Short Cuts

Christian Lorentzen

No one here expects Americans who have anything to do with politics to be mild-mannered and level-headed, so when Paul Krugman came to London in May to promote his book End This Depression Now! (Norton, £14.99), even my landlord was impressed. Becoming a political pundit was never Krugman’s aspiration. You can tell he considers it slumming. His technocratic style suits American liberals’ idea of themselves as sober experts who could fix the country’s problems if only the loudmouths would stop obstructing them. But he also fits the right-wing caricature of liberals as tweedy snobs who never leave a college campus and never tire of saying taxes should be raised.

On 30 May Newsnight pitted Krugman and his Keynesian case against a couple of supply-side cretins: Jon Moulton, chairman of Better Capital, and Andrea Leadsom, a Tory MP and former banker. ‘I find his view reckless, frankly,’ Leadsom said, ‘I can’t believe that somebody as incredibly highly regarded as you could honestly think that the answer is to go and borrow more money.’ Krugman told her she was confusing an economy with a household. Moulton told him he was ignoring the moral wrong of building up debts that future generations would have to pay off so that we can live well today. Krugman countered that we were sending the generation now graduating into heavy debt and unemployment. Leadsom said the thing was not to create jobs but to make it easier for young people to start their own businesses. ‘The average young person is not going to start a business,’ Krugman said. You don’t have to be too clever to outwit a Tory ideologue.

That day Krugman also went on the BBC’s Hardtalk to take questions from Sarah Montague. A strange theatre ensues whenever Krugman is engaged by a journalist rather than a peer with similar expertise or a politician with actual if undeserved authority. The journalist reminds him of the people who’ve dismissed his ideas and he just shakes his head and says these Very Serious People are wrong. When the journalist goes the other way and flatters him, his ego creeps out:

Montague: If you were advising the Greek government now, what would you say to them?

Krugman: Ah well, you know, I’ve actually had conversations, not with them, but you know, with European politicians.

Montague: With whom?

Krugman: Um, I can’t tell you that.

Montague: But has there been a European government that’s asked for your advice?

Krugman: No, no, I’ve just had conversations.

His face takes on a pained expression, he stammers, puts his finger to his cheek, and for a moment shuts his eyes. You get the sense he’s thinking, why am I not in charge? There’s something sad about the spectacle. You start to wish Krugman would just go back to making the models that won him his Nobel Prize. There are plenty of others around to make the Keynesian case for more stimulus.

There’s been something sad about Krugman since he started his column for the New York Times in 2000. It was his academic standing that earned him his pulpit, but writing a biweekly column is inevitably an exercise in repetition and impotence. Krugman served on Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers when he was still in his twenties. ‘The fact is that most senior officials have no idea what they are talking about: discussion at high-level meetings is startlingly primitive,’ he wrote in 1995. He left Washington after a year and enjoyed a moment in the limelight during the 1992 campaign, testifying to Congress about income inequality, then was excluded from the Clinton administration by Robert Reich, the leader of the economic transition team whom Krugman had attacked in a paper nine years earlier. ‘Luckily for my sanity and future productivity,’ he also wrote in 1995, ‘I did not break through into a role as TV personality.’

Now that he’s been a personality for 12 years, one worries for Krugman’s sanity, and for the sanity of any Democrat partisans to Obama’s left. Hope somehow never dies. In 2008 Krugman supported John Edwards, then Hillary Clinton, and then fell in line behind Obama even though he saw his candidacy as a ‘cult of personality’. ‘There’s a trap I’ve seen some people fall into,’ he said in 2010, ‘you let your vision of what should be get completely taken over by what appears possible right now – and that’s something I’m trying to avoid.’ He started out advocating a single-payer healthcare programme, but has now been reduced to lacing his celebrations of the Obama plan (‘double scotch time’, he blogged after the Supreme Court refrained from striking it down) with parenthetical pleas to bring back the public option. In his book he wistfully recalls the late 1990s when Ben Bernanke, his former colleague at Princeton, called for Keynesian measures to alleviate Japan’s slump. Now Bernanke calls Krugman’s advocacy of increased inflation ‘reckless’. In 2008 Time put him on a list of five possible Treasury secretaries: instead Obama brought back the Clinton era Rubinites. Yet he’s still saying that if in the autumn Obama keeps the White House and the Democrats take Congress and ‘they are willing to play hardball, we can put my stuff into effect.’

If only the Democrats were to display any interest in that stuff. When they aren’t capitulating to Republican intimidation, they’re bragging about how they’re the more fiscally conservative party. And so they are. Growth in government spending under Obama is slower than it was under both Bushes, Reagan, Ford and Nixon. The Republicans can be relied on for robust fiscal stimulants in the form of military spending and corporate welfare. Once they’re in power, as Dick Cheney put it, ‘deficits don’t matter.’ Krugman often says that the problem with the Republicans is that they’re ‘stark raving mad’. But this is too crude. The Republicans are less concerned with governing than with returning themselves to power, and once in power they forthrightly serve the interests of capital. Bush’s ‘ownership society’ was a coherent set of policies to benefit people who derive their income from what they own.

Krugman isn’t among the Obama apologists who claim that the president has done everything politically possible to right the economy, but he misses the old moderate GOP and is apt to invoke the days when Republicans in Congress helped Roosevelt pass Social Security. Michael Tomasky, in the New York Review of Books, has expressed the nostalgia more straightforwardly: ‘One far-reaching solution to our problems seems simple (although there is no sign that it will be done): encouraging and electing more moderate Republicans.’ You might as well wish that Robert Frost were still around to write a poem for the next Inauguration.