Vulgarnomics

by Don Boudreaux on November 13, 2011

in Economics, Seen and Unseen

David Henderson, over at EconLog, recently asked ‘Who is today’s Bastiat?’  (I take the question to mean who among still-living writers is today’s Bastiat.)  Here’s the bulk of what I wrote in the comments to David post:

Without question, there are only four serious candidates among the living for this distinct honor – and an honor it unquestionably is: Steve Landsburg, Russ Roberts, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams. (I exclude David Henderson only because he is the author of the post to which we are all responding.)

Because Bastiat was a genuine liberal, that fact helps us narrow – if we must – the list of candidates down to Steve and Russ, who are a bit more liberal (in modern language, libertarian) than are Sowell and Walter. Bastiat was fiercely on guard against government’s official justifications for going to war.

Steve is more in-your-face than is Russ. But, at the end of the day, I must give the honor to both: Steve and Russ share that honor.
…..
As for the claim [made by Karl Smith] that Krugman is a modern-day Bastiat, I must strongly disagree. Yes, like Bastiat, Krugman is passionate in pressing his position. But Bastiat was above all a (classical) liberal – and one ever-attuned to the unseen. Krugman fails magnificently on both counts. Moreover, unlike Bastiat, Krugman spends far too much effort fronting for a particular political party.

I want here to defend my exclusion of the post-2000 Krugman from such an honor.  (Krugman pre-2000 was much better, although I’m still not sure that he was so good as to qualify as today’s Bastiat.)

I begin by saying that Bastiat’s (genuine, classical) liberalism is relevant to this discussion only because it is inseparable from his economics.  Bastiat championed liberalism at least in part – and unmistakably – because he believed that free markets (which are a critical feature of a genuinely liberal society) are far superior to other economic arrangements at unleashing for the common good the forces of entrepreneurial competition and in coordinating the plans of consumers and producers.

Whether or not Bastiat was correct on this front is not here the issue.  What is the issue is that, for Bastiat, explaining the coordinating forces of the market – and, perhaps above all, clearing away the jungle of commonplace misperceptions that prevent people from seeing as clearly as possible just how markets work – was the very essence of what Bastiat was about.

Bastiat’s essence, therefore, was not that he wrote clearly, for audiences of non-economists, about economics.  It was not that he used humor frequently and effectively.  It was not that he was a master stylist.  No.  Bastiat’s distinguishing feature was his tireless effort to defend the case for free markets and free trade from the many vulgar misperceptions that prevent people from seeing the full play of market forces – and, likewise, that prevent them from seeing the full play of political interventions into market.

For this reason post-2000 Krugman is not close to being today’s Bastiat.

Krugman spends the bulk of his time today, when writing for the general public, assuring the general public that its economically untutored instincts are correct.

The general public, for example, naturally “sees” the beneficial effects of more government spending.  While Bastiat specialized in showing the general public that what it sees is only part of the picture, Krugman – vocal advocate of “stimulus” spending that he famously is – specializes in assuring the general public that the part of the picture that it naturally sees is, in fact, the full (or at least the most important part) of the picture.

Another example: The general public naturally “sees” that a low-priced Chinese renminbi makes Chinese goods more attractive to American consumers and, hence, reduces the demand for some American-made outputs.  Bastiat would have pointed out the unseen – the fact that many of these low-priced Chinese goods, used as inputs in America, allow some American producers to profitably expand their output; the fact that monies American consumers save because of lower-priced Chinese goods can be spent buying other goods and services, some of which are ‘made in America,’ that would otherwise be out of reach; the fact that that if Beijing truly is keeping the value of the renminbi too low the result will be inflation in China – which will eventually raise the prices Americans must pay for imports from China; and, most importantly, the fact that there’s very little difference from the perspective of Americans in China’s government subsidizing our consumption of Chinese-made goods and some natural source (say, a technological breakthrough) that lowers our cost of buying Chinese-made goods.

Krugman, in contrast, argues that Americans are harmed by the allegedly low-valued renminbi, and suggests that it would be wise policy for Uncle Sam to protect Americans from this harm.  Krugman today writes only what the ordinary, say, cab driver or restaurateur, unfamiliar with economics, would write about such matters (although he does so with more eloquence).  It’s what so many of them actually do write about such matters when their letters-to-the-editor appear in newspapers and magazines.

