Four “Tells” That Show Krugman Knows He Cannot Win an Honest Debate

William K. Black
March 13, 2019     Bloomington, MN

Fourth article in the Series on MMT

  1. Honest debaters do not create strawmen arguments about opposing theories and then claim victory by attacking their own strawmen.

When Krugman and a bevy of the “Very Serious People” (VSP) Krugman used to ridicule created and then attacked strawman MMT positions (e.g., using Roche’s rant), they were unintentionally revealing their knowledge that they did not believe they could dispute successfully MMT scholars’ real positions.

  1. Honest orthodox economists and journalist do not spread “myths” they know to be “obvious falsehood[s]” in order to deny MMT insights the orthodox economists and journalist know to be “obviously true.” The second “tell” that the VSPs know they cannot win an honest debate is this deliberate strategy of deceiving the public and elected officials through the VSPs’ myths about nations with fully sovereign currencies. 

My first article quoted the “Very Serious People’s” admissions that MMT is “obviously true” and that the VSPs spread “myths,” quasi-religious “superstition,” and “obvious falsehood[s]” to deceive the voters and elected officials to reject MMT.  VSPs are openly admitting that the reason they lie is that they believe that the voters and elected officials would agree with MMT scholars’ if there were an honest debate.  You do not lie to win a debate when the facts are on your side.

  1. The VSPs’ decision to rely on ad hominem smears against MMT scholars whose scholarly work the VSPs claim is “fringe,” “extreme,” represents the third “tell” they know they would lose any honest debate.

I want every reader to hold the VSPs to the burden of proof they logically accepted when they adopted their coordinated strategy of smearing MMT scholars with ad hominem labels that we are “fringe,” “messianic,” “extremists” who are obviously wrong about economics.  When economists and white-collar criminologists have predictive records extending over decades (mine extends over 35-years), it would be easy for opponents to demonstrate copious predictive and policy failures if MMT and MMT scholars were actually bogus.  Predictive strength, as Krugman has repeatedly emphasized, is the key test of the strength and validity of theory and policy.  The VSPs claim, without reading our literature, that they know we are sham scholars.  Fine.  If your claim is correct, it is a simple matter to meet your burden.  Document with quotations and citations our frequent, recurrent predictive and policy errors.  The VSP assault on MMT makes enormous claims that we are shams who deserve scorn and disrespect because our theoretical work is obviously, totally baseless.  The VSP’s chose their own burden of proof when they decided to rely on an ad hominem assault.  The obvious tell is that the VSPs would not rely on ad hominem smears if the facts ‘obviously’ prove that the MMT scholars are “fringe” fantasists.

  1. The fourth tell that the VSP know they cannot win an honest debate is the paranoid effort and Catch-22 debate tactic of creating and attacking recurrent strawman MMT arguments – and then denouncing MMT scholars for pointing out the VSP arguments are strawmen.

The fourth tell is the most novel and brazen.  It is also relies on Krugman’s paranoid conspiracy theory about MMT scholars.  Krugman’s paranoid conspiracy theory, which he put in writing, is that MMT scholars want to keep our work and theories secret from orthodox scholars.  On February 12, 2019, Krugman wrote two columns attacking MMT.  In his first February 12, 2019 column, Krugman launched this citation-free smear of MMT scholars.

But first it seems to me that I need to set out what’s right and what’s wrong about MMT.

Unfortunately, that’s a very hard argument to have – modern MMTers are messianic in their claims to have proved even conventional Keynesianism wrong, tend to be unclear about what exactly their differences with conventional views are, and also have a strong habit of dismissing out of hand any attempt to make sense of what they’re saying.

I hope that reading Krugman’s paranoid claim triggered in you the “Twilight Zone’s” music intro.  It is difficult to use logic to refute Krugman’s breathtaking flight of paranoia because he could launch it only by abandoning even the pretense of logic.  My first question for the reader is “why?”  MMT scholars cannot secure employment and promotion, publish, or influence anyone as scholars without spending large portions of our lives explaining our theories in books, articles, blogs, testimony, innumerable presentations, and media appearances.  If we hope to influence policy makers, we have to be able to explain complex, multi-disciplinary analytics in plain language.

