Paul Krugman says in this Guardian piece that he “grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.” For those of you who have read one or more of the books in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, this makes a lot of sense. For those who haven’t, consider gifting yourself a copy of the first novel: Foundation.
Hari Seldon is the central character of the first short story of the book and the creator of the fictional social science of psychohistory, which allows its practitioners to predict (or to shape, if they choose) the course of human history with mathematical precision. In Seldon’s case, he uses psychohistory to predict the inevitable fall of the Galactic Empire, followed by thirty thousand years of dark ages—unless humanity follows the Seldon Plan, reducing the time of galactic barbarism to a mere millennium. Social science as the key to galactic salvation—it’s easy to see why Asimov’s stories inspired the young Krugman.
But there is an irony in Krugman’s claim to have been inspired by Hari Seldon to take up social science: In his column in the NYT, he often comes off not so much like Seldon but like one of the Galactic Empire’s elites, mistrustful of the Hari Seldons out there predicting the collapse of the “empire”—or, that is, the blue model.
In “The Psychohistorians,” the head of the imperial committee charged with prosecuting Seldon reaches an important decision. This politician intuitively understands that Seldon’s theory of imperial decay is right, but as a card-carrying member of the elite he can’t just let Seldon off the hook for his dangerous ideas. So he splits the difference: he reduces the sentence for Seldon and his followers from death or imprisonment to exile to the galactic hinterland of Terminus, where they can work out the plan to save civilization in peace.
That’s pretty much what the blue intellectual establishment does today: it doesn’t silence freethinkers but it pushes them out to the fringes. Hari Seldon’s model of psychohistory fails in the Asimov trilogy when a rogue political leader with unexpected powers appears; Krugman’s social model has also been overtaken by events. There is one big difference between Seldon and Krugman; Seldon’s plan made room for the likelihood that reality would deviate from the predicted course. Krugman so far isn’t ready to accept the need for a second foundation.