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The Chomskification of Paul Krugman

In the 1990s, Paul Krugman was one of the most respected economists in America. He wrote for a popular audience as well as for the scholarly community, and although I didn’t always agree with the contents of his books, he at least pursued his subjects with rigor, and occasionally turned out a real gem (1995’s Pop Internationalism is a great book). He was seen by many on the left as their Great White Hope, the one cutting-edge liberal economist who was raising objections to the more conservative University of Chicago crowd that was dominating the debate (and the Nobel Prizes) at the time.

Like those before him, though (Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky) Krugman has done irreparable damage to his academic credibility by choosing to become a political hack — that’s what I mean by the title. Krugman’s latest NY Times op-ed (link requires registration) serves up one howler after another. He offers precious little support for his thesis — that the Bush administration has given “energy companies” carte blanche to dictate environmental policy because the energy companies bankrolled the Bush campaign — because, well, that claim just won’t stand up to scrutiny, no matter how good a sound bite it makes. So in that great Blogosphere tradition, let us now fact-check Krugman’s ass and see where he comes up short.

Whopper #1: In the case of energy policy, the administration still won’t release information about Dick Cheney’s energy task force. But it’s clear that energy companies, and only energy companies, had access to top officials. The result was that during the California power crisis — which, it is increasingly apparent, was largely engineered by Enron and other companies that had the administration’s ear — the administration did nothing.

Enron did some sinister things. They lied to the investment community, covered up their lies and committed securities fraud on a grand scale. This does not mean, however, that Enron is responsible for every crisis that comes down the pike. Enron engineered the California power crisis? This simply strains credulity. The electricity that Enron did sell to the California ISO (the power-sourcing agency for the state) came at a lower price than the market average in California, and at a lower price than the LA Dept. of Power and Water was charging the state for its electricity. Moreover, Enron accepted credit from electric power distributors and from the state of California during the worst part of the crisis, and the state of California ended up reneging on millions of dollars of obligations to Enron. If anything, Enron helped relieve the California electricity shortages of 2001.

Whopper #2: When scientists discovered that industrial chemicals were depleting the earth’s protective ozone layer, [Reagan-era Interior Secretary James] Watt suggested that people wear hats, sunscreen and dark glasses. Luckily for the planet, he was overruled; the United States joined other countries in curbing production of ozone-depleting chemicals. The ozone hole is still growing, but disaster has at least been postponed.

The US banned CFC’s (the principal group of industrial chemicals linked to ozone depletion) from use as an aerosol propellant in 1979. The treaty Krugman referred to, the Montreal Protocol, was signed by the US delegation in 1987, and was ratified in the spring of 1988. All of this was going on during the Reagan administration.

Krugman then resorts to damnation by faint praise, congratulating the Republicans for “at least postponing” ultraviolet disaster. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) 1999 publication on the Montreal Protocol, global CFC production is presently lower than in 1960, and the bureaucracy predicts that the ozone layer will stage a recovery over the next 50 years, even if no further action is taken. As Bjørn Lomborg points out in The Skeptical Environmentalist, the additional exposure to ultraviolet light from the ozone depletion we have already experienced is roughly what would be experienced in moving 100 to 200 miles closer to the equator, say from Manchester to London.

Whopper #3: … the E.P.A.’s Christie Whitman assured the public that Mr. Bush would honor his pledge to control carbon dioxide emissions — only to be betrayed when the coal and oil industries weighed in on the subject. So the administration learned nothing from the California crisis; it still takes its advice from the energy companies that financed its campaign (and made many administration officials, including Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, rich).

Big corporations financed the Bush campaign! This assertion is totally preposterous on its face. The last US election in which corporations of any kind were permitted to make any contribution to a presidential candidate was the hotly contested Theodore Roosevelt vs. Alton Parker race of 1904. Direct corporate contributions have been illegal in federal elections for nearly 100 years. Of course, corporations can set up Political Action Committees and have the PAC make a donation to a candidate, but this is limited to $5,000 per PAC per candidate per election. GWB raised a total of $193.1 million for his 2000 presidential bid (including a federal subsidy of $67.6 million.) Just over $2 million, or 1.2% of Bush’s campaign funds, came from all PACs. Maybe that $2 million came from 400 energy company PACs that donated $5,000 each … or maybe not. (Rather than muddling through the FEC’s website for data, check out this handy thumbnail of the Bush Campaign’s sources and uses of funds at OpenSecrets.org).

Whopper #4: And it’s one thing to reward your friends with subsidies and lax regulation. It’s something quite different to let them dictate policy on climate change.

First, Krugman says that the administration is bound to energy companies such as Enron. Then he says that the energy companies are dictating policy on climate change. So it stands to reason that Enron opposed action on the climate change front, right? Wrong. Enron lobbied heavily for greenhouse emissions caps a la Kyoto, and also for subsidies for renewable electric energy, the exact opposite of what the administration wants.

All in all, this was a thoroughly disappointing effort by Krugman, a man whom I used to have a great deal of respect for. Paul Krugman is a brilliant man, and he is capable of much better work than this. Come on, Dr. Krugman, stick to economics, and leave this sort of political sloganeering to the Carvilles and the Begalas of the world.

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