Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Paul Krugman, Passim

I have increasing doubts about Paul Krugman's academic or "serious" work. It's not that I have read much of it and think it's wrong (I haven't read much). But his popular writings just don't seem to evidence someone who thinks like an economist - at least not now. And he seems to peg a lot of his professional status to his strange claims to have "predicted" various things such as Japan's slowing and other things where lots of other people were saying the same things for years. It all smacks of heavy and weirdly successful self-promotion.

His column (as distinguished from his academic writing) seems to have progressed from offering (1) arguments economists would take pretty seriously (in Slate days), to (2) arguments that economists would regard with skepticism, but acknowledge there was something there, to (3) arguments that employ some solid economic reasoning but omit some key countervailing considerations, to (4) near ranting assertions of political views that make serious economists wince (except Brad DeLong, who seems suicidally determined to defend even Professor Krugman's column).

While his column doesn't necessarily track his intellectual progress, the column is suggestive of someone who figured out early on how to say the right words that made senior people think he was on top of things - but didn't really have the full grasp he made himself appear to have. In such cases, what follows is often an early period of professional success - nice appointments and prizes for "young or most-promising this-or-that" and the like - followed by intellectual and academic drift. That is not an uncommon career path in close academic circles, where providing some argument one's seniors crave may garner more support than coming up with insights that show their work is to some extent off track. But talented people with early, genuine insight and grasp generally keep digging (we like what we are really good at). Intellectual progress and the deepening of one's core thinking normally shows up in one's popular writings - as with Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, but not Paul Krugman. That suggests - but, of course, does not prove - that there has not been much progress or deepening in Professor Krugman's case, and perhaps that he never had as much to offer as originally thought.

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