August 18, 2004

· Sociology

Paul Krugman and Fernando Cardoso were the final plenary speakers yesterday evening at the American Sociological Association Meetings in San Francisco. The topic under discussion was “The Future of Neoliberalism,” and both of them did a pretty good job. The panel was introduced and moderated by Juliet Schor, who spoke for twenty-odd minutes at the beginning and seemed just a tiny bit reluctant to give up the mike. That was understandable, I suppose, as the ballroom was jammed—standing room only and spillover into the hallways outside, and it’s hard to resist a crowd that big. I hadn’t seen Krugman speak before. He was refreshingly nerdy. His detractors work incessantly to make the “shrill” label stick, but in person he comes off more like Woody Allen’s accountant brother.

Krugman made a passing reference to Enron and wondered whether Homeland Security was responsible for the intermittent problems with the lights and sound, but otherwise stuck to the topic at hand, arguing that “neoliberalism” could and should be decomposed into policies that ought to be evaluated independently. So whereas free-trade and export-led growth has clearly gotten much better results than tariffs and import-substitution, the benefits of unrestricted capital mobility or gung-ho privatization aren’t as well established. He emphasized the complexity of the problems at issue and the dangers of hubris in development policy. He came across, in other words, like a theoretically-driven social scientist determined to learn from the data and looking for the answer to the question “How can we make as many people as possible better-off?”

All of which made some of the questions from the audience (passed up on cards and read out by Schor) more than a little irritating. The worst one, stupid as well as rude, asked whether economics was “too mired in the muck of right-wing thought” to do any good in the world. (I should say that no-one clapped at that one, and a lot of people were clearly embarrassed: in many respects this was the friendliest of all possible audiences.) Krugman politely stood his ground. Whoever submitted the question is probably well-used to (correctly) arguing that the horrors of Stalin don’t invalidate the fundamental insights of Marxists. How hard can it be to apply the same basic point to the WTO and the neoclassical toolkit?[1] Questions like that are the bobblehead left-wing analogue to the pez-dispenser right-wing trope that if only you understood “Econ 101” or “the basic laws of the market” you’d agree with every wingnut idea put to you. I have all kinds of criticisms and qualms about economics as a body of knowledge and a professional enterprise, and naturally I’d like to be right about all of them all the time. But, sadly, easy certainty is continually frustrated by the fact that many of the economists I know are much smarter than me and have the irritating ability to make good arguments for their point of view. And so even though I will of course prevail in the end I can’t just dismiss them out of hand. I expect the same consideration in return, the odd snotty economist (or, more often, their camp-followers in political science and law) notwithstanding.

Anyway, if you get a chance to see Krugman at a book-signing or whatever—especially of the topic is international macroeconomics—take it. He’s good value.

fn1. Comments to the effect that I am implying that the WTO is as bad as Stalin here will be ignored.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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