As my first article in this series explained, the reason for the blizzard of VSP assaults on MMT and MMT scholars is that MMT scholars have effectively communicated to progressive members of Congress MMT’s precepts.  MMT scholars have also explained to progressive members of Congress MMT’s implications for policies and the U.S. fiscal capacity to implement the emerging progressive policy core that polls show has broad support from the electorate.  Krugman and the terrified forces of orthodoxy launched this desperate assault on MMT scholars not because we block any “attempt to make sense of what [we’re] saying,” but because we do the opposite.  We are getting increasingly good at helping elected officials make sense of the interplay of the complex research findings from economists, criminologists, accountants, and psychologists.  (In jargon, we ‘synthesize’ theory from multiple disciplines.)  We help them understand the theory and its implications for policy.  Krugman and the orthodox assault team mounted their coordinated attack on MMT scholars because of our clarity and our efforts to help people understand MMT and its policy implications.

Here is one hint.  You are reading an article published originally in “New Economic Perspectives” (NEP).  Other web sites and newspapers frequently republish and quote our articles.  MMT scholars write most of our articles.  Stephanie Kelton, when she was at UMKC, started the UMKC economics blog site (NEP) and edited it for the express purpose of explaining MMT.  I now have that mission.  (Thank you Devin Smith, the volunteer that has made our website possible for years!)  Is Krugman seriously paranoid enough to claim that the tens of thousands of hours of work MMT scholars have put into NEP was done for the purpose of blocking our readers’ “attempt to make sense of what [we’re] saying?”

Note that Krugman, without any quotation or citation, issues a general condemnation of whatever he means by the term “MMTers.”  That term is “unclear.”  I leave it to the reader to decide why Krugman deliberately chose a vague term that he did not define.  He may have lumped MMT scholars with social media commenters in order to demean the scholars as no better academics than social media commenters.  He may have used the vague term to smear the maximum number of people with his paranoid fantasy that we all seek to ensure that no one can “make sense of what [we’re] saying.”  He may have used it for both purposes.  In all cases one our family rules is again proven – it is impossible to compete with unintentional self-parody.  The irony of Krugman using such a vague phrase of his own construction to attack globally some group of undefined people for their purportedly intentional vagueness in some unspecified and unknowable context is lost on Krugman.  I explained that Krugman, being a paragon of unintentional self-parody, managed to top the inherent self-parody of creating a deliberately vague strawman group in order to declare every member of that group guilty of intentional vagueness by using Cullen Roche as his only identified exemplar of that group.  Roche is a non-scholar and an opponent of MMT.  Krugman’s use of Roche raised his levels of unintentional self-parody to a level of artistry.

MMT scholars’ work is the issue – not “MMTers,” whoever they may be.  MMT scholars do not read the comments by non-scholars on Krugman’s website to learn Krugman’s views on economics.  That would obviously be insane.  We certainly would not read the comments of non-scholars on Krugman’s website advancing positions attacking Krugman’s views and ascribe the critics’ comments to Krugman.  That would be beyond insane.  I have just described, of course, Krugman’s attribution of Roche’s Ayn Rand-like Galtian rant to MMT scholars.

Krugman, however, transcended this “beyond insane” level or by constructing an even more paranoid fantasy – and then attempted to weaponize it as a bizarre debate trick.  Hold on to your seats, I am taking you on an even wilder ride on the Krugman paranoia express.

On February 12, 2019, Krugman published two columns attacking MMT.  In his second column, Krugman re-launched his favorite anti-MMT strawman claim.  MMT scholars (and me) repeatedly telling him that his strawman was false.

I keep hearing that heterodox economics — specifically Modern Monetary Theory — says that we don’t have to worry about where the money will come from, that because we have a printing press deficits don’t matter.

Note that first clause.  It probably seems innocuous, but it is highly revealing.  “I keep hearing” – from who?  Note that Krugman does not write:  “I keep reading MMT scholars that say ‘we don’t have to worry about where the money will come from.’”  Krugman does not even write: “I keep reading non-scholars’ comments on my web site.”  No, he just “hears” apparently hearsay comments from unspecified people that unspecified, never quoted and never cited “MMTers” “say” (again, not write) that “because we have a printing press deficits don’t matter.”  So, Krugman talks to unidentified folks, probably reporters, and they tell him that unidentified people they talk (“MMTers”) believe that “because we have a printing press deficits don’t matter.”  On that sound, utterly normal research basis, Krugman wrote two columns smearing MMT scholars with a preposterous strawman argument.

