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Five Minutes With: Paul Krugman

The economist and political columnist talks about illegal immigration, the deficit, blogs and why he'd prefer a root canal to talking to Bill O'Reilly.
[Editor's Note: This interview was originally published on Campus Progress.]

Paul Krugman has been called "the most important political columnist in America" by The Washington Monthly. An economist who has taught at MIT, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford, Krugman became a columnist for the New York Times' opinion section in 2000. Since then, he has been an outspoken critic of conservative policies and politics, especially the economic and social missteps of the Bush administration. His 2003 collection of columns, The Great Unraveling, was a New York Times bestseller.

Krugman talked to Campus Progress about illegal immigration, the deficit, blogs and why he'd pick a root canal over Bill O'Reilly.

What prompted you to write your November 4th column "Defending Imperial Nudity"? We were passing it around the office and couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry -- especially when we got to the end.

We finally reached a point where a lot of people are starting to acknowledge the obvious, which is that we were deliberately hyped into war, and a lot of defenses are coming up. People are still trying to pretend that nothing happened and it all made sense, and I felt that it was time to find a way to play how ridiculous that is.

I get the feeling that we're living in a really good political satire.

Yeah, or a really tawdry political novel. If you tried to make this stuff up, nobody would dare - they'd say that it's ridiculous.

You've written economics textbooks before. If you had to imagine writing another textbook 30 years from now characterizing economic policy under various presidents, how would you talk about the Bush administration?

Well, the answer is that there is no policy. What's interesting about it is that there's no sign that anybody's actually thinking about "well, how do we run this economy?" Everything becomes an excuse to do pre-set things instead of an actual response to an event or a real problem. So, the idea was "we're going to cut taxes on capital income, as opposed to earned income" and whatever happened became a reason to do that.

Obviously, you've talked a lot about the deficit. And now we're watching some Republicans on the Hill try to pass a joke of a reconciliation bill. Why aren't people as angry about the deficit issue as they should be?

Well, ultimately any government has to raise enough money to pay for its promises. Right now we have a 21% of GDP federal government and a 17% of GDP revenue base. Ultimately, that doesn't work, particularly because some of the expenses of the government are going to rise. The current administration and the current Congress has shown absolutely no willingness to bring those things in line. When they're talking about big budget cuts, it turns out that they're actually talking about $5-10 billion a year, mostly aimed at poor people - so it creates a lot of hardship without addressing the actual problem. And they keep looking for more tax cuts. At some point, the rug gets pulled out from underneath. The trouble with railing against the deficit is that it's hard to get people completely enraged. They ought to be, because this is world class irresponsibility, and one day it's going to take its toll.

One of the most troubling provisions in the budget reconciliation is HB609, which could cut billions in federal aid for higher education. Seems like this is adding yet another blow by some politicians who do not properly value equal accessibility to education and opportunity.

We have disturbing trends in our society, and instead of doing things to counter them, the current political majority seems to be out to accentuate them, inequality in general. Now, what's happening to the democratization of education that we achieved half a century ago? We seem to be losing it and going back towards some kind of a hereditary, aristocratic model where only the people from the right families get to go to the right schools. Instead of doing something about it, the government is cutting financial aid, which is one of the things that allows kids who don't come from the right families to go to the best schools.

You've spoken before about post-Katrina reconstruction and your dissapointment with conservatives pushing towards a permanent Estate Tax repeal in its immediate wake. Do you see any potential positive opportunities in the reconstruction?

Disaster sometimes gives you an opportunity to rethink your premises and really go out and do something that becomes a model for future policy. What strikes me is that nothing is happening post-Katrina. There's no sign of planning, there's no sign of urgency, there aren't even any discussions over how we should handle reconstruction. I just think that, faced with a genuine policy challenge that wasn't part of their pre-existing agenda, the Bushies just lost interest. Where is the plan for reconstruction? We're in the process of forgetting all about the Gulf Coast.

Though a number of folks are jumping on the opportunity to change all of the New Orleans schools into charter schools.

I don't know how we're going to handle this. I know that the problem has created an opportunity for privatization, but basic public schooling is one of America's great institutions.

Having been a strong proponent of globalization whose enthusiasm on the subject seems to have waned a bit, can you talk about where you stand now and how you think it might be most productive for students who work on this issue to talk about it?