In these, and other, cases, Krugman remains content today to lend his name and professional creds to what might accurately be called “vulgarnomics” – economics as popularly understood by the economically untutored.  Government policies that forcibly raise the prices Americans pay for goods from China; policies that restrict Chinese investment in America; the need to rebuild following the 9/11 terrorist attacks; government regulation that strips businesses and consumers of a large range of mutually agreeable ways to contract with each other; deficit spending by government – these are examples of policies and circumstances that Krugman now routinely applauds and that the typical person untutored in economics naturally celebrates as good for the American economy.

This is economics from the perspective of the producer, as well as from the perspective of people who have difficulty comprehending the notion of spontaneous order (“economic creationists,” we might accurately name them).

It is an economics that Bastiat was familiar with – for vulgarnomics was, of course, on the loose in his day as in ours – and to which he devoted himself to destroying.  Krugman today, in direct contrast, is vulgarnomics’s premier peddler.

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{ 81 comments }

Jon Murphy November 13, 2011 at 2:02 pm

So, Don, just so I understand your argument:

You are arguing Krugman is unlike Bastait because, while Bastait tried to reveal the unseen aspects of economics to the general public, Krugman ignores (or downplays) this aspect?

Don Boudreaux November 13, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Sometimes it’s even worse: Krugman sometimes suggests that people who warn, as Bastiat did, of the unseen consequences of government interventions do so simply out of venal motives.

Jon Murphy November 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Yeah, I’ve noticed that about Krugman. He’s really started disappointing me. I had a ton of respect for him (although I didn’t agree with him), but in recent years, he’s been more dismissive of economic theories where before he would concede he may be wrong.

Don Boudreaux November 13, 2011 at 2:20 pm

His pre-2000 stuff was largely very good.

Doc Merlin November 13, 2011 at 2:59 pm

I blame his second wife. I have no good reason for this, but its the only thing I can come up with as to the about face.

Methinks1776 November 13, 2011 at 3:10 pm

It’s really tough for me to blame the actions of an adult on the influence of another adult – even if the other adult is some whacked out leftard yoga nut. Unless Krugman is so demented he can no longer make decisions for himself, his thoughts and actions are owned entirely by him. If he is so far gone, then we have a different problem altogether.

Jon Murphy November 13, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Well, since Krugman blogs for the NYT, and the NYT is a left-of-center newspaper, he must be getting paid to be a shill for their political agenda!

Methinks1776 November 13, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Maybe, Jon, but Greg Mankiw also writes a column for Pravda.

khodge November 13, 2011 at 3:17 pm

I read and article on him that said his wife vets his work, which suggest that Doc M’s suggestion is probably close to the truth.

Jon Murphy November 13, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Methinks, I was being sarcastic, mocking the idiots who make that claim about Russ and Don. You probably knew that.

Methinks1776 November 13, 2011 at 3:22 pm

I vet my husband’s work and he vets mine, yet neither of us thinks for the other. If Krugman gives her the final say merely because he’s married to her, then he is an idiot not worth listening to. If he gives her the final say because he believes she is correct, then he agrees with her and shares her opinion.

Methinks1776 November 13, 2011 at 3:24 pm

No, Jon, I didn’t get that. In my defense, this isn’t the first I’ve heard that proposed in all seriousness.

Jon Murphy November 13, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Then it is my fault, Methinks. We need a sarcastic notation.

I propose

Invisible Backhand November 13, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Methinks, I was being sarcastic, mocking the idiots who make that claim about Russ and Don.

“The corporations involved accounted for ‘about one half of the GNP of the United States’ during the 1970s, and they spent close to $900 million annually (a huge amount at that time) on political matters. Think-tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, the Center for the Study of American Business, and the American Enterprise Institute, were formed with corporate backing both to polemicize and, when necessary, as in the case of the National Bureau of Economic Research, to construct serious technical and empirical studies and political-philosophical arguments broadly in support of neoliberal policies.

Jon Murphy, would you like to guess where Russ works?

Invisible Backhand November 13, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Oops! There I go again. I am sorry Jon and Russ for the bad behavior of my evil Marxist other personality, Irritable Bowel. We are off our meds again. Well, back to the basement…er the Underground. My other personality feels safer there and he likes to call it The Underground instead of the basement. He is obsessed that some one named Ken is out to get him.

With Warmest Personal Regards,

Invisible Backhand

Jon Murphy November 13, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Actually, he’s kind of proving my point, so it’s fine.

