Thursday, April 28, 2011

An Interesting Specimen

The reviews are in. Benjamin Wallace-Wells' profile of Paul Krugman is boffo stuff. Why it has been so well received is captured best by the Salon view of the article.
Maybe it's the paradoxical tone of Wallace-Wells' eloquently articulated elegy for liberalism -- Krugman's got a lot going for him, after all -- Nobel Prize, prominent public intellectual bully pulpit, hugely trafficked blog -- but somehow Wallace-Wells uses the profile to tell a story of defeat: of Obama's failure to deliver true progressive change, and Krugman's failure to get Washington to listen to his liberal "purism."
As I read the article, however, I was struck less by this than by the cliche sketch of Krugman, ever the academic, his mind filled with numbers and books filled with graphs, not engaging human beings in the real world. Some snippets:
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.” One colleague at Princeton, where Krugman has taught since 2000, says the economist will avert his eyes when circumstance places the two of them alone in an elevator, his nose stuck in the corner, so as to avoid conversation.

Krugman is short and has a very round, very full belly; he is both generally agreeable and chronically rushed, and this gives him a myopic, distracted air. When he talks about himself, his ideas always arise only from his scholarship, as if once, long ago, he had erected a wall between his immersion in the world and his study of it. At Yale, he says, he formed no impression of the aspiring New York bankers and Washington lawyers who were his peers. Later, though he traveled frequently to Japan and met often with government ministers in the years when the country slipped into its lost decade, he says those meetings did nothing to shape his analysis. He has wondered often about why Larry Summers chose to support a smaller stimulus, but though he and Summers spoke every month or two when Summers was in the White House, Krugman never asked him. “He’s not oblivious to human nature; he will have conversations about this person or that and their motivations,” Wells says. “But he does keep it separate.”

A few years ago, Krugman, having decided that he was going to be writing about politics and so he should know more about it, did a very Krugman thing. He didn’t talk to people who worked in Washington. Instead, he started to read the political-science literature. Krugman had never understood the press coverage of politics, which seemed to emphasize its most irrelevant aspects. Why dwell on a presidential candidate’s psychology when the trends in unemployment would tell you who would win an election? But viewed through the prism of political science, politics began to seem much more familiar to him. There was a mathematics to it—you could assemble data, draw correlations, understand what was essential and what was noise. The underlying shape of politics came sweeping into view: If you arranged members of Congress from left to right based on how they voted on welfare-state issues—Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance—it turned out that this left-to-right axis could predict every other vote: On Iraq expenditures, on abortion, whatever. “When you realize the fundamental divide in U.S. politics is just this one-­dimensional thing, and that is how you feel about the welfare state,” Krugman says, “that changes things.”
It seems to me that Krugman is far less interested in himself, either as a person (let alone a personality), and far more interested in whether or not the information he provides is factual, and his ideological framing honest. Unlike Wallace-Wells' description of Rush Limbaugh as "authentic", which is a pose, a fake personality, Krugman's transparency, preferring readers take in the information, says much about the approach to politics that has reigned for the past generation.

The anecdote concerning the differences between Larry Summers and Krugman when they worked together in the Reagan Administration is key, I think. Summers was a consensus builder, working to bring together people around positions that seemed workable. Krugman, on the other hand, was far less interested in being a player. He was, and continues to be, far more interested in being right. That, more so than whether or not he makes eye-contact with a colleague in an elevator, is far more telling of who Krugman is and what he does.

The portrait that emerges in Wallace-Wells article is, with its mixture of cliche and almost disdainful piquancy at Krugman's audacity to believe that he might well be intelligent, portrays the Princeton Nobel laureate as some odd species of insect - a deeply thoughtful, intellectual individual who is also passionate that our politics no longer be one long exercise in public mendacity. There is an odd combination of arch disdain and anti-intellectualism at work in this profile I find deeply troubling. That someone who is intelligent, passionate, learned, might actually have a better grasp of what is going on than colleagues with similar backgrounds who work in the corridors of power is something Wallace-Wells simply refuses to grant. After all, Paul Krugman can draw a graph really well. That is odd, isn't it.

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