Is Paul Krugman having a crisis of confidence? Today, the Times columnist began another of his increasingly despairing columns on the economic crisis with a reminiscence of a 1999 Time magazine cover, one that dubbed former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, and former deputy Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers the "committee to save the world."
Rubin and Greenspan, he writes, have "since succumbed to the magazine cover curse, the plunge in reputation that so often follows lionization in the media."
A magazine cover seems like an odd thing to hang a curse on, particularly since Rubin and Greenspan have spent the past decade becoming larger-than-life figures. Out of all of the press and accolades they've received, a single magazine cover has the gravity of a footnote. Clearly, we think, Krugman is talking about himself. The economist is on the cover of the current issue of Newsweek, and he's been going through his own pretty heavy period of lionization since he won the Nobel Prize this October. Coming as it did smack in the middle of the Worst Financial Crisis Since the Great Depression, the prize thrust the bearded academic into the same kind of spotlight experienced by his peers all those years ago, and it's probably a lot for an academic type like him to handle: the intense scrutiny from the blogosphere, the endless television appearances, the praise of his genius in song. Not that he doesn't like the attention.
According to Newsweek:
Krugman is having his 15 minutes and enjoying it, although at moments, as I followed him around last week, he seemed a little overwhelmed. He is an unusual mix, at once nervous, shy, sweet and fiercely sure of himself.
But is he so sure of himself? Krugman's harsh critiques of Geithner's plans for economic recovery last week met with some resistance, albeit tentative resistance, from some smart people. (Economist Brad DeLong's rebuttal, headlined "I think Paul Krugman Is Wrong," started out thus: "If the past decade has taught me anything, it has taught me that mistakes are avoided if you follow two rules: 1. Remember that Paul Krugman is right. 2. If your analysis leads you to conclude that Paul Krugman is wrong, refer to rule #1.") This week in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki concurred, saying that he was "not convinced by Krugman’s take" and referring to his recent columns as "over-the-top."
And now it seems like Krugman himself is backtracking slightly. Today, he does something he hasn't done in a while, and — grudgingly, backhandedly — compliments the administration's efforts.
I don’t believe that even America’s economic efforts are adequate, but they’re far more than most other wealthy countries have been willing to undertake. And by rights this week’s G-20 summit ought to be an occasion for Mr. Obama to chide and chivy European leaders, in particular, into pulling their weight. But these days foreign leaders are in no mood to be lectured by American officials, even when — as in this case — the Americans are right.
Maybe it's just us, but we think it sounds like he's hedging his bets here, laying out a little foundation for the possibility that, someday, he might have to admit that the Geithner plan turned out to actually work okay (although it wasn't his first choice, and nationalization would have worked better). This seems like a good idea. After all, if there really is a magazine-cover curse, and everyone who is hailed as right is doomed to fall, there's no reason why it would spare Krugman. He might as well try to make the landing as soft as possible.