At Large

Even Worse Than Maureen Dowd

Paul Krugman writes in a puffed-up way about things he knows very little about.

By 10.23.02

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The New York Times goes on in its schizoid way. It gives us John Burns's brilliant reporting out of Iraq -- Burns makes Nicholas Kristof, the other Timesman who's been there, look like a college sophomore -- and it also gives us great quantities of schlock. Maureen Dowd's column last Sunday bordered on the obscene. On the other hand, it's unlikely many people pay attention to Dowd anymore, so maybe that doesn't matter. Meanwhile on Sunday the Times also gave us Paul Krugman, ostensibly an economist, but actually a polemicist, although not a particularly good one. He writes in a puffed-up way about things he knows very little about, and he is a leading contender for lightweight columnist of the year.

Krugman's contribution on Sunday was the cover story in the Times magazine. It was entitled "The End of Middle-Class America," and, as he does in so many of his pieces, Krugman began it by talking about himself. It seems the middle-class America he knew while growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and 1960s is gone; the America of his "youth was another country." Social norms have "unraveled, replaced by an ethos of 'anything goes.'" This has apparently led to exorbitant salaries for unprincipled CEOs and an America in which the rich get richer, and inequality in income distribution grows. Consequently the middle class is supposed to be fading away.

But the idea that there is a growing inequality in income distribution is not new. It has been argued about and debated for years. Krugman's contribution to the debate, however, is to claim that the inequality and all its baneful effects have been brought about solely by political conservatives. The unraveled social norms and anything goes ethos, for example, have nothing to do with, say, coarseness in the popular culture, or banishing God from the public square, and certainly not with kinky sex and lies in the White House; greedy conservatives are responsible, and that's all there is to it.

Krugman, in fact, reminds you of one of those dreary people you sometimes meet at social gatherings: They may not know much about politics, but when they make political pronouncements it makes them feel important. Indeed Krugman has suggested in some of his Times op-ed page columns that because he is so significant a figure the right wing is out to get him. He seems to have bought into the idea that there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy, although whether this is more self-aggrandizement, or whether he actually believes it, is hard to say. But Krugman is also a Princeton professor, so maybe he actually believes it.

Anyway in the magazine piece Krugman breaks new ground. "It may sound simplistic to describe the Democrats as the party that wants to tax the rich and help the poor, and the Republicans as the party that wants to keep taxes and social spending as low as possible," he writes, but then he goes to say that's exactly what they are. He also makes the extraordinary claim that the "growing divisiveness of our politics" has nothing to do with ideological or philosophical differences. Instead it's because the Republicans have all been bought off by the rich. Krugman is too delicate to speak of cash bribes, but that seems to be what he means.

And that, of course, is a nasty charge, and whether Krugman believes this, too, or is only trying again to draw attention to himself is also hard to say. On the other hand, it may be that, as it is with Dowd, it may be with Krugman. Hardly anyone is paying attention anymore, so perhaps it doesn't matter.

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As was noted in this space recently, Robert Mugabe, the despotic Zimbabwe president, had a reception in his honor at New York's City Hall. The reception was organized by Councilman Charles Barron, an up and coming race hustler, and attended by a dozen or so members of the New York City Council. Barron said at the time that he intended to lead a Council delegation on a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe.

And, in fact, he has, although it turns out to be not much of a delegation. The pro-government Express in Zimbabwe reported last week that Barron had arrived leading a group of twenty, but the more reliable Daily News said the delegation consisted of only Barron and one other Councilman, along with seven or eight junketing staffers. "We're not disappointed," Barron's top aide told a reporter. "There were a lot of scheduling issues."

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.