Strangely, and unexpectedly, the big reveal in Paul Krugman’s new anthology comes right at the end. All through the book, the reader wonders how so talented and fortunate an author came to develop such a furious and bitter voice. What drives a dazzling academic—the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics, no less—to turn his New York Times column into an undiscriminating guillotine for conservative foes? Krugman is substantively correct on just about every topic he addresses. He writes amusingly and fluently. His combination of analytic brilliance and linguistic facility recalls Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes. But Krugman can also sound like a cross between a bloodthirsty Robespierre and a rebarbative GIF. Week after week, he shakes his fist righteously at Republicans and anyone who defends them: You’re shilling for the fat cats. You’re shilling for the fat cats. Over and over. Again and again.
We will get to the essence of that big reveal presently, but first we should consider Krugman’s own explanation for his tone. As he acknowledges, it does invite questions. For most of his career, Krugman was not a partisan. Emerging from graduate school in 1977, he assumed that if he ever got mixed up in policy debates, he would occupy the role of a technocrat—“someone dispassionately providing policymakers with information about what worked.” For a brief stint in the 1980s, he served this function in Ronald Reagan’s White House, and in the mid-’90s a Newsweek profile pronounced him “ideologically colorblind.” During these decades, Krugman was as likely to whack Democrats for their suspicion of markets as he was to denounce Republicans for their magical unrealism about the growth effects of tax cuts. But then, in 1999, Krugman became a Times columnist. Almost immediately—and long before Donald Trump became president—technocratic dispassion gave way to polemics.