The rumors of daily death threats (reported by the London Guardian) are greatly exaggerated, but Princeton University economist Paul Krugman has become the unlikely title-holder of Number 1 critic of the administration of George W. Bush. His twice-weekly spot on the New York Times’ Op-Ed page has become, in polite parlance, a lightning rod for liberals and conservatives alike.
The day before our interview on November 5, Krugman’s Tuesday column, titled "This Can’t Go On," was the most popular article requested over the previous 24 hours by website users at NYTimes.com In it, Krugman invoked an obscure law of academic economics — "Things that can’t go on forever, don’t" — in order to construct a hard-hitting argument that skewered both Bush’s gargantuan federal deficit and the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq. "Our current leaders and their apologists insist that issues ranging from budgets to foreign policy will magically solve themselves," he writes. "They won’t."
A collection of Krugman’s most influential Op-Ed columns has just been published under the title "The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century." Most of the book’s columns were written for the New York Times between January, 2000, and January, 2003 — three shocking years when the soaring bubble economy of the 1990s collapsed around our ears. Opening with an extended introductory chapter, the columns are woven together by theme with earlier articles from Fortune and Slate. Krugman will sign copies of "The Great Unraveling," published by W.W. Norton, at the Princeton U-Store on Tuesday, November 18, at 7 p.m.
Here’s what the London Guardian reported in September: "The letters that Paul Krugman receives these days have to be picked up with tongs, and his employer pays someone to delete the death threats from his E-mail inbox."
"The Guardian writer exaggerated what I was trying to tell him," says the surprisingly soft-spoken Krugman in a telephone interview from his Robertson Hall office on the university campus. "I do receive mail from people who say `I hope you die’ — but nothing I took as a serious threat. Yes, there are people who are spouting off, but there’s been nothing that sounds credible." Out of the hundreds of pieces of paper and E-mail he receives each day, "I do get a lot of completely unprintable mail," he adds, with a chuckle.
Krugman joined the faculty at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School University as professor of economics and international affairs in fall 2000. In a normal year, he teaches three courses, both high-flying graduate courses and the freshman introductory courses, Economics 101 and 102. His graduate courses for Woodrow Wilson students include policy-oriented macro-economics, international trade, and international finance, the latter being his areas of specialization. This year he is on leave, working to complete a textbook on the fundamentals of economics, co-authored with his wife, economist Robin Wells.
Krugman, 50, received his BA from Yale University in 1974 and his PhD from MIT in 1977, and has taught at Yale, MIT, and Stanford. He is the author or editor of 20 books, some of which have become classics in their field. For his work rethinking international trade theory, the American Economic Association awarded him its prestigious John Bates Clark medal in 1991, a prize given every two years to an economist under 40 who has contributed most to the field.
Krugman has long had an interest in writing for a broad public audience. Some of his earlier articles on economic issues were collected in "Pop Internationalism" and "The Accidental Theorist." His choice of title tempted me to ask if it would be fair to describe him as an "accidental columnist."
"Sure," says Krugman amiably. "I was dabbling in writing for the general public for much of the ’90s, but this Times invitation to write came out of the blue. And if you’d asked me what was I thinking of doing 25 years ago, it didn’t include any of this."
Although Krugman wasn’t aware of his No. 1 spot among the New York Times most E-mailed articles, he can’t resist mentioning the pride he took in the structure of that most recent 700-word column, "This Can’t Go On." "I was really proud of the ending — of ending it the same way as I began," says this dual-careerist.
Krugman was recruited to the New York Times by Arthur Sulzberger and Howell Raines (then editorial page editor) in 1999 under the assumption that somebody besides Maureen Dowd should be covering the incredible boom years. (One of Dowd’s memorable columns from the ’90s opened with her apology for not doubling her money on the stock market.) Krugman began writing for the Times in January, 2000, as the economy was heading straight down hill.
Many are surprised that an economics column could prove so popular — and so political. Krugman explains that this should not be so surprising.
"Economics is not all political, but it did begin that way as a field — with Adam Smith writing on `Political Economy.’ Adam Smith was advocating specific policies that he wanted his government to adopt. So economics was not simply research — it wasn’t like astronomy ever. There’s a lot of shared ground, and there’s a lot of stuff that is pure research. But having a political edge to it is nothing out of the ordinary," says Krugman. Adam Smith’s "Wealth of Nations," published in Britain by the Scottish scholar in 1776, remains the classic manifesto of free trade capitalism in which Smith urged his government to open its markets by reducing import tariffs.
