Paul Krugman, having apparently received another of his divine revelations, proclaims that if we demand (somewhat) better working conditions in Third World countries (backed up, presumably, with boycott threats), “we can achieve an improvement in workers’ lives … And we should go ahead and do it.”
Don’t ask how he knows; the ways of the Oracle are mysterious and beyond human ken.
Look. A well designed policy of boycotts and boycott threats can certainly improve working conditions in the Third World. It can also lower either wages, employment or both. Whether or not that package amounts to “an improvement in worker’s lives”, as Krugman puts it, is an interesting and important question, and well worth thinking about. But apparently the last thing Krugman wants you to do is think about it, since he’s already told you the answer, and seems to presume you won’t have the slightest interest in where it came from.
Now, among the many differences between me and Paul Krugman, there are probably some that redound to his credit. But his propensity to hide all of his reasoning (if any) is not one of them. Compare, for example, my blog post of a few years ago on working conditions in 1911 New York City, when the Triangle Shirtwaist fire claimed 146 lives, most of them young women, partly because the fire exits were blocked to prevent pilfering. Would workers in 1911 have wanted safer working conditions (including unblocked fire exits)? This was my answer:
I can’t be sure (and I’ve pointed out several reasons I might be wrong), but I’m guessing that no 1911 garment worker would have wanted to work in a factory with unlocked exit doors. If I’m right, they got the mix of risk and income they’d have chosen.
What’s important here is not my acknowledgement that I might be wrong. It’s that I took the reader through my logic and my guesstimates, step by step, and invited that reader to substitute his or her own guesstimates to see how they affect the conclusion. Along the way, I hope I taught some lessons about how to evaluate costs, benefits and policy choices.
I am blessed with a readership that would never let me get away with announcing a conclusion stripped of any reasoning. Krugman, with his considerably larger readership, can afford to ignore anyone who might be interested in learning something and preach instead to the lowest common denominator. If you don’t believe me, check out the quality of his comments section.
But the reason I try not to avoid “pulling a Krugman” is not just that my readers won’t accept it; it’s that I wouldn’t want to. In 1996, when Paul and I were the two economics columnists for the then-newborn Slate Magazine, I think we agreed that our mission was to show the world how economists think, and how to think like an economist, and why you might want to. The antithesis of that mission is to make policy pronouncements from on high, with no argument, no analysis, and not even an acknowledgement that arguments and analysis serve a purpose. When did Krugman lose his way?