A lone contrarian

The Great Unravelling: from boom to bust in three scandalous years

Paul Krugman <em>Allen Lane, th

Arrogant, self-aggrandising and preening, Paul Krugman clearly enjoys his position as America's leading liberal commentator. The way he tells it, for three years his twice-weekly column for the New York Times op-ed page has been a lone voice criticising the true extent of the mendacity and maladministration of the Bush presidency. Whether divining the causes of the Californian energy crisis or eviscerating fiscal laxness at the White House, he has always, according to himself, been the lone contrarian.

To some extent this smugness is well-deserved. Pithy and provocative, many of the columns in this collection are care-fully constructed incendiary devices lobbed at cronyism and hypocrisy in the government. Although an academic economist, he explains budgetary manoeuvres and corporate wrongdoing in straightforward terms. Employing an ice cream metaphor to describe the various balance-sheet shenanigans of collapsing corporations, he compares Enron's method to signing "contracts to provide customers with a cone a day for the next 30 years. You deliberately underestimate the cost of providing each cone; then you book all the projected profits on those future ice cream sales as part of this year's bottom line."

An Ivy-League Michael Moore, he skewers George W Bush's and Dick Cheney's policies on tax cuts, social security and the war on terror using a combination of wit and analysis. When the Bush administration creates a new complex metric called "greenhouse gas intensity" and asserts that its level will fall, Krugman points out that the more familiar levels of greenhouse gases will continue to rise: "Alert shoppers know that an extra word in a product's description can make a big difference, and rarely for the better . . . Most of us don't regard 'cheese food' as a good substitute for plain ordinary cheese."

Provocation is part of his appeal and, judging from his vilification at the hands of conservatives, Krugman is right to be triumphalist. But there are flaws: six weeks before the collapse of the stock market in 2000, Krugman wrote that there might be some justification for the stock-market bubble; a year or so later, he was lambasting those who had failed to be prescient. While some inconsistencies should be expected from any newspaper columnist, such flaws nevertheless undermine the credibility of Krugman's predictions.

Besides, he too often descends into an unthinking partisanship. Bill Clinton, as he was portrayed by Krugman, only ever acted with scrupulous fairness, while Bush is only ever venal. Ranting against nepotism, Krugman accuses those on the right (like the Bush brothers) of selfishly benefiting from inheritance, while those on the left (the Kennedys and the Sulzbergers, who own the Times) demonstrate "a strong sense of noblesse oblige".

Krugman suggests that his essays in invective deserve to be viewed as parts of a grand political thesis: "One should regard America's right-wing movement - which now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media - as a revolutionary power . . . That is a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system." In passing, he draws parallels between this movement and those of Robespierre, Napoleon and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

Yet surely, however one tries to distinguish - as Krugman does - between historical parallels and moral equivalency, George W Bush is not a fascist. Krugman ably marshals the evidence that the Bush presidency is driven by ideology, is overspending and is intent on retaining office by judicious use of its own power - but what government isn't? Picking apart each of Bush's promises and policies is not the same as making a coherent case that the administration is wholly corrupt, or that its intention is a plutocracy in which "elections are only a formality".

Krugman has already written a riposte to his critics: we are "so accustomed to stability that we can't bring [ourselves] to believe what is happening when faced with a revolutionary power, and are therefore ineffective in opposing it". Perhaps he is right, and will be vindicated by history. But it seems more likely that this absurd argument betrays his own hubris, and represents a great columnist's own unravelling.

Adam Wishart is the author of Leaving Reality Behind (Fourth Estate)