Thursday, April 28, 2011

A loner Paul Krugman!

New York magazine has an interesting profile of one of my favorite economists, Paul Krugman. The author portrays Krugman as a loner trying to counter unrealistic conservative ideas and policies from the left.

[…] For Krugman, the path forward was perfectly clear: The only way to avert a deepening crisis was massive Keynesian stimulus. During the nineties in Japan, he had seen the nightmare alternative. Officials in Tokyo, faced with a very similar scenario, had done too little to stimulate the economy, again and again, and as their nation’s recovery stumbled, they found they were toggling an unplugged joystick.

[…] Paul Krugman is a lonely man. That he is comfortable in his solitude, that he emphasizes its virtues, that his intelligence gives it a poetic gloss, none of this diminishes the poignancy of his isolation. Krugman grew up an only child and is deeply self-conscious. He will list his shortcomings as though he’d been preparing for the chance: “Loner. Ordinarily shy. Shy with individuals.” He is married but has no children nor—rare for a Nobelist—many protégés. When I asked him if there were any friends of his I could talk to in order to understand him better, he hesitated, then said, “That’s going to be hard.”

[…] Krugman had begun the work that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize—an aggressive revision of international trade theory—by the time he was in his mid-twenties, and so for nearly all of his adult life he has had good evidence for the proposition that he is smarter than just about everyone else around him, and capable of seeing things more clearly. Krugman is gleeful about being right, joyous in the revelation of his correctness, and many of his most visible early fights were with free-trade skeptics on the left. Of Robert Reich, for instance, Krugman wrote: “talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right.” He was a liberal and a Democrat, but even in 1999, when he was hired by Howell Raines to write his Times column, “I still saw equivalent craziness on both sides.”

[…] But Krugman’s writing voice—sarcastic, data-driven, flecked with just a little bit of maybe-there’s-a-bomb-in-the-wastebasket zeal—was perfect for the Internet. His self-certain empiricism matched liberal vanities as precisely as Rush Limbaugh’s stagy authenticity matches conservative ones, and he became a vehicle for the concentrating energies of the progressive generation of 2006.

[…] I ask Summers what he thinks is Krugman’s underlying complaint with the Obama administration. “Paul may be the smartest and most creative applied economic thinker of this era,” he says, “but there is some element of him that is like the guy in the bleachers who always demands the fake kick, the triple-reverse, the long bomb, or the big trade.”

The two economists have known each other since the late seventies, when they were both graduate students in Cambridge, and there were moments in conversation with Krugman that I began to suspect he viewed Summers as a one-man control group for his study of himself. They each share a high assessment of the other’s intellect (“Larry’s extremely smart—ask him and he’ll tell you,” Krugman says). Krugman’s sense of humor is built upon self-deprecation, and sometimes Summers’s sense of humor is built upon deprecating Krugman, too. In the early eighties, when the two worked together in the Reagan administration, Krugman realized that Summers had a talent for effectiveness—winning meetings, organizing subordinates, convincing economic novices of his point of view—that he himself could not hope to match. Summers became the insider and Krugman the outsider.

[…] I brought up the work of the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, now with the Obama administration, who has studied the radicalizing effects of ideological isolation—the idea, born from studies of three-judge panels, that if you are not in regular conversation with people who differ from you, you can become far more extreme. It is a very Obama idea, and I asked Krugman if he ever worried that he might succumb to that tendency. “It could happen,” he says. “But I work a lot from data; that’s enough of an anchor. I have a good sense when a claim has gone too far.”