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The Man Behind the Curtain
Tim Russert exposes Krugman, with a little help from the Squad.


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Donald L. Luskin

Paul Krugman’s book, The Great Unraveling, hits bookstores today. Are you surprised that Krugman’s publisher, W.W. Norton, has repeatedly refused my requests for a review copy of the book?

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Despite this inexplicable omission, America’s most dangerous liberal pundit is in full book-promo mode. He’s dropped his teaching duties at Princeton for the quarter. His personal website lists 14 speaking engagements around the country, with more to come (a helpful reader suggested that coconut cream pie works best for such occasions). And the inevitable media interviews are already starting, kicking off with a whole hour this past Saturday with Tim Russert on CNBC.

For the next month or so, it’s going to be all Krugman all the time. It’s going to be painful to have to listen over and over to all the trademark Krugman talking points we’ve all come to know and hate so well. Bush lied. Maximum deficits for minimum stimulus. Bush is Hitler. Rolling back the New Deal. Bush lied. The media is conservatively biased. Tax cuts for the rich. Did I mention that Bush lied?

In recent weeks I had been feeling pretty depressed with this prospect. About the only good I could see coming of it was that maybe Krugman would crowd out Al Franken. But when I saw the interview with Russert on Saturday night, I stopped worrying. And now I’m hoping that his 15 minutes of fame will be his undoing. In situations where he’s separated from the prestige and credibility of his New York Times column — and when people can talk back — Krugman will no longer seem the Great and Powerful Oz. He’ll stand revealed as nothing more than the man behind the curtain.

The nervous, stammering, shifty-eyed, twitching, ill-tailored, gray homunculus slumping across the table from Tim Russert Saturday night was simply not recognizable as the titan who strikes fear in the hearts of conservatives everywhere each Tuesday and Friday morning. He had all the talking points, but they seemed to be coming from someone else’s mouth. It was as though, through some terrible casting mix-up, the part of Paul Krugman was being played by Woody Allen.

Ideas that would have been devastating if presented in that fabulously self-assured Krugman style on the pages of the “newspaper of record” came off, at best, like run-of-the-mill talk-show chatter. Speaking only for himself — not costumed in the institutional persona of the New York Times — and knowing that a smart interlocutor might question sources, detect contradictions, or ask tough follow-ups, empowering self-assurance was replaced by crippling self-consciousness. The least bad parts, of course, were when Krugman was able to stick close to the familiar ground of his prepared talking points. But in those moments when Russert asked some tough questions and forced Krugman to improvise, the wheels really came off.

And I’m delighted to report that, as you will see, the Krugman Truth Squad had a key role to play in the wheel-removal process. In fact, I think we may have to make Russert an honorary member of the Squad.

The first challenge from Russert came a quarter way through the interview, when he asked Krugman how he pleaded to the charge of being “America’s most dangerous liberal columnist.” Sound familiar? Krugman stuck to the media-training playbook reasonably well: He stammered out a good-humored guilty plea, and got back to his talking points right away. You guessed it: Bush lied.

Russert saved the toughest challenge for the final segment of the hour-long interview — an old interviewer’s trick that relies on the subject being both at ease and exhausted. Coming out of the commercial, after doing the obligatory flash of the book jacket for the camera (operators are standing by), Russert opened with,

RUSSERT: The National Review Online has the Krugman Truth Squad.

KRUGMAN: Yeah.

RUSSERT: They monitor every word you write. And they will pick apart every column, and say “He no longer is just an economist. He’s an ideologue, and he just is trying to twist facts in order to prove a political point.”

Cut away from a close-up of a scowling Russert, making a gesture of “twisting” with his left hand. A shot of Krugman now, from over Russert’s shoulder. The camera slowly zooms closer as the question sinks in and Krugman’s body language goes from “okay, we’re in the home stretch … I think I did pretty well on this thing” to “uh-oh.” It’s a Mike Wallace 60 Minutes moment.