If you aren't a little bit tortured about globalization, you're not paying attention. I got into economics nearly 30 years ago, in grad school. At the time, development was too depressing as a field - there were no success stories. The club of rich countries had closed in the late 1880s, and there really was no way forward. The very good news is that there has been a lot of upward movement in select parts of the third world. All of that is based on exports, on the opportunities presented by globalization. You can't be against globalization in general if you support third world countries making their way up in the world.

The downside is that there have by no means been success stories across the board. On the one side, you clearly have some of the most vulnerable people in our own society that have been paying the price, and a lot of developing countries have been following the advice from Washington on globalization, and things have gone very badly. It's a very mixed picture. What I want to hear is not "let's rally against globalization," but "let's try to fix it." It's easy enough to say, but where's the political constituency for that? Anyone who thinks of globalization as a great unambiguous evil hasn't been paying attention. Anyone who thinks it's a total good hasn't been following things that have been happening in places like Argentina.

I recently got good health insurance for the first time in a while, and I can safely say what a relief that is. Clearly the U.S. lags well behind other industrialized nations in terms of our numbers of uninsured. Can we make the move to universal coverage?

There are two questions there: one is economics, one is politics. The economics is really straightforward. Some kind of national health insurance financed out of a mandatory premium on all wages, a tax, however you want to do it - is clearly the dominant system. The U.S. system is a patchwork with big gaps in it, Medicare, Medicaid, employer-based coverage, it's a mess. It's the wonder of the world. We get worse results at greater cost than anyone else. We have enormous bureaucracy and administrative expenses basically because private insurers and lots of other players in the system are spending lots of money trying not to cover people.

Now, politics, the trouble is, how do you do that? How do we achieve some approximation to a national health care system, given the political realities? The funny thing is, happy majorities in the American public, according to polls, favor guaranteed health care for everybody, so we're not talking about something where the public is against the idea. What we're talking about is a very powerful set of interests and a very powerful set of ideologues in Washington, who have managed to intimidate the politicians. That's a really hard thing to get through.

In the Kaine/Kilgore governor's race in Virginia, one of Kilgore's pet issues was denying benefits and services to illegal immigrants. What do you see as the possible economic impacts of illegal immigration?

This is right up there with globalization in terms of how agonizing it is. On the one hand, illegal immigrants, immigrants of any kind, are achieving an enormous increase in their own standard of living. Most of us are the descendants of immigrants from the mid-19th century on, and if my grandfather had stayed in the Ukraine, if I existed at all, I would be much worse off. It turns out that there are a lot of economic benefits from immigrants. The weird thing is that illegal immigrants are particularly helpful in things like Social Security because they pay the payroll tax, but because they don't exist legally, they don't take any of the benefits. On the other hand, the negative economic impact falls on the most vulnerable part of our own population. There are studies that say that for the least educated workers in the United States, illegal immigration has a much bigger impact on their wages than globalization.

Obviously journalism isn't your only or even your primary job. It seems like that lets you be more independent and more risk taking.

Very much so. There was a long period, from September 2001 until early 2004, when I felt like I was really alone among prominent commentators in saying "hey, we're being lied to, these people are not defending us, they're lying to us a lot." I think had I been worried about a journalistic career, about "will the Times keep me?" I would have been much more inhibited. But, the fact is, if the Times had given into pressure and gotten rid of me, my life actually would have improved in a lot of ways. Personally, it would be easier. Still, I don't think it would be good if every op-ed columnist was like me. Journalism is a craft and there are things I can't do. I can't do investigative reporting, I can't play Carl Bernstein.

Having bridged the gap between punditry and scholarship, you have a much bigger megaphone than before, but are there any drawbacks to the attention?

The perks are not very visible. Do I have the privilege of being a social butterfly? No. I guess I could have, but I'm not that kind of person. I think that the quality of my life is less than it should be for a successful middle-aged academic, but there's some gratification. I feel some gratification that I can actually, at least sometimes, move the national discussion, at least a little bit. There's some payoff to having 3 million people read what you write instead of 3,000. The negative is that the emotional strain is quite high. I get attacked personally in a way that wasn't something I was expecting. The nightmarish feeling of saying, "look, look what's happening, this is terrible!" and having nobody hear you for a very long time is very unpleasant. I often think about how much happier I would be if the Times had never contacted me about the op-ed page, but I don't wish that I had turned them down. If I had, I wouldn't be able to live with myself.

