Saturday, September 20, 2003

The Martyrdom of Paul Krugman

This Guardian profile cum interview of Paul Krugman really is something, what with it's hagiographical tendencies, and the paranoia behind Krugman's worldview that it reveals:

The letters that Paul Krugman receives these days have to be picked up with tongs, and his employer pays someone to delete the death threats from his email inbox. This isn't something that can be said of most academics, and emphatically not of economic theorists, but Krugman isn't a typical don. Intercepting him in London on his way back home to New Jersey after a holiday in France, I half expect to find a couple of burly minders keeping a close eye on him, although they would probably have to be minders with a sound grasp of Keynesian macroeconomics. "I can't say I never get rattled," the gnomish, bearded 50-year-old Princeton University professor says a little hesitantly, looking every inch the ivory-tower thinker he might once have expected to be. "When it gets personal, I do get rattled."

Aww, poor baby! But on a serious note, there are a few things that need pointing out here. The first is that given Krugman's high profile and the sheer partisanship of his writing, he's bound to get his share of threatening letters from the sorts of political extremists that plague both the left and the right. The second is that Krugman, who loves to call others "liars", is either lying when he says his mail has to be picked up with tongs, or someone on the Guardian's journalistic staff has being doing a bit of creative embellishment: how does the mail get delivered in the first place, if it's as dangerous to deal with as is made out here?

Accustomed to the vigorous ivy league tradition of calling a stupid argument a stupid argument (and isolated, at home in New Jersey, from the Washington dinner-party circuit frequented by so many other political columnists) he has become pretty much the only voice in the mainstream US media to openly and repeatedly accuse George Bush of lying to the American people: first to sell a calamitous tax cut, and then to sell a war.

Again, not only is this not entirely true, as a cursory search on Google ought to establish - 109,000 results at last count, while adding Krugman's name to the search terms returns only 3,000 hits - but it is also revealing, not of a flaw in the "mainstream US media" as both the Guardian and Krugman might wish to believe, but of the paranoia, self-righteousness and sheer abrasiveness evident in Krugman's output as a New York Times columnist.

Amongst the first things one learns, or ought to learn, as a debater - as opposed to a propagandist - is not to call one's opponents "liars" at the drop of a hat, if one has any desire to retain the slightest bit of credibility with those whose views differ at all from one's own. This sort of elementary tact seems entirely alien to Krugman and his admirers, which makes it difficult for the uncommitted to buy what the rest of what they have to say.

"The first three pages of Kissinger's book sent chills down my spine," Krugman writes of A World Restored, the 1957 tome by the man who would later become the unacceptable face of cynical realpolitik. Kissinger, using Napoleon as a case study - but also, Krugman believes, implicitly addressing the rise of fascism in the 1930s - describes what happens when a stable political system is confronted with a "revolutionary power": a radical group that rejects the legitimacy of the system itself.

This, Krugman believes, is precisely the situation in the US today (though he is at pains to point out that he isn't comparing Bush to Hitler in moral terms). The "revolutionary power", in Kissinger's theory, rejects fundamental elements of the system it seeks to control, arguing that they are wrong in principle. For the Bush administration, according to Krugman, that includes social security; the idea of pursuing foreign policy through international institutions; and perhaps even the basic notion that political legitimacy comes from democratic elections - as opposed to, say, from God.


But worse still, Kissinger continued, nobody can quite bring themselves to believe that the revolutionary power really means to do what it claims. "Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent," he wrote, "they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework." Exactly, says Krugman, who recalls the response to his column about Tom DeLay, the anti-evolutionist Republican leader of the House of Representatives, who claimed, bafflingly, that "nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes".

"My liberal friends said, 'I'm not interested in what some crazy guy in Congress has to say'," Krugman recalls. "But this is not some crazy guy! This guy runs Congress! There's this fundamental unwillingness to acknowledge the radicalism of the threat we're facing." But those who point out what is happening, Kissinger had already noted long ago, "are considered alarmists; those who counsel adaptation to circumstance are considered balanced and sane." ("Those who take the hard-line rightists now in power at their word are usually accused of being 'shrill', of going over the top," Krugman writes, and he has become well used to such accusations.)

Here we see Krugman's paranoia in full bloom. The Bush administration as a "revolutionary power?" Since when has it been "revolutionary" to govern at home like a left-wing Democratic president, passing pork-laden education and farm bills, caving in to protectionists' demands, and pushing for yet another unfunded entitlement for seniors, as Bush has actually done? One would think left-wingers would be cheering for a guy who has done so much to frustrate the hopes of so many of his core supporters by his free-spending policies, but no, Krugman only sees a "revolutionary."

It gets worse when we actually take a close look at what Krugman considers a "revolutionary agenda" - an alleged rejection of a social security system that is fundamentally unsustainable and badly in need of reform, a refusal to automatically put international institutions ahead of America's foreign policy goals, and finally, a supposed belief in the "divine right of kings" (or should that be "of presidents?") and a disdain for the democratic will of the people for which one can find absolutely no evidence whatsoever in objective reality. If two of the items on Krugman's list of three radical notions are so mundane - and one of the two, Social Security reform, is no more than a wish at this point - and the third is so obviously the product of a febrile imagination, why the surprise that even his own liberal friends find him "shrill" and "over the top?" Oh well, at least we can take comfort in the fact that "he isn't comparing Bush to Hitler in moral terms." One could make a nifty slogan out of that - "Bush: Not Quite as Bad as Hitler, in Moral Terms, Anyway"!

Krugman can expect many more accusations of shrillness now that The Great Unravelling is on the bookshelves in the US. Already, he says, Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the federal reserve, is refusing to talk to him - "because I accused him of being essentially an apologist for Bush". And there will be plenty of invective, presumably, from the conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, who hauled Krugman over the coals for accepting a $50,000 (£30,000) adviser's fee from Enron. (Krugman ended the arrangement before beginning his New York Times column, and told his readers about it.

"I was a hot property, very much in demand as a speaker to business audiences: I was routinely offered as much as $50,000 to speak to investment banks and consulting firms," he wrote later, by way of justification - demonstrating the knack for blowing his own trumpet that even politically sympathetic colleagues find grating. They say he has had a chip on his shoulder since failing to get a job in the Clinton administration.)

Again, here is a guy who manages to make an enemy of the mild-mannered Alan Greenspan by calling him "an apologist for Bush", and whose ego is so inflated that even the Guardian is unable to pass over the criticisms made by fellow Democratic-leaning economists, and he finds it the slightest bit surprising that so many people should find him so loathsome?

Even when one agrees with Krugman's assessment of the Bush administration's economic policies, the impression one has of the man remains an unfavorable one: of a shrill (yes, Virginia, shrill), paranoid, rude, pushy, arrogant S.O.B whose take on those who don't subscribe to his views is that they are either hopeless fools to be dismissed with a wave of the hand, or depraved wretches who have sold out their principles for the sake of political patronage. Nowhere in Krugman's NYT writing does one get the feeling that what is on view is merely an honest-to-goodness difference in economic philosophies, one rooted in idealistic principles rather than brazen self-seeking, and therefore worthy of hashing out through level-headed argument. For a writer who is held so much in favor by those who disdain Bush's "simplistic" view of the world, Paul Krugman has an unpleasantly Manichaean approach to politics.