February 26, 2003: A moment with...

Paul Krugman

Photo by Denise Applewhite

Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs, came to Princeton from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the summer of 2000, a few months after he started writing a twice-weekly column for the op-ed page of the New York Times. In his hard-hitting column, Krugman, an expert in international trade, has become one of the Bush administration’s harshest critics, and has taken antiglobalization leftists to task as well. Editor and Publisher magazine named Krugman columnist of the year in 2002. Here, he speaks with Ann Waldron for PAW.


The tenor of your column seems to have changed over the years. Have you become more political and harder on President Bush?

What I’m doing now is not what they hired me to do, which was to write about business and economics. The tenor of the column has changed, but the times have changed. The climate is much grimmer now than I had anticipated. There’s a lot of bad policy and a lot of dishonest salesmanship of that policy. I’d like to go back to writing cheerful columns about funny things in economics and business. I shouldn’t be the only person writing what I’m writing, the only person explaining how Social Security works, that you can’t put money in private accounts without putting money back into the Social Security fund. This is not really what I want to be doing. I’m not my usual cheerful self.

Then you’re usually an optimist?

I’m a short-run pessimist but a long-run optimist. Usually, I expect the worst in the near future, but I believe that it all comes out right in the end.

Is it hard to combine the academic life with what some people call “attack” journalism?

I thought at first it might be hard to shift gears, but it’s a relief to get away from the rough-and-tumble of writing a column and back to serious academic work. What I’m finding hard is finishing this textbook I’m writing – it’s basic, for Economics 101. And I must finish it this spring.

Often academics who write for a popular audience fear they will lose the respect of colleagues. Is this a problem for you?

No, academics still take me seriously. I’ve done my share of hard thinking. Writing the column substitutes for other things I might be doing, such as consulting. And instead of publishing in journals with a circulation of 4,000, I write for a newspaper with a million readers.

You worked on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan White House in 1982. Were you a Republican then?

I wasn’t a Republican; I was a moderate Democrat. We were mostly moderates then. My views haven’t changed – the times have changed. I was a moderate Democrat in 1982, and I still have the views that a political moderate had then. But everything – the whole political spectrum – has shifted to the right.

When I accuse the Bush administration of being dishonest about the way privatization of Social Security would work, I’m called a leftist. Today, anybody who advocated a return to the tax policies of the Eisenhower administration – with its high taxes on corporations – would be called a Marxist. But then a few years ago, I was attacked from the left in The American Prospect magazine for being too friendly with corporations.

Does your work with students ever suggest columns to you?

The columns come from professional colleagues. One might say something like, “They’re botching telecommunications regulation,” and I’ll look into it. The most controversial columns I’ve written were about the California electric power crisis. I was the only major economics-business writer saying the crisis was caused by market manipulation by the power companies. The information about market-rigging came from serious economists. Since then, a number of pieces of evidence have come out – Enron memos, tapes of conversations between traders and power plant operators, and a recent FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] ruling that natural gas markets were manipulated, too.

You must get lots of mail. What’s the general tone?

I’d say it’s polarized. Lots of people get irritated – they say at the Times that they have to pick it up with tongs. And then some people are very complimentary. I used to try to handle it myself, but when it got up to more than a hundred pieces of mail and e-mail a day, I let the Times do it.

What are you teaching in the spring semester?

Economics 101 and a graduate seminar in international relations. There’s a saying that the higher the level of the course, the easier it is to teach. It’s hard to motivate freshmen.


Current Issue    Online Archives    Printed Issue Archives
Advertising Info    Reader Services    Search    Contact PAW    Your Class Secretary