Everybody knows that Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, a sometimes combative columnist and a liberal lion. But in a conversation which aired this weekend, we learned more about his personal response to an ongoing crisis he describes as "really nasty," "very, very severe," and "gratuitious," and which he says "will not go away quickly or necessarily at all" unless we do something.
We learned how Krugman trolls for music online, that he still believes that Ben Bernanke has been "assimilated by the Borg," and that, despite his fondness for science fiction, he describes himself as "not that cosmic."
He may be wrong about that last part.
We interviewed Prof. Krugman for our "Conversations" series on The Breakdown. (Previous guests include Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Thom Hartmann, economics/law professor William K. Black, Jr., and other very interesting folks.) Krugman's on a publicity run to push his new book -- and not, we suspect, because he needs the money. The book promotes some policies that he (and we, along with many others) feel are urgently needed. (He's speaking at the American Dream conference next month, too.)
Krugman's book is called End This Depression Now! (exclamation point included). If that sounds like a self-help book -- the sequel to Listening to Prozac, maybe, or something by Dr. Wayne Dyer -- that's not altogether inappropriate in this age of collective near-despair.
(He could have called it Economy, Interrupted.)
We began by asking Krugman if what we had heard was true: That he became an economist because he loved the Foundation series of science-fiction novels by Isaac Asimov. (I was such an Asimov fan as a kid that I sent him a short story I'd written when I was twelve years old. In return I got a postcard that encouraged me to 'keep writing,' a diplomatic choice of words whose delicacy I failed to appreciate at the time.)
In the Foundation series, the fate of the Galactic Empire is studied and guided by a brilliant team of scientists known as 'psychohistorians,' whose field was invented by a 22nd-century genius named Hari Seldon. Like Krugman, I was fascinated by the idea that you could predict the human future if you just had enough information. Selden designed a handheld computer called the Prime Radiant, which projected its data and equations in the air around him. It all seemed pretty cool to me back then, too. We have a word for kids like that nowadays:
In Asimov's novels, the Galactic Empire periodically faced a "Seldon Crisis." These existential dangers were usually navigated with the advice and guidance of the psychohistorians. I asked Krugman if the American empire was facing a "Krugman crisis."
"I'm not that cosmic," Krugman said.
In fact, Krugman was determined to keep the focus on the prosaic, straightforward nature of the problem, the human cost of our inaction, and the fact that its solutions are straightforward and practical. "We know to take textbook economics and apply it to this situation," he said, "(but) very few people in positions of influence are willing to listen. That's a horrifying thing, because we're suffering gratuitous economic disaster."
"It's completely unnecessary."
As Krugman put it in our conversation, the hard part is the politics. "(The economic solution) is not mysterious. This is not 'Gosh, what are you people proposing? This was all hashed out in papers a decade ago, many of which were written by Ben Bernanke."
"To the extent that people say the economics is confusing or uncertain," Krugman said, "that's overwhelmingly because people want it to be."
"Benanke knows all about this," Krugman said. That led to a question about the groupthink mentality that's keeping Washington focused on the wrong problem -- deficits -- in a time of widespread suffering. He spoke of the "turf theory," which says that people "end up defending institutional prerogatives... we're supposed to fight that. We've had a rather severe shortage of people in positions of power who are willing to fight that."
Krugman's differences with the Administration lay less in what he sees as the President's personal values and more in the White House's perceptions of the political and pragmatic: "I believe that the President hasn't bought into the stigmatization of the people in distress, but what he has done is accepted the notion... that you should stay within the confines of a conventional wisdom as defined by what amounts to a successful, deceptive propaganda campaign."
"And I'm arguing that's a losing strategy, even politically."
As I write this, the Peter G. Peterson "Fiscal Summit" is taking place in Washington DC. (Sen. Bernie Sanders and a number of other people are gathering outside to protest it, too) There, under the sponsorship of the anti-government billionaire Peterson, political heavyweights will gather to promote two insane ideas: that our most urgent problem is government deficits, not the economic misery of millions, and that the smartest thing we can do right now is pursue the austerity policies that are shattering Europe economically and politically.
This well-financed Washington obsession is the inspiration for Tom Tomorrow's latest cartoon, which gives a sci-fi twist to the economic debate that Krugman should especially appreciate (despite the fact that his own fate in it turns out to be dire.)
Tom Tomorrow's aliens say what all aliens used to say: "Foolish human." And if anything comes through more strongly than ever in the new book (and our conversation), it's Krugman's own humanity.
I asked about the challenge of hearing useful advice go unheeded, or avoiding a breakdown into aggravated despair in clashes like his recent one with Ron Paul, whose views on war and civil liberties add a great deal to our discourse -- but whose economic remarks to Krugman were just off the wall. (Paul was saying something at great length about the Greek and Roman empires and the gold standard, as I recall).
"I try to keep the perspective that I'm frustrated because I can't get people to listen to what seems to me to be obviously the right ideas," said Krugman. "The real people who are frustrated are the 59-year-olds out there who don't have jobs and may never get another one, or the nineteen-year-olds coming out of college with no job prospects."
"A sense of humor helps, too."
Krugman's book shows great empathy for the victims of our politically-induced economic malaise, too. He uses the moving Peter Gabriel song "Don't Give Up" to frame a discussion of our current economy's human costs. That led us into a discussion about the Willie Nelson/Sinead O'Connor version of that song, which I encouraged him to check out. (There's a sample of it in the interview), his YouTube habits, and ... well, you just gotta listen.
Krugman's a brilliant guy and excellent writer who I agree with most of the time. He stood up against the near-hegemony of the right in the public sphere during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. That took a lot of courage. He's been taking a lot of bows and arrows ever since. (Rush Limbaugh even interrupted his tirade against me to take a shot at Krugman. I considered the association a compliment.)
Krugman won his Nobel for macroeconomics, which is as close to "cosmic" as it gets in that field. Psychohistory may even have influenced his Nobel-winning work (I wish I'd asked him,) which was in economic geography and economies of scale. (Hari Seldon preferred a sample size of one quintillion people. That's not currently available -- not on this planet, anyway.)
Cosmic or not, it was a down-to-earth and compassionate guy who showed up for the interview. He's written an important book that should be read by millions of people around the country -- and by a couple hundred or so in Washington, where its message is most urgently needed.
You can hear the interview here. We also did an special report entitled "The Case Against Chase: The Fall of the House of Dimon," and commented on the -- well, the psychohistory -- of Mitt Romney's bullying episode. The full episode's podcast is below:
Some of our other conversations can be found on the Breakdown Conversations page. (Sorry about the formatting; we're working on it.)