Why we should care if Krugman is partisan

A couple weeks ago The Economist had an article discussing how economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is becoming increasingly partisan in his writings. The article relies primarily on analysis done by Ken Waight over at Lying In Ponds, a site dedicated to rating columnists and other pundits on partisanship. I like the site’s philosophy, particularly because it ignores the whole question of “bias” and goes straight to the more important issue of partisanship: blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance to one of the two main political parties.

I don’t read Krugman often and don’t have a personal opinion on his partisanship, though I do find Waight’s arguments compelling. What’s gotten me thinking is the follow-up question: should we care?

As Waight is quick to point out, there is nothing wrong with an editorial columnist having and expressing a bias — that’s what we pay them for. He also points out that some biases will naturally align with the biases of one political party or another. Waight’s beef is when a pundit crosses over from bias for similar ideals to bias for a political party itself. When this happens, Waight argues, “The views of pundits who are excessively partisan cannot be taken seriously (like advertising), because their ulterior motives or uncontrolled biases are certain to frequently contaminate their judgments.”

It is here that I break ranks with Waight. Clearly partisanship can blind pundits, but there are levels of blindness that might occur. The worst partisans deliberately lie and dissemble to argue their case — these pundits should certainly not be taken seriously. However, less egregious partisans give factual, rational arguments, but either omit arguments that would support their opponents or only choose to talk about topics that put their side in the best light. These partisans can still provide a valuable service so long as (a) they make their partisanship clear and (b) they are only one part of a diverse and balanced opinion diet. I’d say most politicians of either party fall into this second, less egregious level of partisanship. While I certainly won’t trust a politician without question, I will still take their arguments seriously. I would say the same for anyone with a strong prejudice, whether that prejudice is towards a particular party, methodology, world-view or value judgment.

All that said, I do believe that a prejudice towards a political party is qualitatively different than, say, a prejudice for well-run scientific studies or small government or Christian values. The difference is not that allegiance to a party produces worse decisions than allegiance to a world-view, method or value system, but rather that adherence to a party line is one of a few easy shortcuts that we non-pundits already use. As a good citizen I would love to become an expert on every political issue that comes up, but I just don’t have the time. Instead, I learn about a few issues that are important to me and for the rest I rely on the opinion of the politicians and political parties that I elect to represent me. As Dr. Robert Cialdini puts it in Influence: Science and Practice:

It’s instructive that even though we often don’t take a complex approach to personally important topics, we wish our advisors — our physicians, accountants, lawyers, and brokers — to do precisely that for us (Kahn & Baron, 1995). When feeling overwhelmed by a complicated and consequential choice, we still want a fully considered, point-by-point analysis of it — an analysis we may not be able to achieve except, ironically enough, through a shortcut: reliance on an expert.

The problem with professional pundits who are partisan is that they use party positions as a shortcut for deciding what is right and wrong — just like we non-professionals do. That means we can’t use their arguments as a shortcut validation of of the opinions we get using our own partisanship shortcut. Independent validation, I would argue, is the primary purpose of an opinion columnist.

Eugene Volokh once opined that we shouldn’t hold non-professional pundits (like most bloggers) to the high standard of even-handedness. However, it is perfectly reasonable to hold professional columnists to this standard. When I read Krugman (or any other professional pundit) I don’t expect him to disagree with the Democrats often, but I want to know that he could. Otherwise I haven’t checked my initial shortcut at all, I just got two copies of the same shortcut. As Waight put it, “When two people agree on everything, it’s pretty certain that only one is doing the thinking.” First and foremost, we should expect our professional pundits to think.