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The Krugman Lantern

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The New York Times published an opinion piece by Paul Krugman today that veers close to greatness. The Nobel Prize winning economist has a twice-weekly column in the Times that allows him to flex his Keynsian muscles. While I am ideolgically predisposed to share Krugman’s leftish perspectives, my actual knowledge of economics, such that it would barely cover the back of a postage stamp with a calligraphy pen, doesn’t qualify me to comment on his work with anything resembling authority.

I do, however, know a thing or two about the art of the 700-900 word opinion piece, and Monday’s Krugman was a masterpiece of the form. I suggest you read if you haven’t already, but it stood out to me for its incredible clarity, rhythm and punch.

Krugman has been making this same argument for 18 months — despite conventional wisdom that it was excessive, the Obama stimulus wasn’t nearly big enough to counter the impact of the GFC — and always more effectively than most. But today”s piece is such a powerhouse of persuasion it is hard (but hardly impossible) to imagine how anyone, even the most dyed-in-the-wool tea-party activist, could remain unswayed by it. I could conduct a half-day seminar on advocacy writing using no more than this solitary column and still run out of time; as a matter of fact, I very probably will.

But I don’t plan to gush any further about the Krugman piece except to highlight one particular technique he uses. I have dubbed it the Krugman Lantern.

I began this blog as a kind of living draft for a book I have long wanted to write about bullshit in its many pernicious forms. The idea was to highlight the ways politicians, corporates, academia, the media etc. employ bullshit in the service of spin, evading or shifting blame, obfuscating the ugly truth, making a molehill of a mountain or vice versa, or for non-specific venal purposes.

I think it is an important topic for humankind, I genuinely do.

As it happened, the blog became more and more random as time went on but it retains its core mission: to explore the role of Mendacity in the Public Square. In discussing the Krugman Lantern today, I am returning Irredeemable to its tenuous roots.

    The Krugman Lantern is a technique whereby one simultaneously highlights and downplays one’s opponent’s strongest argument in order to deprive it of its potency.

The lantern reference comes from the early days of television when script-writers learned to “hang a lantern” on glaring continuity errors or plot holes in order to relieve viewers of the dissonance they otherwise cause. The idea is simple if you think about it. If you are watching a much-loved sitcom and a dog you have never seen before wanders on the set, it will throw your concentration. By explicitly addressing the matter — hanging a lantern on it — and having a character say “I wish you had told me that we were looking after the neighbour’s dog this weekend”, the viewer can breathe a sigh of relief and continue enjoying the show.

Krugman employs a variant in today’s column in the way he addressed the single most potent and persuasive rebuttal point to his general argument about the stimulus, which goes something like this:

Listen up, Krugman. It’s all well and good going on and on about how the stimulus bill wasn’t big enough but THERE IS NO WAY WHILE YOUR ARSE OR MINE IS POINTING TO THE GROUND THAT IT WOULD HAVE PASSED CONGRESS IF IT WERE A DOLLAR BIGGER. How’s the view from that Ivy Tower, Prof?

This is a killer argument, almost literally. If true — and most people think it is — then it kills Krugman’s thesis as a practical matter. While the theoretical proposition — the stimulus wasn’t big enough in the context of the US economy — stands, Krugman wants to be so much more than a theoretician. He wants to be a player, and so he knows he has to address and quash the political argument. Welcome to the Krugman Lantern :

Actually, the [Obama] administration has had a messaging problem on economic policy ever since its first months in office, when it went for a stimulus plan that many of us warned from the beginning was inadequate given the size of the economy’s troubles. You can argue that Mr. Obama got all he could — that a larger plan wouldn’t have made it through Congress (which is questionable), and that an inadequate stimulus was much better than none at all (which it was)

Are your (upper) cheeks burning with the brazenness of it all? Mine are.

He invites the argument in (“you can argue”) only to punch it in the face (“which is questionable”) and send it scurrying from the room. He introduces, acknowledges and dismisses the single greatest threat to his entire world-view in just 24 words. In this way, he hangs a lantern on this biggest problem and, in so doing, allows the reader to put it aside and get on with the business of being blown away by Krugman’s (now) unassailable assertions.

“Professor,” Blackadder would surely say, “I admire your balls.”

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