Krugman’s clear, nonacademic writing style has won wide appeal, even among people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading economics. The clarity, he says, is the product of practice; he certainly didn’t come by it naturally.
Krugman grew up on the south shore of Long Island. An only child, his mother is a housewife, and his father, who has a law degree, spent most of his career working in management in an insurance company. Modest about his writing skills, Krugman notes that "my parents are great readers and always have been. There were always books around the house."
"Nobody came and told me `your writing is wonderful,’" says Krugman, "it was more like, `For someone who writes about economics, you don’t write too badly.’"
"But most of all, it’s practice. In the 1970s I wrote some columns for the Los Angeles Times, and they were terrible. So you learn to do it by doing, and I’m still learning," he says. But writers know that constructing a persuasive argument in 700 words is no small feat.
"It’s a challenge to write tight," says Krugman, who previously wrote a regular column for Slate titled "The Dismal Science." "For Slate I’d write 1,100 to 1,500, but for the Times it’s 700 words, and it takes more time. You can’t waste words and I sometimes have to take out part of my argument — for `This Can’t Go On’ I had planned to include three things that `can’t go on.’"
As an influential commentator living and working "outside the Beltway," some of Krugman’s critics attack him for his view from a "Princeton Ivory Tower." We ask how Central New Jersey looks to him today from said "ivory tower," with its clear view of the troubled telecommunications, pharmaceutical, and high-tech industries.
"What’s peculiar is that appearances in central New Jersey are not that bad," he says. "But you hear all these stories about people who’s lives have been shattered. These are stories of people I know, some are relatives. I don’t know people in the industrial areas personally. I tend to know the 55-year-old programmer who has been unemployed for six months and whose whole structure of middle class life is collapsing. And I encounter people like the 60-year Lucent employee who thought he had a retirement account, but now he doesn’t. It was a 401-K of mostly company stock."
"So our area is not a reflection of the general economy. Every time I drive down a road in this area which I haven’t been on for a while, I find the farmland has sprouted houses. This reflects the process of sprawl where jobs move out to what were residential suburbs, then housing moves out even farther. It’s not a depression obviously, but it’s not a pretty scene either.
"My personal experience also bears out the `ivory tower’ statistical research. The number of people unemployed is large but not exceptional. What’s exceptional is the difficulty in finding new jobs. The last time we had a six percent unemployment rate, we had a pretty good hiring environment. Now it’s more difficult to find a job than one would have expected."
Krugman also shares credit for his accomplishments with his wife, Robin Wells, who is his professional partner as well as life partner. In the acknowledgments to "The Great Unraveling" he thanks her for reading every one of his Op-Ed columns in draft. "She is an integral part of the writing process. This is as much her book as mine," he writes.
Wells is researcher in economics at Princeton University, where she too teaches undergraduate courses. She received her BA from the University of Chicago and her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. This year the pair are spending much of their time on their textbook on economics.
"As I was writing the textbook, my publisher said there’s a lot of good stuff but you need someone working with you, someone who’s a great teacher, someone organized, and more reliable than you are — How about your wife?’"
"And since we’re still married, I guess it’s working. But it does dominate our life right now."
Krugman has earned a reputation for seeing through to the dark side of public policy. "The Great Unraveling" chronicles a tale of woe, from the irrational exuberance of the 1990s to massive corporate scandals, the California energy disaster, and an economic policy sold to the many, but benefiting only a small elite. His message may be dark, but would Adam Smith have received this kind of hate mail?
"No," Krugman replies firmly. "I think anyone who writes for a broader public, regular articles rather than books, is going to be more in the public eye. But a number of journalists I’ve talked to say they’ve never seen anyone get as much vitriol as I do now. It’s not so much a commentary on me, but on the state of the country."
Paul Krugman, Princeton U-Store, 36 University Place, 609-921-8500. Book signing for "The Great Unraveling." Free. Tuesday, November 18, 7 p.m.
Krugman’s website: www.wws.princeton.edu/~pkrugman. An unofficial Krugman archive can be found at: www.pkarchive.org/.