Paul Krugman: 21st Century Howard Beale

The profile of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman that appears in the March 1 issue of the New Yorker is full of wonderment and adoration for its subject (his economics work is described as “poetry”). But it’s also revealing about the curious set of contradictions that animate this 21st century Howard Beale -- Krugman is always mad as hell about something, perpetually vowing that he won’t take it any longer.

Hilariously, the piece begins by telling us all about how Krugman (who, as the old joke has it, predicted about fifteen of the last three crises) composes his legendarily venomous denunciations literally at the beach, in St. Croix where he and his former student (now wife) Robin Wells apparently spend a lot of time pushing each other’s buttons. Wells, the Lady MacBeth of the piece, is seen urging her husband to turn up the heat, to let his rage hit a roiling boil, as they watch the tide roll in and out. When these pina colada progressives aren’t strolling barefoot in the sand, they’re taking – I’m serious -- yoga classes, which Wells teaches in their other home in Princeton. You have to wonder what kind of soothing, peaceful chants are overheard in the yoga room. I picture them sounding a bit like this:

Inhale, and imagine you’re a delicate little lotus, and .. GEORGE W. BUSH IS SATAN! and exhale. Good. Now for the Stabbing Mitch McConnell pose.

Winning the Nobel Prize in economics last year has greatly added to Krugman’s luster. The opinion aggregator reckons he is the no. 1 pundit in America (hence the world), and that ranking is hard to dispute now that Krugman’s ideological teammates are comfortably situated in the White House and in Congress. These lawmakers and executive branch potentates regularly phone Krugman.

Krugman may be your man when it comes to technical analysis of how economies of scale have affected international trade (the subject he won the Nobel for), but as a science, economics is still in the 14th century. In the profile, we learn that “the most successful paper Krugman ever wrote was about target zones [within which an exchange rate is allowed to float], and it was completely wrong.”

So the most famous economist in the world is somewhat of a flop as an economic “scientist,” if you can call him that when the most noted practitioners still debate basic questions about how well Keynesian New Deal policies worked -- like befuddled astronomers discussing whether the Earth revolved around the sun or vice versa. His justification for his “target zones” fiasco is this: “If target zones worked the way that people say they’re supposed to work, then this is how it would play out.” Oh, okay. So in some alterna-reality, he’s right. Would doctors be rewarded for publishing papers about how to treat cancer patients as if health were a matter of balancing the bodily humors of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm?