Paul Krugman said Labour was "weak". Source: Getty Images
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Mehdi Hasan interviews Paul Krugman: Labour is "weak" in its opposition to cuts

The Nobel economist is scathing in his criticism of the two Eds.

In person, Paul Krugman is short, shy and quiet. But the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist isn’t afraid to hurl verbal hand grenades at his opponents – as I discovered to my amusement when I caught up with him on a visit to London this past week.

Krugman, who was in town to plug his new book End This Depression Now!, struggled to find anything positive to say about the EU’s leaders, President Barack Obama or the Israeli government. But it was the Princeton University professor’s comments about the Labour Party that stood out for me.

He was scathingly critical of Labour’s “weak” opposition to the Conservative-led coalition’s spending cuts. “Certainly, economically, they’re too cautious,” he said, dismissing the party’s plan to halve the deficit over four years.

His comments will make uneasy reading for the two Eds, Balls and Miliband, who are petrified of being tagged as “deficit deniers” by their right-wing critics. Under pressure from the Blairites inside the party, they have been trying to find the right balance between opposing the coalition’s austerity measures in the short run and supporting deficit reduction and cuts in the long run.

Krugman seemed to have little sympathy for them: Labour’s position on austerity, he told me, “has been a kind of ‘We’re like them but only less so’. And it does come across as fairly weak.” He continued: “It does seem odd that when you ask me: ‘Where is the really effective intellectual opposition coming from?’, it seems to be think-tank people and journalists. The opposition is Martin Wolf [of the Financial Times], Jonathan Portes [of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research], Simon Wren-Lewis [of Oxford University], David Blanchflower [of the New Statesman] and me.”

That, he said, is a “sad commentary” on the state of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

To add insult to injury, the Nobel laureate had high praise and much sympathy for Miliband’s predecessor, the much-maligned Gordon Brown. “He has been treated unfairly by history,” he said. “Yes, [Brown] made mistakes, but he is a much better guy than his current reputation suggests.”

I asked Krugman if he stood by his now-famous October 2008 description of the former prime minister as the leader who “saved the world financial system”. The economist nodded furiously. “Yes, he took the lead on the financial rescue which did save the world,” he told me. Without [Brown’s leadership], things would have been much, much worse. He was a smart guy.”

Krugman, a long-standing critic of the European single currency, was also keen to remind me how it was Brown who, as chancellor of the exchequer during the late 1990s, “kept Britain out of the euro. It would be a catastrophe here if Britain were in the euro.”

My full interview with the professor will appear in the New Statesman later this year.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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When it comes to the "Statin Wars", it's the patients I pity

Underlying the Statin Wars are two different world-views: the technological and holistic.

September saw the latest salvos in what has become known in medical circles as the Statin Wars. The struggle is being waged most publicly in the pages of Britain’s two leading medical journals. In the red corner is the British Medical Journal, which in 2014 published two papers highly critical of statins, arguing that they cause far more side effects than supposed and pointing out that, although they do produce a modest reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease, they don’t make much difference to overall mortality (you may avoid a heart attack, only to succumb to something else).

In the blue corner is the Lancet, which has long been the publishing platform for the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration, a group of academics whose careers have been spent defining and expounding the benefits of statins. The CTT was infuriated by the BMJ papers, and attempted to force the journal to retract them. When that failed, they set about a systematic review of the entire statin literature. Their 30-page paper appeared in the Lancet last month, and was widely press-released as being the final word on the subject.

A summary would be: statins do lots of good and virtually no harm, and there really is no need for anyone to fuss about prescribing or taking them. In addition, the Lancet couldn’t resist a pop at the BMJ, which it asserts acted irresponsibly in publishing the sceptical papers two years ago.

Where does all this leave the average patient, trying to weigh up the usefulness or otherwise of these drugs? And what about the jobbing doctor, trying to give advice? The view from no-man’s-land goes something like this. If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, or if you suffer from angina or other conditions arising from furred-up arteries, then you should consider taking a statin. They’re not the miracle pill their proponents crack them up to be, but they do tip the odds a little in your favour. Equally, if you try them and suffer debilitating side effects (many people do), don’t stress about stopping them. There are lots more effective things you could be doing – a brisk daily walk effects a greater risk reduction than any cholesterol-lowering pill.

What of the millions of healthy people currently prescribed statins because they have been deemed to be “at risk” of future heart disease? This is where it gets decidedly murky. The published evidence, with its focus on cardiovascular outcomes alone, overstates the case. In healthy people, statins don’t make any appreciable difference to overall survival and they cause substantially more ill-effects than the literature suggests. No one should be prescribed them without a frank discussion of these drawbacks, and they should never be taken in lieu of making lifestyle changes. Smoking cessation, a healthy diet, regular modest exercise, and keeping trim, are all far more important determinants of long-term health.

Underlying the Statin Wars are two different world-views. One is technological: we can rely on drugs to prevent future health problems. This perspective suffers substantial bias from vested interests – there’s a heck of a lot of money to be made if millions of people are put on to medication, and those who stand to profit make huge sums available to pay for research that happens to advance their cause.

The other world-view is holistic: we can take care of ourselves better simply by living well, and the fetishising of pharmaceutical solutions negates this message. I have great sympathy with this perspective. It certainly chimes with the beliefs of many patients, very few of whom welcome the prospect of taking drugs indefinitely.

Yet the sad truth is that, irrespective of our lifestyles, we will all of us one day run into some kind of trouble, and having medical treatments to help – however imperfectly – is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. In arguing for a greater emphasis on lifestyle medicine, we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far the other way.

Phil Whitaker’s latest novel is “Sister Sebastian’s Library” (Salt)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood