Paul Krugman plays nice for a change, goes philosophical

The Pulitzer Prize winning columnist details how a 14th-century Islamic philosopher can explain Microsoft's decline

By Alex Halperin

Published August 26, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman                                                            (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)
Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

Summer has officially lasted too long.

Over at the New York Times, spunky liberal Paul Krugman takes a break from eviscerating Republicans to write a mellow, perhaps even Brooksiancolumn which applies the wisdom of an obscure academic to a field that academic knew nothing about. In this case the scholar is "Ibn Khaldun," a 14th-century Islamic philosopher who basically invented what we would now call the social sciences." Khaldun, Krugman thinks, can explain Microsoft's decline:

Desert tribesmen, he argued, always have more courage and social cohesion than settled, civilized folk, so every once in a while they will sweep in and conquer lands whose rulers have become corrupt and complacent. They create a new dynasty — and, over time, become corrupt and complacent themselves, ready to be overrun by a new set of barbarians.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to apply this story to Microsoft, a company that did so well with its operating-system monopoly that it lost focus, while Apple — still wandering in the wilderness after all those years — was alert to new opportunities. And so the barbarians swept in from the desert.

Sometimes, by the way, barbarians are invited in by a domestic faction seeking a shake-up. This may be what’s happening at Yahoo: Marissa Mayer doesn’t look much like a fierce Bedouin chieftain, but she’s arguably filling the same functional role.

Anyway, the funny thing is that Apple’s position in mobile devices now bears a strong resemblance to Microsoft’s former position in operating systems. True, Apple produces high-quality products. But they are, by most accounts, little if any better than those of rivals, while selling at premium prices.

Yeah, sure, why not. But didn't a conservative say something stupid this weekend?

Alex Halperin

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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Apple Business Microsoft Paul Krugman Technology