A televised economic-policy debate between Paul Krugman and Ron Paul would have to be amazing, right? The two men are so different — Krugman is a decorated Princeton economist, Paul an autodidact and a crank — and yet so similar: They are both shy, disdainful of social conventions, and driven by ideas, and consequently, have built vast legions of rabid fans, some of whom record songs.
But the debate between Krugman and Paul on Bloomberg TV this afternoon was more awkward than awesome, like a special episode of the Sopranos with the character of Tobias Funke. Actually, having Krugman on television at all is an idea that sounds better in theory than in practice. It usually just reminds you of everything that’s bad about television — a guy with complex views about economic policy attempting to exchange thoughts with glib bobbleheads. Sometimes Krugman himself will just come out and say that.
Then you have an additional problem of debating Ron Paul. Krugman is used to debating certain types of conservatives, debt hawks or, on occasion, liberals, but Paul is a very special kind of nut. He has built his own worldview which sits orthogonal to the worldview of the academic-economist right or the Washington Republican right. Krugman is used to arguing against people who claim that we’re in danger of runaway inflation any day now. Instead he faced Paul arguing from first principle, “governments aren’t supposed to run the economy. The people are supposed to run the economy.”
Krugman looked befuddled and tried to explain why government involvement in currency is inevitable. But Paul proceeded to assert that loose monetary policy caused the end of the Roman Empire. It’s not an easy worldview to engage with. Krugman, by this point, could do little more than try to suppress his laughter and insist, “I am not a defender of the economic policies of the emperor Diocletian.”