Paul Krugman, Important Person

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Paul Krugman is not my cup of tea. Even when he writes things that I agree with, which is almost never, he manages to strike tones of smugness and condescension that make my skin crawl. Of course, just because I feel this way doesn’t mean everyone should. It doesn’t even mean that I am correct. Which are two sentences that Paul Krugman would never write in a million years.

So I started reading Benjamin Wallace-Wells’s profile of Krugman in New York magazine the way one might probe a sore tooth, fully expecting a bolt of pain—but wow, what a surprise! This splendid piece of journalism is at once sympathetic and completely fair, beautifully written, intellectually sophisticated. I think Krugman’s many fans will find it informative and reassuring at the same time that the rest of us get a better understanding of how such a powerful talent manages to go screeching off the rails.

The piece is endlessly quotable, so I won’t start because I’d have trouble stopping. But I do want to highlight a key moment. An acquaintance of Krugman’s, the brilliant economist Domingo Cavallo (one takeaway from this article is that economists, especially in the Northeast, love to talk about how brilliant they all are, which makes you wonder why they’re so often wrong) had become minister of the economy in Argentina. This went swimmingly until the Argentine economy soured, at which point Cavallo failed to pursue the policies advocated by Krugman, and of course everything went terribly wrong.

What Krugman took from Argentina—and what he thinks even liberals in Washington missed—was “a certain level of understanding,” he says, “that important people have no idea what they’re doing.”

That is so true, and I found myself wishing that Krugman could take the next small, but crucial, intellectual step—namely, to see that this truth also applies to important people on the Princeton faculty and The New York Times op-ed page. (And at TIME, in case you’re wondering.) No one knows enough to plan and run a modern economy, and therefore it is entirely reasonable to resist efforts to centralize economic power. The impulse toward smaller government doesn’t stem from “cruelty” or “savagery,” as Krugman likes to assert. It is rooted in the realization that important people don’t always know best.

That’s my spin, anyway. Read this great article and arrive at your own.

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