I was wrong.
I was wrong about Inflation by Paul Krugman
I was wrong about Al Franken by Michelle Goldberg
I was wrong about capitalism by David Brooks
I was wrong about the power of protest by Zeynep Tufekci
I was wrong about Trump voters by Bret Stephens
I was wrong about Chinese censorship by Thomas Friedman
I was wrong about Facebook by Farhad Manjoo
I was wrong about Mitt Romney by Gail Collins
Eight Times Opinion columnists revisit their incorrect predictions and bad advice — and reflect on why they changed their minds.
In our age of hyperpartisanship and polarization, when social media echo chambers incentivize digging in and doubling down, it’s not easy to admit you got something wrong. But here at Times Opinion, we still hold on to the idea that good-faith intellectual debate is possible, that we should all be able to rethink our positions on issues, from the most serious to the most trivial. It’s not necessarily easy for Times Opinion columnists to engage in public self-reproach, but we hope that in doing so, they can be models of how valuable it can be to admit when you get things wrong.
I was wrong
The New York Times
I was wrong about Chinese censorship
by Thomas Friedman
Among the most important questions that I’ve wrestled with since becoming a columnist in 1995 are if, when and how fast China will open up its information ecosystem to allow a much freer flow of uncensored news — from both Chinese and foreign sources. I confess that I’ve been too optimistic. I plead guilty.
But I’m still not sure if I’m guilty of (1) just premature optimism about something that is necessary and inevitable — if China is intent on growing a high-tech economy; guilty of (2) utter naïveté about something that is highly improbable given China’s authoritarian political structure; or guilty of (3) wishing for something for China that is necessary but impossible.
I still hope it’s 1. I fear it’s 2. And I despair if it’s 3.
To sort all this out, let’s go to the videotape.
In my travels to China back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was struck by how much freer the business press there seemed to be than the political press — an impression I drew from translated articles I read and interviews I gave to Chinese business media outlets. This was not my imagination: Back then, some of the most interesting and accurate hints about politics in China often appeared first in the Chinese business press or newspapers from regions most open for business with the world.
For instance, one of the most daring newspapers in the early 2000s was the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly, which, as Foreign Policy magazine noted, “often channeled the frequently overlooked perspectives of disadvantaged groups, such as migrants, protesters and government petitioners” and “drew a wide readership that included government authorities and the general public.”
My hope was that as China integrated still more into the global economy, the business press would be the thin wedge that cracked open the media in general, because investors and innovators needed accurate news, not propaganda, to grow and compete globally — and because the next generation of Chinese innovators and engineers would never reach their full potential without being able to have access to a relatively free flow of information.
So I brazenly wrote in my 1999 book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” that “China’s going to have a free press. … Oh, China’s leaders don’t know it yet, but they are being pushed straight in that direction.”
The best I can say today about that observation is that I hope it was just premature!
I also wrote in my Times column on Nov. 21, 2009, “Advice From Grandma,” that if Beijing refused to permit a decent level of free flowing information on the internet and in public speech — if for no other reason than to drive entrepreneurship and innovation — China would never be able to overtake the American economy in dynamism in the 21st century.
As I put it: “Remember what Grandma used to say: Never cede a century to a country that censors Google.”
I also wrote about that theme in my Times column on Dec. 13, 2006, in which I argued, “Sorry, but I am not ready to cede the 21st century to China yet.” Sure China “has been able to command an impressive effort to end illiteracy, greatly increasing its number of high school grads and new universities. But I still believe it is very hard to produce a culture of innovation in a country that censors Google — which for me is a proxy for curtailing people’s ability to imagine and try anything they want.”
China for many years seemed to be inching in the direction of my prediction. It is hard to believe now, but back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was able to lecture freely at Chinese universities, do bookstore talks in Beijing and Shanghai and even travel around Jilin province in a minibus reporting on village elections — with scant government supervision, let alone censorship.
Actually, China’s whole information sector is much more open today than it was 32 years ago when I started visiting. The problem is that it’s also now so much more closed than it was 10 years ago.
There has been a pronounced reversal in trajectory ever since Xi Jinping became head of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 and then president in 2013. Just look at Southern Weekly. Its crusading voice was crushed by government censors and propaganda guardians in 2013, a few months after Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party.
I believe China will pay an increasing price for the loss of that kind of honest journalism — both in terms of being able to surface hidden problems and in terms of the freedom to innovate and challenge incumbents in the market with new ideas. In a world where the pace of change is accelerating, the ability to see where the world is going and quickly adapt and course-correct is vital. Xi thinks otherwise. He has not only tightened the screws on all Chinese media, but, at the same time, he has also cracked down on technology innovators and even business analysts.
Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder of Alibaba, has barely been heard from since criticizing government financial regulators in October 2020. While those regulators may have had legitimate concerns about Alibaba’s shadow banking system, making Ma — who’s like the Steve Jobs of China — practically disappear has cast a pall over the whole tech sector.
No leader is infallible, and the fact that the Chinese press has had to treat Xi that way meant that it was impossible domestically to call for a more nuanced Chinese response to the Covid pandemic — rather than Xi’s strategy of relying solely on China’s own inferior vaccines and mass lockdowns and quarantines, which worked until they didn’t.
If China had a freer news ecosystem — in the media and on social networks — where health experts could have conducted a lively public debate about alternative strategies or residents who have been locked down for weeks could have let off steam, China might not be in the predicament it is now, with tens of millions of citizens being forced to quarantine on and off and losing trust in their government’s feel-good official propaganda.
The head of research at China’s Bank of Communications International, Hong Hao, who had three million followers on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, had his account suspended for making “bearish economic comments about the effects of the ongoing Shanghai lockdown, including commenting on Twitter, ‘Shanghai: zero movement, zero G.D.P.,’” The Washington Post reported from Shenzhen.
