Gloves off for 'thinking man's Michael Moore'

August 13, 2004

The Bush Administration is a joke, guilty of 'crony capitalism' and 'world-class mendacity', but Paul Krugman is not laughing, says Stephen Phillips.

Paul Krugman has a day off from his biweekly column for The New York Times , so the Princeton University economics professor is unwinding by writing about 1970s macroeconomic thought for an upcoming textbook he's co-authoring with his wife and fellow faculty member Robin Wells.

"The academy is good therapy - it's a comfort to escape from current affairs," he says. Particularly these days, perhaps. Krugman, 51, doesn't find too much to recommend the State of the Union.

An Ivy League economist with avowedly "centrist" views hardly sounds like America's most compelling critic of the Bush Administration, but Krugman has been called the "thinking man's Michael Moore".

His op-eds, every Tuesday and Friday in America's most influential newspaper, have become required reading, criticising a White House he accuses of charting a calamitous policy course, voodoo economics, "crony capitalism" and "world-class mendacity".

Academic economists are better known for cautious equivocation and dry, measured monographs rather than polemics, but Krugman has taken bold, unflinching positions on the Bush Administration when even his fellow media commentators blinked.

Back when demurring from the Republican Party line was deemed treasonous, or at least a bad career move, amid the wave of patriotic support for the White House after September 11, 2001, Krugman's was a rare dissenting voice in the mainstream US press.

His impassioned broadsides are driven by his conviction that America is in the grip of a radical rightwing movement, willing to subvert democracy to pursue power and advance its stealthy agenda.

Opponents accuse him of wild-eyed conspiracy theorising, but Krugman says he is merely connecting the dots.

Lionised or reviled, he has captured the mood of many in a rancorously polarised nation, heading for perhaps its most acrimonious presidential election in a generation.

A collection of his columns, The Great Unraveling , which is out in paperback in the UK later this month, has become a US bestseller.

Having held positions at Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before Princeton, Krugman marshals unrivalled gravitas among America's "punditocracy". His contributions to trade theory helped garner him the prestigious John Bates Clark medal, awarded biennially to America's best young economist, in 1991, and he is tipped as a future Nobel laureate.

But he is equally comfortable assuming the mantle of public intellectual, engaging a popular audience with the more recondite rigours of the ivory tower, evoking comparisons with Milton Friedman, John Maynard Keynes, who also turned to journalistic editorialising and J. K. Galbraith the late Harvard University economics populariser.

"There's a lot of gain from doing both roles," Krugman says. The academic grounding offers a handy knowledge base from which to comment on public policy; while knowing one's way around a treasury report - not particularly common among political commentators - helps in deciphering "Bushonomics", he adds.

Krugman is a prolific journalist, and he churns out articles for The New York Review of Books . To juggle the workload, he makes it a ground rule never to start his 700-word New York Times column until the day it is due.

He was originally commissioned at the height of the internet-stoked bull market in January 2000 as the paper's first business and economics columnist. But when the boom went bust a few months later, turning out to have been a bubble inflated by hype, hot air and hucksterism, as Krugman drolly notes in The Great Unraveling , he turned his attention to the 2000 presidential election campaign.

He accused George W. Bush, the then Texas Governor, of peddling falsehoods, charges that since the President took office, Krugman has broadened into a frontal assault on the administration's profligate spending and tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy that have turned the $236 billion budget surplus it inherited into a projected $374 billion shortfall this year.

The White House, Krugman contends, is concertedly "starving the beast", as Republicans call it, deliberately engineering a budget deficit to pave the way for the "necessity" of drastically pruning or gutting social insurance programmes, such as subsidised healthcare that offer a safety net for the poor.

"The tax base is 25 per cent too low to support existing programmes. We now have a structural [budget] deficit," Krugman says. "Something has to give."

"We'll find out next [presidential] term, but there's nothing in our experience to suggest it would involve [hiking] taxes to regain lost revenue."

