Why the N.Y. Times ruins Bush's breakfast

Columnist Paul Krugman is W's worst nightmare -- a brilliant economist who meticulously exposes the White House's rigged numbers and lies.

By Scott Rosenberg

Published September 8, 2003 9:42PM (EDT)

The economist who can write engagingly about his discipline is a rare bird, prized by editors everywhere. When the New York Times brought Paul Krugman onboard at the turn of the millennium as on Op-Ed columnist, the move seemed like a no-brainer: Capitalism had won the global contest of the Cold War, the nation sat at the pinnacle of a vast financial boom, and stock tips were being traded at supermarket checkout lines. The Times feared being left in the gray dust by the colorful frenzy of the hyperventilating new economy -- but didn't want to be seen as cheerleading for it, either. Its only competitor for the title of National Newspaper for the Only Global Superpower was the Wall Street Journal. So a levelheaded but open-minded economist-skeptic like Krugman seemed to be just what the Times needed.

Within a couple of years, that new economy lay six feet under the dirt of a new recession, federal surpluses had turned into ominous new deficits, 9/11 had shattered the Pax Americana -- and Paul Krugman had become the most devastatingly precise voice of liberal outrage in American journalism. The Times' dismal scientist had swallowed a passion pill and turned into a partisan scrapper.

Krugman's evolution naturally enraged critics from the right, who had for decades carped about the Times' supposed liberal bent but who had actually benefited from a long-standing tilt in its columnist roster: The liveliest, feistiest voice on its Op-Ed page had always belonged to conservative William Safire. Whatever you might think of his views, Safire actually seemed to be having fun writing -- unlike his colleagues to the left, more droning, dutiful writers like Anthony Lewis and Bob Herbert. Once Krugman joined Frank Rich (who has since left his Op-Ed perch for the Sunday Arts and Leisure section), the Times finally had an Op-Ed page worthy of the charge of liberal bias.

And just in the nick of time. Because the era in which Krugman honed his voice was also the era in which -- as he outlines in the introduction to his new book, "The Great Unraveling" -- American conservatives seized control of the U.S. government and, under cover of a rhetoric of "compassion," remade the nation's finances, laws and foreign policy with unprecedented ideological zeal and putschlike audacity. If that description of recent history sounds like a hysterical overstatement, you haven't been reading Krugman's columns, and the arrival of "The Great Unraveling" offers you a great opportunity to catch up.

The bad news first: "The Great Unraveling" is mostly a collection of Krugman's Times pieces, and if you have been reading them all along, there isn't a whole lot new here. (Herewith, as befits discussion of an economist's book, the statistics: Only 49 of the 423 pages -- including the preface -- are new material. That's 11.6 percent of total verbiage.) For reasons that must have looked good in the warm glow of a book proposal, Krugman has wrenched his original columns out of their chronological context and into thematic chapters. This has two unfortunate side effects: First, it draws attention to Krugman's occasional repetition of insights, turns of phrase and even jokes ("I am not making this up"; "I've reported, you decide"). In a regularly appearing newspaper column, such tropes can have the salutary impact of musical leitmotifs; between hardcovers, they just sound awry.

More important, organizing these columns by theme rather than timeline dilutes the dramatic arc of the evolution in Krugman's thinking. During the 2000 election, the economist took pains to explain the bogus math behind Bush's Social Security privatization plan; after the election, he patiently laid out the inequities inherent in Bush's tax cut plan and exposed the double talk employed by its advocates. In those days Krugman's tone was one of detached disbelief: They can't be serious. Surely, once people understand the facts, the nation will come to its senses. Over time, as the aftermath of 9/11 cast a pseudo-heroic penumbra around the once-feckless president and the "war on terror" provided him with myriad opportunities to slip pet policies into action, Krugman's detachment wore down -- Oh, hell, they are serious, and the facts aren't sticking -- and his tone shifted to engaged outrage.

The rhetoric grew angrier -- like this, from a February 2003 column, one of the most recent in the collection: "Although financial reporters have started to realize that Mr. Bush is out of control ... the sheer banana-republic irresponsibility of his plans hasn't been widely appreciated." And the old assumption that everyone will somehow wake up from this bad dream has evaporated from Krugman's worldview, leaving only a sense that we have made some truly colossal bad choices that will take generations to fix.

