This is the story of two economists—John Kenneth Galbraith, who died last year at age ninety-seven, and Paul Krugman, who at fifty-four is in his prime as an economist and a columnist for the New York Times. Like Galbraith, Krugman is a forthright liberal, the most well-known economist of his generation, skilled at writing about economics for a general public.
Yet relations between the two were not what one might think. Throughout much of the 1990s, Krugman declared war on popular writers of economics, and sneeringly said of Galbraith that “he has never been taken seriously by his academic colleagues, who regard him as more of a ‘media personality.’” The “fault line,” he wrote, “between serious economic thinking and economic patent medicine, between the professors and the policy entrepreneurs, is at least as important as the divide between left and right.”
But the world changed when George W. Bush was elected in 2000, and what is arguably the worst administration in the history of the United States took office. It seemed to shake Krugman to the core. He now says of his polemics in the 1990s, “I was wrong obviously. If I’d understood where politics would be now, it would have been quite different.”
Whether lashing out at the administration’s shifting explanations as to why they were delivering truckloads of cash to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts or explaining the dishonesty in the administration’s plans to privatize Social Security or puncturing the cultlike worship of Alan Greenspan or railing against Bush’s deceptions about the war or describing how oil company lobbyists made energy policy for Dick Cheney’s task force, Krugman has committed himself to exposing “the lies of the powerful.” ...
Now his explanation incorporates power and politics: “The government can tilt the balance of power between workers and bosses in many ways—and at every juncture this government has favored the bosses.” The minimum wage has withered, tax policy favors the rich, the administration blocked corporate reform, thus allowing CEOs to reward themselves at unprecedented levels, and perhaps most important, “There has been a concerted attack on the institutions that have helped moderate inequality—in particular unions.” This is Krugman at his “pleasantly contentious” and “usefully dangerous” best. Somewhere, John Kenneth Galbraith is smiling.
Friday, June 8, 2007