August 13, 2003
Another Krugman Sideswipe

Random Jottings and others have made fun of the latest Paul Krugman column, in which the random jotter (John Weidner) points to "a couple of howlers":

In one he claims that our soldiers are swapping food packs or M.R.E.'s (meals ready to eat) with Italian troops. Being an economist you would think he would do some research and find out the U.S./Italian food ration "exchange rate."

I think Weidner's point can be sharpened: unless Italian soldiers are remarkably stupid, either MREs aren't all that bad, or Italian rations aren't all that good: in any case, they can't be much better than MREs, or no one would trade them at any exchange rate. After all, if Italian troops were lunching on lobster and champagne, snacking on truffles, and dining on filet mignon while American troops subsisted on the proverbial "greasy grimy gopher guts", "mutilated monkey meat", and "disconnected birdy feet", how would any American soldier ever have been able to convince any single Italian soldier to trade food even once? Did Krugman even think about what he wrote, or does he not care how implausible it is as long as he can bash Bush? In short, is he dumb enough to believe this, or does he think we're dumb enough to believe it? (He probably thinks our soldiers don't have spoons, either.)

Correction: (8/14, 11:50 PM)

As Dwight Meredith points out in the first comment, Krugman does not actually say that American troops were trading MREs for Italian food. If the New York Times hadn't rejected my last attempt to register for access, I would have been able to check for myself.

Of course, my gross factual error does not excuse Krugman's errors, though my particular line of argument is vitiated. I am curious as to what Krugman thinks our soldiers are trading away: surely not their weapons or vehicles or anything else essential. And if they have things to trade that the well-fed Italians want enough to give up some of their scrumptious food, they can't be all that ill-supplied, can they? Unless they're trading away the home-baked cookies their moms send them.

It's worth noting that Chief Wiggles, who is on the scene, has traded MREs for empanadas and other delicacies with the crew of a Spanish ship. He was surprised that they would want his "dogfood": perhaps the Spaniards don't want to eat the MREs, just display them back home as samples of horrible American cuisine. Phil Carter of Intel Dump gives a much better-informed review of Krugman's claim: scroll down to "Prof. Krugman: 'Critics, do your homework!'" if the direct link doesn't work.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at August 13, 2003 10:28 PM

It was someone other than Krugman who said that GIs were swapping MREs for Italian rations. What Krugman wrote was "When Italian troops moved into the area, their food was "way more realistic" and American troops were soon trading whatever they could for some of that Italian food."

Why does "whatever they could" means MREs?

Perhaps you should sharpen a point by criticizing something Krugman actually wrote.

Posted by: dwight meredith on August 14, 2003 05:01 AM

I suspect that part of the appeal of the Italian rations may well be novelty. It's not so much that MREs are bad, as much as they get really boring, eating the same 24 meals over and over.

Even if the Italian food wasn't any better in terms of "real quality", it's different, and that has powerful appeal.

Posted by: Sigivald on August 14, 2003 01:54 PM

While Dwight has a point, it doesn't save Krugman.

The fact of the matter is that whether the food is GOOD (as in tasting) is only marginally representative of whether the logistics chain is working.

In World War II, for example, American combat rations were relatively infamous. German POWs, iirc, at least once complained that they were being abused under the Geneva Conventions, not believing that they were being fed American military rations (they were getting C-rats). But the infamous ham-and-egg loaf, or the German "Alte Mann," or the British/Australian "bully beef" was never an indication of whether the logistics chain was working or not---it was indicative of how well military "cuisine" was fostered.

Conflating that is about as sensible as claiming that, because McDonald's food is not tasty, or not nutritious, is a sign that the company can't maintain a far-flung franchise empire.

Posted by: Dean on August 14, 2003 03:08 PM

"...American troops were soon trading whatever they could for some of that Italian food."

I have no problem with this statement. It does not specify the exchange rate, but lets the reader draw the obvious conclusion. Krugman is one of the most reputable living economists, and I don't think anyone of us bloggers can even hope to ever attain his level of insight into economics. These columns are not products of some shallow mind and deserve more a priori respect.

Posted by: Alex(ei) on August 14, 2003 04:03 PM