We Need More Paul Krugmans

By this, I don’t mean that we need more liberal economists.  We need more versions of the 1990 era Paul Krugman, someone with expertise who can be an ambassador of economic ideas to the general public.  Much of Krugman’s writing in the  nineties was so great because he not only wrote about current events, but really tried to pass on lessons about economics in the process.

Instead, one of the most influential economic writers today is Robert Samuelson, who has featured economic columns in both The Washington Post and Newsweek.  The problem with Samuelson is that he’s never received formal training in economics and has never taken the time to learn the basics.  He graduated with a BA in government from Harvard in 1967, and then began his career as a journalist writing about economic issues.  Since then, he has survived by trying to be the “reasonable moderate” on issues while working in his own pet theories.  Economists who read his stuff often complain about how ill-informed it is (and really, it isn’t hard to find economists complaining about Robert Samuelson), but he has a much bigger forum than all of them, save Krugman.

Samuelson’s lack of familiarity with empirical economic research has led to some very weird pet theories.  For instance, he believes that tax cuts are more effective as stimulus when given to the rich, because the rich will use the money to buy things like houses.  Once they buy a house, they will have to buy things such as new furniture and end up spending way more than the original tax cut.  The poor, on the other hand only spend on necessities, and in the best case will only spend the full tax cut.  He also believes that it was LBJ’s economic policy which caused the stagflation of the 1970’s (he even wrote a whole book on it), apparently unaware that most research points to artificially low interest rates, adverse oil shocks, and a productivity slow down as the (probable) culprits.

I realize that a post where I’m just complaining about Robert Samuelson is not that interesting, so here’s the main point: why is this the case?  Are there simply no economists who have the desire to write on a weekly basis about these topics?  Do they lack the ability to write lucidly about them?  Or is there simply a greater demand for Samuelson’s style of writing?  Perhaps macroeconomics is in such turmoil right now that it’s just difficult to find an economist who can write what looks objective to an audience of uninformed readers, he will always appear to be favoring one side or the other.  In any case, we’re facing a host of complex economic problems, and an informed public seems crucial for making good choices to deal with them.  Unfortunately, it seems like Robert Samuelson will be doing a lot of that informing.


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