Krugman had begun the work that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize—an aggressive revision of international trade theory—by the time he was in his mid-twenties, and so for nearly all of his adult life he has had good evidence for the proposition that he is smarter than just about everyone else around him, and capable of seeing things more clearly. Krugman is gleeful about being right, joyous in the revelation of his correctness, and many of his most visible early fights were with free-trade skeptics on the left. Of Robert Reich, for instance, Krugman wrote: “talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right.” He was a liberal and a Democrat, but even in 1999, when he was hired by Howell Raines to write his Times column, “I still saw equivalent craziness on both sides.”
This evenhandedness began to disappear almost immediately. Four months after his first column, Krugman began studying the economic proposals of the Bush campaign and found, somewhat to his astonishment, that they were deeply disingenuous. “That was a radicalizing experience. Not just that the presidential candidate of one of America’s major political parties could say something that was demonstrably false, but that nobody was willing to say so,” Krugman says. “That was pretty awesome.” The Iraq War seemed insane to him, and he said so, forcefully. In 2003, these were sometimes unpopular positions, and Krugman and Wells found themselves turning to the progressive blogs; at times it felt as if it were the economist, his wife, and the Internet against the world.
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.”
In the aftermath of the 2006 election, the assumption was that the new progressive converts of the Bush era had simply become Democrats. But as the liberal dissatisfaction with the present White House has grown, it has become possible to think that their alienation was not limited to the Bush administration. The language Krugman uses to describe the Establishment still has the pitched, outsider intensity of liberalism during the Bush years—mocking the Very Serious People who he believes form conventional wisdom in Washington.
What Krugman and others have been documenting is a disillusionment that extends beyond politics: the moral absenteeism of Wall Street, the acquiescence of the foreign-policy Establishment during Iraq, Enron, the steroid crisis in Major League Baseball. “If you’re a bewildered suburban teacher or software-company middle manager or law-firm partner and you’ve had this sense that the entire governing institutions of the country are flawed, it’s very unsettling,” says Christopher Hayes, who is the Washington editor of The Nation and is writing a book about the crisis of authority in American life.
Americans had lost faith in what Hayes began to think of as “elites”—bankers, pundits, the Washington Establishment. For liberals, Krugman stood for a separate authority, which could be considered “expertise”—the scientists and academics who could measure how society was shifting, how the climate was warming, the degree of violence regressive social policies had inflicted on the middle class. What Krugman represented, Hayes believes, was that the experts themselves had given up on the elites. “Krugman embodies what you might call expert militancy,” Hayes says. “It’s a kind of pugnaciousness and ability to say, ‘The whole thing is rigged, this person is a liar, this person is stupid.’ ”
Being a progressive during the Bush years imposed a certain kind of loneliness. Krugman helped relieve the loneliness. “You think, how could that be?” Hayes says. “And then Paul Krugman’s like, ‘No. It is rigged. You are right.’ ”
Each Thursday this semester, Krugman has been teaching a course on the economics of the welfare state to a dozen Princeton undergraduates and one octogenarian emeritus type, who is auditing. When he first started teaching, Krugman says, he was “absolutely scared out of my mind,” but now, more than 30 years on, the classroom is where he seems most at ease. There is something admirably unglamorous about the way Krugman has dealt with his fame: When I first tried to reach Joseph Stiglitz, he was in Mauritius, meeting with a head of state; when I first contacted Jeffrey Sachs, he was traveling through Senegal; and when I first called Krugman, he was schlepping home on New Jersey Transit.