Actually, Krugman was acting far worse than I have yet explained.  Krugman has been repeating this same smear for many years, and MMT scholars have been correcting him for years only to have him re-offend.  At a minimum, Krugman has known for at nearly six years that this strawman is false.  He has known because three MMT scholars and Brad DeLong told him that MMT scholars believed the opposite.  DeLong compiled some of our efforts in a March 18, 2013 blog devoted to the subject of Krugman and MMT scholars calling him out on his strawman attacks on MMT.

As you read what we wrote six, eight, and nine years ago, recall Krugman’s recent claims that we are “messianic” wingnuts who seek to block “any attempt to make sense of what [we’re] saying.”  (Also, Paul, if we were emulating our messiah we would use parables so the general population could understand the message.  If MMT scholars were “messianic” our entire focus would be on making our gospel (“good news”) as understandable as possible to the public.)  You cannot logically accuse us of both being messianic in our desire to spread our views to the widest possible audience and claim that we are dedicated to preventing anyone from learning what we think.

You will see from DeLong’s compendium of our efforts that we have been making every effort over the course of nearly a decade to explain – repeatedly – in the clearest terms that Krugman’s strawman was false.  Note that three MMT scholars took the time to write articles explaining to Krugman that his strawman was false.  Why would three of us do so if our goal was to prevent poor Paul from learning “what [we’re] saying”?

DeLong’s blog title summarized the point nicely.

DeLong (and Krugman) Smackdown Watch: Bill Black, Stephanie Kelton, and Randy Wray Are Justifiably Irate Modern Monetary Theory How Do Deficits Matter?: Monday Hoisted from Comments Weblogging

DeLong’s conclusion was that the three MMT scholars were “justifiably irate” at Krugman’s strawman argument attacking MMT. 

Jeff Sachs is irate. He says that Paul Krugman says that deficits don’t matter.

And that makes Paul Krugman irate: [DeLong then quotes Krugman]


Deficits and the Printing Press: Right now, deficits don’t matter — a point borne out by all the evidence. But there’s a school of thought — the modern monetary theory people — who say that deficits never matter, as long as you have your own currency. I wish I could agree with that view — and it’s not a fight I especially want, since the clear and present policy danger is from the deficit peacocks of the right. But for the record, it’s just not right…

“It’s just not right.”  True.  Krugman was right that Sachs’ claim was false.  Krugman does not believe that deficits never matter.  MMT scholars do not believe that deficits never matter.  It is ironic that one sentence after defending himself from Sachs’ false charge, Krugman used exactly that same false charge against MMT scholars whose work he plainly never read.  DeLong makes this point clear.  He begins by quoting me, then Stephanie Kelton about Krugman’s karma, and then Randy Wray.

And this makes Bill Black irate:

For the record, Paul’s description of MMT’s position is incorrect, as we have repeatedly explained to him. This is a strawman claim. If Paul ever cites a work by academic MMT scholar (X) to support his claim (Y) that “MMT” argues that “deficits never matter” we will be able to show that the MMT scholar’s work actually argues “not Y.” Indeed, it is worse to make the claim without citation because it does not allow the reader to check the citation and realize that it actually argues “not Y.”

And it makes Stephanie Kelton irate:

Well, what goes around…. Krugman characterizing MMT on March 25, 2011:

Right now, deficits don’t matter — a point borne out by all the evidence. But there’s a school of thought — the modern monetary theory people — who say that deficits never matter, as long as you have your own currency.” ~Paul Krugman

Leading MMTer L. Randall Wray writes a blog entitled “Deficits DO Matter, But Not the Way You Think.” July 20, 2010.

Deficits Do Matter, But Not the Way You Think | Next New Deal: Our claim is that a sovereign government cannot be forced into involuntary default. We have never claimed that sovereign currencies are free from inflation. We have never claimed that currencies on a floating exchange rate regime are free from exchange rate fluctuations. Indeed, we have always said that if government tries to increase its spending beyond full employment, this can be inflationary… we have admitted that currency depreciation is a possible outcome of using government policy to stimulate the economy….


So, yes, deficits do matter, but not for solvency.

None of the 48 commenters on DeLong’s column on MMT and deficits could meet my challenge and quote any MMT scholar stating that deficits never matter.  DeLong wrote that he had not found any such quotation from an MMT scholar.  DeLong wrote:

The closest I can come to meeting Bill Black’s challenge is to go to Warren Mosler’s Soft Currency Economics:

Warren Mosler is a very smart man and an important contributor to MMT thought, but he is not an MMT scholar, which was my challenge.  The passage DeLong cites from Mosler does not say that deficits never matter.  It says that a nation with a fully sovereign currency does not face a “financial risk” (i.e., bond vigilantes cannot create a risk of governmental default on debts in its own currency).  DeLong quotes the passage in which Mosler says that the fact that the bond vigilantes cannot create a default danger does not mean that deficits cannot cause bad “economic outcomes” (e.g., inflation).

Options over spending, taxation, and borrowing, however, are not limited by the process itself but by the desirability of the economic outcomes.

Mosler’s language is not as clear.  Wray, Kelton, and I used exceptionally clear language in 2013 to, not for the first time; make clear that MMT scholars do not say that deficits never matter.  DeLong understood that Mosler was not saying that deficits never matter to “economic outcomes” like inflation.

Now that you know that we, and DeLong, called Krugman out on his creation of a strawman claim to attack MMT six years ago, and that Krugman launched the identical strawman argument in his current assault on MMT, you can begin to see how farblondget Krugman is.

Even adding the 2013 history does not suffice to explain how paranoid, convoluted, and devious Krugman’s fourth ‘tell’ is.  A normal human being would be embarrassed that DeLong and a trio of scholars called out Krugman so publicly and effectively for creating a strawman – particularly given the irony that Krugman wielded the same strawman argument Sachs used to attack him unfairly to attack MMT scholars unfairly.  A normal human being would publicly apologize to the MMT scholars, not wait six years and hurl the same strawman argument at MMT scholars.  Indeed, a normal human being would recognize that the MMT scholars were urging the same policy actions from a different theoretical perspective.  A normal human being would consider us likely allies and act collegially, particularly given the unprofessional and utterly fallacious attack he launched on us.

Krugman, however, took a radically different approach to dealing with his DeLong’s castigation in 2013 of his error and abuse.  Krugman did not simply double down on his original strawman argument in his February 2019 assault on MMT.  He tried to make his repeated false claims against MMT scholars into a virtue – and make his repeated falsehoods the fault of the victims of his strawman attacks.  This is the point where Krugman’s paranoia, his lack of intellectual honesty in admitting error, his refusal to apologize for combining error and ad hominem smears, and his belief that he is so much more clever than anyone else that he can convert his failures into a debate trap combine to create his “Calvinball” tactic.

Here is what Krugman thinks is his brilliant debate trap.  He invents, without any supporting citation or quotation from any MMT scholar, a super-charged paranoid fantasy.  He begins as I have explained with the paranoid assertion that MMT scholars do everything possible to seek to block Krugman from learning “what [we’re] saying.”

The second step is to complain bitterly, without any supporting citation or quotation from MMT scholars, that we keep pointing out that he falsely ascribes strawman arguments to us.  As I have just documented with extensive quotation and citation from DeLong’s 2013 blog, MMT scholars have repeatedly quoted and cited passages from Krugman columns in which he falsely presents strawman arguments that he ascribes to MMT scholars without any supporting quotations or citations.  We then go on to state our actual position, which is the opposite of Krugman’s strawman claims.

For obvious reasons, Krugman does not quote or cite any of the cases where we document and falsify his strawman claims.  Instead, he invents an alternate reality.  In this alternate reality, Poor Paul is engaged in a search for truth and seeks repeatedly to learn what “MMTers” believe.  The jesuitical MMT scholars bedevil Poor Paul’s labors in search of the truth by deliberately making it so terribly hard to understand what we believe.  Now comes the double-dose of Krugman paranoia.  He is outraged that every time he says “MMT say X” – we respond by demonstrating that MMT scholars actually say the opposite.

