Did Krugman win by T.K.O.?

The economics columnist trades blows with former Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent.

Published June 2, 2005 5:27PM (EDT)

Daniel Okrent, who just finished up his one-year stint as public editor of the New York Times, must have realized that leveling blistering attacks against several of the paper's Op-Ed columnists in his May 22 swan song would result in some bruised egos, not to mention a few forked-tongue replies. But Okrent clearly wasn't prepared for the pugilism of economics columnist Paul Krugman, who responded to Okrent's criticisms with an angry letter, published in the Times last Sunday, and with several outraged e-mails demanding a retraction and an apology.

It took Okrent, who may have been expecting to retire in peace, a few days to shoot back at Krugman, and then Krugman shot back again at Okrent, and then the two went back and forth one more time. The pair's entire fight -- over whether or not Krugman, in his columns, routinely plays fast and loose with economics data -- is now up on the the Web, and it's a doozy. Though we give the win to Krugman, who seems to have more of the facts on his side, Okrent gets points for style. Krugman attracts more than his fair share of detractors, but we haven't seen anyone get to him with the panache Okrent displays here.

Here's the blow-by-blow: It began with Okrent's one-sentence war cry. "Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults," he wrote on May 22. Okrent gave no examples of what he meant, and he deliberately didn't go to Krugman for comment before publication. (Okrent's justification: "I decided to impersonate an opinion columnist.") It was a cheeky thing to do; you might even say he was baiting Krugman.

And Krugman took the bait. He demanded that Okrent cite the specific columns in which he spotted Krugman "shaping, slicing and selectively citing" data. Okrent responded with a few citations of alleged Krugman mendacity; the most substantive involved a column published on May 24, 2004, in which Krugman used national employment data to argue that the Bush economy wasn't doing as well as the White House was saying at the time. According to Okrent, Krugman sinned by drawing his numbers from two different measures of employment -- the establishment survey and the household survey, each of which provides a different picture of jobs creation in the U.S. -- without telling his readers what he was doing. Okrent says Krugman mixed and matched numbers from the two surveys "apparently in order to make a more vivid political point about Bush."

Reading Krugman's column, though, it's hard to see how Okrent concluded this. All the numbers cited in the column appear to be from just one employment measure -- the establishment survey. As Krugman points out in a response to Okrent, he even urged readers to go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site and look up the numbers he used in the column; the numbers are all from the establishment survey.

Many of Okrent's other specific criticisms -- many of which were first brought to him by readers that he says "generally align themselves politically with Prof. Krugman, but feel he does himself and his cause no good when he heeds the roaring approval of his acolytes and dismisses his critics as ideologically motivated" -- seem similarly weak. But that's not to say Okrent is the clear loser in this fight. Okrent's got a gift for the lethal personal attack, and he wields it handily in this fight: "For a man who leads with his chin twice a week, he acts awfully surprised when someone takes a pop at it," Okrent writes of Krugman. Or: "Prof. Krugman would likely be more willing to contribute to the Frist for President campaign than to acknowledge the possibility of error."

Okrent predicts that Krugman won't rest until he gets the last word, and he's right. Krugman, in the final entry, writes that Okrent was dead-wrong on everything, "and now he's not enough of a mensch to admit his error."

To which we just have one thing to add: Dan, you've always seemed like such a mensch to us -- but you're not gonna let an econ nerd get away with that one, are you?

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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