I mentioned in my post on Paul Krugman Monday that Greg Mankiw had told me years ago that he thought Krugman was a lock to win the Nobel one of these days. Greg said on his blog that he didn’t remember that, but it that sounded like something he would have said.
Well, it turns out my friend and former colleague Peronet Despeignes had a long and interesting conversation with Mankiw in 2005, just after Mankiw returned to Harvard after his stint as chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. And you betcha, the subject of Krugman and the Nobel came up. The Q&A was posted on Fortune’s website, but Fortune’s website was subsumed not long after that into CNNMoney and virtually all Web-only content–including the weekly London Calling columns I wrote when I was Fortune’s Europe editor in 2000 and 2001–was wiped out. Have I ever mentioned that big media companies have at times been incredibly stupid about the Internet?
Anyway, Perry did hold onto a copy of the Q&A. Here’s an excerpt:
Q: How do you deal with this view of the decision-making process there? What do you hear from professors here at Harvard?
A: There are a lot of preconceived notions from people in the media who write stuff based on no knowledge at all. There are a lot of people who just make stuff up.
Q: So you often read the paper and slap your forehead?
A: Let me give you example. This is as I was arriving [as the new chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers]. Glenn Hubbard, my predecessor, was leaving. I read one of Paul Krugman’s New York Times columns, and he said something like, “Hubbard said he was leaving to be with his family, but you could see the knives sticking out of his back.” The suggestion was that he’s being kicked out. I knew that wasn’t true. I knew I got the job in large part because Glenn recommended me. So here we have Krugman sitting in some office in New Jersey making a supposition about what’s going on in Washington and then writing for the New York Times, with readers presuming that he knew something.
Q: Krugman is a very respected economist. What are your thoughts on his transformation into a columnist?
A: I had Paul as a teacher at MIT. And when I was at CEA in ’82 and ’83, he was there as well. I was a junior staffer in the Reagan administration. Two members of the senior staff were Krugman and (former Harvard economics professor, Clinton Treasury Secretary and current Harvard president Lawrence) Summers. At that time he was a brilliant economist. I thought he’d win a Nobel prize. I think there’s a good chance he still will. His early work on international trade theory deserves it. It’s strange what’s happened since then. When he became a New York Times columnist, he decided to abandon writing about economics as an economist does. He’s very liberal, which is fine–most of my friends at Harvard are liberal–but whenever someone disagrees with him, his first inclination is to think that person is either a liar or a fool. It’s amazing to me that an academic would behave that way. The one thing that I value about academia is open-mindedness, the premise that all ideas and different points of view should be considered. No one has a monopoly on the truth. The one defining characteristic of a good professor is to be open to all viewpoints.
Q: How do you explain what you describe as this change in Krugman?
A: I guess if you’re a columnist, you want to be widely talked about and be the most e-mailed. It’s the same thing that drives talk show hosts to become Jerry Springer. You end up overstating the case because it makes good reading. The problem is that economists by their nature with a lot of “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” in their prose can make boring reading.