Invisible Backhand November 13, 2011 at 2:13 pm

I would describe both Russ Roberts and Don Boudreaux as neoliberal.

Rick Hull November 13, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Gigantic producers as the Koch brothers are, shouldn’t Don logically accept and promote “economics from the perspective of the producer”? Shouldn’t he favor protectionist trade policies? That is, unless the premise for your existence is imaginary.

Invisible Backhand November 13, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Neoliberal theory conveniently holds that unemployment is always voluntary. Labour, the argument goes, has a ‘reserve price’ below which it prefers not to work. Unemployment arises because the reserve price of labour is too high. Sincethat reserve price is partly set by welfare payments (and stories of ‘welfare queens’ driving Cadillacs abounded) then it stands to reason that the neoliberal reform carried out by Clinton of ‘welfare as we know it’ must be a crucial step towards the reduction of unemployment.

All of this demanded some rationale, and to this end the war of ideas did play an important role. The economic ideas marshalled in support of the neoliberal turn amounted, Blyth suggests, to a complex fusion of monetarism (Friedman), rational expectations (Robert Lucas), public choice (James Buchanan, and Gordon Tullock), and the less respectable but by no means uninfluential ‘supply-side’ ideas of Arthur Laffer…”

Rick Hull, would you like to guess who is the Director of The Center For Study of Public Choice?

Rick Hull November 13, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Brother, you’re preaching to the choir with the virtues of classical liberalism.

Invisible Backhand November 13, 2011 at 9:28 pm

My bad. I shall correct myself. Not only does neoliberal theory speak of a worker’s “reservation wage,” below which he chooses not accept work, but leftist labor economists currently employed by the Obama administration speak of this, too. Alan Krueger, chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, co-authored a paper on unemployment and the policy question of extending unemployment insurance:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S157344200280012X

“The empirical work on unemployment insurance (UI) and workers’ compensation (WC) insurance finds that the programs tend to increase the length of time employees spend out of work,”

“the main labor supply effect of UI is to lengthen unemployment spells.”

“[I]ncreases in either the level or potential duration of benefits raise the value of being unemployed . . . reducing search intensity and increasing the reservation wage.”

“Higher and longer duration UI benefits will cause unemployed workers who receive UI to take longer to find a new job.”

My handlers at Anonymous and MoveOn.org may frown, but I would like to thank everyone here for listening. I fervently pray that you all accept my apology for making a horse’s arse of myself yet again.

Invisible Backhand November 14, 2011 at 12:43 pm

False. UI and WC are not welfare. You can’t intentionally quit your job get UI. It’s unbelievable to intentionally get injured to get WC.

Regards,
Ken

Invisible Backhand November 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm

You know, they say crazy is as crazy does, and my other personality, Irritable Bowel, is definitely crazy. Unemployment Insurance is welfare because it is not earned. Workers’ Compensation Insurance is for those who get injured in an accident at work. But, there is a whole industry of lawyers and doctors facilitating a large number of workers faking work-related injuries.

Invisible Backhand November 15, 2011 at 11:14 am

Unemployment Insurance is welfare because it is not earned.

You’re going to have headaches if you ever hear of something called ‘unearned income’.

Invisible Backhand November 15, 2011 at 11:19 am

Nah, but I knew that you could not understand the difference between income from savings and welfare payments from government’s theft from taxpayers.

Sam Grove November 13, 2011 at 9:34 pm

So…., you don’t have to think for yourself.

Steve November 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Don Boudreaux is today’s Bastiat.

Andy November 13, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Don should certainly be in contention, perhaps not on the very short list only because he is not as well known outside this blog.

Economic Harmonies November 13, 2011 at 9:33 pm

he is not as well known outside this blog.

C’mon man, give him some time! Don is more than 20 years younger than Walter Williams (who is 75), and almost 30 years younger than Thomas Sowell (who is 81).

Don Boudreaux November 13, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Thank you all. But I am no Sowell. Or Williams. (Or Roberts. Or Landsburg. Or Henderson.) And I’m not within a thousand miles of Bastiat.

Krishnan November 14, 2011 at 9:37 am

You are definitely “Don Boudreaux” and if you are say 1000 miles of Bastiat :) then you are still very close to the others cited – except Krugman who is is light years away – Your writing style reminds me of Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune (?) – So, keep it up!

vikingvista November 14, 2011 at 12:12 am

What I’d like to know is, who is today’s Molinari?