Here’s the best Krugman could come up with:

KRUGMAN: They would say that, wouldn’t they? Um, no, I mean it’s, it’s, [sigh] I’m subject to a level of scrutiny I don’t think anyone else in, in journalism is. Um [long pause], I think that given, given that I’m writing 100 columns a year, uh, the number of things they’ve actually been able to make stick is pretty small. So it’s, I think I’m doing okay. It’s, it’s not fun. It’s more, part of the reason why few, not very many people do the kind of thing I’m doing. If you take on our current leadership, um [deep breath], you will be pursued, you will be stalked. So far, so far just stalked, uh, intellectually, but it’s, it’s pretty scary sometimes.

Let’s really savor this. Coming out of an awesomely long pause — a pause you just never see on television, one that probably had some guys in the CNBC control room really twitching — Krugman said, “I think that given, given that I’m writing 100 columns a year, uh, the number of things they’ve actually been able to make stick is pretty small.”

A mind-boggling defense. Actually, it’s not a defense at all — it’s a confession. He is confessing that he lies — but, he has an excuse: He had to write 100 columns a year! He was too busy to tell the truth.

Was he also too busy to tell the truth about the number of columns he writes in a year? In the last twelve months he’s written 93 columns, not 100. Surely he would say — picky, picky, picky — that he was just speaking in round figures. After all, as he once wrote, “For God’s sake: whatever you think of my politics, I am a competent economist, and know how to use numbers.”

That’s what he wrote on his personal website after the Krugman Truth Squad outed his outrageous error-cum-lie about President Bush’s tax cuts — the one he pulled in April claiming that each $500,000 in tax cuts would only produce one $40,000 job (neglecting to mention that the $500,000 would be spread over 10 years and the $40,000 was for a single year, and that the $40,000 itself would generate offsetting tax revenues).

This is but one of the fast-and-loose statistical scams that Krugman has pulled. Remember these:

In early August he wrote that real per capita state spending in California had grown by only 10 percent, but the Krugman Truth Squad found that the very source he himself cited had it at 13.4 percent.

In mid-August Krugman wrote that American soldiers in Iraq were only getting two 1.5-liter bottles of water per day, and were suffering “heat casualties”? I exposed on my blog the fact that this was only the soldiers’ bottled water — and that there was ample water from other sources which, in fact, was part of the Army’s “forced hydration” program.

Are these, I wonder, examples of “things they’ve actually been able to make stick”?

In the last six months, the Krugman Truth Squad has uncovered dozens upon dozens of lies, errors, distortions, and misquotations within Krugman’s columns, but the Princeton professor has only countered with lame self defenses on his personal website. And I’ve never seen a retraction or correction in the Times for any of his lies. But then again, we’re dealing here with a “competent economist” who told Russert that the “number” of such errors is “pretty small.”

But Russert didn’t let Krugman off the hook. He followed up with a specific reference to the Krugman Truth Squad column of August 25:

RUSSERT: There was one interesting analysis where they said, “Well, Krugman writes that things in California are a disaster, they’re just awful, and then later writes another column about Arnold Schwarzenegger saying, ‘You know, Arnold, things really aren’t all that bad.’”

This, of course, was the way of it. In his August 1 column for the Times, Krugman wrote that “the Golden State is degenerating into a banana republic.” He said it was in “a severe fiscal crisis” and undergoing a “slide into irresponsibility.” Then, once Schwarzenegger entered the race, he wrote that the California situation is really not that bad. Here was his explanation to Russert:

KRUGMAN: Um, I don’t think I ever said things were a disaster … The problem is that the budget [pause, labial sound] developed a big hole, um, mostly because the California tax system relies heavily on income taxes which meant it was getting a lot of money from stock options and Silicon Valley, which went away … Um, and, you know, actually, they’re, the truth is they’re not coping with it all that badly … Next year’s deficit is 8 billion dollars, which is nasty but, but manageable … But you don’t want to, you don’t want to overstate it.

From “banana republic” to “manageable” in a few short weeks. Amazing.

After that episode, Russert started in on Krugman’s involvement as a paid consultant to Enron — and at that point, Krugman probably wished that Woody Allen really were playing him. The credits followed, and at last it was over. Krugman got to take his microphone off and pull the little rubbery disposable earphone out of his ear and go back to his hotel room and mutter about how terrible it is to be “stalked, uh, intellectually,” and tell himself that his book will probably sell pretty well anyway, despite the conservatively biased media.

Hey, “It’s pretty scary sometimes.”



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