What's not to like about Paul Krugman?

He's a great economist--a really great economist, though I have started to doubt that strategic trade theory is going to push him into the Nobel-winning category. Paul Krugman is about a zillion times smarter than I am, and also, grows a prety impressive beard. He was also, in the 1990's, one of the greatest economics writers in history, headed up there in the economics writing firmament with John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman in terms of lucid explanation of their ideas. (About the quality of JKG's ideas . . . well, we'll leave that for another post. But I think there's really no doubt that he was the finest prose stylist the profession ever produced.) His columns for Slate, his other writings in the popular press, were all first class . . . and unlike a lot of current economics writing, they made accessible a lot of Big Ideas on things like trade. I think his writings in the 1990s on trade should be required reading for . . . well, everyone.

That is precisely why I dislike his New York Times column. Or rather, I did dislike it, until they moved it behind the pay barrier, whereupon I mostly forgot about it.
I don't say that Paul Krugman never writes good economics; he does. But not so often, any more. Look at his recent column topics:

WMD in Iraq

FEMA and Katrina

An article on the Bush administration's lunatic decision to cut back S-Chip

Race and electoral demographics

Bank runs

The housing slump

Republican candidates are big fat narcissists

Liquidity in financial markets

Republican candidates also suck because they haven't said anything about policy--just like Paul Krugman in this column, except that he does like him some single payer health care.

Lower tax rates on hedge fund carry interest are bad. I agree, except that the economics of the competing proposals are abandoned in favour of arguing that Democrats are really awesome guys and gals, except when they happen to be Chuck Schumer.


Ordinary Americans haven't gained much from the recent expansion

France's internet is way better than ours.

At least half the piece he writes make little use of his economic expertise. For this we gave up writing such as the pieces found in Pop Internationalism, or the liquidity trap piece I linked yesterday?

Then there's the fact that in the new Paul Krugman's world, there seem to be only two explanatory variables for anything that ails you, me, or the economy: an unexplained secular increase in the general nastiness of rich people; and the Bush administration. This is not a very good model of the world. For one thing, where is Kathie Lee Gifford in all of this?

Moreover, while there are often pretty good reasons to thwack the Bush administration's economic and other policies, when there is a conflict between

1) proving that Bush is a monstrous amalgam of the worst excesses of Andrew Jackson, Herbert Hoover, Warren Harding, and Adolf Hitler

2) writing in a clear and accurate fashion about the underlying economic principles and data involved

#2 is too often the priority that must give way.

I blame a number of factors. First, Paul Krugman clearly really, really hates George Bush. Okay, fair enough. Second, 700 words is a terrible length to write about economics: too short to say anything meaningful, but long enough that the temptation to provide filler (which for Paul Krugman, too often takes the form of vituperation about Bush) must be nearly overwhelming on those uninspired mornings when the column's due. Third, twice a week is a terrible frequency at which to write about economics. Coming up with two brilliant column ideas a week is beyond all but a few freak talents; even harder when the topic of the column is rather narrow, and all your fellow economists are waiting for you to be dazzling. And fourth, Paul Krugman undoubtedly gets a great deal of reinforcement from people whose familiarity with economics is only passing, but whose hatred of George Bush, and longing for "scientific" evidence to back that hatred up, is nearly bottomless. Meanwhile, enough of his critics are equally economically illiterate conservatives caught in the grip of some fringe economic scheme, that he can dismiss them all as Bush-worshipping (or market-worshipping) cranks.

But whatever the cause, I do not think that the New York Times column has done good things for him. He has gone from being the best popular economics writer of his generation, to being a mediocre political writer. This is a tragedy for us, though I presume he likes things that way.

Update: Ygglz misunderstands me; I didn't say that Paul Krugman never writes about economics; only that he has squandered a comparative and absolute advantage in writing extraordinary economics columns, in order to write not particularly interesting political columns that get taken seriously largely because he's a Very Important Economist. Even when he writes about things like health care, it's far too light on the economics, and far too heavy on the "Why do Republicans want babies to die?" rhetoric I could read from any 23-year old lit major interning at a left-wing political magazine. And when he writes about things outside his field, he makes what are (I am told) elementary mistakes on things like foreign policy, while his writing rarely reveals anything new. I don't devote my time to hating him, or anything; it's just that I wish he would write more novel an interesting things.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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