Bill November 13, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Walter Williams gets my vote.

Chucklehead November 13, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Steve Landsburg, Russ Roberts, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams are all worthy. The winner should be whoever has reached the most people with convincing arguments. It may be Sowell.

Krishnan November 14, 2011 at 9:38 am

I can see why Walter Williams irritates so many – He is so logical, so on point that it is impossible to argue with him … drives people crazy

vikingvista November 14, 2011 at 11:08 am

You’re right about his ability to reduce an issue to is simple irrefutable essence. I also think his unshakable cheerful good humor just further irritates the emotion-driven anti-rational people he debunks. Really, Walter Williams is the full package.

Dan J November 16, 2011 at 2:15 am

Sowell

Simply amazing at bringing clarity to complexity.

Methinks1776 November 13, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I agree with David Henderson’s selection.

vikingvista November 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Krugman as a modern Bastiat? But wasn’t Bastiat an economist?

mark November 13, 2011 at 3:30 pm

I’ve always enjoyed walter williams. When he hosts the Rush Limbaugh show is just about the only time I will listen.

Becky Hargrove November 13, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Krugman still has me shaking mad at the way he dissed supply side earlier today. I wish he understood how he puts the world a little closer to losing technology every time he does that.

Greg Webb November 13, 2011 at 4:08 pm

All five, including David Henderson, are excellent candidates for today’s Bastiat. And, Paul Krugman is a good candidate as premier peddlar of vulgarnomics, though I can think of several other good candidates.

GiT November 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm

How are these allegations of what the public ‘naturally sees’ at all credible?

‘The seen’ does not equal ‘what those I disagree with say.’
‘The unseen’ does not equal ‘what I say.’

That’s just a petty rhetorical strategy to play the victim. ‘My position is complex and nuanced and improves upon vulgar common sense! Their position just repeats the bromides of the common man! So look at me!’

Or, in other words, this is much more about being seen than it is about seeing things.

Please.

I’d find it equally plausible to believe that ‘the public’ ‘naturally sees’ government spending as wasteful and ‘naturally sees’ the price of Chinese goods as quite cheap. And, in fact, they do. Nearly 75% of Americans thought government spending should be cut in September. A 2009 poll had the average popular estimate of government waste at 50c to the dollar (how much they think businesses waste was not asked). A majority of Americans think increased global trade is good and recognize the beneficent effect it has on consumer prices.

There is nothing uniquely nuanced or insightful about ‘classical liberal’ insights. Everyone thinks what they advocate for is unseen. If everyone saw it already why would you waste your time advocating for it? Krugman thinks he’s arguing for what Don doesn’t see and Don thinks he’s arguing for what Krugman doesn’t see, when both of them probably see the other’s view and points well enough. We’re not dealing with blindness, we’re dealing with different ideas of where to direct one’s focus (and, perhaps, depth of field).

I’d call this confirmation bias but it’s not clear that any data has been consulted in determining what it is ‘the public’ sees and what it is it doesn’t see, or what ‘common sense’ and ‘vulgar opinion’ are or aren’t. It really seems a lot more like baseless fabrication, projection, and rhetorical posturing.

GhengisKhak November 13, 2011 at 5:54 pm

“The unseen” according to Bastiat refers to opportunity cost, which is seemingly unrelated to the way you are using it to form the basis for this rant.

GiT November 13, 2011 at 6:41 pm

I’m not talking about ‘the unseen’ in Bastiat. I’m talking about what people see and don’t see according to Boudreaux, which is more expansive in reference than opportunity costs, which sometimes people see and sometimes they don’t see. I’m talking about what ‘the general public’ ‘naturally sees’ and about people’s ‘many vulgar misperceptions’

And I’m talking about it in a way that plays with Bastiat’s term and the language of sight more generally. You’d see that if you had an eye for language, but alas, I’m stuck with your vulgar misperception.

Methinks1776 November 13, 2011 at 9:12 pm

You’re talking about rubbish.

GiT November 13, 2011 at 11:27 pm

You may be seeing rubbish, but that’s expected when one’s faculty of perception is as shoddy as yours. If you can’t see the point, you need glasses.

I’m talking about what Don wrote, which is his vulgar opinion of what counts as a vulgar opinion.

