Michigan Daily columns can’t surpass 750 words. Because of this requirement, I typically have to over-generalize certain aspects of my opinion in order to avoid detracting from the column’s central focus. There simply isn’t enough space to include all the background information that informs my opinion, and sometimes, the lack of space can even provide a useful opportunity to whitewash over areas in which I’m less knowledgeable.
Such is the nature of any short paper, television interview, public speech or lecture, and I am telling you this because my own need to manage a small writing space has made me more aware of the ways that professional writers have to employ the same strategies. It’s a given societal virtue that to be considered an informed person, you have to read the news. But there seems to be less attention given to how people read the news, and as college students learning to think critically, it’s important for us to think about the ways that authors convey information in order to make their arguments.
Which brings me to Paul Krugman. Krugman is a Nobel Prize winning economist who teaches at Princeton University, has written many books and writes columns in The New York Times twice a week. He often seems to be the most prominent advocate of liberal economics. He’s obviously a smart man, and I find his columns very informative. But his word is too often treated as gospel, and I think we can all pay more attention to what he chooses to include and not include in his 800-word space.
After following Krugman’s columns semi-regularly, I’ve struggled trying to figure out why he seemed to be one of few public voices that didn’t express concern over the federal deficit. Column after column, he argued that current economic recovery was slow, and the debt wasn’t nearly as worrisome as the prospect of sinking back into recession. This is exactly what happened prior to World War II, he argues in his book “Deficit Economics,” when then-President Franklin Roosevelt tried to balance the budget once the economy showed signs of recovery.
The argument is certainly reasonable. But how do you reconcile it with sources elsewhere predicting an imminent currency crisis analogous to what happened in Greece this past summer?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the most vocal trumpeters of anti-deficit rhetoric are election-oriented politicians. It often feels like the majority of space in the average Krugman column tracks the exploits of such politicians, blames both parties with the caveat that the Republicans are worse and the economic analysis slips through the cracks. But is that all there is to the conversation? Is there no legitimate fear about the current deficit?
For Krugman, the answer in terms of the short-term deficit is, actually, no. But the concrete answer as to why is hard to pinpoint. Take for example a recent column, “Dumbing Deficits Down,” in which the entire explanation regarding short-term deficits was a few sentences: “The nation is not, in fact, ‘broke.’ The federal government is having no trouble raising money, and the price of that money — the interest rate on federal borrowing — is very low by historical standards.” As a non-economist, I’m inclined to ask, what makes interest rates the standard for determining whether a short-term deficit is a problem? Unfortunately, further explanation would take up too much space.
I’m not saying that Krugman isn’t a brilliant professor who passionately believes what he’s arguing. I just think it’s too easy to fall into a trap of thinking, “I don’t understand the economics, but the political analysis is astute. He won a Nobel Prize, and he hates Republicans. Sounds good.”
Admittedly, I’m coming before you in this piece not as a confident columnist, but as a confused student. I simply hope that by taking you through my thought process, we can start a broader conversation, not on my economic ignorance — since I’m sure the average reader isn’t much better — but on how we analyze persuasive pieces. We shouldn’t let slide analysis we don’t understand, and we need to not only be critical of what’s written, but also what’s omitted. There’s probably no better time than now to think about how authors choose to use their 700 to 800-word space. We are students, after all.
Jeremy Levy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.