No kidding! See Larissa McFarquar’s portrait of Krugman in The New Yorker:
Krugman went to Yale, in 1970, intending to study history, but he felt that history was too much about what and not enough about why, so he ended up in economics. Economics, he found, examined the same infinitely complicated social reality that history did but, instead of elucidating its complexity, looked for patterns and rules that made the complexity seem simple. Why did some societies have serfs or slaves and others not? You could talk about culture and national character and climate and changing mores and heroes and revolts and the history of agriculture and the Romans and the Christians and the Middle Ages and all the rest of it; or, like Krugman’s economics teacher Evsey Domar, you could argue that if peasants are barely surviving there’s no point in enslaving them, because they have nothing to give you, but if good new land becomes available it makes sense to enslave them, because you can skim off the difference between their output and what it takes to keep them alive. Suddenly, a simple story made sense of a huge and baffling swath of reality, and Krugman found that enormously satisfying.
Awesome!!! It’s all so simple! Never mind why only certain people were enslaved, and others weren’t; never mind how slavery made ideological sense as well as economic sense to the architects of slavery; never mind what the lives and deaths of the enslaved were like; never mind how masters maintained their dominance even in the face of a massive enslaved majority of people. It’s all just so much simpler when you look at it as an economist! You know that old joke about economists: “Sure it works in reality, but will it work in theory?”
The paragraph above, about mid-way through the article, helps explain Krugman’s description of his political quiescence through the 1980s and 1990s:
In his columns, Krugman is belligerently, obsessively political, but this aspect of his personality is actually a recent development. His parents were New Deal liberals, but they weren’t especially interested in politics. In his academic work, Krugman focussed mostly on subjects with little political salience. During the eighties, he thought that supply-side economics was stupid, but he didn’t think that much about it. Unlike [Krugman’s wife, Robin] Wells, who was so upset when Reagan was elected that she moved to England, Krugman found Reagan comical rather than evil. “I had very little sense of what was at stake in the tax issues,” he says. “I was into career-building at that point and not that concerned.” He worked for Reagan on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers for a year, but even that didn’t get him thinking about politics. “I feel now like I was sleepwalking through the twenty years before 2000,” he says. “I knew that there was a right-left division, I had a pretty good sense that people like Dick Armey were not good to have rational discussion with, but I didn’t really have a sense of how deep the divide went.”
For the first twenty years of Krugman’s adult life, his world was divided not into left and right but into smart and stupid. “The great lesson was the low level of discussion,” he says of his time in Washington. “The then Secretary of the Treasury”—Donald Regan—“was not that bright, and you could have angry exchanges where neither side understood the policy.” Krugman was buoyed and protected in his youth by an intellectual snobbery so robust that distractions or snobberies of other sorts didn’t stand a chance. “When I was twenty-eight, I wouldn’t have had the time of day for some senator or other,” he says.
. . . . . . . . .In writing his first popular book, “The Age of Diminished Expectations,” he became preoccupied by the way that inequality had vastly increased in the Reagan years. (Interestingly for an economist, Krugman believes that the political often determines the economic, rather than the other way around; he believes that the increase in inequality in the U.S. since the sixties is a product less of economic factors—the development of technology, say, leading to the greater importance of skills and education—than of political decisions about taxation and unions.) After the book was published, in 1990, various people denied that inequality had increased, and this really annoyed him. He began to get into fights. He was taken aback by the 1994 midterm elections, and during the impeachment hearings he began to think that the Republicans were getting pretty radical, but he still wasn’t angry about it. “Some of my friends tell me that I should spend more time attacking right-wingers,” he wrote in 1998. “The problem is finding things to say. Supply-siders never tire of proclaiming that taxes are the root of all evil, but reasonable people do get tired of explaining, over and over again, that they aren’t.”
Are there any historians who don’t think that ideology and politics drive economic policy?
Don’t get me wrong–Krugman’s an extremely smart person, and I’m glad he’s an economist because if he had become a historian, no one would have listened to him in the first place (like the rest of us Cassandras! Plus, there is no such thing as a Nobel Prize in History.) The historians who become well known in the U.S. are those who, for the most part, peddle charming myths about the Founding Fathers or other Great Men. Their work conforms closely (if dully, in my view) to a jingoistic Whig narrative that’s designed to reassure Americans that they live in the Greatest Country the World Has Ever Known. So, it’s interesting to hear that Krugman thought that the problem with history was its complexity, compared to economics. (But then again, I’m sure his history professors at Yale in the early 1970s were assigning histories that were more challenging than your average trade bio of a Great American.)
Go read the whole article–and see Krugman’s take on the 2008 Democratic primary (It “was terrible, it was awful.” As they say on other blogs–“trigger warning!”)