Why I didn’t go medieval on Krugman, and other book news

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I’ve gotten a few messages from friends and strangers this week telling me that they think I should have been harder on Paul Krugman for not mentioning my book in his big NYT Mag essay on “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?” Now don’t get me wrong—I really wish he had brought up The Myth of the Rational Market in his article, because that would have a sold a lot of books. I wish the Economist had done the same in its “What Went Wrong With Economics?” cover package a couple months ago. But that doesn’t seem adequate justification for picking a fight. Here’s what I wrote this morning to a reader who thought that “Krugman’s ‘ideas’ are too strikingly similar to yours to give him a pass”:

1. It seems a little ungrateful to raise hell with somebody whose review was singlehandedly responsible for selling thousands of copies of my book.
2. A lot of the story told in my book was already familiar to Krugman before he read it. He’d lived some of it, he’d read Peter Bernstein’s Capital Ideas, etc. In fact, I probably got some of the ideas in the book from conversations with Krugman over the years. So while there are definitely a few passages relating specifically to finance that he got from my book, I think much of the overlap was coincidental.
3. This is just the way opinion journalism works, and I’m an opinion journalist too. I like to credit the sources of my ideas in my columns, but often end up leaving them out (I try to credit them in my blog, but I’m sure I fail in that sometimes). So it doesn’t seem to be in my long-run interest to get medieval on Krugman for doing the same. [I should add that he did give me credit in his blog.]

To elaborate on that third point, most opinion writing (most writing, in fact) is derivative. You take ideas from lots of places, and put them together in different ways. There certainly isn’t a whole lot that’s entirely new in my book; I just put it together in a way that nobody else had before. I think we ought to encourage that kind of behavior, not yell “copy-cat” when somebody fails to attribute every influence in a magazine piece. (Maybe people could stop suing Dan Brown, too.)

Then again, as commenter warrwim writes, “perhaps a little bit of controversy with PK may lead to more new readers of your book!” Excellent point. So … I take it all back. Krugman’s a no-good, Nobel-hogging copycat. His article was an outrage against human decency. That better?

While I’m thus engaged in blatantly self-promotional activities, I should note that I will be in Winston-Salem, N.C., tomorrow and Saturday, speaking at Wake Forest University (Worrell Professional Center, Room 1312) at 2:30 Friday, and at the Bookmarks Book Festival (Millennium Center Courtroom, 2nd floor) on 10 a.m. Saturday. Then, at noon on Sunday, I’ll be on a panel discussion on the Great Recession at the Brooklyn Book Festival (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street) with Naomi Klein (!), among others. Big fun.

And finally, I just got word yesterday that the book made it onto the NYT “extended” (#15 to #35) bestseller list for the fourth time last week (that is, the list for books sold last week; they’ll actually put it up online this coming weekend, I think). At #35, but who’s counting. Actually, I’m counting.