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Days of Reckonings
A smart man, a foolish column.


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Ramesh Ponnuru

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the February 19, 2001, issue of National Review.

Paul Krugman is probably the smartest man ever to have a regular column on the op-ed page of the New York Times. A professor of economics who has taught at Yale, Stanford, MIT, and now Princeton, Krugman is widely expected to win a Nobel prize some day. It’s a rational expectation: Though not yet 50, Krugman has made major, even revolutionary, contributions to international-trade theory and to economic geography. So why is his column so extraordinarily awful?

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It isn’t that he’s a liberal. He is one, but that does not distinguish him at the Times, which employs no conservative columnist (William Safire, who imagines himself to be a libertarian, is too ideologically confused to count). Besides, Krugman has been tough on his fellow liberals in the past. Early in the Clinton administration, for example, he was a vocal critic of the then-fashionable notion that countries compete with one another the way companies do. His criticism helped to demolish the intellectual pretensions of advocates of protectionism and of federal aid for “cutting edge” industries, both of which were said to be necessary to improve American “competitiveness.”

Krugman’s role in that debate was especially laudable, for two reasons: first, because the protectionists had claimed to be inspired by some of Krugman’s own work on trade; and second, because the controversy may well have cost him a job in the Clinton administration. In a 1995 essay, Krugman wrote, “I was more or less disgraced, and my public profile was and still is much lower than at its peak.” But the episode also convinced him, as he explained in his book Pop Internationalism, that it was important to combat economic nonsense in the public press. For a while, he wrote regularly for Slate. His column at the Times, “Reckonings,” started at the beginning of 2000.

He has continued to argue for free trade, and has won some enemies on that account. Ralph Nader wrote a characteristically humorless “parody” in which the Times sacked Krugman and his colleague Thomas Friedman and replaced them with low-wage Chinese columnists. In The American Prospect, a liberal magazine, Robert Kuttner wrote an attack on Krugman as “the conservative’s ideal liberal.” While sour, the essay scored some real points. Krugman had, for instance, assailed the “competitiveness” crowd for being “policy entrepreneurs”– popularizers rather than scholars — but never supplied a definition of the put-down that would not also cover his own op-eds.

Robert Kuttner also made a valid point in calling attention to the columnist’s “smugness.” To hear Paul Krugman tell it, people who disagree with him are “cranks” who have never read an economic textbook and can’t do math. Of course, these characterizations are often true. But Krugman is disconcertingly prone to asserting — and merely asserting — which people “deserve to be taken seriously” and which don’t. Or he will write that some line of argument “leads us into the whole question of whether . . . the [federal] budget is loaded with fat (it isn’t).” Well, that settles that.

This fondness for the ipse dixit may be related to Krugman’s grandiose view of his discipline. In the 1995 essay mentioned above, he wrote that as a boy he had been a fan of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which was based on the premise that a sufficiently sophisticated science — Asimov dubbed it “psychohistory” — could predict the course of empires half a millennium into the future. “Someday there will exist a unified social science of the kind that Asimov imagined,” Krugman wrote, “but for the time being economics is as close to psychohistory as you can get.”

This description-cum-aspiration is, as the liberal economist James K. Galbraith has observed, not so much scientific as scientistic. Rather than confront that critique, Krugman caricatures it. He pretends that anyone who disagrees with his epistemology wants economics to have “a literary core,” without any graphs or equations. It would be more accurate to say that his critics recognize that the graphs and equations are themselves a specialized form of rhetoric and should be evaluated in that light.

The caricature of opposing views is, indeed, the chief way Krugman denies the existence of serious debates. He often uses this tactic against conservatives. In Slate, for example, he once claimed that “the supply-side idea,” which he compared to a “virus,” “is that tax cuts have such a positive effect on the economy that one need not worry about paying for them with spending cuts.” Very few supply-siders have ever made such a claim, and the Reagan administration’s budgets certainly never counted on any such effect. What supply-siders generally argue is that because they generate economic activity, some kinds of tax cuts reduce government revenues by much less than one would otherwise estimate.

Krugman can be interesting when he is not writing polemics against imaginary adversaries. In his first months at the Times, this was frequently the case. He criticized the campaign to break up Microsoft on the grounds that standard neoclassical analysis, which counsels against a breakup in such a case, should trump any speculation about the effect of a breakup on technological innovation. He suggested that Alan Greenspan is not an infallible source of wisdom on public policy, and should be careful not to imply that he is. He pointed out that the fuss over bioengineered foods was out of all proportion to the health risks they pose, which are far lower than those associated with diet supplements.

But then came the presidential election. As it drew nearer, Krugman’s column became a drearily predictable attack on George W. Bush. Krugman was obsessed with Bush’s proposals to cut taxes and allow workers to invest Social Security funds. During the last three months of the campaign, Krugman devoted 14 columns to one or both topics — and took swipes at Bush’s plans in other columns. And this was after a stream of Social Security columns in May, one of which began, “Oh no, not another column on Social Security!” (This was one of the rare occasions on which Krugman wrote with a real feel for his audience.)

