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The Great Unraveling

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Perhaps the chief pleasure of reading Paul Krugman is knowing how much he displeases those you don't agree with. Since the early days of the Bush Administration, Krugman's twice-weekly column in The New York Times has given liberals a brief taste of what Rush Limbaugh gave conservatives in the Clinton years: the fun of pounding a president we didn't elect. (Neither did anyone else, of course, but let's leave that aside.)

Ordinarily, a Princeton economics professor might not seem much of a champion for the left - especially because Krugman is a neoliberal who openly scorns left-wing critics of global trade. But as his new book, The Great Unraveling, demonstrates, Krugman is a true believer in the free market who's offended by the crony capitalism of President Bush and his minions. And just as Bush's cronyism stretches from decades-old failed oil deals to contracting out Iraq's future, so too does Krugman's disdain.

As Unraveling demonstrates, Krugman knows how to turn a phrase: "Welcome to the Cartel California" begins one column about the California energy crisis - a crisis that Krugman was among the first to blame on shortages created by profit-hungry utilities. Writing about a tour of Africa featuring U2 frontman Bono and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Krugman observes that O'Neill was "caught between a rock star and a hard place: he wants to show concern about global poverty, but Washington has other priorities."

Unraveling is mostly a compendium of previously published columns, so much of it may be familiar. Still, taken together these pieces have a cumulative effect. One reason politicians can distort the truth is that it comes out so slowly. By the time you learn what really happened last year, you've usually forgotten how it was being "spun" at the time. Unraveling, though, is like a time-lapse film of a plant withering ... in this case beneath the gaze of an increasingly disdainful columnist.

Indeed, by the time Krugman wrote the book's introduction, he'd concluded that the Bush administration was seeking to overturn government institutions at home much as it has done abroad, and with fewer positive results. From tax cuts to foreign invasions, he contends, it lied about what it was doing and why, both because the truth would be unpopular and because Bush ignores "rules that the rest of us have taken for granted."

Anecdotal evidence for this belief can be found everywhere Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction are not. But Krugman says his theory was inspired by reading the 1957 doctoral thesis of one Henry Kissinger (who does, after all, know a little about engineering government takeovers). Kissinger's thesis argued that when established political systems have been challenged by insurgents, the hardest part of fending off the threat is taking it seriously. Similarly, Krugman contends that skeptics "misunderestimate" Bush's intelligence and intentions.

Krugman prides himself (among many other things) on an ivory-tower perspective that makes him immune to such nearsightedness. Sounding somewhat ironically like an anti-government Republican, he contends, "I wasn't part of the Washington culture" whose incestuousness prevents one from seeing the big picture.

There are shades of Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy" in all this, and appropriately enough, Krugman has become the target of smear campaigns. Conservatives have set up "Krugman Watches" on Web sites, and accused him of such crimes as being on the take from Enron.

Few of these attacks have stuck. Krugman did consult for Enron, for example, but that was before he became a columnist -- and before he became one of Enron's harshest critics. Enron's investment in Krugman appears to have been as worthless as other people's investment in Enron.

What may undo Krugman is not innuendo but simple fact. Despite his thunderous critiques of Bush's economic policy, U.S. economic output grew more than 7 percent last quarter, the highest rate in two decades. Hiring appears to be perking up too.

A turnaround wouldn't necessarily make Krugman wrong, or Bush right. For example, take the scrapping of the inheritance tax on multimillion-dollar estates, a tax cut whose benefits for the wealthy, as Krugman points out, were grossly distorted. That cut hasn't generated any growth ... unless you think rich people have seen it as incentive to die sooner, thereby putting more cash in the markets.

And in the end, even if Krugman turns out to be wrong on some points, that's no reason we have to stop enjoying his wicked ripostes.

It never stops Limbaugh's fans, after all.

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