Even Liberals Think Paul Krugman's a Little Paranoid

Paul Krugman, economist turned left-wing folk hero. New York magazine's Benjamin Wallace-Wells talked with the once respected-economist turned hack Times columnist about "What's Left of the Left," a title which at least positions Krugman accurately as a left-wing opinion leader who draws cool economics graphs that prove the perfidy of Republican policy (whether or not he once agreed with those same policies). Krugman continued to slam Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, as setting the United States "on a glide path to a much harsher society."

For the first two years of the Obama administration, Krugman has been building, in his columns and on his blog, not just a critique of this presidency but something grander and more expansively detailed, something closer to an alternate architecture for what Obamaism might be. The project has remade Krugman's public image, as if he had spent years becoming a chemically isolate form of himself - first a moderate, then an anti-Bush partisan, and now the leading exponent of a kind of liberal purism against which the compromises of the White House might be judged. Krugman's counterfactual Obama would have provided far more stimulus money and would have nationalized Citigroup and Bank of America. He would have written off Republicans and worked only with Democrats to fashion a health-care reform bill that included a so-called public option. The president of Krugman's dreams would have made his singular long-term goal the preservation of the welfare state and the middle-class society it was designed to create.

Wallace-Wells noted that the comment section of Krugman's New York Times blog "has become a repository for a certain form of liberal anguish, and a community unto itself," with one commenter pleading "Come on, Professor Krugman, will you lead the people out?"

Then it was on to more standard Krugman smears of "flim-flam man," Rep. Paul Ryan.

"I think what people like Paul Ryan are trying to do is set us on a glide path to a much harsher society," Krugman now says. "A country in which, step by step, more and more people are cast out into a situation of not having health insurance and poverty, and so we slide back to a Victorian notion that life is full of evils and that's too bad but that's the way that God made the world. That large numbers of the poor, large numbers of the elderly just live in dire poverty and don't have health care because life is tough." For two years, Krugman has been arguing that this trajectory might have been averted if only Obama had been a little less deferential, a little more demanding, a little more alarmed. And so Krugman has given the debate on the left its shape: whether the president could have mounted a more effective defense of the welfare state, and whether liberalism's tragic flaw is Obama's instinct for conciliation or his leading critic's naïveté.

Even the sympathetic New York writer picked up on Krugman's jittery leftism, which embraces leftist political paranoia. Krugman has recently pushed the arguments of leftist conspiracist Naomi Klein and in May 2003 accused the Bush administration of purposely egging on a fiscal crisis.

But Krugman's writing voice - sarcastic, data-driven, flecked with just a little bit of maybe-there's-a-bomb-in-the-wastebasket zeal - was perfect for the Internet. His self-certain empiricism matched liberal vanities as precisely as Rush Limbaugh's stagy authenticity matches conservative ones, and he became a vehicle for the concentrating energies of the progressive generation of 2006. "What I think Krugman got intuitively is that liberals understand politics as a policy argument," says Ezra Klein, now a Washington Post columnist and then an influential political blogger. "On the right, there's something of a cultural underlay to the worldview: We are the real Americans, and they are not. Liberals want to say, We are correct on the evidence, and they are not."

There are times, however, when the consequences of Krugman's perspective, the darkness of his view of American politics, come into view. In the health-care-reform debate, he saw evidence of "racial hate-mongering." When the crazed assassin Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords in January, Krugman saw intimations of a broader disorder to come. "The harshness and the incipient violence are very real," he told me. The liberal historian Michael Kazin, of Georgetown, told me he thought Krugman's account of the right succumbed to the old Marxist flaw of false consciousness: "Unlike what Krugman says, conservatism is not some kind of smoke screen for another agenda." In his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman was plainer still: "Yes, Virginia," he wrote, "there is a vast right-wing conspiracy."