How To

How to Beat a Dead Horse, by Nobel Economist Paul Krugman


How to Beat a Dead Horse, by Nobel Economist Paul Krugman

Photograph by Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Part of the answer is paying attention to events, looking for the illustration, looking for the dramatic motivating example. It kind of helps to use various people as foils. If someone has said something that’s demonstrably at odds with experience or just demonstrably stupid, I use it. Jean-Claude Trichet [former president of the European Central Bank] delivered some wonderful quotes. Olli Rehn [vice president of the European Commission] has been doing beautifully helpful quotations. I’m not being unfair to him. The austerity thing has been helped on a great deal as an argument by unfolding events in Europe. In 2010 it was based mostly on the logic of the case, not the evidence. Now I can say, “Look, you’ve done this thing. Look what’s happened. Look at Britain. Look at Portugal.”

Metaphors, if you can find good ones, are helpful. Sometimes you can mull over an issue for years before the right thing comes to you. “Confidence fairy” has been a good friend to me. That one just came out of the blue in 2010. “Zombie ideas” is not original with me, but it’s been very useful.

It also helps if you’re going to make the same point many times that it’s a very important point worth making.

More on the blog than in the column, I follow research. When there’s new papers, that can be helpful. The ideas evolve, too. I wasn’t thinking much about the importance of having your own currency at first. I learned about that a couple of years into this Don Quixote role—some mixture of Don Quixote and Cassandra. One thing about Cassandra is that she was always right. A lot of what I’ve been doing is telling people they’re about to make a terrible mistake, watching them make the mistake, and then saying, “See, you made a terrible mistake.”

With austerity we’ve had this monstrous exercise in unethical human experimentation. I came out with some assertions that were very much at odds with what other people were saying. The duration of the slump, the likely path of interest rates and inflation. I haven’t batted a thousand, but it’s been pretty good. This having-been-right thing helps sustain me in pounding on the issues.

I do mix it up once in a while. I may have reached the point where I need to mix it up quite a lot. To some extent, people have gotten the message. My next column will be about food and recipes. No. Anyway, something different.

A lot of it’s just persistence. In any kind of communications profession, the point is above all to have something to say. I look at a lot of people in the punditry business and I think they’re trying to be clever and counterintuitive. They’re viewing themselves as being in the entertainment business. That’s not what it’s about. From a professional standpoint, you end up with a dedicated readership if you actually stand for something and stick to your guns. Don’t give up just because other people don’t like what you’re saying. —As told to Peter Coy

Krugman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, is a columnist for the New York Times. 


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