Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Player Who Came In From the Warm--and Managed to Not Get Cold

I have a phrase for people who push their way to the top in a virulently narcissistic manner: Players.

I always sensed that Paul Krugman was a player, and this article in The New Yorker proves it--though I still love and admire the guy. Here is key "money graf" from the outstanding article by the outstanding Larissa MacFarquar (of whom I have posted before):

In his columns, Krugman is belligerently, obsessively political, but this aspect of his personality is actually a recent development. His parents were New Deal liberals, but they weren’t especially interested in politics. In his academic work, Krugman focussed mostly on subjects with little political salience. During the eighties, he thought that supply-side economics was stupid, but he didn’t think that much about it. Unlike Wells, who was so upset when Reagan was elected that she moved to England, Krugman found Reagan comical rather than evil. “I had very little sense of what was at stake in the tax issues,” he says. “I was into career-building at that point and not that concerned.” He worked for Reagan on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers for a year, but even that didn’t get him thinking about politics. “I feel now like I was sleepwalking through the twenty years before 2000,” he says. “I knew that there was a right-left division, I had a pretty good sense that people like Dick Armey were not good to have rational discussion with, but I didn’t really have a sense of how deep the divide went.” (Bold added)

The article notes that even as late as the late 1990s, Krugman was paid to "consult" with Enron. Not a surprise when the above paragraph is considered.

My memory of Krugman in the 1980s and 1990s, while he was "career-building" is he was a somewhat typical economist, an effete snob who thought the trade treaties like the NAFTA and the WTO were okay, and what was the fuss? The article proves this when it states:

"Until the late nineties, when he became absorbed by what was going wrong with Japan, he believed that monetary policy, rather than government spending, was all that was needed to avoid recessions: he agreed with Milton Friedman that if only the Fed had done its job better the Great Depression would never have happened. He thought that people who wanted to boycott Nike and other companies that ran sweatshops abroad were sentimental and stupid. Yes, of course, those foreign workers weren’t earning American wages and didn’t have American protections, but working in a sweatshop was still much better than their alternatives—that’s why they chose to work there. Moreover, sweatshops really weren’t the threat to American workers that the left claimed they were. “A back-of-the-envelope calculation . . . suggests that capital flows to the Third World since 1990 . . . have reduced real wages in the advanced world by about 0.15%,” he wrote in 1994. That was not nothing, but it certainly wasn’t anything to get paranoid about. The world needed more sweatshops, not fewer. Free trade was good for everyone. He felt that there was a market hatred on the left that was as dogmatic and irrational as government hatred on the right."

This is how Krugman entered the charmed academic halls starting in the late 1970s and through the 1980s and 1990s. Then, a funny thing happened that is not mentioned in the article, but I distinctly recall because I was marginally involved: Krugman started writing for and started peddling his ignorance of how trade treaties were on the whole good. His ignorance was his failure to understand how the trade treaties codified the very global trends that were punishing unskilled labor in our nation, reducing or eliminating our industrial base, and beggaring peasants abroad by forcing them off their land and into sweatshops where they became more poor (they could no longer feed or clothe themselves as they could as subsistence farmers). But at, there was the "Comments" section, where one received immediate, and often vicious feedback. And Krugman definitely met the "Comments" section where he was skewered by people like me and many, many others. But unlike George Will or any number of true "players," Krugman blinked and actually started considering our arguments and data. He began to engage people on the Web and, with his relatively recent concern over inequality data (he arrived late the party, consistent with being a player, but at least he arrived), began to become "interested" in "politics."

And I began to have respect for him for that, because while it seems he has become far more famous since then, the truth is he is less of a player. He was aiming for Tim Geithner's chair as Secretary of the Treasury, but he has not made it. Why? Because, as the article shows, he did become more angry at the economic elite in this nation. He did become more skeptical of trade deals. He supported John Edwards, then Hillary Clinton and--in the It Takes One To Know One Department--was wary of Obama. He did not build his career that far because he stopped being a full player. In the past year, he has even furiously and completely--and wonderfully--turned on his entire profession of economics, as I have noted in previous posts.

Still, he managed along the way to make a lot of money, get a spot on the op-ed page of the NY Times, and was able to invest in his beach cottage in St. Croix...Players. Gotta love them because they make the world go round.

Additional notes: The article quotes Bob Kuttner at one point. Kuttner is a brilliant economics mind and never a major player despite having the credentials--because he always cared about how real people are affected by economics and politics. In the article, Kuttner was discussing Krugman's initial reluctance to support industrial policy, which has successfully guided nation after nation which has embraced it, contrary to the theories of the 19th Century moron, David Ricardo, who at one time Krugman, like most player-economists, revered:

“You have the cases of Japan, Korea, Brazil, China, and, to some extent, France, and the counterfactual—let’s imagine that they didn’t have an industrial policy, would they have produced the same amount of growth?—is unimaginable,” Robert Kuttner, the co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, says. “But to be a conventional academic economist you almost have to swear an oath that governments can’t outguess markets in the allocation of capital.”

The article is also quite amusing in that Krugman's second wife, Robin Wells, is the one who charged his anger against the stupidity of the elites and continues to edit him to be more "shrill" as horrified elitists on the right like to say. A lighter-skin African-American from Dallas, Texas, she is the one who moved to England when Reagan was elected in 1980 and saw immediately what was going on--she later became a post-doctoral economics student at MIT, met Krugman and married him. I'd hesitate to call her a player, because she sacrificed her career, probably knowing she was too honest to "career-build" in a profession--economics--that demands fealty to corporate capitalists and covering it up with theories of early capitalism. She now teaches yoga classes in Princeton, New Jersey, where Krugman is an econ professor, and Krugman gives her co-credit for his books on economics in the past several years. So Robin, thank you for ruining Krugman's career path, but giving us a fighter among the elite.

But the article never mentions she is his second wife. Perhaps the first wife was an impediment to his "career-building"...I do joke, with some seriousness, that my relative failure as a lawyer and writer is in part owing to my success at being married to the one and same woman for almost a quarter century. We still love each other, and have struggled from time to time, especially with my health issues, which if my wife was a player, she'd have left me years ago because of my poor health.

Bonus point: Appropriate to this subject--and one of the top films of the past decade--is "Family Man" with Nicholas Cage. It is an inside-out "It's a Wonderful Life", which may be my favorite film of all time. "Family Man" is right up there too...


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