Nation of Beancounters

Consequences, motives and I remember why I don’t like Krugman

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on November 6, 2011

A very old but always relevant post reminds me about the difference between attacking character and attacking an argument:

Suppose I were to say, “We should abolish the minimum wage. That would increase employment and enable more people to climb out of poverty.”

There are two types of arguments you might make in response. I call these Type C and Type M.

A hypothetical example of a Type C argument would be, “Well, Arnold, studies actually show that the minimum wage does not cost jobs. If you read the work of Krueger and Card, you would see that the minimum wage probably reduces poverty.”

A hypothetical example of a Type M argument would be, “People who want to get rid of the minimum wage are just trying to help the corporate plutocrats.”

Paul, my question for you is this:

Do you see any differences between those two types of arguments?

I see differences, and to me they are important. Type C arguments are about the consequences of policies. Type M arguments are about the alleged motives of individuals who advocate policies. 

In this example, the type C argument says that the consequences of eliminating the minimum wage would not be those that I expect and desire. We can have a constructive discussion of the Type C argument — I can cite theory and evidence that contradicts Krueger and Card — and eventually one of us could change his mind, based on the facts.

Type M arguments deny the legitimacy of one’s opponents to even state their case. Type M arguments do not give rise to constructive discussion. They are almost impossible to test empirically.

The rest of the (very) good article gives us many instances where Krugman (who’s textbook, blog and 90s writing I still enjoy) has used Type M arguments. It ends with the consequences of such arguments:

One consequence is to lower the level of political discourse in general. You have a lot of influence with those who sympathize with your views. When they see you adopt type M arguments, they do the same.

Conversely, many of your opponents are stooping to your level. I see type M arguments raised by many of your enemies on the Right. As horse manure draws flies, your columns generate opposition that is vindictive and uninformed.

Another consequence is to lower the prestige and impact of economists. We are trained to make type C arguments. Instead, you are teaching by example that making speculative assessments of one’s opponent’s motives is more important than thinking through the consequences of policy options. If everyone were to use such speculative assessments as the basis for forming their opinions, then there would be no room for economics in public policy discussions.

You could express your point of view using type C arguments and still take strong stands for what you believe is right. In fact, you might find that doing so would make you more effective. Even if that is not the case, even if there is a sort of media version of Gresham’s Law in which specious reasoning drives out careful analysis, then that is a challenge for all of us who are trained as economists. I believe that we have a professional duty to try to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Incidentally, I can think of one scenario in which Type M may be useful: when someone asks “if this is so obvious, why do people do the opposite nonetheless?” Since I’ve never seen anyone ask this question, it remains strictly theoretical.

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