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Hoisted from the Washington Monthly's Archives: Nicholas Confessore on Paul Krugman

From December 2001. Worth recalling only because (a) the fanfare of the right-wing noise machine is the same, and (b) the honesty of the right-wing noise machine is the same.

Nick Confessore:

Comparative Advantage: Paul Krugman, who has written a column twice-weekly for The New York Times since January 2000, is essential reading for the Age of Bush…. Mention his name at a Washington dinner party, and at least a few people are bound to rave--or curse…. Krugman has been the columnist every Democrat in the country feels they need to read--and every Bush Republican loves to hate. Krugman's primacy is based largely on his dominance of a particular intellectual niche… he is almost alone in analyzing the most important story in politics in recent years--the seamless melding of corporate, class, and political party interests at which the Bush administration excels…. Krugman, whether puncturing the fuzzy math of Bush's tax cut or eviscerating the deceptive accounting behind Bush's Social Security plans or highlighting the corruption behind Dick Cheney's energy task force, has nearly always been the first mainstream writer to describe--and condemn--Bushonomics in plain English…. His columns aren't about trade theory or stochastic calculus, but about flagrant deceptions and fourth-grade arithmetic. What makes Krugman interesting, in short, is not just why he writes what he writes. It's why nobody else does.

"This is not what I do. This is not who I am," Krugman sighs…. "This is not my natural habitat. Sometimes, I think that if I had known what it would be like, I would never have agreed to do this column. What I really do is international trade and finance"….

Krugman is regularly attacked by fellow pundits, most exhaustively by… Andrew Sullivan and… Mickey Kaus, each of whom inveighs against Krugman….

For Krugman devotees, however, the main appeal is his proclivity for writing things before it is okay to write them. Journalists may love to break news, but they hate to contradict the narratives that crystallize around particular politicians or policies. Late last winter, for instance, the established storyline on California's energy crisis was that Left Coasters had only themselves to blame: the state had passed a flawed deregulation law…. [W]hile the press gave plenty of column inches to the Bush administration's preferred spin--that environmentalists had stymied the construction of needed generation capacity--few reporters gave credence to groups like Public Citizen, who blamed the crisis on market manipulation by energy companies, many of them based in Texas and enjoying close ties to the administration. But Krugman, noting that economists had long worried about the vulnerability of California's trading system to price-fixing, argued that market manipulation was the obvious culprit; otherwise, he wrote in March 2001, the power company executives "are either saints or very bad businessmen." Krugman was ignored at the time. Twenty months later--following the collapse of Enron, three federal investigations into the California crisis, and a passel of indictments against energy company officials--Krugman has been proved right….

"He goes against the very basic thing that people and journalists want to believe about Bush: 'Say what you want, but the guy's honest,'" says James Carville, the blunt, flamboyant host of CNN's "Crossfire." "Krugman says, no--he's a complete fraud."…

So if dismantling the facade of lies around, say, Bush's tax cut is so easy to do--and makes you the most talked-about newspaper writer in the country--why don't any other reporters or columnists do it themselves? Because doing so would violate some of the informal, but strict, rules under which Washington journalists operate. Reporters usually don't call a spade a spade, unless the lie is small or something personal. When it comes to big policy disagreements, most reporters prefer a he-said, she-said approach--and any policy with a white paper or press release behind it is presumed to be plausible and sincere, no matter how farfetched or deceptive it may be….

"He is obviously a very smart guy, basically liberal, with complicated views, who once recognized when his own side was wrong. And at some point he switched and became someone who only sees what's wrong with the other side, in fairly crude terms," says Mickey Kaus. "The Bush tax cut is based on lies. But it's not enough to criticize a policy to say that it's based on lies….

"It is considered the appropriate thing to say at a dinner party that, while Krugman is very bright, he's just too relentless on Bush," drawls James Carville. "Because to accept Krugman's facts as right makes the Washington press look like idiots."…

Right now, when it comes to analyzing the intellectual underpinnings of the Bush administration, Krugman has no competition. But as is usually the case, it might be better for everyone else if this particular monopoly didn't last.