Under the double-shot Krugman paranoia theory, it reflects badly on us to point out that Poor Paul is repeatedly creating strawmen arguments and that every time he does so we call him out and refute his claims.  Poor Paul, selfless seeker of the truth, obviously would never create a strawman claim about MMT and then attack his own strawman.  It follows ineluctably (i.e., with no need for citation or quotation) that when he ascribes to MMT scholars a claim “I keep hearing” came from some unidentified, unquoted, and uncited “MMTer” that claim must be what MMT scholars believe.  It then follows ineluctably without any need for support, that when MMT scholars deny and refute his hearsay assertions about some unidentified “MMTers” they are lying and playing ‘Calvinball.’  MMT scholars have conspired to confuse Poor Paul about MMT precepts and policy recommendations to ensure that he never learns what we MMT scholars believe.

Now comes the debate trick Krugman thinks is so clever.  He announced in his recent attacks on MMT that repeat his old, discredited strawman claims about MMT scholars, that it if MMT scholars point out that he is repeating his strawman arguments he knows are false – he will declare that we lose the debate.  Why?  Because if we prove (again) that he is (again) ascribing to us strawman arguments as a sleazy debate tactics, he will define our refutation as Calvinball and declare that he has won the debate.  Krugman’s debate tactic is to create a Catch-22.  (See article 5 in this series for an update on this debate tactic.)  If we allow them to ascribe falsely to MMT views that are the opposite of MMT we lose.  If we point out the falsehood of the strawman argument, we lose because Krugman gets to declare that we are engaged in Calvinball.  Joseph Heller coined the term to illustrate a logical error under which those who set the rules ensure that there is no escape from the paradox.

Calvinball is a mythical game without rules.  MMT scholars, however, are playing by the normal academic rules.  The normal academic rules are that you quote and cite the rival scholarly research you are challenging, and explain your logic and show where you found your facts critical to testing theory and praxis.

Look again at DeLong’s 2013 blog to see what the normal rules look like in application.  DeLong links to the original articles and quotes key passages.  He identifies the people involved.  DeLong shows through quotation from a 2013 Krugman column that Sachs falsely ascribed to Krugman the strawman argument that Krugman believed that deficits never matter.  Sachs quoted Krugman correctly, but DeLong’s fuller quotation of Krugman’s 2013 column demonstrates that Sachs seized on a passage that when removed from its full context created a false impression denying Krugman’s actual belief that deficits sometimes matter.  Sachs made DeLong’s task far easier by providing the citation to the Krugman article so that readers could check the full text and, like DeLong, spot that Sachs had presented Krugman’s arguments contrary to the full context.

Krugman, by contrast, ascribed to MMT scholars exactly the same strawman argument Sachs had wielded against him, but Krugman provided no quotations and no citations when he falsely ascribed the identical strawman argument to the MMT “people.”   Krugman did not identify scholars who supposedly believed what he claimed “MMT people” believe.  Krugman’s failure to follow the normal scholarly rules of identifying, quoting, and citing the scholars you are criticizing made it far more difficult for readers to check his claims.

The MMT scholars that DeLong cited and quoted provided Krugman’s key language and citations to Krugman’s relevant column so that readers could read Krugman in complete context and evaluate the strength of the MMT scholars’ refutation of Krugman’s strawman argument.  The MMT scholars followed the normal scholarly rules.

Krugman is the one playing Calvinball.  He is the one refusing to follow the normal rules and making up bizarre rules.  To date, Krugman has created five Calvinball rules.  First, he declares himself the official scorer who gets to declare himself the debate victor.  Second, he wins the debate if his opponents demonstrate (again) that he is (again) falsely ascribing strawman arguments to rival academics, for he declares the rule that if we refute his mischaracterization of MMT we are guilty of playing Calvinball.  Third, he gets to use copious ad hominem attacks to smear MMT scholars, but they must give him deference because he is a VSP.  Fourth, he gets to declare that if he can draw an IS-LM graph that could be consistent with an economic phenomenon – he has established that IS-LM is correct and MMT is at best simply derivative of IS-LM.  Fifth, each of these four claims is a non sequitur under normal rules of logic.  Krugman is the one playing Calvinball, and he understands the optimal game theoretic strategy in Calvinball is for one party to announce immediately a Catch-22 rule ensuring that he always wins.



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