Daniel W. Drezner

Dueling profiles

Newsweek has two long profiles this week — one on Tim Geithner, and one on Paul Krugman.  The Krugman profile was more interesting, because Evan Thomas managed to encapsulate my own feelings whenever I read Krugman these days:  If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope ...

Newsweek has two long profiles this week — one on Tim Geithner, and one on Paul Krugman. 

The Krugman profile was more interesting, because Evan Thomas managed to encapsulate my own feelings whenever I read Krugman these days: 

If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he’s wrong, and you sense he’s being a little harsh (especially about Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see. By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking. The in crowd of any age can be deceived by self-confidence, as Liaquat Ahamed has shown in "Lords of Finance," his new book about the folly of central bankers before the Great Depression, and David Halberstam revealed in his Vietnam War classic, "The Best and the Brightest." Krugman may be exaggerating the decay of the financial system or the devotion of Obama’s team to preserving it. But what if he’s right, or part right? What if President Obama is squandering his only chance to step in and nationalize—well, maybe not nationalize, that loaded word—but restructure the banks before they collapse altogether?

The fundamental question is whether Krugman is a brilliant hedgehog, an insecure pain in the ass, or — as frequently is the case — both at the same time.   

The rest of Thomas’ essay does suggest a little pique on Krugman’s part: 

Obama aides have invited commentators of all persuasions to the White House for some off-the-record stroking; in February, after Krugman’s fellow Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote a critical column accusing Obama of overreaching, Brooks, a moderate Republican, was cajoled by three different aides and by the president himself, who just happened to drop by. But, says Krugman, "the White House has done very little by way of serious outreach. I’ve never met Obama. He pronounced my name wrong"—when, at a press conference, the president, with a slight note of irritation in his voice, invited Krugman (pronounced with an "oo," not an "uh" sound) to offer a better plan for fixing the banking system.

This kind of lament suggests that Krugman is less the lonely voice of reason and more someone who wishes he was on the inside looking out.  And yet, what if he’s right?     

The Geithner essay, by Michael Hirsch, suggests that that the Treasury Secretary is finally hitting his stride.  One would ordinarily dismiss this as a standard magazine puff piece, but Hirsch isn’t really known for writing those.  It’s worth reading, side by side, with our own David Rothkopf’s jeremiad against mild tweaking of Geithner in yesterday’s Washington Post ("he looks like Harry Potter"). 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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