How do you deal with the personal attacks, like when Bill O'Reilly heatedly called you a "quasi-socialist?"(Note: Krugman replied: "Take a look at anything I've written about economics, I'm not a socialist. You know, that's slander." To which Bill O'Reilly said "I said quasi." Krugman's final retort: "Well, that's wonderful, then you're a quasi-murderer … quasi is a pretty open thing.")

One of the things that I think has been key to how much Bush has gotten away with is that journalists are afraid. If you say something negative, they don't say, "No, you're wrong," they go after you personally. You're a crook, you're a liar. So, it's a good thing I have a boring personal life. That's the way it works, they'll attack anything. I wish it wasn't that way, but you have to be prepared to face that if you're going to do honest journalism work. O'Reilly, yeah, he yells, and most people are not up to dealing with that. I could do better if I had another encounter with him, but I'd rather not. I'll do something more pleasant, like a root canal without anesthetic.

How do you feel about Times Select? We are a bit heart-broken about it.

There's no question that for the columnists, Times Select was a really significant reduction in readership and it happened just as the dam is breaking on the indictments and all of that, and now people like Frank Rich and myself who would normally be emailed all over the place are suddenly behind a pay wall. On the other hand, the Times is a business, and it has to pay its way. It is encouraging that now columnists are a profit sector, because they can see who generates revenue. I would certainly have had more Internet hits by a large multiple right now if they hadn't put in Times Select, but I'm living with it.

Do you read a lot of blogs?

Yeah, I do, they work as a … some of them do real reporting, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. Some of them serve as kind of information navigators, stuff that I would not have heard about otherwise, I pick up. That's one of the reasons I read Brad DeLong's or, yeah, I do love DailyKos, just to see what's come up. Some of them are a lot of fun. I'm a fan of Atrios, some people at one point actually thought was me. I think it's a great thing. I think it has really democratized commentary and a lot of the way in which major news organizations shape our perception is through what they choose to highlight, and now there's an alternative. Now, what was buried on page 14 of a major paper can get picked up by blogs and become the story of the day.

You mentioned watching the indictments coming in. Some of us might want to believe that this is a dissolution of Karl Rove's dream of a permanent Republican majority. What will be the long-term effects of what we see happening?

I think the Roveian dream of a permanent majority is dying rapidly, but it's not just because of the indictments. There are other things. The defeat of TABOR in Colorado, which shows that "starve the beast" isn't going to work. We are seeing - let's put it this way: on the war and all the things that surround it, we've really seen a tectonic shift here. You watch apologists for the war, not so much the people who were thrilled to go to war, the people who are still saying, "Well, everybody thought they had weapons, I don't want to sound like Michael Moore," and they woke up one morning and saw that a happy majority of people believe we've been misled into war. I think that changes everything.

It seems we went through a dark period and we're not out of the woods, but you do see some bright spots ahead.

There's a long way back from this very bad place we've gone into, but when I compare the political atmosphere now with the way it was two and a half years ago, it seems that there's been a major return to sanity.

Conservatives like to paint colleges as bastions of hedonistic liberalism. As a professor, how do you respond to this portrait of college life?

I think the question you have to ask is whether academic hiring reflects political bias and whether the teaching reflects political bias. Sometimes I'm sure it does, in both directions, but on teaching, speaking for myself, I go to great lengths to show that I've covered both sides. The National Review got hold of my teaching evaluations and were disappointed to find that there were no complaints of liberal bias. Hiring, in the field of economics, is about intense competition for people who are perceived as rising stars, and it's all about exciting research, there's not a hint of political correctness. As always, what conservatives really want is not fair and unbiased - what they want is a quota system where you have conservative views represented whether or not they're actually making sense in terms of the academic research.

Speaking of conservatives pushing to have both viewpoints represented -- even when one is incorrect -- you've written about the problem of intelligent design advocates demanding that they get equal time alongside evolution when the two ideas don't contain equal merit.

I said way early on during the 2000 campaign that if Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headline would read, "Views Differ on Shape of the Earth." There's a lot of that. Well, the Times itself had a piece which should have been headlined, "Views Differ on Age of the Earth" - there are people who say that the Grand Canyon was created over hundreds of millions of years, and there are people who say it was created by Noah's flood, and they were given equal treatment in the article.
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