Sunday, August 31, 2003

Looks like one of the posts I wrote a while ago has attracted some attention... from Lying in Ponds, who was the subject of the post, and (oddly enough) from Good old Donald Luskin, who never misses an opportunity to take a shot at Krugman supporters.

(A.k.a. supporters of people who know economics against people who don't.)

Luskin's attack is relatively mild and incoherent, focusing mostly on how much he loves Lying in Ponds' work and the fact that Krugman likes the name of my blog. The substantive points comes from Lying in Pond's more reasoned response:

In the comments to that post, Demosthenes carries on the discussion with Markus, who had previously offered his opinion about Lying in Ponds on his own Dormouse Dreaming weblog (scroll down). Demosthenes reiterates the point that "Bush is a natural target because he's the president, and LiP ignores that aspect of Krugman's critique of his methods . .". Since that hypothesis comes up so frequently, I thought it would be useful to delve into it -- we can try to remove Mr. Krugman's treatment of George W. Bush from the data and see how that would change his partisanship score.
What he found was relatively predictable:

I'll be looking only at the Total Partisanship Index, which makes up half of the final Combined Partisanship Index, because recalculating the other half, the Median Partisanship Index is a lot more difficult, and shouldn't change the results much. The results are shown in the table below. If one removes every direct Bush reference from consideration ("Bush", "Bush administration", "George W. Bush", "President Bush", "George Bush", "Bushies", etc.), there still would be enough remaining negative references to the "administration", Dick Cheney, etc. so that Mr. Krugman's total partisanship score would drop only from 74 to 73, second only to Ann Coulter out of our 32 active pundits.

Well, what if we also remove all administration references which don't include the Bush name directly, such as "administration", "White House", "the president", and other members of the administration such as Dick Cheney and Karl Rove? Even then, there would be enough remaining negative references to Tom DeLay, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and generic references to "Republicans" so that Mr. Krugman's score would drop only to 53, still good enough for 8th place behind Mona Charen. In fact, even if every single Republican reference of any kind is ignored in Mr. Krugman's 2003 columns, his favorable treatment of Democrats alone would make his score 54, again earning him 8th place in total partisanship among the 32 active pundits!
As I've said before, the problem here is operationalizing the concept of "partisanship". The conflict between Jesse of Pandagon and Lying in Ponds was over the definition of the term, and the fact that the confusion between ideology and partisanship often exists shows how difficult it is to nail down exactly what "partisan" means, let alone how to translate it into numbers.

It's especially difficult now, because we've witness at least one party develop an increasingly ideological bent to its partisanship. It's pretty obvious that Republican partisanship is becoming intertwined with a particular ideology. This has actually become a source of difficulties for Bush, as he's actually having trouble with his Congressional brethren for being more wedded to that ideology than he is. While I suspect that at least part of that is a good cop/bad cop game, it's not something I'd bet the farm bill on.

That points to one of the weaknesses of LiP's technique, and of what Luskin calls LiP's "crusade against partisanship". LiP seems to acknowledge that the President is a natural target, and if one removes the president, things should balance out. Fine. Unfortunately, LiP is working with a woefully short and misleading data set. Congress has been dominated by Republicans since 1994, long before Krugman wrote his column, and a quick perusal of his other materials shows that he's perfectly willing to attack Democrats too. Right now, however, the Republicans are the ones with pretty much all the power, and it is with that recognition that Krugman has set his sights on the Republicans, rather than the Democrats. If the Democrats had controlled Congress and had passed the Farm Bill (which is a distinct possibility) rather than the Republicans, they would have been the targets. Indeed, the Republicans wield an unusual amount of power right now, thanks to their coordination and effective management of partisan and ideological propaganda. If LiP used its tools on the Slate columns, it may come up with a different answer.

Or, perhaps not. Krugman's initial response was quite simple and, as I've said before, quite devastating. He contends that the policies of the Republicans (both administrative and congressional) have been almost universally bad ones and that Democratic proposals are at least somewhat better. While that claim is debatable, it is not one that LiP's methodology is equipped to measure. It points to the problem of measuring innately qualitative data like political debate, critique, and commentary with quantitative methods. There are a huge number of interrelated factors that affect the legitimacy of a political critique- they either can't be measured easily with numbers, or require methodology much more complex than LiP's simple relative scoring system. As Krugman has said, and as I've said, if that system cannot take into account these factors, then it's dangerously misleading.

(You can't "control" Krugman with other columnists, either, because they aren't neutral. Indeed, if the contentions of myself and others (especially MWO) are correct, then they don't balance out to neutrality either... they trend towards pro-Bush, because of fears of loss of access and the reality of outside factors clouding their judgement. You also point at his being "pro-Democrat" by looking at the Dem's relatively positive treatment in the columns, as LiP tries to, because removing the Republicans as a variable doesn't remove their role as a factor in how he discusses Democrats and the relative attention provided to both.)

If you want to understand Krugman now, look at his past. The books and Slate columns were both equal opportunity criticism, and the NYT column was as well until Bush's bad policy and egregious lies to the American people began with his phony tax cut plans. Then he started criticizing Bush, and when Bush became president and continued to push bad policy and to (at the very least) mislead the American people, he continued to point out both, even when nobody else had the guts. Yes, he does criticize Bush and the Republicans a lot. The question is not whether that makes him partisan, but whether they deserve it. When Helen Thomas (a person in a position to know) calls Bush "the worst president in history", I think it's pretty justifiable, and unless one is preciously naive enough to believe that doesn't have something to do with Congressional Republicans, they're fair game too.

Sorry, LiP, but I don't buy it, or the "maybe he's partisan but he's right" bit that you ended the post with. His pre-NYT works don't support that, and pseudo-psychological attempts to explain the shift from all-around critic to anti-Republican critic are blasted in the face of one key fact: he didn't change, Washington changed. I, for one, hope that it'll change back, and that Paul can go back to criticizing those on all sides. Right now, though, the Repubs are the biggest threat, and I can understand his desire to train his guns on them.

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