The Volokh Conspiracy

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Bloggers behaving badly: Krugman and DeLong edition

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

False accusations can travel throughout the blogosphere before the truth has even logged in. When newspapers make mistakes or false accusations, they publish corrections. That's not always the case with bloggers, however. And sometimes it seems the more prominent the blogger, the less likely a correction will be made.

A recent example comes from noted economist Paul Krugman, a columnist and blogger with the New York Times. On Sunday, Krugman authored a short post taking swipes at the Cato Institute. In this post, Krugman recounted how Cato allegedly "suppressed" a paper by economist David Glasner—a charge Glasner initially made on his blog. This story, Krugman claimed, illustrated the Cato Institute's "long-standing habit of trying to send inconvenient history down the memory hole."

It turns out that Krugman's charge is false, however. As Glasner recounts in an update to the post that Krugman cited, the initial allegation was based upon a misunderstanding. Cato had not sought to suppress Glasner's paper. Indeed, Cato had offered to publish it, albeit not as quickly as either Cato or Glasner had hoped. Once this was cleared up, Glasner forthrightly acknowledged the error. "Evidently, my recollection was faulty," Glasner wrote. Krugman, however, has yet to update his post.

Krugman may not have corrected his initial claim about Cato and Glasner because he is unaware of Glasner's correction. Although quite a few folks have tweeted him about it, Krugman is quite a busy guy and may not have noticed. I have a hard time keeping up with my Twitter feed, and I have a tiny fraction of Krugman's audience. That he repeated a false claim may have just escaped his notice. Economist Brad DeLong, however, does not have the same excuse.

On Saturday (one day before Krugman's post), DeLong published a short post slamming Cato for its alleged mistreatment of Glasner. Like Krugman, DeLong made no note of Glasner's correction. This was not because DeLong was unaware Glasner had recanted the charge, however. Some of DeLong's readers tried to point out the charge was false in the comments to DeLong's post, but DeLong deleted these comments (including one of mine) and made no update to his post. In other words, while Krugman may be unaware his post contains an unfounded attack on Cato, DeLong was fully aware he'd repeated a false accusation and was apparently content to leave it that way. Not only did he refuse to acknowledge the error of his post, he prevented others from informing his readers of the problem. That is exceedingly poor form. [Since DeLong has something of a history of doing this sort of thing, I screen-capped my initial comment and posted a second after the first was deleted. At the time of this writing, my second comment is still there, but we'll see how long that lasts. [UPDATE: Since this post went up, that comment has been deleted, as has another that noted his update and linked to this post.]]

The other charge in Krugman's post is that the Cato Institute tried to erase any mention of Social Security "privatization" from its work, preferring instead to emphasize Social Security "choice." Krugman writes:

You see, back in the 1990s Cato had a long-standing project titled the Project on Social Security Privatization. Then they discovered that the term polled badly, and renamed it The Project on Social Security Choice. OK. But they also tried to pretend that they had never used the term privatization, which was clearly a liberal smear—and they went so far as to edit old web pages and records of old conferences to eliminate the term "privatization", as if it had never been used.

I have no doubt that the Cato Institute may have adjusted its rhetoric in response to polling or focus group data. (I leave to others whether this was clever marketing or cynical manipulation of language.) But did Cato really try to "eliminate the term . . . as if it had never been used"? To check this claim, I went to the Cato site and ran a search for "social security privatization." Lo and behold, I came up with hundreds of results, including work both before and after the alleged white-washing of history. So much for Cato's alleged effort to "eliminate the term" from its website. Had Krugman bothered to run a simple website search, he would have discovered the same thing. Instead he accused Cato of "hackery."

Perhaps coincidentally, yesterday Krugman blogged about those who have "a problem both in facing reality and in admitting mistakes." According to Krugman, this is a "question of character." Yes, yes, it is.

UPDATE: This morning, after this post was published, DeLong added an update to his post noting Glasner's correction. It's a shame he was unwilling to do this before, and instead resorted to deleting comments that sought to correct the record. I should note also that in updating his post he moved it to the top of his feed, where it is more likely to be noticed by his readers. [UPDATE: On the other hand, he also continues to delete comments highlighting his conduct, as he did again shortly after this post went up.]

SECOND UPDATE: Krugman has added an update to his post. It reads, in its entirety:

Update: Glasner has retracted, saying he got his facts wrong. Unfortunate. It has no bearing on what I wrote, however.

As for Cato and Social Security: during the great debate of 2005, I went to Cato pages on the Social Security project, and found several which referred to pre-name-change conferences as being about "Social Security Choice" but before the name change - and which still had "privatization" in the source code. I talked about this at the time. I'm not surprised that they gave up, but it really happened.

What Krugman fails to mention, however, is that Glasner apparently e-mailed him (and DeLong) about his mistaken recollection when he first realized his error. Yet neither Krugman nor DeLong saw fit to acknowledge their mistake until days later, and after they'd been called on it publicly. Krugman also fails to link to this blog post (or any other critique) though he clearly feels the need to respond to the charges (and by relying upon his own recollection, natch). In the 2005 interview to which he links, Krugman claimsthat, at the time, there was "no indication that it was ever called 'privatization,'" and yet that's demonstrably false, as plenty of Cato materials referring to Social Security privatization remained on their site at the time as they do now. Perhaps that's why when Krugman repeated the charge in 2010, he was a bit more careful, acknowledging that plenty of such materials remained. No matter. I'm sure these inconsistencies have "no bearing" on what Krugman wrote either.

It seems to me Krugman needs to re-read his own post May 17, "Questions of Character," in which he criticized others who have "a problem both in facing reality and in admitting mistakes."