This piece by Mark Levinson in Dissent on Paul Krugman and John Kenneth Galbraith touches on something I blogged about last year. When I read my way through Krugman’s early 1990s book, Peddling Prosperity, Galbraith came in for a surprising amount of flak. This gave me the impression that Krugman was being a little defensive, the sotto voce measage being that yes, perhaps Krugman too was an economist who could write wittily and well for a popular audience, but unlike Galbraith, he was a real economist, who had imbibed the lessons of Samuelson et al. and did equations and stuff. Peddling Prosperity is as much as anything an effort to re-create the boundary between real economists and those whom Krugman perceived as populist hacks; Galbraith is awkward to fit into that classification, as he wasn’t a mathematically rigorous economist, but was a past-president of the American Economics Association.
The interesting bit of Levinson’s piece is his discussion of how Krugman has morphed over time into the kind of economist that JKG wanted to see.
Galbraith insisted that power—which he defined as “the ability of persons or institutions to bend others to their purposes”—is decisive in understanding what happens in the world. He went on: “If we accept the reality of power . . . we have years of useful professional work ahead of us. And since we will be in touch with real issues, and since issues that are real inspire passion, our life will again be pleasantly contentious, perhaps even usefully dangerous.” … It’s hard to think of a better description of Krugman. His discovery of the abuse of power now seems to influence not only his op-ed pieces for the Times but also his more serious economic writing. … In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Krugman spoke about causes [of inequality], he usually said something like this (from an interview in 1999): “Looking at the numbers makes it clear that this [inequality] is . . . [caused by] some combination of technological change and more complicated factors.” Now his explanation incorporates power and politics: “The government can tilt the balance of power between workers and bosses in many ways—and at every juncture this government has favored the bosses.”