Paul Krugman, the Self-Contradicting Economist

An argument that questions the credibility of economists in general is that there are a number of disagreements among many economists, and not all of them can be right at the same time. In the case of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, these disagreements come from Krugman himself, as he holds contradictory opinions on a large number of topics.

For instance, we learn that when deficits are high, interest rates are low. However, we also learn that when governments run up a deficit, interest rates rise. So deficits cause interest rates not only to go up, but also to go down! In 1985, Krugman argued that the higher national debt and spending were bad for people early in their careers, as they would have to pay for it later in life. Nearly twenty-five years later, he argues that the national debt is not a problem, as it never needs to be paid off. According to him, we merely have to stabilize the debt instead of repaying it.

In the recent past, Krugman has been selling the idea that it is the debt-to-GDP ratio that matters and not the debt itself, but this claim flies in the face of his open letter to Alan Greenspan in which he asserted, " obviously realize that the ratio of debt to G.D.P. is a highly misleading number."

Deficits and spending are not the only topics on which Krugman has opposed himself -- he has claimed that the Social Security program is unsustainable, and also that it is sustainable; he has criticized those who have suggested that the Social Security funds be used for investing in private funds, while he has also advocated the idea that the Social Security funds be used to invest in private assets. He once opposed government-run health care before supporting government-run health care, and he also opposed the bailout of Fannie Mae before congratulating the government for the bailout of Fannie Mae.

His arguments on the issues of labor unions and minimum wage, too, run both ways. Labor unions and higher wages cause unemployment, while labor unions create a stable middle class, and lower wages have a contractionary effect on the economy. Krugman has also argued that governments do not cause recessions and are not responsible for business cycles, as it is the Fed that is responsible for business cycles, but he also blames the Bush administration for the current recession. 

Likewise, Krugman proffers the argument that nothing the government has ever done has had an impact on the economy, and he claims that government actions are like using a water pistol to shoot an elephant -- but he also claims that the "big government" has saved us. He also certified himself silly when he claimed that workers' fears of losing jobs to workers in China and India due to globalization aren't irrational. Earlier, he had declared that those who blamed the global economy for the loss of jobs were silly.

To be fair to Krugman, his inconsistent statements are not deliberate, but subconscious. It would be wrong to attribute malice to his arguments when they can easily be explained by his ignorance of the subject. That would, however, not excuse the Nobel Prize Committee, which awarded its prize to a quack. Perhaps Krugman himself can explain why he disagrees with himself all the time. Maybe he can come up with not just one explanation, but two, each contradicting the other.

Below is a collection of actual quotes from Paul Krugman with links to sources. The quotes are arranged by topic and are in pairs (with an additional quote in one case), with the two quotes in a pair making arguments for contradictory positions.

Minimum wage and unemployment

Would cutting the minimum wage raise employment? - New York Times, Dec 16, 2009

...the belief that lower wages would raise overall employment rests on a fallacy of composition. In reality, reducing wages would at best do nothing for employment; more likely it would actually be contractionary.

Training touted to close widening wage gap - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, page 8A - Feb 6, 1996

Stanford University economist Paul Krugman, however, said raising the minimum wage and lowering barriers to union organization would carry a trade-off --- increased unemployment.

Institutional finance: Bad banks

1998 interview of Krugman - Business Standard (India)

Close the weak banks and impose serious capital requirements on the strong ones...You see, it may sound hard-hearted, but you cannot keep unsound financial institutions operating simply because they provide jobs. There can be a huge amount of damage a bad bank can create. There is a cruelty to our market system, but that cruelty cannot be eliminated. The alternative is fraught with danger, that of carrying on with the weak banks.

Depression Economics [Paul Krugman interview] - Newsweek, Dec 3, 2008

Letting Lehman fail-letting the market work, as some people said-basically brought the entire world capital market down.


Workouts, Not Bailouts New York Times, Aug 17, 2007

Many on Wall Street are clamoring for a bailout -- for Fannie Mae or the Federal Reserve or someone to step in and buy mortgage-backed securities from troubled hedge funds. But that would be like having the taxpayers bail out Enron or WorldCom when they went bust -- it would be saving bad actors from the consequences of their misdeeds... Say no to bailouts - but let's help borrowers work things out.

Is saving our Fannie enough?
 - Seattle Times, Sep 9, 2008

The just-announced federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant mortgage lenders, was certainly the right thing to do - and it was done fairly well, too... So Fannie and Freddie had to be rescued...

Deficits and interest rates

Deficits and interest rates - New York Times, Aug 14, 2009

It turns out that there's a strong correlation between budget deficits and interest rates - namely, when deficits are high, interest rates are low ... On reflection, it's obvious why...

A fiscal train wreck - New York Times, Mar 11, 2003
But we're looking at a fiscal crisis that will drive interest rates sky-high. A leading economist recently summed up one reason why: ''When the government reduces saving by running a budget deficit, the interest rate rises.'' 

National debt

Quote Without Comment - Lakeland Register, Oct 18, 1985

It's a very good deal for those close to retirement who will never see the taxes that will have to be levied to pay it (the national debt), but it's a very bad deal for people early in their careers. A 30-year old, if she understood it, should be pretty upset, because when she hits peak earnings at age 50, she will be paying for spending now through higher taxes then." -- Paul Krugman, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commenting on the national debt climbing to the $2 trillion mark.

