The Vision Thing

Eyal Press

  • The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming America from the Right by Paul Krugman
    Allen Lane, 296 pp, £20.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 1 84614 107 2

In 1997, the Princeton economist Paul Krugman wrote an article entitled ‘In Praise of Cheap Labour’ in the online magazine Slate, suggesting that those concerned about conditions in Third World sweatshops ought to save their tears for a worthier cause. The greatest beneficiaries of free trade, Krugman declared, ‘are, yes, Third World workers’. A year earlier, in his book Pop Internationalism, he had given similar advice to those calling for the adoption of tougher standards on wages and working conditions in trade agreements, insisting that these amounted to ‘protectionism in the guise of humanitarian concern’.

These were not popular views among liberals at the time and they’re even less popular today. Yet Krugman has long since been forgiven: not only has the defender of cheap labour reinvented himself as a defender of the poor, he has become a fierce opponent of George W. Bush. In 2000, the year Bush first ran for president, Krugman became an op-ed columnist at the New York Times, and swiftly established himself as one of Bush’s most influential critics. Bush was campaigning as a ‘compassionate conservative’, Krugman wrote, but the rewards of the $1.6 trillion tax cut he was proposing would go overwhelmingly to the rich. At first, Krugman seemed amused by this, lampooning Bush’s ‘fuzzy math’, but his tone soon grew fiercer. There was Dick Cheney’s energy plan – ‘crony capitalism, American style’. There was Bush’s post 9/11 stimulus plan – ‘so tilted towards corporate interests that even many conservatives were startled’.

All this seems to have upset some at the Times, which had hired Krugman to provide centrist commentary on the vagaries of the international economy. According to the Washington Monthly, Howell Raines, the then editor of the op-ed page, forbade Krugman to use the word ‘lie’ to describe Bush’s policies during the 2000 campaign. By 2002, Krugman was using it all the time, and churning out column after column on what had unexpectedly become his beat: the fusion of money, patronage and special interests evident in almost everything the Bush administration did, from the subsidies to energy companies in the US to the profiteering by military contractors in Iraq. The more Krugman concentrated on this, the more passionate – and polarised – his following grew. Conservatives set up websites devoted to contesting his claims. Liberals hailed him as a hero. T-shirts were printed with the slogan ‘Let the Truth Be Told – Paul Krugman’s Army’. When a collection of Krugman’s columns, The Great Unravelling, was published in 2003, it became a runaway bestseller.

Krugman’s appeal had as much to do with what other journalists weren’t saying as with what he was. Conservatives love to claim that the American press is swarming with liberals. Yet as Bush’s grip on power tightened, these liberals were hard to find. Krugman filled the void. And at a time when the mood among Democrats was sullen and defensive, he was a partisan who wore his contempt for the Bush administration, and his rage, on his sleeve. Twice a week, he hammered away at Bush. Though not a great stylist, he had an intuitive sense of what makes a political column work: short, punchy sentences, a taste for combat, an ability to puncture the claims of opponents and to avoid sounding shrill while aiming (and landing) unforgiving blows.

Krugman’s targets hadn’t always, or even primarily, been conservatives. Back in 1992, it was rumoured that he might be made head of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. The job went instead to Laura D’Andrea Tyson, and in Pop Internationalism and Peddling Prosperity Krugman dismissed Tyson and other Clinton advisors, including the labour secretary Robert Reich, as mere ‘policy entrepreneurs’, not real economists. His writing from this period betrays the prickly tone of one who has been spurned. But, when compared with Bush, Clinton didn’t seem so bad.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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