Monday, February 11, 2008

My Krugman problem

It's no secret -- if you care about this stuff, that is -- that Paul Krugman, columnist, economist, and maybe the one sane person allowed on television is no fan of Barack Obama. Which is fine: I'm almost as unenthusiastic about Obama as I am about Sen. Clinton. I'm very excited about watching the primaries, but that's because I'm a huge nerd and enjoy the horse-race.

What concerns me is a number of people I've seen (Ian Welsh here as one example) who basically anoint Krugman as the definition of liberalism and progressivism. If Krugman doesn't like Obama, they write, then clearly Obama's got something wrong with him.

Well, see, I remember this other Paul Krugman. Before the war, before Bush was even the GOP candidate, I remember the Paul Krugman who inaugurated his NY Times gig by proclaiming that anti-globalization protesters were all about "denying opportunity to third-world workers", a claim that was about as accurate as the people who claimed Krugman himself advised the Malaysian government in '97 because he hated the Jews. If you'll cast your mind back to the hallowed days of 1999, you'll recall that the actual claims made by the Seattle movement were that the Washington Consensus was bad for the poor and working class in all countries, bad for the Planet, and reflected the demands of the wealthy and powerful, not the needs of the developing world. Over and over and over, the spokespeople for the movement said their beef was not with globalization per se, but with the policies of the Washington Consensus. Yet people like Krugman continued to caricature activists as simple-minded if not actually malicious.

Contrast what Professor Krugman was writing in 2000 with what, say, the CEPR was putting out in 1999, eschewing theory and using things like "evidence" and "history" to guide their assessment of globalization. It's no exaggeration to say that the intervening years have been much, much kinder to Baker, Weisbrot, and the others at CEPR than they have been to Krugman's assessment of globalization. Indeed, not quite a decade later, this is all basically so uncontroversial that even Krugman was forced to abandon the IMF after the Argentina disaster. Hell, the WTO is currently in disarray because the rich countries refuse to accept even the most timid demands of the poor ones. The IMF is totally discredited after the pillaging of Argentina, and the World Bank is running on empty as country after country opts out of the Bretton Woods institutions, in favour of the number of alternatives that have sprung up since 2000 -- China, Mercosur, or others.

My point is that Krugman isn't a leftist in any sense of the word. And that's really okay, I don't expect liberal economists to quote Chomsky. But, to put it bluntly, I don't "trust" him the way Mr. Welsh seems to. I was shrill before Mr. Krugman was, and back then he was on the other side.

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