Newsweek’s Fearful Krugman Profile

By Felix Salmon
March 30, 2009

Evan Thomas has a profile of Paul Krugman on the cover of Newsweek. The 2,825-word article has six on-the-record quotes about Krugman; none of them — not even the one from his mother — are particularly flattering. No one is quoted saying a single nice thing about Krugman’s economics or his opinions.

When it comes to the substance of what Krugman produces, rather than his personality, the only two quotes come from Daniel Klein of George Mason ("a lot of what he says is wrong") and Dan Okrent, the former NYT ombudsman with whom Krugman had a bruising encounter. ("When someone challenged Krugman on the facts, he tended to question the motivation and ignore the substance.")

The other on-the-record quotes in the article are hardly any nicer: Sean Wilentz says that Krugman "doesn’t like to be f–ked with"; Gene Grossman says that Krugman’s academic career is over. Meanwhile, Thomas himself speculates that Krugman is "a little wounded" by the fact that the White House isn’t showering him with attention; says that Krugman "sometimes gets his facts wrong" when he writes about subjects other than economics; and asserts that Krugman was so keen to win the Nobel Prize that he almost turned down his position at the NYT for fear of becoming "a mere popularizer".

All in all, the story is not exactly what you’d expect from a cover emblazoned with the words "Obama is Wrong" and the caption "The Loyal Opposition of Paul Krugman". Newsweek’s editor, Jon Meacham, has an interesting take on the article:

Is Krugman right? Is the Obama administration too beholden to Wall Street and to the status quo, trying to save a system that is beyond salvation? Does Obama have–despite the brayings of the right–too much faith in the markets at a time when prudence suggests that they cannot rescue themselves? We do not know yet, and will not for a while to come. But as Evan–hardly a rabble-rousing lefty–writes, a lot of people have a "creeping feeling" that the Cassandra from Princeton may just be right. After all, the original Cassandra was.

I suspect that the final product is the result of overcompensating for the fact that Thomas and Meacham have just such a feeling: they’re fearful that Krugman might be right, and have therefore come up with a list of reasons why it might be reasonable to ignore him.

And this, at heart, is why I think we haven’t yet seen the worst of this crisis, neither in terms of the financial markets nor of the broader economy. There’s still a sense of denial in the air — a feeling that if you’re going to devote an entire cover story to someone like Krugman, then the story should bend over backwards to showcase people saying that he’s wrong, while it need make no such effort to quote anybody saying that he’s right.

Or, to put it another way, the question posed by the article isn’t whether Krugman is right or wrong — it’s whether he’s worth listening to or not. And the answer posed by the article is "we fear he might be, but we hope he isn’t". The problem — which the article doesn’t mention — is that the history of this economic crisis to date is a history of fear being right and hope being wrong.

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