Kevin D. Williamson:
It has long been rumored that Paul Krugman does not write the New York Times column that appears under his name. I have no reason to believe that that is true, but I hope it is. There are not many situations in which the reputation of a winner of the Nobel prize and the John Bates Clark medal would be improved by an act of intellectual dishonesty, but this is one of them.
Like homelessness and military casualties, U.S. government deficits are an issue that bleep into visibility on the progressive radar almost exclusively during Republican presidencies. On October 23, 2016, Professor Krugman wrote that the “debt scolds should be ignored,” and that Hillary Rodham Clinton, then presumed to be the next president, should engage in “years of deficit-financed infrastructure spending, if she can.” A grand total of 78 days later, Professor Krugman declared, “Deficits matter again.”
As the kids say, Life comes at you pretty fast.
There is some explanation for this beyond simple hypocrisy.
In her very clear-eyed 2010 profile of Professor Krugman, Larissa MacFarquhar, of The New Yorker, considers the economist’s late-life discovery of politics. “In his columns, Krugman is belligerently, obsessively political, but this aspect of his personality is actually a recent development,” she writes, noting that his work has been strongly influenced by his economist wife, who has focused on making his prose “angrier.” She finds Krugman to be an out-of-touch new-media partisan, dividing his time between Princeton and his beachfront home in St. Croix. Strange that such a life would produce so much bitterness. Is Professor Krugman the world’s angriest economist? It isn’t his anger that is in question: “It’s been a long time — years now — since he did any serious research,” MacFarquhar notes.
Professor Krugman is familiar enough with the workings of social media to anticipate being called out on his remarkably quick — 78 days! — turnaround from scold of deficit scolds to deficit scold. It is unconvincing stuff. He argues that deficit-financed federal activism in the wake of the financial crisis was justified as a form of “depression economics” and that this represents a general consensus in the macroeconomic-policy literature. (It should be noted that this is not his particular area of economic expertise.)
What has changed, he says today, is that the unemployment numbers and wage figures suggest that we have returned to full employment, and hence the emergency measures he advocated earlier are no longer needed. Even if we buy that policy story entirely, the employment and wage figures today are not radically different from what they were 78 days ago, and that demand for deficit-financed spending 78 days ago was, in Professor Krugman’s own prescription, something that should be extended for years into the future.
What has changed since October 23, 2016, is not the labor markets. What has changed is what happened on November 8, 2016. Professor Krugman is simply another cracked Democratic partisan looking for any cudgel with which to beat the incoming Republican government. He was, by all accounts (even those of economists who disagree with him), a very fine economist. He is an incompetent newspaper columnist. The skills are not necessarily transferable.
What’s really a shame about all this is that we could use Krugman the economist just at the moment. In the December 23 issue of National Review, Robert D. Atkinson offered a provocative cover story, “The Case for a National Productivity Strategy,” in which he advocated a vision of “Trumponomics” that would be oriented toward raising overall U.S. labor productivity as an avenue to wider middle-class prosperity. Atkinson, the founder of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, has argued for a number of ideas that might strike some more traditional conservatives as an updating of what the Right used to scoff at as “industrial policy,” i.e., putting the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in charge of a national program for developing automation research, creating a special “innovation box” in the tax code that reduces the tax on profits from “innovation,” doubling the research-and-development tax credit, etc.