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Jeff Maurer's Politics Blog
Tuesday, 29 April 2008
What Happened to Paul Krugman?
Topic: 2008 election

  Paul Krugman used to be a respected economist. Used to be. That was in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, when he applied the same basic economic principles that he had been teaching at Princeton to Bush’s economic policies. He showed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Bush’s numbers didn’t add up; the proposed (and eventually passed) tax cuts would blow a hole in the budget, and the extremely wealthy would be the primary beneficiaries.


  Of course, history proved him right. The Bush tax cuts were, in fact, terrible fiscal policy, intentionally misrepresented to the American public, and wrapped in layers of deceptive accounting. Many economists knew this, but Krugman was one of the few with a platform to pull back the curtain on this boneheaded giveaway to the rich. And he did. Good for him.


  I think that Krugman probably became personally angry at Bush. The tax cuts of ’02 and ’03 were such a phenomenal mistake – and passed after one of the most dishonest, pandering debates in my memory – that he must have been monumentally pissed. Which is understandable – hell, I was pissed, too. And that anger is probably what eventually drove him so far off the rails.


  When Iraq superseded tax cuts as the topic dominating American political discourse, that would have been the appropriate time for Krugman to find something else to write about. After all, he’s an economist, not a foreign policy expert. Not that columnists need to stay neatly within their assigned boxes, but, generally speaking, they should stick to what they know. For example, I’m not going to be happy if William Safire starts writing snarky, rhyming columns that relate the struggles of being a modern woman to current political trends. The Times already has a columnist who does that.*


  But in ’03 and ’04, it became clear that Krugman’s passion isn’t economics; his passion is bashing President Bush. Krugman fired off column after column denouncing the march to war. Now, there were dozens of legitimate reasons to oppose the Iraq war, most of which were articulated extremely well by columnists such as Nicholas Kristof and Michael Kinsley (both of whom regularly write about foreign policy). But Krugman’s columns were, in my opinion, scattershot and poorly argued. His arguments were usually shrill and overly politicized. He ignored evidence that didn’t support his argument (there was a lot of that going around at the time) and focused singularly on bashing Bush. A lot of his columns from that era read as if they were cut and pasted from Talking Points Memo.


  Of course, his columns from that era were also extremely popular. And thus, he transformed from an economics columnist to a political columnist. What a shame.


  Paul Krugman the economics columnist was biting and direct, but his opinions were always backed by sound economic theory. Paul Krugman the political columnist is still biting and direct – though I would argue that “shrill” and “unbalanced” are better adjectives – but the purpose of his late-period columns tends to be scoring political points with no apparent higher goal. He would be well suited for the blogosphere.


  His columns about the 2008 primaries are his worst to date. Krugman backs Clinton, which is understandable; his views on economics are very much in line with the Clinton Administration’s views (of course, I haven’t been able to find any distance whatsoever between Hillary Clinton and Obama’s economic policies), and many were surprised that he was passed over for a post in the first Clinton administration. But the way he stumps for Hillary is absolutely shameless.


  Krugman’s recent columns read like press releases from the Clinton campaign. Three of the last five criticize Obama – not tangentially, but as the main purpose of the column. Zero of those three columns are about economics. On his blog (not his infinitely more visible column, mind you), he admitted that the gas tax holiday that Clinton supports is a bad idea (as George Stephanopoulos forced Hillary to admit, no credible economist in the world thinks this is a good idea), but then spun it to end up being a criticism of Obama and McCain. Nor has he written a column criticizing her for disparaging NATO, a treaty that he – and again, just about every economist in the world – generally supported.


  It not only pathetic, it’s sad. Krugman has a gift for explaining economics in a way that laypeople can understand. But, with his transformation into a politicized attack dog, nobody is currently filling that role. The Times and the Washington Post currently only have only one columnist between them devoted full-time to economics – Robert Samuelson, and my complaints about him could fill another column.


  There aren’t a lot of people in the world who understand economics as well as Krugman. There are even fewer who have the gift he possesses for expressing economic concepts in plain language. There are, on the other hand, already way too many people making selective, dishonest arguments in support of one political view or another. Why Krugman chose to leave his former career for his present one, I’ll never really know.


* David Brooks, of course.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 10:47 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 6 May 2008 9:18 AM EDT
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