Paul Krugman: Professor Ahab
From the Nov. 1, 2010, issue of NR.


Stephen Spruiell

The occupational hazards of opinion journalism include certain intellectual and moral bad habits: Logical fallacies offer tempting shortcuts through difficult arguments. Blind spots for procedural abuses suddenly afflict us when it’s our guys making the rules. Preaching to the converted, though lazy and ultimately self-defeating, is rewarded in the short term by the amen chorus. I agree with my colleague Jason Lee Steorts, who has written about how hard it is to avoid the “shrillness, mean-spiritedness, and insincerity” that characterize so much contemporary opinion writing. I would add that in my experience, the more frequently you write, the harder it is to avoid becoming a caricature of yourself. Those redoubtable few who can manage a prodigious output of consistently high quality (the founder of this magazine comes to mind) are exceptional. More common is the writer who is usually good but occasionally slips.

And then you have a writer like Paul Krugman. Since bursting on the scene as a columnist for the New York Times in January 2000, Krugman has written over 1,000 columns, scores of magazine articles, four books, and hundreds of short posts on his blog, “The Conscience of a Liberal.” He has developed a reputation among liberals as one of the Bush administration’s most unsparing and effective critics. Conservatives, by contrast, tend to regard him as a crass and occasionally vicious partisan. But Krugman was not always this divisive: Though he never made a secret of his liberal views, most of his early public commentary (which predates his column at the Times) was devoted to cleverly debunking economic tropes dear to both Left and Right. His transformation into a bare-knuckled liberal brawler is a testimony to the perils of life on the high seas of opinion journalism. Let us reconstruct his journey.

Krugman’s life as a public intellectual, as distinct from his illustrious career as an academic economist (John Bates Clark Medal, Nobel Prize, tenure at Princeton), is typically dated to the mid-Nineties, when he commenced writing for publications such as Slate and Foreign Affairs. But as early as 1992, Krugman had a semi-regular column in the New York Times — it just ran under Times reporter Sylvia Nasar’s byline. Nasar wrote two stories in the spring of that year about income inequality, using Krugman as a source for the claim that middle-class incomes had stagnated during the Reagan boom while the richest 1 percent reaped a windfall. (Nasar would go on to write A Beautiful Mind about another famous Princeton economist, John Forbes Nash Jr.) Presidential candidate Bill Clinton took to citing Krugman’s findings on the campaign trail, and Nasar wrote another story about that: Clinton spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers said that Krugman “proved a point [Clinton] had been trying to make for months, so he added the statistic to his repertoire.”

There were some problems with Krugman’s numbers, as detailed by Alan Reynolds in the Aug. 31, 1992, issue of National Review. But it is true that inequality has gotten steadily worse since the late Seventies. The causes of that inequality are less clear. In his first book, The Age of Diminished Expectations, Krugman wrote that “the bulk of the increase in inequality during the 1980s was a growth in the spread of pre-tax, not post-tax income,” indicating that Reagan’s tax policies probably didn’t cause the gap between rich and poor to widen, except to the extent that his tax cuts provided incentives for the already well-off to produce more at the margins.

But Krugman’s worldview wouldn’t permit him to believe that incentive effects could play that big a role in the economy, and his analysis of the data left him unconvinced by other popular explanations (imports, technology, immigration) for the growing disparity. In his attempts to place the blame on conservatives, where he felt it properly belonged, he came up with some pretty odd theories. In a 1996 piece for Mother Jones, Krugman suggested that “right-wing radicals” had contributed to rising inequality by perverting the nation’s values: Companies could pay their lower-tier employees better, but thanks to the right-wing ethos of greed, they simply didn’t. And although he wasn’t a big fan of unions, whose victories, he wrote, “are often of dubious value to the economy,” he argued that liberals should support them anyway, because they serve as “one of the few political counterweights to the power of wealth.”