certainly don’t understand yours.  They aren’t aware of the fairy-tale theories, shabby research, and frayed logic that are holding up a precarious superstructure, though if they bothered to read your books and articles, they could.  And yet they enjoy the ear of a wide audience and the economic and political elites, and, in many cases, are bequeathed with generous stipend for their regularly releases of the same old story—a story built on the same old fantasy, shrouded once again beneath a foggy air of seriousness, obscured by the rustle of awards, Nobel Prizes, and honorary degrees.  With a wave of the blessed hand, these guardians at the gates of insight can dismiss your years of meticulous research, performed in the absence of any real compensation: the new paradigm, they will tell their thousands of readers, is not worthy of serious attention.  These people, they will say, don’t know how the world really works.  They are escapees from the asylum of crackpots and wingnuts and are now rushing suicidally at the walls of reason and experience.

This frustration is of course lightened from time to time with the knowledge that you could write rings around these people (and have) with your new story that not only explains what they think, but why they probably think it.  A frustration not unlike this, I am guessing, accounts for Richard Heinberg’s preoccupation with Paul Krugman.  I say this not as a criticism, for I too am a bit obsessed with Krugman myself.  While Krugman does maintain a very privileged position at the heights of public commentary, and holds on to it without a whole lot of intellectual curiosity, he is an especially frustrating example, for me at least, because I cannot help but hold out the hope that he could, under the right conditions, “get it.”   He seems a good candidate for conversion to the new paradigm, his unquestioned consecration of economic growth ready for abandonment if we could only get him to consider the right question. 

An ethical openness, at any rate, is suggested by persona that Krugman projects, with his “conscience of a liberal” shtick.  He would seem to be even more dedicated to greater values of equality, pragmatic common sense, and an inclusive sense of social justice than to any specific economic theory.  Growth, one likes to think, is a tactic that he’d be willing to abandon as soon as he sees it is not working.  But try to tell him this, and he doubles-down on growth and concludes that you certainly do not understand the way the world really works.

I am grateful, as I imagine many in the de-growth or post-carbon paradigm are, to Heinberg’s persistence regarding Krugman.   Whenever I see another of Krugman’s more fanciful op-eds trilling down the main liberal highways of the world wide web, I can depend on a response several days later from the Post Carbon Institute’s senior fellow, with facts checked, cited sources fully read, silly assumptions labeled.  Heinberg is careful to keep relatively close to the facts, helping maintain the very important data-based orientation of, at least, a significant mainstream of the “deep sustainability” movement, or whatever we may choose to call it.   In his latest response to Krugman, for instance, Heinberg affirms, “I normally hesitate to guess at other people’s motives,” but he then fruitfully allows himself a bit more conjecture than  he normally might: Krugman’s motives, he suggests, are part of a “political agenda . . . driven by laudable sentiments,” and, more specifically, Heinberg speculates, by the economist’s belief that “that policy makers can never be persuaded to adopt climate protection policies if that requires reining in economic growth.”  This is interesting, but it leaves me wanting more.  How do laudable sentiments run aground so frequently within the paradigm of growth?  How deeply has the presumed necessity of economic growth planted its tendrils in other cultural values and needs?  What does Krugman see or believe that make him all the more resistant to abandoning the policy of permanent economic growth?  How strong a systematic connection might there in fact be between economic growth and the laudable liberal values that Krugman regularly expresses?

Heinberg does not venture here (though he of course has told the story and made the analysis in other places that might aid us in this quest).  His very brief foray into Krugman’s motives does reveal what Heinberg is doing and perhaps assuming, at least in his short-form rebuttals.  Working backwards from Heinberg’s assessment of Krugman’s political motives—Krugman’s concern about climate change, but his belief that climate policies that don’t permit continued economic growth are politically untenable—Heinberg seems to be trying to persuade the reader (or perhaps even Krugman himself) that we should maintain our concern about climate along with our other laudable liberal motives, but prove that there is no way to mitigate climate change and maintain economic growth. 

With this sort of syllogistic precision, Heinberg’s implied purpose seems to prove that since we cannot have both, and since we clearly can’t accept climate change, then our only remaining choice is to figure out some way to make de-growth politically feasible.   Krugman (or perhaps the sort of readers that trust his wisdom) remains an attractive target for this logical corrective because he seems to be moved by reason and by a deep-seated ethical concern, and his defection from the pro-growth paradigm would carry substantial weight.   

This is all well and good and in principle there is nothing here I can disagree with, though the argument implies–perhaps unwittingly or perhaps because of constraints of space–a certain simplicity that I believe does not actually exist.  It also sells our predicament short, and perhaps focuses our attention away more effective strategies or levels of understanding that would be highlighted if we bore a bit deeper into something a kin to Krugman’s motives or political agenda.  If we reckon with these motives more fully, we will see the way any such syllogistic reasoning is likely to bounce off the functional necessity of Krugman’s liberal suspension of climate, energy, and economic disbelief.  

In our next installment, we will submit Krugman’s laudable motives and his allegiance to economic growth to the analysis made possible by whole system thinking, which needs to be applied as much to intellectual paradigms as it does to ecological systems.

Photo credit: Wikipedia/Prolineserver GFDL 1.2

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: climate change, economic growth, Paul Krugman