Xi and the Chinese Communist Party are reaffirming their belief that a free press in the Western sense is not a prerequisite for effectively integrating with the global economy or dominating the most advanced industries in the 21st century.
When you look at how China has grown in just four decades from a poor country to a middle-income country with amazing infrastructure, you’d have to say that Xi is not crazy to believe that. (And when you look at how social media has divided Western societies and amplified lies and liars, you’d also have to ask whether China has not both lost something and gained something from its tighter controls.)
But when you think about how much technology China not only invented but also had to steal from the West because it could not invent it — and continues to try to steal — you’d be crazy to say that Xi’s is a sure bet.
And when you think about how the most advanced 21st-century technologies, like vaccines, software, microchips, robots, computers and biomedical breakthroughs, to name only a few, are often the product of global collaborations, because no one country has all the talent and everyone needs trusted partners, you’d be crazy not to worry that Xi is making a huge mistake.
Just one tiny example: The most advanced microchip foundry in the world, TSMC, is Chinese, but not Communist Chinese. It’s Taiwanese Chinese. Tiny Taiwan still can make better microchips than the giant mainland — by far. How could that be? It’s because all the biggest technology companies in the world, from Apple to Qualcomm, trust TSMC to make their chips and not steal their technology.
Trust is a byproduct of truth, and truth is a product of a free and independent press — not everywhere and always, but more often than not.
So, for all these reasons, while I plead guilty to premature optimism when it comes to China developing a more open information ecosystem, I’m going to ask the court for a suspended sentence. Let’s all wait and see how this plays out over the next decade.
I Was Wrong About Inflation
by Paul Krugman
In early 2021 there was an intense debate among economists about the likely consequences of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion package enacted by a new Democratic president and a (barely) Democratic Congress. Some warned that the package would be dangerously inflationary; others were fairly relaxed. I was Team Relaxed. As it turned out, of course, that was a very bad call.
But what, exactly, did I get wrong? Both the initial debate and the way things have played out were more complicated than I suspect most people realize.
You see, this wasn’t a debate between opposing economic ideologies. Just about all the prominent players, from Larry Summers to Dean Baker, were Keynesian economists, with more or less center-left political leanings. And we all had similar views, at least in a qualitative sense, about how economic policy works. Everyone in the debate agreed that deficit spending would stimulate demand; everyone agreed that a stronger economy with a lower unemployment rate would, other things equal, have a higher inflation rate.
What we had instead was an argument about magnitudes. The rescue plan was huge in dollar terms, and as Team Inflation warned, if it had a normal-size “multiplier” (the increase in gross domestic product caused by a dollar of additional government spending) it would lead to a highly overheated economy — that is, to a temporary surge in employment and gross domestic product far above their sustainable levels, and hence high inflation.
Those of us on Team Relaxed argued, however, that the structure of the plan would lead to a much smaller surge in G.D.P. than the headline number would suggest. A big piece of the plan was one-time checks to taxpayers, which we argued would be largely saved rather than spent; another big piece was aid to state and local governments, which we thought would be spent only gradually, over several years.
We also argued that if there were a temporary overshoot on G.D.P. and employment it wouldn’t sharply increase inflation, because historical experience suggested that the relationship between employment and inflation was fairly flat — that is, that it would take a lot of overheating to produce a big inflation surge.
So here’s the odd thing: The multiplier on the rescue plan does, in fact, seem to have been relatively low. A lot of consumers saved those checks; state and local government spending rose by less than one percent of G.D.P. Employment is still below its prepandemic level, and real G.D.P., while it has recovered to roughly its prepandemic trend, hasn’t shot above it.
Yet inflation soared anyway. Why?
Much, although not all, of the inflation surge seems to reflect disruptions associated with the pandemic. Fear of infection and changes in the way we live caused big shifts in the mix of spending: People spent less money on services and more on goods, leading to shortages of shipping containers, overstressed port capacity, and so on. These disruptions help explain why inflation rose in many countries, not just in the United States.
But while inflation was confined mainly to a relatively narrow part of the economy at first, consistent with the disruption story, it has gotten broader. And many indicators, like the number of unfilled job openings, seem to show an economy running hotter than numbers like G.D.P. or the unemployment rate suggest. Some combination of factors — early retirements, reduced immigration, lack of child care — seems to have reduced the economy’s productive capacity compared with the previous trend.
Even so, historical experience wouldn’t have led us to expect this much inflation from overheating. So something was wrong with my model of inflation — again, a model shared by many others, including those who were right to worry in early 2021. I know it sounds lame to say that Team Inflation was right for the wrong reasons, but it’s also arguably true.
One possibility is that historical experience was misleading because until recently the economy was almost always running a bit cold — producing less than it could — and inflation didn’t depend much on exactly how cold it was. Maybe in a hot economy the relationship between G.D.P. and inflation gets a lot steeper.
Also, disruptions associated with adjusting to the pandemic and its aftermath may still be playing a large role. And of course both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s lockdown of major cities have added a whole new level of disruption.
Looking ahead, the economy is currently cooling off — the decline in first quarter G.D.P. was probably a quirk, but overall growth seems to be running below trend. And private sector economists I talk to mostly believe that inflation either has already peaked or will peak soon. So things may seem less puzzling a few months from now.
In any case, the whole experience has been a lesson in humility. Nobody will believe this, but in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis standard economic models performed pretty well, and I felt comfortable applying those models in 2021. But in retrospect I should have realized that, in the face of the new world created by Covid-19, that kind of extrapolation wasn’t a safe bet.