The politician vs. the economist

When Morning Joe debated a Nobel Prize winner, the economist was unprepared for the politician's aggressive style

Topics: Paul Krugman, Joe Scarborough, Economics, Federal Deficit, deficit hawks, Charlie Rose,

The politician vs. the economist (Credit: Reuters/Anton Golubev)

It was billed like a prize fight — “one night only!” Politico wrote — with liberal New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman versus conservative-esque MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough. The venue: Charlie Rose. FIGHT!

While Krugman was the early favorite among liberals, he seemed unprepared for Scarborough’s aggressive debate style. While the economist seemed to expect an academic and substantive discourse, the former congressman came prepared with opposition research on Krugman’s past statements and debated his foe like he would an opposing candidate in an election. Scarborough was on the attack from the beginning and didn’t let up, even mocking the Nobel laureate at times, and occasionally misrepresenting his own or Krugman’s arguments to make a point.

“Why don’t we try to argue about the substance and not play gotcha?” Krugman said exasperated.

But this was a typical thrust of Scarborough’s. “This is what you said in 2005, ‘Medicare and Medicaid are going to sharply increase the deficit in 2010,’” Scarborough said at one point. “’The deficit might well exceed 8 percent of GDP sometime in the next decade. That’s a deficit that will make Argentina look like a model of responsibility.’”

“Well, I’ve learned a few things since then too,” Krugman had to acknowledge.

Essentially, Krugman said, the recession intervened and now getting back to full employment is more important than fixing the debt. But Scarborough kept at it, bringing up more historic quotes from Krugman to throw in his face.

At one point, the camera revealed a nervous looking Krugman, leaning back in his chair and fiddling with his hands, as Scarbrough quoted Krugman back to him. “You predicted that in ’97,” Scarborough said. He continued, quoting the economist: “‘Why worry about deficits? There’s a huge army on the march; baby boomers are getting older, the enormous generation is going to be turning 65 in 2010, their ranks will swell, the aging population will create huge foreseeable budget problems.’”

Krugman laid out his core argument: Deficits are not an immediate concern, and the government should thus be spending more money to address the real problem of unemployment. “If it wasn’t for me and a few people who are loudly saying, ‘the deficit is not a problem,’” he said, “I don’t think this message that spending cuts are hurting the economy would be getting across at all,”

Laughing, Scarbrough replied, “Paul just acknowledged that only three people agree with him and are saying this!” Krugman had a good answer for this, and for most of Scarborough’s other statements, and probably won the debate on the merits. But winning on the merits unfortunately does not always make you a winner in a televised debate, as Richard Nixon can tell you.

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“I feel that I just had my Denver debate moment,” Krugman wrote on his blog last night after the show was taped. He was referring to Obama’s poor first debate against Mitt Romney. “I was tired, cranky, and unready for the blizzard of misleading factoids and diversionary stuff.”

Indeed, Scarborough was squishy and hard to pin down at times, and brought the parsing style of a litigator (he is a former lawyer).

For instance, Rose asked Scarborough if he thought spending in the short-term is a problem, Scarborough said no. “I don’t think over the next three, four, five years are going to cause a serious problem,” the TV host replied. Scarborough also conceded easily that Washington needs to make more investments in infrastructure in the near term. But he speaks almost daily on his TV show about the need to cut spending.

At one point towards the end of the debate, things got testy between the two when Krugman whispered “wow” as Scarborough was speaking. “You know what? If you could just stop from saying, ‘Wow,’ and let me just finish a point, Paul,” Scarborough said, obviously perturbed.

The spoke over each other loudly as Scarborough leaned forward and chopped the air with his hand. “Sorry that was an involuntary reaction!” Krugman replied. “You and Al Gore really need to talk about it. This is a real problem. If people don’t agree with you 100 percent the time, you just feel like you have to take the cheap shots,” the TV host shot back, comparing the economist to the former vice president’s sigh-filled performance during a 2000 presidential debate.

Krugman finally seemed to gain the upper hand after Scarborough’s outburst, appearing more confident and articulate, but by then, he was already making his closing arguments.

This whole spat began after Scarborough hosted Krugman on “Morning Joe” in late January. He then wrote an op-ed for Politico called “Krugman vs. the world,” which suggested that no one agreed with the famed economist. There was sniping back and forth in the intervening weeks, and the Rose debate was meant to settle the score, but it doesn’t seem like either side will back down now.

Alex Seitz-Wald
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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