To accomplish this fundamental redrawing of government, which rolls back the legacy of 1930s New Deal and 1960s Great Society legislation, he charges that Republicans are bent on establishing themselves as the de-facto party of government.

"Republicans talk about needing 20 to 30 years of control," says Krugman, who has written extensively about the ballot box and legal chicanery behind Bush's disputed 2000 victory.

"These are people [without] democratic instincts [who] intend to establish a lock on power," he adds, alluding to Chicago, a Democrat stronghold, where the mayor has since 1955 been called Richard Daley, first the father now the son, excluding a 12-year interregnum. Krugman predicts that a structure akin to Jeb Bush's Florida will play out nationally under continued Republican rule.

"If we want a model, we can look at Florida where the process has been one of creating a political machine in which businesses are told there will be retribution if they give dollars to Democrats."

America is being usurped by an unholy alliance of "plutocrats and preachers", undaunted by their dubious electoral mandate, Krugman says. "If you try to have a theory of who it is that's taking over my country, it's a coalition of corporate insiders and the religious right," he concludes.

In The Great Unraveling , Krugman harks back to, of all people, Henry Kissinger to explain how the Bush Administration has caught the US political and media establishment flatfooted.

Long before becoming Richard Nixon's national security tsar, Kissinger wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard about the challenge posed to the late 18th and early 19th century diplomatic status quo by Robespierre and Napoleon's revolutionary France. This, says Krugman, chillingly describes the type of political chicanery evident in Bush's administration: foreign policy unilateralism, audacious lying, a propensity to regard scientific findings as fodder for political spin and the brazen stacking of influential policy advisory committees with conservative ideologists and corporate patrons rather than respected experts.

But, Krugman says, the Bush administration represents a fundamental departure from prior US governments, even Nixon's notorious White House with its dirty tricks. "It's really beyond the bounds of anything we've seen before. [Under] Nixon, the intimidation and cover-ups affected a fairly small part of the administration. The Treasury still produced honest economic reports and the Environmental Protection Agency was still doing real science. What we have now is a situation where everything is political, which is without precedent."

Officials have cynically exploited 9/11 and the spectre of future terrorist attacks, adds Krugman. He cites, for example, the "uncannily convenient" timing of terror alerts that have often served to steal the Democrats' thunder or deflect bad publicity.

It's tragicomic, says Krugman, who has lampooned what he calls the Keystone Cops-like war on terror and branded John Ashcroft "the worst attorney-general in history". Officials "have demonstrated themselves to be spectacularly incompetent", he adds. "To look at the handling of the economy and Iraq, there's a comical Banana Republic aspect to it, except people's lives are being ruined."

Unsurprisingly, Krugman has ruffled feathers. To his critics he is at best a partisan hack, at worst an unhinged anti-Bush crank who has lost the plot.

For his part, Krugman is unabashedly rooting for Democrat John Kerry in November, but, taken out of market-driven America, he believes his politics would probably get him "reviled as a rightwing laissez-faire " economist.

In the introduction to the paperback edition of The Great Unraveling , Krugman claims a measure of vindication for his critique of the Bush administration from revelations such as Richard Clark's, a former US counterterrorism head, that neoconservative ideologues were spoiling for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq from Bush's first day in office and saw 9/11 as their pretext.

In terms of predicting the future, Krugman commented in a recent lecture at the London School of Economics that "the general rule of US politics these past three years has been that last year's crazy conspiracy theory always ends up being today's crazy wisdom". It is disquieting then that one of his latest hobbyhorses is the extent to which computerised voting machines are being deployed in some states this November can be open to abuse. For instance, it has recently been revealed that a disproportionate number of blacks, who typically vote Democrat, were deleted from Florida's electoral rolls before a Miami newspaper alerted officials to what they said was a computer glitch.

In The Great Unraveling , Krugman says he awaits the "great revulsion: a moment in which the American people realise how their good will and patriotism have been abused and put a stop to the drive of the radical right".

The Great Unraveling: Losing our Way in the New Century is published by Norton, $14.95 (£8.15).

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