Monday, December 24, 2012

Paul Krugman: When Prophecy Fails

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Paul Krugman: When Prophecy Fails

When people are "absurdly wrong for years on end," it's time to stop listening to them:

When Prophecy Fails, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times
: Back in the
1950s three social psychologists joined a cult that was predicting the imminent
end of the world. Their purpose was to observe the cultists' response when the
world did not, in fact, end on schedule. What they discovered ... is that the
irrefutable failure of a prophecy does not cause true believers ... to
reconsider. On the contrary, they become even more fervent, and proselytize even

This insight seems highly relevant as 2012 draws to a close. After all, a lot of
people came to believe that we were on the brink of catastrophe — and these
views were given extraordinary reach by the mass media. As it turned out..., the
predicted catastrophe failed to materialize. But we can be sure that the
cultists won't admit to having been wrong. No, the people who told us that a
fiscal crisis was imminent will just keep at it, more convinced than ever.

Oh, wait a second — did you think I was talking about the Mayan calendar thing?

Seriously, at every stage of our ongoing economic crisis — and in particular,
every time anyone has suggested actually trying to do something about mass
unemployment — a chorus of voices has warned that unless we bring down budget
deficits now now now, financial markets will turn on America, driving interest
rates sky-high. And ... very few of the prophets of fiscal doom have
acknowledged the failure of their prophecies to come true so far. ...

I and other economists argued from the beginning that ... budget deficits won't
cause soaring interest rates as long as the economy is depressed —... the
biggest risk to the economy is that we might ... slash the deficit too soon. And
surely that point of view has been strongly validated by events.

The key thing ... to understand, however, is that the prophets of fiscal
disaster ... are at this point effectively members of a doomsday cult. They are
emotionally and professionally committed to the belief that fiscal crisis lurks
just around the corner, and they will hold to their belief no matter how many
corners we turn without encountering that crisis.

So we ... will not persuade these people to reconsider their views in the light
of the evidence. All we can do is stop paying attention. It's going to be
difficult, because many members of the deficit cult seem highly respectable. But
they've been hugely, absurdly wrong for years on end, and it's time to stop
taking them seriously.

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