“Krugman spends the bulk of his time today, when writing for the general public, assuring the general public that its economically untutored instincts are correct.”

And then the definition of vulgarnomics:

“economics as popularly understood by the economically untutored”

There is no one ‘popular’ understanding of economics. There is no one ‘tutored’ understanding of economics. There is no one ‘natural’ understanding of economics. There is no one ‘instinctual’ understanding of economics. There is no one ‘vulgar’ understanding of economics. Since the adjectives comprehend a plurality of opinions, Krugman cannot univocally engage in their vindication. He may offer arguments that vindicate some subset of these opinions, but so does Bastiat, and everyone else.

Methinks1776 November 14, 2011 at 8:30 am

It’s a shame your caretakers let you go so long without medication.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 13, 2011 at 11:57 pm

You’d see that if you had an eye for language,

Its not any reader’s cognitive deficit that’s the issue here, its your inability to present a logical, coherent, clear argument. You are clearly discussing something you grasp poorly, if at all.

GiT November 14, 2011 at 12:21 am

The argument is simple, logical, and coherent. If you don’t get it, it quite simply is because you are an idiot.

Boudreaux argues Bastiat is essentially about remedying popular misconceptions about the market.

Boudreaux language reduces this to a definable set of mutually consistent misconceptions, held uniformly, by instinct and nature, by those who are untutored and vulgar.

But there are two problems.

There is no one uniform set of misconceptions upon which ‘tutored economic opinion’ agrees.

There is no one uniform set of perceptions upon which ‘vulgar opinion’ agrees, either by convention or by ‘nature/instinct.’

As such, someone’s defending one set of perceptions found among some subset of the vulgatis (the mob) is not proof that he is engaged in vindicating popular misperceptions.

GiT November 30, 2011 at 5:18 am

It’s a shame you’re illiterate.

Sean W. Malone November 13, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Actually, you are quite missing what the terms “seen” and “unseen” in this context means GiT. It’s not an “unseen” premise by the person arguing, but rather “unseen” or hidden effects of economic actions – both free & forced through policy – on other aspects of the economy.

For example, if I establish a price control on apples, the “seen” effect is that the price of apples goes down. This is the effect that happens just on the surface.

The “unseen” effect is that apple producers, unable to supply apples at the cost mandated by my price control run out of apples and go out of business, leaving – ultimately – a shortage to the consumer.

Bastiat put it this way:

“In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

http://www.econlib.org/library/Bastiat/basEss1.html

Now… Speaking as a media producer for free market issues, I can tell you first hand that I deal almost exclusively with what the public “sees” vs. what they don’t. It is the overriding challenge in presenting economic topics to most people.

For example, take the stimulus act.

Everyone can easily see the signs strewn about roadways across the US that say “___ project was funded by stimulus”, etc., and they say “Oh, great, that’s creating some jobs. Excellent!”

Unfortunately, no one sees the jobs that were destroyed now and into the future, as a result of the combination of current tax transfers, future taxes and inflation from printing the money that went to pay for those jobs. There’s no net gain, of course, and in reality the multiplier is less than 1.

What is seen & what is unseen is really not just an issue of viewpoint.

GiT November 14, 2011 at 12:01 am

As I’ve already said, no, I’m not. There’s an equivocation between the seen/unseen distinction in Bastiat and what common opinion sees and doesn’t see.

The argument is that Krugman justifies vulgar opinion.
But vulgar opinion does not equal opinion which does not pay attention to Bastiat’s seen/unseen.

Plenty of Americans see signs that say ‘this project was funded by stimulus’ and scream about their tax dollars being wasted on meaningless stimulus. Their reaction doesn’t mean they’re economically tutored, just as seeing the stimulus as stimulative doesn’t mean one is economically untutored.

‘The vulgar’ hold all sorts of opinions. Some of ‘the vulgar’ agree with Krugman and some of them agree with Boudreaux. Who they agree with doesn’t determine whether or not they’re ‘vulgar.’

Greg G November 14, 2011 at 8:07 am

Nothing is more of a direct appeal to “vulgar” or “untutored” public opinion about economics than the Austrian insistence that you can understand macro phenomena by simply studying micro. You constantly hear “the untutored” saying that Keynesian type fiscal policies are bad because “everyone knows” that families must “tighten their belts” at times like these.

Whether or not that is true, it is a direct appeal to the intuitions of the untutored. If it’s all about who is more tutored and less vulgar then why are there so many more professional economists who are Keynesian than Austrian?

Methinks1776 November 14, 2011 at 8:33 am

Idiotic.

Anna Comnena November 14, 2011 at 9:15 am

You constantly hear “the untutored” saying that Keynesian type fiscal policies are bad because “everyone knows” that families must “tighten their belts” at times like these.

Nice straw man argument!

. . . Austrian insistence that you can understand macro phenomena by simply studying micro.

Yes, you have to be untutored to think that you can understand macro (the whole economy) by understanding micro (the underlying components). After all, you cannot make up political-crony rewarding fiscal policies if you are tied to economic reality. Only the “tutored” can understand how such fiscal policies are best.

vikingvista November 14, 2011 at 11:14 am

“Nothing is more of a direct appeal to “vulgar” or “untutored” public opinion about economics than the Austrian insistence that you can understand macro phenomena by simply studying micro.”

Nothing is more of a direct appeal to “vulgar” or “untutored” public opinion about economics than the Keynesian insistence that you can understand macro phenomena by suspending the laws of economics revealed through micro theory, and directly embark upon a scientistic empirical understanding.

AU03 November 14, 2011 at 7:21 am

“A 2009 poll had the average popular estimate of government waste at 50c to the dollar (how much they think businesses waste was not asked).”

Since the US’ corporate tax rate is about the highest in the world, I’d imagine businesses waste quite a bit. Add in compliance costs (agency fees, extra employees) initiated by various federal, state, and local agencies, and I would say a whole, whole lot.

jpm November 13, 2011 at 6:41 pm

A rant is what that was but with unseen logic. ” Krugman thinks he’s arguing for what Don doesn’t see …We’re not dealing with blindness, we’re dealing with different ideas”

Bla bla bla ba Ginger. Krugman isn’t wrong he just has another idea. Why can’t we all just get along with the left and maybe just compromise and have a lower tariff and a lower tax increase. One Git would have Don and Krugman accept.

GiT November 13, 2011 at 7:13 pm

You do realize you’re posting on a blog which has just had a series of posts on confirmation bias?

Yes, it’s quite clear logic is something quite unseen for you.

Let me spell out the steps for you.

According to Don, Krugman is a vulgar economist because he preaches the opinion of the common ‘untutored’ man.

According to public opinion polling, Don is preaching the opinion of the common man.

One might infer, then, that Don is the vulgar economist.

Or one could, more appropriately, infer that what one takes to be ‘vulgar opinion’ is a simple example of confirmation bias. To paraphrase Hobbes, every man is equal in his conceit that he is himself wiser than all others.

Both Krugman and Boudreaux argue that their positions defy vulgar common sense. That’s because they both take vulgar common sense to consist in something different. Which is easy to do because ‘common sense’ is not monotonic and which varieties of common sense count as ‘vulgar’ can easily be decided ideologically. Different people believe all sorts of different things for very different vulgar reasons which they take to be common sensical.

According to Krugman it’s ‘vulgar common sense’ to tighten one’s belt in hard times, and so the government should do this – and he’s right, about 50% of the ‘vulgar masses’ think we should do that. According to Boudreaux it’s ‘vulgar common sense’ to spend and borrow one’s way out of a recession – and he’s right, about 50% of the ‘vulgar masses’ think we should do that.

What do we learn from this? That a position being allegedly ‘vulgar’ is no grounds for inferring what kind of economics someone is practicing, and that on the basis of a position being held by some for vulgar reasons, most any economic argument could be construed as ‘vulgar.’

John Muir November 13, 2011 at 8:48 pm

What do we learn from this?

That you do not know what you are talking about.

GiT November 14, 2011 at 1:20 am

Clearly, the only people here who don’t know what they’re talking about are those who think ‘vulgar opinion’ is uniform in character.

John Muir November 14, 2011 at 11:20 am

No, stupid git. It is vulgar opinion to think that getting drunk with government spending will cure the economy’s hangover.

Sean W. Malone November 13, 2011 at 11:20 pm

“According to public opinion polling, Don is preaching the opinion of the common man.”

Not in *any* of the polls I’ve seen.

Care to cite a few?

GiT November 14, 2011 at 1:08 am

I posted some links but I think links alert for potential spam so it isn’t coming through.

In any case, by some polls a majority of Americans think government is wasteful, think government spending should be cut, and support liberalized trade.

