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Professor Ahab

by Stephen Spruiell

Paul Krugman’s destructive and self-destructive quest for the great white stimulus

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.

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