The arguments were as repetitive as the topics. Every Social Security column Krugman wrote in the fall made the same point: that the money Bush would let young workers invest for their retirements was already pledged to the retirements of middle-aged workers, and that Bush was being deceptive about how he would keep both pledges. Krugman wrote that “conservatives . . . not so secretly believe that [Bush’s] real program will involve drastic cuts in social spending” and “large cuts in Social Security benefits” to pay for his tax cuts and Social Security reform. He listed no conservatives who believed these things, secretly or otherwise. “What is certain is that Mr. Bush’s actual Social Security proposal would bankrupt the system. That’s not a fuzzy number — it’s a cold, hard fact.”

No, it isn’t. Bush’s plan doesn’t increase Social Security’s liabilities by a dollar. The program, with or without the plan, is supposed to help both the middle-aged and the young when they retire. Bush’s plan brings forward the time at which some of the money for these expenses has to be raised, which is admittedly not a small matter; but the money has to be found whether or not Bush’s plan is adopted. Krugman gave Gore “some points for honesty” because he said he would get the money from general revenue, but that’s fatuous: Gore never said how he would raise that revenue. (Drastic cuts in social spending?)

Krugman had a secondary line of attack: Bush would “encourage workers to buy stocks at exactly the wrong time,” since the market was near a peak. But Bush has talked about letting workers invest 2 percent of every paycheck over the course of their working lives. The state of the NASDAQ when they make their first purchase won’t settle their fates.

It’s easy to see why Bush’s proposal on Social Security would generate such fierce opposition. Why Krugman is so worked up about his tax cuts — smaller as a percentage of the economy than either Ronald Reagan’s or John F. Kennedy’s, and about 5 percent of projected federal revenues — is harder to fathom. But worked up he is; worked up enough to cut some corners.

Thus, Krugman labeled Citizens for Tax Justice a “watchdog group” when he cited it to show how Bush’s tax cuts are skewed to the wealthy; never mind the group’s leftism, let alone its creative accounting. Around Labor Day, Krugman wrote that since most Americans pay less in income tax than in other federal taxes, the other taxes should be cut first. Two months later, he turned around and described Bush’s Social Security plan as a reduction in the payroll tax-the foremost of those other taxes-and condemned him for it.

A month before the election, Krugman seemed to recognize how tedious he was getting. He wrote, “I really, truly wasn’t planning to write any more columns about George W. Bush’s arithmetic.” But he was moved to write yet another column on it, he explained, by Bush’s sheer mendacity. Bush had gone on Moneyline, a CNN show, and said that his $1.3 trillion tax cut was a “quarter” of the $4.6 trillion surplus expected over the next ten years. (Expected, that is, at the time of the broadcast; the estimate has since risen.) Krugman was furious, because 1.3 trillion isn’t 25 percent of 4.6 trillion. Umm, okay, Professor: It’s 28.3 percent. Is class dismissed?

Apparently not. Krugman has continued in this vein since the election. In a recent column, he lectured Dick Cheney about, yes, tax cuts. On occasion, he conceded, fiscal policy could help fight recessions. “But otherwise we should make budgets for the long-run, and let the Fed deal with short-run problems by adjusting interest rates.” He concluded, with impressive pomposity, that “it’s disturbing that Mr. Cheney seems unaware of this basic policy rule.” There is no such “basic policy rule,” no such well-established doctrine. It is merely a view, one with some plausible arguments in its favor and some better arguments against it. To disagree with it is not to demonstrate ignorance.

It was in a December column, however, that the latent thuggishness of Krugman’s intellectual stance was most clearly expressed. He warned Bush not to hire anyone who worked for the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, or the American Enterprise Institute: “The glory years of the think tanks were the 1970’s, when they provided an alternative to what was perceived — with some justice — as the liberal bias of academia. The think tanks were places where neoconservative intellectuals could think the unthinkable and say the unsayable. . . . But that was a long time ago.” Nowadays, evidently, academia is a place of air and light. To deny liberal bias from a perch at the editorial page of the New York Times is an act of considerable chutzpah.

One wonders what the rationale was for giving Krugman a column there in the first place. If there is a market for neoliberal condescension, it was already being well served by Thomas Friedman. And there is the matter of what one might charitably call Krugman’s prose style. Krugman columns end with lines like “Stay tuned.” Or — a week later! — ”We’ll soon find out.” Speaking of charity, does the Times still have editors? “And when the chickens that didn’t hatch come home to roost, we will rue the days when, misled by sloppy accounting and rosy scenarios, we gave away the national nest egg.”

In Pop Internationalism, Krugman declared that it was his ambition “to write essays for non-economists that were clear, effective, and even entertaining,” and that contained “no intellectual cheap shots.” Nobel or no, it appears increasingly unlikely that he will ever achieve that goal.



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