"The Great Unraveling" collects Krugman's best work, catching those mistakes in snapshot flashes of criticism as they were being made. No one wrote with more clarity and foresight on the California energy crisis (which had nothing to do with environmental regulations and everything to do with energy companies rigging markets). No one took Alan Greenspan to task more vigorously for betraying his own legacy in embracing Bush's budget-busting tax cuts. No one rode Bush harder for his dubious past as a crony capitalist who made his fortune thanks to his connections as a president's son, and to self-dealing accounting of the same species that later turned into a national scandal during his administration, with the implosion of Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen and other corporate shell-game players.

Krugman is merciless about both the secrecy under which the Bush administration drew up its energy policies and the irrationality of the policies it coughed into the light. From the Bush White House's hostility to conservation and its obsession with opening the Alaskan tundra to oil drilling to its schizophrenic free-trade policies and its strange collusions with OPEC, Krugman surveys the landscape of Bush policy and finds a wasteland of brazen hypocrisy populated by "cynical political operators" wrapped in the flag, "an extremely elitist clique trying to maintain a populist facade."

This is columnizing of a very high order. But reading one 750-word column after another creates a monotonous prose rhythm over hundreds of pages that does not frame Krugman's writing in the best light. After reading dozens of columns you start to hunger for something more in-depth that might answer the central political problem of our era: With so much to get mad about, sitting in broad daylight, why hasn't America risen in rage?

Krugman cites several factors in passing in individual columns, including the concentration of corporate media power. (As Krugman tells it, Big Media loves Bush's deregulation: Bush's people relax the rules, so that Big Media can fill the Republicans' campaign chests, and both go home happy.) But only once, in its extended introduction, does "The Great Unraveling" move beyond the quick-hit column mode to grapple with this question of America's passivity in the face of ideological coup. Here, Krugman draws an unexpected and tantalizing historical parallel to explain why centrist American institutions have not responded more actively to what he diagnoses as a radical movement on the right that has hijacked the nation's political and economic destiny.

His source is, of all places, Henry Kissinger's doctoral dissertation on Metternich and the post-Napoleonic restoration. The story of mainstream America's failure to understand the radicalism of the Bush/Cheney Republican regime, Krugman argues, echoes Kissinger's account of the difficulties Old Europe faced in recognizing the rise of a "revolutionary power" that did not play by its rules and that did not acknowledge its legitimacy. Turning Kissinger's geostrategic diagnosis inside out, Krugman casts Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove & Co. as today's Jacobins and Napoleons, determined to upend the status quo of American democracy and slaughter its sacred cows -- like a tax-supported social safety net, civil liberties, electoral norms and international cooperation.

"The Great Unraveling" is mostly a chronicle of malfeasance rather than a prescription for righting wrongs, but Krugman does propose some principles for dealing with Bush revolutionaries: "Don't assume that policy proposals make sense in terms of their stated goals. Do some homework to discover the real goals. Don't assume that the usual rules of politics apply. Expect a revolutionary power to respond to criticism by attacking. Don't think that there's a limit to a revolutionary power's objectives."

These dicta are all good advice, and any reader of Krugman will find ample examples of their application in his articles. But the historical analogy Krugman borrows from Kissinger has broader and more disturbing implications that the economist never acknowledges. Europe's counterrevolution against Napoleon did not achieve success on the basis of simply recognizing a threat and defeating it; it took the persistent and sometimes devious leadership of Kissinger's hero, the extraordinary Austrian diplomat Prince Metternich, to hold together a coalition and keep a watchful eye for any sign of the revolutionary enemy's revival.

In the fight to save America from the increasingly reckless ravages of the Bush regime, where's our latter-day Metternich? It's awfully hard to cast any of the current Democratic presidential hopefuls, though Howard Dean is beginning to turn a lot of heads. But whoever may be waiting in the wings to take on this role in the struggle to contain and ultimately defeat today's conservative revolutionaries needs to get cracking: He's got a heap of work to do before we can ever hope to pack George Bush off to some latter-day Elba.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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Books Economics George W. Bush Paul Krugman The New York Times U.s. Economy