Paul Krugman, incensed and insistent about our economic ills
Monday, September 27, 2010
For more than a year, the bearded man consuming a shrimp salad at an Upper West Side cafe has been a prophet of doom, warning that the economy could slide into a "third depression" unless our leaders come to their senses and follow his advice.
"I felt like a really lonely voice," says Paul Krugman, an unknotted blue tie draped around his neck. "It's been really frustrating." But he keeps hammering away, demanding action in one New York Times column after another, hoping "to establish a counter-narrative against what everyone else is saying."
The 57-year-old commentator feels vindicated after predicting that the economy would skid into the gutter unless the president pushed through a far bigger stimulus package. And not just in financial forecasting terms: A hero on the left during his years of Bush-bashing, Krugman alienated some of his fans with his early criticism of Barack Obama. "It was maddening," says his wife, Robin Wells, being chastised by "your friends, people you'd been locked in arms with for years."
Now much of the left has come around to the Krugman assessment that Obama is a timid leader too willing to play nice with the Republicans. The president may have sought his advice at an off-the-record dinner, but Krugman proclaims that "when we really need him to take a strong stand, he's halfhearted."
In his writing, Krugman is by turns scolding and scathing, passionate and pedantic. He has the academic cred -- his Princeton professorship -- and a Nobel Prize to boot. In person, Krugman is several shades warmer, grousing about jet lag and delays in renovating the $1.7 million co-op he recently bought on Riverside Drive. "He's very sweet," says fellow Times columnist Gail Collins. "I've never heard him yell or get teed off at somebody."
Krugman never betrays less than absolute certainty that he is right and many other smart folks -- such as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who hired him at Princeton -- are wrong.
"If certainty were oil, he'd be Saudi Arabia," says conservative columnist George Will. "He is a Keynesian who believes government knows how to organize everything and should just get on with it. He believes government is dangerously frugal. I don't think so."
The current stagnation plays to Krugman's strength: He's a scholar of Depression economics. Hands clasped firmly in front of him, he says America could be headed for a period like the depression of the 1870s -- or Japan's "lost decade" of the 1990s -- where the recovery lags and unemployment remains heartbreakingly high. The White House, he insists, should just admit it botched the stimulus and find the will to push through a new one.
And what if the professor's prescription is flawed? "There are things I can get scared about and agonize, but this is not one of them."
As for the flak, "I've given up reading what other people write about me," Krugman says. "It's overwhelming, ranging from adulation to rabid hatred." But rather than retreating into an intellectual bunker, Krugman has nurtured his celebrity with television appearances and even a walk-on role this year in the film "Get Him to the Greek."
The brickbats haven't deterred him from writing over and over that Obama, Bernanke and company are fiddling while the economy burns. "That's what great columnists do -- pick great themes and go at them and not feel, 'Oh, my God, I've already written about this,' " says Collins, who was Krugman's boss when she served as editorial page editor.