The Paranoid Style in Economics

Why do some high-profile economists turn so quickly to personal attacks against their critics? However difficult it may be to influence hearts and minds by qualifying one’s analysis and hedging one’s prescriptions, taking aim at opponents' motives, rather than engaging their arguments, impoverishes public discourse.

NEW DELHI – Why do high-profile economic tussles turn so quickly to ad hominem attacks? Perhaps the most well-known recent example has been the Nobel laureate Paul Krugman’s campaign against the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, in which he moved quickly from criticism of an error in one of their papers to charges about their commitment to academic transparency.

For those who know these two superb international macroeconomists, as I do, it is evident that these allegations should promptly be dismissed. But there is the larger question of why the paranoid style has become so prominent.

Part of the answer is that economics is an inexact science, with exceptions to almost every pattern of behavior that economists take for granted. For example, economists predict that higher prices for a good will reduce demand for it. But students of economics will no doubt remember an early encounter with “Giffen goods,” which violate the usual pattern. When tortillas become more expensive, a poor Mexican worker may eat more of them, because she now has to cut back on more expensive food like meat.

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