The best of Paul Krugman vs Reddit

Nobel prize-winning economist fields questions from "The Front Page of the Internet". What could go

Paul Krugman has a new book coming out, which means he is doing a lot of thing that one doesn't normally see from a Nobel Prize-winning economist. First he debated Ron Paul on Bloomberg TV, including a bizarre interlude involving inflation in third-century Rome. Then yesterday, he did a question and answer session with Reddit, the hugely popular social news site which brands itself "The Front Page of the Internet".

Under the headline IamA Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, Krugman – username nytimeskrugman – spent a couple of hours answering questions from Reddit users. Here are some of his best answers.

Responding to user sychosomat, who asked about the problems caused by the inability to perform experiments in economics, Krugman wrote:

Well, not being able to do experiments is a problem, but not as bad as all that. We do have statistical techniques for trying to sort out what's going on, although I'm skeptical about their power. But mainly we can look for "natural experiments", which often tell you a lot. In End This Depression I talk about how wars provide a natural experiment on fiscal policy; right now forced austerity in Europe is providing another set of natural experiments.

You may ask whether both sides in every debate won't nonetheless find ways to support their positions. My answer here is that this is not, in fact, happening. On the question of whether austerity is expansionary or contractionary, we had some alleged evidence for expansionary effects, but it was quickly shot down by the normal process of scholarly discussion. In any normal scientific debate, this would now be a settled issue.

I guess that what I'm saying here is that while the non-experimental nature of economics is an issue, the apparent inability to resolve differences that you see right now is about politics, not the inherent problems of the discipline.

Cthwaites asked how close we are to repeating the mistake in 1925, when Britain returned to the gold standard for seven disastrous years. Kurgman:

All around Europe's periphery they're doing it as we speak, er, type. The euro has served as the functional equivalent of the gold standard.

The difference for, say, Spain is that since they don't have their own currency, it's much harder to change course than it would have been for Britain under gold. But if you look at, say, Latvia, they're doing the full Churchill -- and being hailed as a role model even as they enforce a devastating slump on themselves.

Asked by Curbsidejohnman to give the best argument against austerity, Krugman replied:

I think it is to point out that if nobody is buying, nobody can sell. Austerity in a depressed economy makes the depression deeper, and that is, I believe, a point people can grasp. Of course, it's a point made easier to grasp now that the Irish and others have given us such clear examples of how bad the results of austerity can be.

Bloometal asked about Krugman's views on behavioural economics. Krugman wrote:

I think there's a lot of very good work in behavioral econ. But I don't expect a unified theory for many, many years. There are just two many ways the assumption of perfect rationality can fail, and I don't think we have enough broader understanding to put it all in one package.

That said, we can use behavioral econ even as it is, as long as we're modest about modeling. As long as we are prepared to say "this is how people actually seem to behave" without demanding general theorems -- for example the obvious reluctance to accept nominal wage cuts -- we can go a long way toward analyzing real-world issue in a way that can guide both prediction and policy.

Finally, one of Krugman's answers which works best without any context:

Shave around it every day, and get your wife to clip it fairly often.

(Oh all right, he was talking about his beard)

Photograph: Getty Images/Reddit.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.