How Paul Krugman found politics

Larissa MacFarquhar in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_04 Mar. 02 10.20 For the first twenty years of Krugman’s adult life, his world was divided not into left and right but into smart and stupid. “The great lesson was the low level of discussion,” he says of his time in Washington. “The then Secretary of the Treasury”—Donald Regan—“was not that bright, and you could have angry exchanges where neither side understood the policy.” Krugman was buoyed and protected in his youth by an intellectual snobbery so robust that distractions or snobberies of other sorts didn’t stand a chance. “When I was twenty-eight, I wouldn’t have had the time of day for some senator or other,” he says.

Krugman’s tribe was academic economists, and insofar as he paid any attention to people outside that tribe, his enemy was stupid pseudo-economists who didn’t understand what they were talking about but who, with attention-grabbing titles and simplistic ideas, persuaded lots of powerful people to listen to them. He called these types “policy entrepreneurs”—a term that, by differentiating them from the academic economists he respected, was meant to be horribly biting. He was driven mad by Lester Thurow and Robert Reich in particular, both of whom had written books touting a theory that he believed to be nonsense: that America was competing in a global marketplace with other countries in much the same way that corporations competed with one another. In fact, Krugman argued, in a series of contemptuous articles in Foreign Affairs and elsewhere, countries were not at all like corporations. While another country’s success might injure our pride, it would not likely injure our wallets. Quite the opposite: it would be more likely to provide us with a bigger market for our products and send our consumers cheaper, better-made goods to buy. A trade surplus might be a sign of weakness, a trade deficit a sign of strength. And, anyway, a nation’s standard of living was determined almost entirely by its productivity—trade was just not that important.

When Krugman first began writing articles for popular publications, in the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton was in office, and Krugman thought of the left and the right as more or less equal in power. Thus, there was no pressing need for him to take sides—he would shoot down idiocy wherever it presented itself, which was, in his opinion, all over the place.

More here.