Ralph Benko

Paul Krugman makes for an unparalleled intellectual foil.  If he didn’t exist we’d have to invent him.  Recently he has been vintage Krugman, slinging derp. “Derp” is new slang, or perhaps jargon, with which to ridicule opponents.  It is making its way among the left wing hipsters, blogsters, and twitsters.

Krugman has rescued derp from Progressive Blogistan for our general edification.  What is derp, you (you hick!) might ask?  Krugman:

Josh Barro has made a very useful contribution to policy discussion by adapting the term “derp” for a certain kind of all-too-prevalent stance in economic debate, which Noah Smith somewhat euphemistically describes as “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”. In other words, people who take a position and refuse to alter that position no matter how strongly the evidence refutes it, who continue to insist that they have The Truth despite being wrong again and again.

“The main locus of econoderpitude these days involves inflation, and more broadly the proposition that deficit spending and expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet will be a disaster, even in a depressed economy.



[T]hink of all these economists and wannabe economists as inhabitants of a land we’ll call Derpistan. Everything there is derp; but it’s not undifferentiated derp. Instead, all Derpistan is divided into three parts: Inner Derpistan, Middle Derpistan, and Outer Derpistan.

“Strong priors” is a nice shorthand for something to which Prof. Krugman himself is (as are we all) subject: “terministic screens.” Terministic screens is a concept coined by literary theorist and philosopher Kenneth Burke in his 1966 classic Language as Symbolic Action: “a screen composed of terms through which humans perceive the world, and that direct attention away from some interpretations and toward others.”

The scholarly Dr. Timothy Richardson summarized it lucidly:

“According to Burke, ‘Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (1341). In other words, you cannot state something that is unbiased or disinterested. Every stated thing is a shade of the real thing.”

Krugman’s invasion of Derpistan displays his Modus Operandi. He takes a longstanding concept, caricatures it into a catchy slur of his ideological adversaries, and tops it off with a pretense that he and his allies are not subject to some fundamental aspect of the human condition.  Like the terministic screen.

Now, to give the Devil his due… Krugman is crowing over the unfulfilled prognostications of some considerable monetary thinkers whose predictions of virulent inflation and punitive interest rates have not manifested and may never.  Krugman: “Some of us tried to warn them, on both the interest rate and the inflation front; things aren’t that simple in a liquidity trap. But they didn’t listen; and as inflation and soaring rates kept not coming and not coming, they found themselves like farmers on the Great Plains in the 1930s, watching their chosen ground turn into dust.”

Fair enough. But Krugman really is in no position to cast the first stone.  Krugman’s own intellectual sins are at least as serious as a failed prognostication.  After all, in a phrase attributed to physicist Niels Bohr, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”  Krugman himself stands indicted for the commission of at least three intellectual high crimes and misdemeanors.  All are characteristic aspects of his tragicomic public persona (though likely not of the man behind the curtain).

Krugman’s first crime is that of chronically grandstanding to the left field bleachers.  He degrades the discourse by repeated recourse to ridicule, sneers and smears. (Like, say, “derp.”) That’s not hardball.  That’s dirtball.  It is, of course, clever.  Yet it degrades the discourse into burlesque.

Krugman is a recidivist perpetrator of imputing unimportance to his adversaries: floccinaucinihilipilification.  (Here I beg my patient readers’ forgiveness for succumbing to a pedant’s lust to have aptly used in a column, just once in his life, the longest non-technical word in the English language.) Krugman has no defense to this indictment.  He is a shameful floccinaucinihilipilificator.  J’accuse.

Second, Krugman and his acolytes imply that only their adversaries are subject to “strong priors.”  Inevitably, we all, including Krugman and this columnist (and you, dear reader) are subject to a terministic screen.

How eerie, though, that Krugman ridiculed adversaries who anticipated inflation right before the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that inflation has ticked up, if only for a month, to 0.5% — a worrisome 6% annualized rate.  (Core remained at an unworrisome 0.2%, yet still it is a chilling gust….)

This blip does not disprove Krugman’s sanguine stance on inflation.  It may yet prove, however, were further proof needed, that the Greeks were right:  Nemesis inevitably follows hubris.  Prof. Krugman might privately reflect on this … and on his own call, in 2002, that “Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.”  Terministic screen, anyone?

As the more genteel Chairman Bernanke himself observed on July 10, “Financial stability is also linked to monetary policy, though these links are not yet fully understood.”   Yes, not yet fully understood.

It is characteristic of the modern left, suffering from a vague and jejune reading of the great Saul Alinsky, to overdo ridicule. By contrast, Krugman’s icon Keynes wrote to Hayek, after reading The Road to Serfdom, “In my opinion it is a grand book…. Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.”

This did not imply an abdication of principle by Keynes (or even imply practical accord).  It bespeaks the becoming gentility characteristic of Keynes.  Such gentility was reciprocated by Hayek who wrote , after Lord Keynes’s death, “He was the one really great man I ever knew, and for whom I had unbounded admiration. The world will be a very much poorer place without him.”

Krugman aspires, or should, to be a constructive agent in the construction of policies leading to equitable prosperity.  He might find himself far more useful, and honored, by treating his adversaries with respect rather than contempt.  A la Keynes.

Finally, Krugman’s conduct bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s “guilt by association.”   Krugman routinely lumps all in the classical liberal camp together, right and wrong.  By failing to make distinctions he thus vilifies by implication those who never predicted impending virulent inflation or interest rates.  Among these are, among others, the eminence grise of the classical gold standard Lewis E. Lehrman, student and friend of the great economist Jacques Rueff, and founder and chairman of an eponymous institute (with which this columnist has a professional association).

The blurring of such important distinctions degrades Krugman’s writings from analysis to polemic.  This makes Krugman far less interesting than he could be … and far less useful as a humanitarian agent.  To a less partisan, more intellectually curious, mind these distinctions would present as food for thought.  Tarring all classical liberals and neoclassicists with the same broad tarbrush, one covered with “derp,” evokes the question “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Krugman’s motive, presumptively, is a humane one: to use his formidable intellect to oppose policies of “chronic unemployment, human suffering, and hopelessness.”   This is laudable.  Yet a man of his distinction and prominence cripples himself if he fails to extend to his adversaries, as Keynes did to Hayek (and vice versa), a sympathetic presumption of similar motives and intellectual acuity, even in disagreement.

Donning the mien of a scholar and a gentleman, as befits a Nobel Prize laureate, surely would cost Krugman some esteem from his fans and acolytes in far left field.   Acknowledging his own terministic screen and demonstrating, at long last, a sense of decency would, however, make Paul Krugman a meaningful, rather than cheaply entertaining, participant in the national conversation.

Professor Krugman? It would be great to seat you, returned from far left, back in center, field… and at the cool kids’ lunch table. End your invasion of Derpistan, dial back your clowning, show some class, and let’s get a more formidable conversation going.


Ralph Benko

Ralph Benko, author of The Websters’ Dictionary: How to use the Web to transform the world. He serves as an advisor to and editor of the Lehrman Institute's thegoldstandardnow.org and senior advisor to the American Principles Project.