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Paul Krugman the Nobel Prize-winner, New York Times columnist, and Atlantic 50 member is well-known. Paul Krugman the man is less so. Enter The New Yorker's Larissa MacFarquhar, who sheds light on the man behind the liberal economic giant. Blending anecdotes from his personal life with his political and economic backstory, MacFarquhar narrates the evolution of Krugman's economic career and his grudging entry into political discourse.

Krugman the Arrogant Economist
Early in his career, Krugman had little time for policy discussions or anyone he disagreed with. "For the first twenty years of Krugman’s adult life, his world was divided not into left and right but into smart and stupid," MacFarquhar writes. Though Krugman had left-leaning tendencies, "he was a liberal economist, which wasn’t quite the same thing as a regular liberal."

Krugman the Nascent Liberal

It was the 2000 election campaign that finally radicalized him. He’d begun writing his column the year before, and although his mandate at the outset was economic and business matters, he began paying more attention to the world in general. During the campaign, he perceived the Bush people telling outright lies, and this shocked him. Reagan’s people had at least tried to justify their policies with economic models and rationalizations. Krugman hadn’t believed the models would work, but at least they were there.

Krugman's Economic Genius

Translating unmappable facts into economic discourse, it turned out, was what Krugman was better at than anyone else: he could take an intriguing notion that had come up in real-world discussions, pare away the details (knowing just what to take out and what was essential), and refine what was left into a clean, clever, “cute” (as he liked to put it), and simple model. “It’s poetry,” Kenneth Rogoff, an economist at Harvard, says.

Krugman the Tactless

Insults may have done some damage to his career over the years. Shortly after Clinton was elected President, Krugman attended an economic summit in Little Rock and then went on “Larry King Live” and called it “useless.” This, along with his relentless criticisms of Robert Reich, may have been what kept him from the chairmanship of Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. Although Krugman doesn’t always appreciate the effects of his mockery, he does realize that he is not a sugar-tongued, diplomatic sort of guy, and he has incorporated this fact into his self-image.

Krugman and Obama
MacFarquhar details Krugman's hate-love-despair relationship with Obama, whom Krugman opposed during the primary but backed in early days of his presidency.

But by the anniversary of Obama’s Inauguration Krugman felt unhappily vindicated. Obama’s hands-off, conciliatory style drove him crazy, especially when it became clear that his attempts to win over the Republicans had failed. Why wasn’t he more aggressive, more of a leader on health care, rather than leaving the details to endless committees? Krugman wondered. How could he be so passive about it? Why didn’t he fight? “I have to say,” he wrote on his blog a year after the Inauguration, “I’m pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama.”

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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