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Cool It, Krugman
The self-sabotaging rage of the New York Times columnist
By Sebastian Mallaby

Strangely, and unexpectedly, the big reveal in Paul Krugman’s new anthology comes right at the end. All through the book, the reader wonders how so talented and fortunate an author came to develop such a furious and bitter voice. What drives a dazzling academic—the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics, no less—to turn his New York Times column into an undiscriminating guillotine for conservative foes? Krugman is substantively correct on just about every topic he addresses. He writes amusingly and fluently. His combination of analytic brilliance and linguistic facility recalls Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes. But Krugman can also sound like a cross between a bloodthirsty Robespierre and a rebarbative GIF. Week after week, he shakes his fist righteously at Republicans and anyone who defends them: You’re shilling for the fat cats. You’re shilling for the fat cats. Over and over. Again and again.

We will get to the essence of that big reveal presently, but first we should consider Krugman’s own explanation for his tone. As he acknowledges, it does invite questions. For most of his career, Krugman was not a partisan. Emerging from graduate school in 1977, he assumed that if he ever got mixed up in policy debates, he would occupy the role of a technocrat— “someone dispassionately providing policy makers with information about what worked.” For a brief stint in the 1980s, he served this function in Ronald Reagan’s White House, and in the mid- ’90s a Newsweek profile pronounced him “ideologically color blind.” During these decades, Krugman was as likely to whack Democrats for their suspicion of markets as he was to denounce Republicans for their magical unrealism about the growth effects of tax cuts. But then, in 1999, Krugman became a Times columnist. Almost immediately— and long before Donald Trump became president— technocratic dis passion gave way to polemics.

In the introduction to this collection of mostly journalistic writings, Krugman contends that he didn’t change. Rather, politics did. Republicans lost respect for facts and data, turning politically neutral technocrats into involuntary foes. “In 21st-century America,” Krugman writes, “accepting what the evidence says about an economic question will be seen as a partisan act.” He began to feel this viscerally before the period covered in this volume: George W. Bush anticipated the revolt against experts when he sold his tax-cut proposal dishonestly during the 2000 election campaign. But since then Krugman’s frustration has only grown deeper.

In the Obama years, technocrats determined that the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying in a depressed economy wouldn’t generate dangerous inflation, but “the official Republican view,” Krugman tells us, was that the Fed was being ir responsible. In the Trump presidency, technocrats have pointed out the lack of support for the claim that tax cuts for high earners will generate prosperity, but Republicans have preached this gospel regardless. Commentators in this postevidence, post-truth environment find themselves “arguing with zombies,” to cite Krugman’s book title. They confront “ideas that should have been killed by contrary evidence, but instead keep shambling along, eating people’s brains.”

Faced with these alarming undead adversaries, Krugman has concluded that politically neutral truth telling is not merely impossible. It is morally in adequate. He duly sets out four rules for engaged public intellectuals. First, they should “stay with the easy stuff,” meaning subjects on which experts have achieved consensus: This is where an authoritative commentator can improve public understanding by delivering a clear message. Second, they should communicate in plain English—no controversy there. Third, and a bit more edgily, Krugman insists that commentators should “be honest about dis honesty.” If politicians deny clear evidence, they should be called out for arguing in bad faith. Finally, Krugman proclaims a rule that flies in the face of traditional journalistic tradecraft: “Don’t be afraid to talk about motives.”

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January - February 2020