By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; C01
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.
Subtlety is not his strong suit, and he doesn't spare the journalism business. Krugman complains that stories last year about the threat of inflation and higher interest rates -- rather than what he saw as the clear and present danger of raging joblessness -- were "driving me crazy."
In July, Krugman wrote that the administration was taken in by the "pundit delusion" -- an obsession with who's up and who's down -- "focusing on how its policies would play in the news rather than on their actual impact on the economy." In August he complained about "overwhelmingly favorable" coverage of GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, including a "glowing profile" in The Washington Post, calling such reports "the audacity of dopes."
Nor does he neglect his chosen profession. In the Times magazine last year, Krugman said economists utterly failed to anticipate the Wall Street meltdown because of a "romanticized and sanitized vision of the economy." This did not endear him to colleagues, including John Cochrane of the University of Chicago, who wrote that Krugman was sliming a growing enemies list: "Don't argue with them, swift-boat them. Find some embarrassing quote from an old interview. Well, good luck, Paul. Let's just not pretend this has anything to do with economics."Coming out swinging
The clash provides a clue to why Krugman -- who never interviews anyone before issuing his proclamations -- doesn't sound like other columnists. "Even as an academic, he did not pull punches, and he seemed to relish the chance to rattle people's cages," says Wells, also a Princeton economist, who edits -- and argues about -- many of her husband's columns.
Given that Krugman blames the current crisis on Reaganism -- the 40th president's insistence that "government is the problem" undermining the need for regulation -- it's surprising to recall that he was a junior staffer on Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. Krugman says he viewed himself as providing "technical advice" to the administration, and recalls his arguments with another "whiz kid" on the council, Larry Summers. He says he once was told to take over the writing of a presidential report because "Larry, as it turned out, was not very good at being tactful."
Krugman informally advised Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign but was passed over as chairman of the economic council and became disillusioned. "I was more or less disgraced," he wrote.
Not quite. In 1999 Howell Raines, then running the Times editorial page, offered him a column. Krugman hesitated. "Everyone in his peer group thought this was a terrible idea and he was wasting his talents," Wells recalls.
Krugman planned to write mainly about business and economic issues, but became a political polemicist in response to what he saw as the mendacity of the Bush administration. He argued vociferously against the march to war in Iraq at a time when even many Democrats were supporting it. "That was as close as we've come to a new McCarthyism," he says. "I was getting a lot of mail calling me a traitor. You felt the whole world had gone mad, except for you and a few of your friends."
In similar fashion, Krugman infuriated many liberals as an early critic of Obama, writing during the primaries that "the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality." He favored first John Edwards and then Hillary Clinton, and repeatedly criticized Obama's health care proposal for lacking an individual mandate to buy insurance (which was eventually added). When the new president passed his $787 billion stimulus bill, Krugman wrote that "Mr. Obama's victory feels more than a bit like a defeat" and that the failure to authorize more spending gave him "a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach."
Nonetheless, the president invited Krugman and other economists to an off-the-record roast beef dinner in April 2009. Didn't that put Krugman in the position of advising the man he often writes about?
"I talk to people wearing my professor hat, not my reporter hat," he says. "I don't [quote] 'senior administration officials' -- I'm sure if I tried, I'd be no good at it. I don't get any jollies about meeting with important people. . . . I don't care about access. I'm not going to be influenced by implicit promises of or threats of withholding access." But whatever hat he dons, it's hard to imagine that top officials aren't trying to sway him.
The columnist still talks to his old sparring partner Summers, who is wrapping up his tenure as head of the National Economic Council. Many other White House officials view Krugman as an irritant who has become predictable and whiny in his criticism. Administration spokesmen declined to comment.
Krugman insists he wants Obama to succeed and admits he doesn't have to worry about such niceties as counting votes in the Senate. He reserves his most venomous prose for the GOP, writing earlier this month that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is engaging in "outright extortion" and "threats to punish bystanders" by insisting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy be included in any extension of breaks for the middle class.
On ABC's "This Week," where he is a regular contributor, Krugman makes the same arguments, albeit in truncated form. On a recent program, when Krugman said the Republicans are "deeply unserious" about cutting spending and deficits, Will shot back that "not all of the people who disagree with you are fools or knaves."
As "one of the most ferocious of the breed" of liberal columnists, Will says, Krugman undermines the administration "because he gives voice to the disaffected left." After one such Sunday morning appearance, the Fox Nation site headlined a piece "Even Egghead Elites Are Fed Up With Obama."
For his part, Krugman finds it difficult to discuss the economy on the tube, "particularly in a yelling match, but even in a relatively genteel round-table discussion. The best you can hope for is to make a couple of points."
In that case, why lower himself to such a forum? "It's better that people who actually do understand the economy be on the panel than someone who just fulminates," he says.Refuge in academia
For all his pugilistic prowess, Krugman embraces the rhythms of academia as a safe retreat. "I find teaching a freshman seminar a very good way to think about something else," he says.
Krugman would seem to have an exceedingly comfortable life. There's the large house in Princeton, described by the New Yorker as being in "Japanese modern style," the New York apartment and the condo on the beach in St. Croix. There are trips to international conferences, most recently in Sweden and Japan. He makes a bundle on writing textbooks with his wife. People's heads turn in restaurants, like the one where he is lunching.
So why does he seem so angry?
For one thing, Krugman fervently believes the country is careening down the wrong road. And as a writer, his default setting is righteous indignation.
But with the economy topping the national agenda, Krugman concedes, "column-writing is a lot less stressful now, even if the world is going to hell."
Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."