Now, Paul Krugman throws economists off the bus

His colleagues are making too big a deal about Clinton's gas tax holiday proposal, he says. Where's the solidarity, Paul?

Published May 6, 2008 3:49PM (EDT)

Paul Krugman's support for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama has been abundantly clear pretty much since John Edwards was forced out of the race. And he has backed it up, time and again, by arguing that Clinton's economic proposals are more progressive than Obama's. In this overheated and histrionic Democratic primary battle, Krugman's allegiance has caused some dismay to Obama fans who have also long appreciated the New York Times Op-Ed columnist's unstinting labor denouncing the Bush administration (in which he has been proved right, time and again).

So the Obama camp took heart when Krugman closed ranks with his fellow economists and criticized the summer gas tax holiday plan that both Clinton and John McCain have proposed as a way of offering succor to America's battered motorists. And ever since Clinton's widely reported dismissal of all economists as elitists whose proposals often end up hurting the average American, the blogosphere has been waiting avidly to hear Krugman's take.

But there's no sugarcoating his latest blog post, "Gas Tax Hysterics": Paul Krugman has weaseled out.

His post begins:

OK, this has gone overboard.

Hillary Clinton's proposed gas tax holiday is not, in my view, a good idea. But the furor over what is, when all is said and done, a small and temporary policy proposal is entirely disproportionate. What's going on?

Krugman first blames the "media" who "really, really want Obama to win and Clinton to lose," and then, instead of standing firm with his fellow colleagues, accuses economists of blowing things out of proportion because of their "tendency to place excessive weight on issues where professional judgment differs from lay opinion."

The gas tax holiday is in this category. Economists really do know something about tax incidence that the laity don't. So when a presidential candidate says something that conflicts with economistic wisdom, it becomes THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE EVER. Except, you know, it isn't ...

Amid all this, the gas tax holiday is a real issue, but a small one; don't let economists' tendency to overemphasize their areas of expertise distort your view.

Krugman is straying toward the disingenuous here. The 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination for president has been a relentless progression of small things being blown way out of proportion, week by week, day by day, minute by minute. To profess surprise and befuddlement that the media and economists have jumped upon the speciousness of the gas tax holiday proposal is to ignore the basic dynamic of the battle between Clinton and Obama: an incredibly close race in which every difference between the two candidates is magnified precisely because they are fundamentally very similar moderate Democrats. To deprecate the significance of this issue at this time is really just a poor attempt by Krugman to defend his candidate of choice: "Yeah, OK, I disagree with her on this topic, but don't make a big deal of it, because it's not that big a deal of an issue."

Maybe not -- unless you think a critical problem with Hillary Clinton is that she is willing to tell voters anything they want to hear, even if there's no chance of its actually happening. Obama and McCain have both done their fair share of pandering as the campaign moves along, but Clinton is the most vulnerable on this front. Which is exactly why everybody is jumping on the gas tax holiday. Not because it's the most important issue ever, but because it succinctly captures the character flaw that some of us have come to find most troubling about her as the campaign has progressed -- even those of us who felt positive about her economic proposals earlier in the campaign.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Globalization Hillary Rodham Clinton How The World Works Paul Krugman