The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Krugman goes constructionist


November 29, 2008

Many years ago, I attended a talk by Michael Shapiro. He was doing something on memory and place, and showed a clip from some Steve Martin movie–Father of the Bride, maybe II–and a colleague of mine, ever the concerned young scholar, said Yes, but Professor Shapiro, over in Bosnia (which was going on at the time), people are dying, and here you are showing movies. What does this tell us that we should do to stop that?
And he replied: Who is this “we”?

In his current column, Paul Krugman channels his inner pomo and opens with a similar story:

A few months ago I found myself at a meeting of economists and finance officials, discussing — what else? — the crisis. There was a lot of soul-searching going on. One senior policy maker asked, “Why didn’t we see this coming?”

There was, of course, only one thing to say in reply, so I said it: “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

His point–the “establishment” didn’t allow itself to see this coming, despite the fact that a number of critics and contrarians warned otherwise. Thus, this, “unprecedented” crisis “no one” saw coming.

Krugman makes a key point: that this economic event is constructed as a “crisis” rather than a natural correction that could have been (was) foreseen and for which we might have (should have) planned in advance (and a few did). An accepted wisdom of success is built around particular policy choices to make them seem “rational” and “logical” and when something doesn’t fit those, it portends a “crisis.”

This point is not all that new to the constructivist IR literature– Weldes pointed out, with respect to the Cuban Missile Crisis, that a series of events must be discursively constructed to be a crisis.

So to is an economic crisis. There are plenty who saw this coming, and some who saw this as a natural and needed corrective to an out-of-control market. They just don’t count as part of that “we.”

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.