Asimov Wrote Fiction. Paul Krugman Does Also.
Given my opinion of Paul Krugman’s more recent thoughts regarding economics, I was not shocked to learn his role model and hero was not an economist. According to Dr. Krugman, himself, he became an economist because he admired Isaac Asimov’s fictional protagonist; Hari Seldon. He explains the connection further below.
Krugman explained that he’d become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he’d read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon. Seldon was a “psychohistorian”—a scientist with such a precise understanding of the mechanics of society that he could predict the course of events thousands of years into the future and save mankind from centuries of barbarism.HT:The New Yorker
Reading that description gave me empathy to season my intellectual disagreements with Dr. Krugman. Isaac Asimov and The Foundation Trilogy rank almost up there with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The poor man sucked from the crack pipe of geekdom at an early age. It makes me want to hoist a beer with the man and commiserate over the first time we each stepped on a sharp, pointy four-sider.
This adds a depth and humanity to Paul Krugman’s character that makes me more thoroughly respect the man’s coruscating intellect. It also explains in detail why he and I will never come to accord on the fundamental nature of government’s role in a decent society. Krugman illuminates us further on how Asimov’s description of Dr. Seldon’s fictional intellectual theories inspired Dr. Krugman’s real-world beliefs.
He couldn’t predict individual behavior—that was too hard—but it didn’t matter, because history was determined not by individuals but by laws and hidden forces.
As much as I enjoyed reading Asimov, I no longer am able to credit Krugman with an adequate attachment to reality. I don’t argue against his brilliance, he likes Sci-Fi – the man has to be good for something! However, I just can’t buy the implicit presupposition that you could substitute the Monty Python character Incontinentia Buttocks for Gaius Julius Caesar and have the history of the Roman Republic remain unchanged because of some mystical laws of societal evolution.
My inability to reject the farcical null hypothesis above, also renders me unable to buy into Asimov’s Pyschohistory as posited in The Foundation Trilogy. Dr. Asimov taught Chemistry for a living. He also fundamentally believed in philosophical Marxism. Pyschohistory was his attempt to use his vast knowledge of the physical universe to mold the philosophical sloppiness of Marxist beliefs into a workable doctrine.
To Asimov, this essentially came down treating all of us insignificant human pismires as the constituents of a population distribution akin to those in a good, closed-form statistical mechanics problem. Just tweak the Boltzman Distribution’s parameters a notch, and we can tell the rest of the world exactly how to order their affairs for the next 30,000 years. Hari Seldon did it for the entire interstellar empire. Certainly the renowned Dr. Krugman could bang out a few lines of Fortran 90 and straighten out our dysfunctional banking sector.
Except that even Dr. Asimov had to admit to his imaginary amanuensis that Hari Seldon could not account for sample outliers. Asimov’s antagonist, The Mule, blew up Seldon’s model. Like the accidentally truncated numbers in Dr. Lorentz’s weather spreadsheets, The Mule was the trigger for a Butterfly Effect that nearly laid to nines Dr. Seldon’s entire Foundation
This happens to so-called “Scientific Socialism” on a daily basis, back home on terra firma. In Alan Greenspan’s autobiography, Age of Turbulence, Mr. Greenspan recounts a meeting he had with a group of former Soviet officials who claimed to have built a giant Xcel super-spreadsheet. This pixilated leviathan of Microsoft macros supposedly tracked every unit of production in every factory from Kamchatka to Vilnius and all points in between.
Under the benevolent parlance of these central planners, the Soviet Union went from repelling General Guderian at Stalingrad in 1943 to turning out the Motorized Riflemen to harvest their failing potato crops in the final years under Gorbachev. If only they’d populated that model with Fermi-Dirac statistics instead….
What Isaac Asimov postulated made for superlatively entertaining fiction. George R.R. Martin and Neal Stephenson are about the only ones still writing on that level of excellence today. However, even as I love reading Asimov classics like “C-Chute”, I wish Dr. Seldon had been unceremoniously denied tenure.
Asimov, along with reams of superlative fiction, has created a feral beast. Pyschohistory, like Marxism, like Dr. Krugman’s Keynesianism on Barry Bonds Juice does not work in the real world. He has inspired Dr. Krugman to surrealism. This surrealism has been mistaken for greatness.
The Foundation can never be built. If it could, it would be a crushing tyranny. These sorts of crushing tyrannies suffer from population inversions, as people are forced to act against their natures to fit some brilliant idealist’s plan.
As is the case in quantum physics, a stimulus may well cause this population inversion to resolve itself in a violent, energetic simultaneous emission. The French Revolution could fit that analogy. Dr. Seldon’s Foundation, and Dr. Krugman’s admirable but wrong-headed ideals, would be the first things in line for the guillotine. Hari Seldon, RIP.
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