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Economist Krugman Spars With Politicians In Collection of Op-Ed Columns in New Book

Stuart Mitchner

Last week the third-floor lounge of the U-Store was packed to overflowing for a talk and book-signing by Princeton University economist Paul Krugman. Prof. Krugman's best-selling book, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century (Norton, 25.95), contains the New York Times op-ed columns that have made him a hero to liberals shrill "Cassandra" to the far right. Judging from the reaction of the U-store audience, this Cassandra would make a good stand-up comic. While the message was every bit as ominous as the one emerging from his semi-weekly dispatches from the front lines, there was a laugh or two a minute because Prof. Krugman is no less amusing a speaker than he is a writer.

One of the biggest laughs came when he was asked about the media's apparent unwillingness to recognize the danger about which he has been reporting since the 2000 election. The media, he replied, is suffering from "the curse of evenhandedness." For example, he suggested that if the Bush administration proclaimed that the earth was flat the story would be headlined "Shape of the Earth: Views Differ."

Effective Columns

What has made Prof. Krugman's columns so effective is precisely this combination of wit, expertise, and conversational style. Since the beginning, he has been saying, "its the economy, stupid."

When hired by the Times, he was expected to focus on economic crises in other countries, the "vagaries" of the new economy, and globalization. Politics was not his venue, since, as he writes in the preface to the book, "everyone assumed that American policy would remain sensible and responsible." However, the Bush tax cut, corporate corruption, the Catch-22 environmental policy, and now military conflict, has caused Prof. Krugman to assume the task of challenging what he terms the radical right's "challenge to our political and social system."

As gloomy as Prof. Krugman's description of the national scene may seem, reading him is fun. For one thing, he has an ear for nuances of the culture, spicing his language with allusions as far afield as the band, Buffalo Springfield ("There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear"), and citing the sex change comedy Victor/Victoria to suggest the changing poses adopted by the Bush administration.

Readable Analogies

Prof. Krugman's analogies are pithy, playful, sometimes bizarre, always readable. For corporate fraud, it's ice cream. He writes, "So you're the manager of an ice cream parlor. It's not very profitable, so how can you get rich?" For rationales for the Bush tax cut, it's slicing a salami. In another column, President Bush is a contractor who is renovating your house: "Funny how he got the job: you checked the wrong box on a confusing form, and the judge – a close friend of the contractor – ruled that you were stuck."

The column heads are fun in themselves; just check out the table of contents: "Bad Heir Day," "Pants on Fire," "California Screaming," "The Sons Also Rise," "Hey Lucky Duckies," "Smoking Fat Boy," and, for the ice-cream parlor column, "Flavors of Fraud."

Prof. Krugman is all the more amusing in his Fortune columns from the late nineties when the stakes were not so high. On the way to making economics make sense, he brings in Charlie Brown and Lucy, Wily E. Coyote and the Road Runner, and even pulls off a neat glancing reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In another piece he plays on one of Shakespeare's most famous lines and then sustains the context by portraying the crisis under discussion as a play in two acts "there are financial dangers undreamt of in our previous philosophy.... Is the play almost over, or is there a tragic act still to follow?"

Or he'll show you how everyman's interest in the economy has grown by pointing out that the dial of the TV in a local pizza parlor is now locked in at CNBC rather than ESPN. Prof. Krugman's columns are on the level of what W. H. Auden had in mind when he called James Agee's The Nation's columns "the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today."

If Al Gore had been elected president, Prof. Krugman's Times columns might have established him as the James Agee of economic analysis. Instead he finds himself "a lightning rod" for the far right, a role his English publisher has exploited by putting a tasteless cover on the British edition of his book; the garish photo montage depicts Bush as sort of Frankenstein and gives Cheney a Hitler mustache while the American edition's subtitle Losing Our Way in the New Century has given way to From Boom to Bust in Three Scandalous Years.

Apparently Prof. Krugman never had a chance to protest the cover. According to last Sunday's N.Y. Times a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee was quick to pounce on this opportunity to accuse Prof. Krugman of "hate speech."

The Great Unraveling seems almost too passive a title for so powerful a book. What Prof. Krugman has put together is no mere anthology of his columns. The order has been carefully structured and focused. The columns are grouped according to their themes under five main sections, with the most outspoken (and "widely denounced") columns like "Hitting the Trifecta" at the center.

The last part, "The Wider View," gives evidence of what Prof. Krugman meant when he told a Publisher's Weekly interviewer, "I'm not all that much of a liberal" and went on to mention how he was once accused of being "a dangerous free-market conservative." It would be a disservice to the book and author to portray him merely as hero to the left and villain to the right. The truth is that anyone who reads this book with an open mind will see that Paul Krugman is a hero, period. In the spirit of far-out analogies, what he's doing is a reversal of the old radio show hero the Shadow, who had "the power to cloud men's minds" and thus make himself invisible. Prof. Krugman has the power to "uncloud" American minds and make the truth visible.

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