But in some sense that is beside the larger point, which is that the ‘vulgar’ opinion is not reducible to ‘the majority’ opinion in any case, and in fact ‘vulgar’ opinions can and are found in large number on either side of an issue.

GiT November 30, 2011 at 5:28 am

I suggest you pay closer attention to the meaning of words.

Whether ‘government spending cures problem x’ is vulgar opinion depends not upon whether or not the opinion is true, it depends upon who believes it and why they believe it.

If ‘the mob’ believes it for no good reason, then it’s vulgar opinion. Vulgar opinion can even be right. Many vulgar people’s vulgar opinion is that things fall because of gravity.

And, further, there is no one ‘vulgar opinion’ because there is no one opinion common to all the masses, so, in fact, there are many competing and contradictory vulgar opinions that are all equally vulgar, though perhaps not necessarily all equally wrong.

Greg Ransom November 13, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Add Tim Harford

Don Boudreaux November 13, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Indeed. Tim is superb.

Paul Andrews November 13, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Jens Weidmann (Bindesbank president) interviews like a Bastiat: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/b3a2d19e-0de4-11e1-9d40-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1dbc4HmHr

Christopher Fisher November 13, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Sir,
Please explain why Anthony de Jasay is not a “serious candidate”.
Thanks.

russell November 14, 2011 at 8:08 am

I know Don would never nominate himself for the title of today’s Bastiat, so I’ll do it. Don is like the Energizer Bunny when it comes to exposing economic illiteracy…

Miles Stevenson November 14, 2011 at 10:35 am

I can think of no other economist who does a better job defending the virtues of free trade than Don. Can anyone else? Whenever Don writes or speaks, the cockroaches of protectionism scatter to find shelter from the light.

I’ve always thought of Sowell as the Chuck Norris of logic. After reading Sowell, it just doesn’t seem intellectually feasible to hold any other position. His arguments are so cast-iron that if you find yourself deviating from Sowell, it means that you are probably wrong.

But Russ, you really are the modern day Bastiat. There is little room to doubt that. Nobody does a better job at exposing the power and pervasiveness of uncertainty.

Dan J November 16, 2011 at 2:20 am

Sowell is great.

SaulOhio November 14, 2011 at 1:39 pm

I’m reading Sowell’s “Ever wonder why? and Other Controversial Essays”. He gets my vote.

BTW, I was wondering why some liberals on other forums I am on have started quoting Bastiat as if his ideas support their own nonsense about labor unions, minimum wage, and so on.

vikingvista November 14, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Why do Democrats suddenly like to quote Ronald Reagan?

Dan J November 16, 2011 at 2:20 am

To get fiscally concerned dems or independents to reconsider dropping Obama and the aristocrats.

Methinks1776 November 14, 2011 at 3:12 pm

There’s only one explanation and I think we all know what it is. It explains why they’re libtards in the first place.

J. W. November 14, 2011 at 3:44 pm

The idea (so I think) is that people who don’t think like they do regard certain authors or books as authorities–sort of like how Christians regard the Bible. So, if Smith (for example) says X, the person who supposedly holds Smith to be an authority must believe X and thus agree with some policy that supposedly follows from X.

But anyone who appreciates a number of authors can’t help but recognize that authors disagree. It’s up to the reader to examine the evidence and arguments and then separate the wheat from the chaff. This is difficult work, not nearly as simple as just deciding that Smith is God and going from there.

John Muir November 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm

“. . . Smith is God . . .”

No, Keynes is God. Or was that Obama…no, he was “The One”. Or perhaps, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is God. There are just so many gods from the left’s viewpoint.

Studio Hayek November 14, 2011 at 6:46 pm

I haven’t read Steve Landsburg’s books, but I will check them out. Thanks for the tip Don. I’ve been very impressed with two talks of David Henderson’s that I saw live, but I haven’t gotten into Econlog much at all.

Here’s a list of my 13 favorite economics teachers:
http://www.studiohayek.com/2011/10/happy-halloween-and-my-top-13-favorite.html

My choice for today’s Bastiat would have to be Russ.

armchrdispatch November 17, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Great piece, but i don’t know if i agree. Dr. Roberts is certainly a great economist as was bastiat, but wasn’t bastiat more of politician who commented on and understood liberal economics?
In this way, wouldn’t Ron Paul be more deserving of the comparison?

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