Why a NY Times columnist gets Death Threats

Interviewing Paul Krugman, 9/22/2003

Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist, has just written a book on the radical extremism of Bush Administration policy, The Great Unravelling (published by Penguin).

Krugman is a mild-mannered university economist who receives death threats. He was interviewed by Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian (UK)(September 18 2003). Burkeman writes:

The letters that Paul Krugman receives these days have to be picked up with tongs, and his employer pays someone to delete the death threats from his email inbox. This isn't something that can be said of most academics, and emphatically not of economic theorists, but Krugman isn't a typical don.
What drives his critics hysterical is not, it ought to be clarified, his PhD thesis on flexible exchange rates, or his well-regarded textbook on the principles of economics, co-written with his wife, the economist Robin Wells; nor the fact that he is probably the world authority on currency crises.

For the past five years, Krugman — a lifelong academic with the exception of a brief stint as an economics staffer under Reagan — has been moonlighting as a columnist on the New York Times op ed page, a position so influential in the US that it has no real British parallel. And though that paper's editors seem to have believed that they were hiring him to ponder abstruse matters of economic policy, it didn't work out that way.

Accustomed to the vigorous ivy league tradition of calling a stupid argument a stupid argument (and isolated, at home in New Jersey, from the Washington dinner-party circuit frequented by so many other political columnists) he has become pretty much the only voice in the mainstream US media to openly and repeatedly accuse George Bush of lying to the American people: first to sell a calamitous tax cut, and then to sell a war.

"It's an accident," Krugman concedes, addressing the question of how it came to be that the Bush administration's most persuasively scathing domestic critic isn't a loudmouthed lefty radical in the manner of Michael Moore, but a mild-mannered, not-very-leftwing, university economist, tipped among colleagues as a future Nobel prizewinner.

"The Times hired me because it was the height of the internet bubble; they thought business was what would be really interesting. Turned out the world was different from what we imagined... for the past two-and-a-half years, I've watched what began as dismay and disbelief gradually turn into foreboding. Every time you think, well, yes, but they wouldn't do that - well, then they do."

Even more confusing for those who like their politics to consist of nicely pigeonholed leftwingers criticising rightwingers, and vice versa, will be the incendiary essay that introduces Krugman's new collection of columns, The Great Unravelling, published in the UK next week.

In it, Krugman describes how, just as he was about to send his manuscript to the publishers, he chanced upon a passage in an old history book from the 1950s, about 19th-century diplomacy, that seemed to pinpoint, with eerie accuracy, what is happening in the US now. Eerie, but also perhaps a little embarrassing, really, given the identity of the author. Because it's Henry Kissinger.

"The first three pages of Kissinger's book sent chills down my spine," Krugman writes of A World Restored, the 1957 tome by the man who would later become the unacceptable face of cynical realpolitik. Kissinger, using Napoleon as a case study - but also, Krugman believes, implicitly addressing the rise of fascism in the 1930s - describes what happens when a stable political system is confronted with a "revolutionary power": a radical group that rejects the legitimacy of the system itself.

This, Krugman believes, is precisely the situation in the US today (though he is at pains to point out that he isn't comparing Bush to Hitler in moral terms). The "revolutionary power", in Kissinger's theory, rejects fundamental elements of the system it seeks to control, arguing that they are wrong in principle. For the Bush administration, according to Krugman, that includes social security; the idea of pursuing foreign policy through international institutions; and perhaps even the basic notion that political legitimacy comes from democratic elections - as opposed to, say, from God.

But worse still, Kissinger continued, nobody can quite bring themselves to believe that the revolutionary power really means to do what it claims. "Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent," he wrote, "they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework."

Exactly, says Krugman, who recalls the response to his column about Tom DeLay, the anti-evolutionist Republican leader of the House of Representatives, who claimed, bafflingly, that "nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes".

"My liberal friends said, 'I'm not interested in what some crazy guy in Congress has to say'," Krugman recalls. "But this is not some crazy guy! This guy runs Congress! There's this fundamental unwillingness to acknowledge the radicalism of the threat we're facing."

But those who point out what is happening, Kissinger had already noted long ago, "are considered alarmists; those who counsel adaptation to circumstance are considered balanced and sane." ("Those who take the hard-line rightists now in power at their word are usually accused of being 'shrill', of going over the top," Krugman writes, and he has become well used to such accusations.)

Which is how, as Krugman sees it, the Bush administration managed to sell tax cuts as a benefit to the poor when the result will really be to benefit the rich, and why they managed to rally support for war in Iraq with arguments for which they didn't have the evidence.

Journalists "find it very hard to deal with blatantly false arguments," he argues. "By inclination and training, they always try to see two sides to an issue, and find it hard even to conceive that a major political figure is simply lying."

Krugman can expect many more accusations of shrillness now that The Great Unravelling is on the bookshelves in the US. Already, he says, Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the federal reserve, is refusing to talk to him - "because I accused him of being essentially an apologist for Bush".

And there will be plenty of invective, presumably, from the conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, who hauled Krugman over the coals for accepting a $50,000 adviser's fee from Enron. (Krugman ended the arrangement before beginning his New York Times column, and told his readers about it.)

("I was a hot property, very much in demand as a speaker to business audiences: I was routinely offered as much as $50,000 to speak to investment banks and consulting firms," he wrote later, by way of justification - demonstrating the knack for blowing his own trumpet that even politically sympathetic colleagues find grating. They say he has had a chip on his shoulder since failing to get a job in the Clinton administration.)

Still, there's an important sense in which his views remain essentially moderate: unlike the growing numbers of America-bashers in Europe, Krugman doesn't make the nebulous argument that there is something inherently objectionable about the US and its role in the world. He claims only that a fundamentally benign system has been taken over by a bunch of extremists — and so his alarming analysis leaves room for optimism, because they can be removed.

"One of the Democratic candidates - who I'm not endorsing, because I'm not allowed to endorse — has as his slogan, 'I want my country back'," Krugman says, referring to the campaigning motto of Howard Dean. "I think that's about right."

Or, to quote a state department official who put it pungently to a reporter earlier this year, describing the dominance of the Pentagon hawks: "I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, 'There's been a military coup'. And then it all makes sense."