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The Uncivil Mr. Krugman

Decades ago, Paul Krugman did useful work as an academic economist in the area of international trade. But those days are gone: Krugman long ago gave up any pretense of academic seriousness and became a partisan, left-wing hack. We are proud of the role we have played (along with many others) in exposing Krugman’s mendacity and laziness; you can find a summary of our efforts here. Nevertheless, Krugman continues to do his best to confer a patina of academic respectability on long-discredited leftist policies.

For the last year or two, Krugman has been campaigning in favor of public debt. As a liberal, the end point of his ambitions is the expansion of government, and Krugman has argued vociferously that ballooning debts around the world should not constrain the relentless march of big government. As part of that effort, he has viciously attacked academic work by Harvard’s Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which shows that at a high level (90% of GDP), government debt impairs economic growth. Reinhart and Rogoff have finally had enough, and on Saturday they published an open letter to Krugman. Its tone is admirably restrained, in contrast with Krugman’s vituperation:

[I]t has been with deep disappointment that we have experienced your spectacularly uncivil behavior the past few weeks. You have attacked us in very personal terms, virtually non-stop, in your New York Times column and blog posts. Now you have doubled down in the New York Review of Books, adding the accusation we didn’t share our data. Your characterization of our work and of our policy impact is selective and shallow. It is deeply misleading about where we stand on the issues. And we would respectfully submit, your logic and evidence on the policy substance is not nearly as compelling as you imply.

Accusing Paul Krugman of incivility is like charging Stalin with having a lousy mustache. It is true, of course, but far from his worst fault. Krugman’s willingness to mislead and misrepresent is much more serious. Let’s take just one example from the Reinhart/Rogoff letter:

The accusation in the New York Review of Books [that we didn't share our data] is a sloppy neglect on your part to check the facts before charging us with a serious academic ethical infraction. You had already implicitly endorsed this from your perch at the New York Times by posting a link to a program that treated the misstatement as fact.

Fortunately, the “Wayback Machine” crawls the Internet and periodically makes wholesale copies of web pages. The debt/GDP database was first archived in October 2010 from Carmen’s University of Maryland webpage. The data migrated to ReinhartandRogoff.com in March 2011. There it sits with our other data, on inflation, crises dates, and exchange rates. These data are regularly sought and found for those doing research who care to look. The greater disclosure of debt data from official institutions is testament to this. The IMF began to construct historical public debt data only after we had provided a roadmap in the list of our detailed references in a 2009 book (and before that in a 2008 working paper) that explained how we had unearthed the data.

Our interaction with scholars and practitioners working on real world questions in our field is ongoing, and our doors remain open. So to accuse us of not sharing our data is an unfounded attack on our academic and personal integrity.

For the merits of the controversy, read the Reinhart/Rogoff letter in its entirety. The specific findings of Reinhard and Rogoff’s famous paper are of course open to debate, like all other scholarly analyses of data. But the idea that governments around the world (including ours) can continue to rack up unprecedented levels of debt with no regard for the consequences–the politically-motivated implication of Krugman’s attacks–is ridiculous.

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