In 2003, Krugman held the same view that debts would affect future generations when he wrote in his article titled Passing it Along in New York Times on Jul 18, 2003:

And tarnished credibility, along with a much-increased debt, is a problem that Mr. Bush will pass along to other Congresses, other presidents and other generations.

The burden of debt - New York Times, Aug 28, 2009

How, then, did America pay down its debt? Actually, it didn't... But the economy grew, so the ratio of debt to GDP fell, and everything worked out fiscally... Which brings me to a question a number of people have raised: maybe we can pay the interest, but what about repaying the principal? ...But why would we have to do that? Again, the lesson of the 1950s - or, if you like, the lesson of Belgium and Italy, which brought their debt-GDP ratios down from early 90s levels - is that you need to stabilize debt, not pay it off; economic growth will do the rest.

Debt to GDP ratio

On the Second Day, Atlas Waffled - New York Times, Feb 14, 2003

Dear Alan Greenspan:

...Moreover, since you advocate accrual accounting, you obviously realize that the ratio of debt to G.D.P. is a highly misleading number.

A couple of notes on the 40s and 50s - New York Times, Aug 30, 2009

I think they're missing the point - if even Italy can handle debt/GDP ratios of 100 percent, we should be able to do it too.

Impact of governments on recessions


The fact is, all these promises are silly: Administrations don't cause recession and recoveries--if anyone is in charge of the business cycle, it's the nonpartisan technocrats at the Federal Reserve. 

What didn't happen - New York Times, Jan 17, 2010

Mr. Obama could have done the same - with, I'd argue, considerably more justice. He could have pointed out, repeatedly, that the continuing troubles of America's economy are the result of a financial crisis that developed under the Bush administration, and was at least in part the result of the Bush administration's refusal to regulate the banks.

Sustainability of social security

TWO CHEERS FOR THE WELFARE STATE... - Fortune, May 1, 1995

So by all means, let's have a vigorous national debate about reforming Social Security; it can't be sustained in its present form. 

About the Social Security trust fund - New York Times, Mar 28, 2008

But the privatizers won't take yes for an answer when it comes to the sustainability of Social Security... Social Security, with its own dedicated tax, has been run responsibly; the rest of the government has not. So why are we talking about a Social Security crisis?

Investment of social security funds

Fabricating a Crisis - New York Times, Aug 21, 2001

The outlines of a plan that would sustain Social Security without destroying it are clear: Allow the system to invest some of its surplus in private assets, and close the system's modest long-run financial shortfall by making minor adjustments to benefits and rescinding part of the recent tax cut. 

Gambling with your Retirement - New York Times, Feb 4, 2005

A few weeks ago I tried to explain the logic of Bush-style Social Security privatization... you should borrow a lot of money, buy stocks and hope for capital gains... So people are expected to take a loan from the government and use it to buy stocks, and if that turns out to have been a mistake -- well, too bad...Do you believe that we should replace America's most successful government program with a system in which workers engage in speculation that no financial adviser would recommend? Do you believe that we should do this even though it will do nothing to improve the program's finances?

Privatization of social security

Notes on Social Security from Personal website of Paul Krugman

None of this says that privatizing Social Security is necessarily a bad idea.

Inventing a crisis - New York Times, Dec 7, 2004

Privatizing Social Security - replacing the current system, in whole or in part, with personal investment accounts - won't do anything to strengthen the system's finances. If anything, it will make things worse. 

Labor unions

Macroeconomics, 2nd ed., by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells, Worth Publishers, 2009 (page 210)

The actions of labor unions can have effects similar to those of minimum wages, leading to structural unemployment.

State of the Unions - New York Times, Dec 24, 2007

Once upon a time, back when America had a strong middle class, it also had a strong union movement. These two facts were connected. 


Maverick Economist debunks theories - Eugene Register-Guard, Apr 18, 1996

Lecture: Paul Krugman rankles many when he refuses to blame this nation's woes on the global economy.

Yes, thousands of Americans have lost jobs in some industrial sectors, Krugman says. But global competition isn't to blame... "A lot of what people say about these issues is just dead wrong and silly," Krugman says.

The Trade Tightrope - New York Times, Feb 27, 2004

The accelerated pace of globalization means more losers as well as more winners; workers' fears that they will lose their jobs to Chinese factories and Indian call centers aren't irrational.


TWO CHEERS FOR THE WELFARE STATE... - Fortune, May 1, 1995

That means that, while I believe in free trade and have no sympathy with the sort of liberalism that wants to centralize economic decision-making in Washington (cases in point: Jimmy Carter's energy planners and Bill Clinton's health planners)...

The Swiss Menace - New York Times, Aug 16, 2009

True "socialized medicine" would undoubtedly cost less, and a straightforward extension of Medicare-type coverage to all Americans would probably be cheaper than a Swiss-style system. That's why I and others believe that a true public option competing with private insurers is extremely important: otherwise, rising costs could all too easily undermine the whole effort.

Role of the government in the economy

Benefit of Dole Tax Plan is Hotly Debated - New York Times, Aug 24, 1996

''Nothing Government has done -- for good or evil -- seems to have mattered,'' concluded Paul Krugman, an economist at Stanford University. Given the size of the American economy and the difficulty of altering its course, ''it's like using a water pistol to shoot an elephant.'' 

Saved by Big Government - Guardian, Aug 10, 2009

What saved us? The answer, basically, is big government.

The author can be reached at arvind at classical-liberal dot net.
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