Saturday, March 9, 2013

Do op-ed writers provide their own hyperlinks?

Or is some intern handed the copy and told to find some appropriate citations? I generally assume that the links are an intrinsic part of anything written specifically for online consumption but what about the online version of something primarily intended for print?

Take this op-ed by Joe Scarborough and Jeffrey D. Sachs writing for the Washington Post which starts with the following paragraph:
Dick Cheney and Paul Krugman have declared from opposite sides of the ideological divide that deficits don’t matter, but they simply have it wrong. Reasonable liberals and conservatives can disagree on what role the federal government should play yet still believe that government should resume paying its way.
As a commenter on Krugman's blog pointed out, if you click on Krugman's name in that paragraph, you'll end up at a post that starts as follows:
Right now, deficits don’t matter — a point borne out by all the evidence. But there’s a school of thought — the modern monetary theory people — who say that deficits never matter, as long as you have your own currency.

I wish I could agree with that view — and it’s not a fight I especially want, since the clear and present policy danger is from the deficit peacocks of the right. But for the record, it’s just not right.
In other words, to support the claim that Krugman said deficits don't matter, Scarborough and Sachs point to Krugman saying explicitly that people who say deficits don't matter are wrong. Krugman then spends pretty much the entire post arguing that deficits will matter a great deal once we're out of the liquidity trap. Here's the key section.
So we’re talking about a monetary base that rises 12 percent a month, or about 400 percent a year.

Does this mean 400 percent inflation? No, it means more — because people would find ways to avoid holding green pieces of paper, raising prices still further.

I could go on, but you get the point: once we’re no longer in a liquidity trap, running large deficits without access to bond markets is a recipe for very high inflation, perhaps even hyperinflation. And no amount of talk about actual financial flows, about who buys what from whom, can make that point disappear: if you’re going to finance deficits by creating monetary base, someone has to be persuaded to hold the additional base.
This isn't to say that this post is in agreement with the op-ed; in terms of immediate action they are taking completely opposite positions, It would have easy to spell out the distinction, but instead Scarborough and Sachs simply make a claim then point us to something that directly contradicts it.

The strange thing here is that you could find any number of posts where Krugman focuses on the case for stimulus and largely or entirely ignores the dangers of deficits. Any of these would have supported Scarborough and Sachs' thesis. Instead, though, the authors pick possibly the strongest anti-deficit argument Krugman has made in the past five years.

I can understand Scarborough. He is, and I don't mean this as a pejorative, a TV personality. That's a rare and valuable talent and Scarborough is very good at it. It is not, however, a profession that depends upon reputation in the conventional sense. As long as a TV personality does nothing to betray his public persona, almost all press is good press.

For Sachs, though, reputation is extraordinarily important. This is an important and influential scholar, someone whose ideas carry great weight with policy makers. Here's a representative passage from Wikipedia:
Sachs is the Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs and a Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia's School of Public Health. He is Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending extreme poverty and hunger. From 2002 to 2006, he was Director of the United Nations Millennium Project's work on the Millennium Development Goals, eight internationally sanctioned objectives to reduce extreme poverty, hunger, and disease by the year 2015. Since 2010 he has also served as a Commissioner for the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, which leverages broadband technologies as a key enabler for social and economic development.
Silly, avoidable errors undercut Sachs' ability to continue this good work.

Which leads back to my original question. Did Jeffrey Sachs actually agree upon a link that contradicted the point he was trying to make or are links, like headlines and blurbs, often added after a piece is submitted?


  1. since i blogged on MMT at the time, i recognized that krugman post, so i checked & sure enough, it was two years old...i cant believe sachs would have picked that one out of the thousand krugman posts since to back his arguement...that looks like the result one would get by searching google for "krugman deficits dont matter"

    yep. just tried that on google & that post does in fact come up second...

  2. Mark:

    My experience in coauthored pieces, especially of this sort, is that one person writes it and the other person just makes small changes and signs on. In this case, the authors are both celebrities and so perhaps a third person writes it.

    Regarding your specific question about links: when I've published online newspaper articles, indeed the editor sometimes adds links for me without asking. So that could well have happened here.

    1. Andrew,

      The party theory is supported by some of the other writings we've seen. In particular, this Sachs post []
      is completely different in style to the op-ed.

      It looks like Sachs might have wanted to lend his good name to what he saw as a good cause (which is not, perhaps, the best way to keep a good name).


      p.s. I'm sure we could find some coauthored pieces where both parties did significant amounts of writing

  3. Not to mention, Krugman's characterization of MMT as saying 'deficits don't matter' could not be more wrong.

  4. "Scarborough ... is, and I don't mean this as a pejorative, a TV personality. That's a rare and valuable talent..."

    Rare? Maybe. Valuable? In his case, worse than useless.

    1. I was thinking about value to NBC-Universal, not to society in general.