The U.K. Had a Better Paul Krugman

Samuel Brittan's career makes you think about what political and economic commentary once aspired to be.
Samuel Brittan didn't need to be data-driven. Source: Financial Times

Samuel Brittan is retiring after almost 50 years as an economic commentator at the Financial Times. The paper has a video interview and a new column of his reflecting on some critical moments in the U.K.'s recent economic history. Many youngsters -- by which I mean people younger than I am -- may be unaware just how influential Brittan was during his time in that job. His career makes you think about what political and economic commentary once aspired to be.

It's hard to know how popular Brittan's writing was. This would have been hard to measure and nobody cared -- least of all Brittan. He didn't write to provoke or entertain. And how shall I put this? He was not cut out for social media. He was a deep and technically competent thinker with a devoted following among politicians, civil servants and professional economists. He often set the terms of their discussion of policy questions. In those days, what more could an editor ask?

If you say, as many would, that Paul Krugman is today the most influential economics commentator in the U.S., you don't mean he's influencing policy -- not in the way Brittan did. Krugman influences the climate of opinion among the politically engaged, but has little expectation of directly shaping policy. Rather the opposite: He operates as a disaffected outsider, fond of mocking the Very Serious People, as he calls them, who do shape policy; he doesn't hope to change their minds about anything.

Also, Krugman succeeds partly because of his ability to delight his disciples and enrage everybody else: To be popular, it helps to take sides, then stick it to the enemy. That's another difference. Brittan was militantly nonpartisan. (One of his best books was "Left or Right, the Bogus Dilemma.") But he was non-aligned without ever being feeble or diffident, as those who see themselves as standing above the debate often are.

Ideologically, he's a classical liberal. In modern U.S. politics, there's no equivalent. (Bleeding-heart libertarian, maybe? Miles Kimball, the economics blogger and University of Michigan professor, calls himself a supply-side liberal. That's close.)

Brittan praised Margaret Thatcher for her pro-market policies and was usually on good terms with Tory ministers when it came to economics; but he was offended by her social conservatism and disgusted by her populist nationalism, which reached its zenith during the war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. You weren't always sure which side of an argument he'd come down on, only that he'd have good reasons for his position.

Something else that Brittan wasn't cut out for is "data-driven journalism." Despite his respect for facts and his passion for policy, he mainly wrote about ideas -- which is still, I think, worthwhile. Facts are great for settling disagreements that turn on facts -- but not that many do. It often seems otherwise, because people have a habit of bending facts to suit their argument. "Data-driven journalism" serves a useful purpose in leaning against that tendency. But even at its best it gets you only so far because the underlying disagreement is rarely about data.

Political choices are almost invariably about one's interpretation of the facts -- the model, if you prefer, that you use to make sense of the data -- and beyond that, about the values you bring to moving from "is" to "ought." I like a chart as much as the next man, but the idea that data is all you need to understand a policy issue, much less choose a course of action, is infantile. It's a mistake I can't imagine Brittan ever making.

(Clive Crook is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter @clive_crook.)

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