September 29, 2003

Paul Krugman is a mild-mannered university economist. He is also a New York Times columnist and President Bush's most scathing critic. Hence the death threats.

"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."


http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,1045105,00.html

'I do get rattled'

Paul Krugman is a mild-mannered university economist. He is also a New York Times columnist and President Bush's most scathing critic. Hence the death threats.
He talks to Oliver Burkeman

Friday September 19, 2003
The Guardian

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."
What drives his critics hysterical is not, it ought to
be clarified, his PhD thesis on flexible exchange
rates, or his well-regarded textbook on the principles
of economics, co-written with his wife, the economist
Robin Wells; nor the fact that he is probably the
world authority on currency crises. For the past five
years, Krugman - a lifelong academic with the
exception of a brief stint as an economics staffer
under Reagan - has been moonlighting as a columnist on
the New York Times op ed page, a position so
influential in the US that it has no real British
parallel. And though that paper's editors seem to have
believed that they were hiring him to ponder abstruse
matters of economic policy, it didn't work out that
way.

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.

"It's an accident," Krugman concedes, addressing the
question of how it came to be that the Bush
administration's most persuasively scathing domestic
critic isn't a loudmouthed lefty radical in the manner
of Michael Moore, but a mild-mannered,
not-very-leftwing, university economist, tipped among
colleagues as a future Nobel prizewinner. "The Times
hired me because it was the height of the internet
bubble; they thought business was what would be really
interesting. Turned out the world was different from
what we imagined... for the past two-and-a-half years,
I've watched what began as dismay and disbelief
gradually turn into foreboding. Every time you think,
well, yes, but they wouldn't do that - well, then they
do."

Even more confusing for those who like their politics
to consist of nicely pigeonholed leftwingers
criticising rightwingers, and vice versa, will be the
incendiary essay that introduces Krugman's new
collection of columns, The Great Unravelling,
published in the UK next week. In it, Krugman
describes how, just as he was about to send his
manuscript to the publishers, he chanced upon a
passage in an old history book from the 1950s, about
19th-century diplomacy, that seemed to pinpoint, with
eerie accuracy, what is happening in the US now.
Eerie, but also perhaps a little embarrassing, really,
given the identity of the author. Because it's Henry
Kissinger.

"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 recallss 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.)

Which is how, as Krugman sees it, the Bush
administration managed to sell tax cuts as a benefit
to the poor when the result will really be to benefit
the rich, and why they managed to rally support for
war in Iraq with arguments for which they didn't have
the evidence. Journalists "find it very hard to deal
with blatantly false arguments," he argues. "By
inclination and training, they always try to see two
sides to an issue, and find it hard even to conceive
that a major political figure is simply lying."

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.)

Still, there's an important sense in which his views
remain essentially moderate: unlike the growing
numbers of America-bashers in Europe, Krugman doesn't
make the nebulous argument that there is something
inherently objectionable about the US and its role in
the world. He claims only that a fundamentally benign
system has been taken over by a bunch of extremists -
and so his alarming analysis leaves room for optimism,
because they can be removed. "One of the Democratic
candidates - who I'm not endorsing, because I'm not
allowed to endorse - has as his slogan, 'I want my
country back'," Krugman says, referring to the
campaigning motto of Howard Dean. "I think that's
about right."

Or, to quote a state department official who put it
pungently to a reporter earlier this year, describing
the dominance of the Pentagon hawks: "I just wake up
in the morning and tell myself, 'There's been a
military coup'. And then it all makes sense."

The Great Unravelling is published by Penguin


Posted by richard at September 29, 2003 10:25 AM