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The Tenth-Ranked Quotation of 2008?

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The Yale Book of Quotations seeks to fulfill a useful service: It tabulates well-known sound-bites, but tries to get the exact quote and citation right, which is rare.    (P.T. Barnum in fact never said “There is a sucker born every minute.”  Humphrey Bogart never said “Play it again Sam.”  Richard Nixon never said “But it would be wrong.” Etc.) The editor compiles an annual list of Top Ten Quotes of the Year. This week he released the list for 2008. Number 1 for example is “I can see Russia from my house,” carefully attributed to the Tina Fey parody rather than what Sarah Palin actually said.

The good news is that the title line in my blogpost of July 17 was chosen as one of the top ten quotes of 2008 (tied for tenth place, it is true).    The bad news is that the quote was attributed to Paul Krugman, who had used it subsequently on the Bill Mayer Show.    The sentence is: “If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no libertarians in financial crises.”   I had originally used it in 2007 as the first line of an article in a Cato Journal issue devoted to financial crises.  Among the others who subsequently picked up on the line were Ben Bernanke,  Mark Shields, Bloomberg,  WallStreetJournal.com, Brad deLong, and Tom Keene – generally with attribution, when the format permitted.

The list of Top Ten Quotations of 2008 went out over AP on Monday, and has appeared in lots of newspaper stories and TV broadcasts over the last couple days.  Those are the breaks.   Krugman immediately set the record straight on his blog, as I knew he would.

But there are some other, more interesting, aspects.

One is an illustration of how tough is the world in which highly visible columnists like Krugman live.   There are lots of Krugman-haters out there.  Of course the phenomenon originates in the fact that he consistently has been liberal and anti-Bush (not precisely the same thing).  But the antipathy goes very deep.    The Yale/AP list was called to my attention yesterday by one Joel West.   I told him I was indebted to him for pointing out the misattribution.   But I also told him that I was sure that there had been no desire on Paul’s part to steal my line:  TV shows like Bill Maher don’t customarily allow their guests to display footnotes.     But Mr.West must be one of the Krugman-haters, because his subsequent blogpost blithely accused Krugman of dishonesty.   As had another Krugman-hating blogpost before that.   These people are eager for ammunition against someone of a different ideological persuasion and are not sufficiently discriminating about what they use.

Ironically, of the other two soundbites that share tenth place on the Yale/AP list with the atheists-libertarians quote, one is something else attributed to Krugman (“Cash for trash”), and the third is from the all-time champion Krugman-hater, Donald Luskin.   Luskin earned the Top Ten honor when quoted as saying “Anyone who says we’re in a recession, or heading into one — especially the worst one since the Great Depression — is making up his own private definition of “`recession’”  in the Washington Post, September 14.    This was of course after a huge fraction of economic commentators had already decided that the country was probably in recession, as turns out to have been the case.   (I myself took a bit of grief on various blogs both for saying it too early and also for saying it too late.)

The atheists-and-libertarians line itself has also drawn some grief from atheists and libertarians — on various blogsites.   I don’t mean to put these two philosophies together (although that would be an interesting essay question on some exam).  Nor is it the case that either group is objecting to being associated with the other.   But both have pointed out that the statement is not literally true.   They are entirely correct:  There are plenty of atheists in the military;  and there are plenty of libertarians in a financial crisis.  But of course the statement did not literally mean there are no atheists in foxholes or lilbertarians in financial crises.  The claims are, rather, that on average:  (i) soldiers under fire tend suddenly to grow more religious in outlook, and (ii) policy-makers facing a financial crisis tend suddenly to grow more interventionist in outlook.    But, yes, there really are atheists in foxholes.   They are a minority, but a substantial one.   And yes there really are libertarians in financial crises.  Again a minority, but not to be dismissed.   If anything, I admire the intellectual consistency of those who have thought through their views well enough ahead of time that they do not change them under pressure from events that, even if calamitous, were predictable.


Originally published at Jeff Frankel’s Weblog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to “The Tenth-Ranked Quotation of 2008?”

CopitoDecember 24th, 2008 at 6:39 am

How about a new one: “There’s no such thing as a free market”?Encapsulates that nice piece of economist smugness about lunches, whilst at the same time pointing out that Economists are really just readers of animal entrails, and as susceptible to bribes from the rich and powerful as any olden-day priest…. just a thought.

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