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.