Having been slimed by him in print (debating an issue on which I was right!), I’m no fan of Paul Krugman’s. I also disagree with the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist on any number of economic and other issues, and strongly object to his habit of dismissing nearly all those differing with him as ignoramuses and/or toadies of America’s plutocrats. (Not that there aren’t lots of commentators and analysts falling into one or both categories.)
But I believe Krugman richly deserves praise for a recent display of intellectual honesty that urgently needs to become a lot more common in America these days: He admitted he didn’t know enough about a subject to warrant writing about it extensively. Thus Krugman didn’t dwell much on President Obama’s foreign policy record in his recent Rolling Stone article defending the president’s overall record. His explanation? “The truth is that I have no special expertise here….”
Let me be clear here. I am not saying that Krugman – or anyone else lacking academic training, professional experience, or any other obvious qualification – lacks the right to opine on foreign policy, or on any other subject. Foreign policy and national security, in particular, have only the scantest claim to be seen as academic disciplines, and certainly many practitioners have turned out to be complete incompetents, whether academically trained or educated in the school of hard knocks.
Nor am I saying that expertise in one field is never transferable to another. Moreover, “It’s a free country.” In fact, I wish everyday Americans would speak out more on major public issues, and that the political, economic, policy, and academic establishments would pay them more heed.
At the same time, it should be clear that we’ll have the most useful national debates if those with legitimate expertise or experience in certain fields don’t simply assume that these qualifications entitle their views in other fields to any special status. Indeed, more often than not, because their privileged lives tend to undermine their common sense, experts speaking out of school tend to produce the worst of all possible analytical worlds. As a result, it should also be clear that the media must start exercising better judgment in seeking commentary.
But few of the high and mighty demonstrate any self-discipline, and the media keep uncritically worshipping any form of prominence, no matter its source, and so we have the constant spectacle of valuable ink and airtime eaten up by know-nothing celebrities discoursing on any number of national and international issues with make-or-break potential for America and the entire world.
That’s why Krugman’s admission in Rolling Stone is so noteworthy. Even better, it shows he has a learning curve, for he wasn’t always so self-effacing. And maybe the biggest blessing of all is his modesty’s appearance in a magazine widely read in the entertainment world. Maybe Rosie O’Donnell and Ben Affleck will take the hint?