The Accidental Theorist, Paul Krugman

Norton, 1998, 204 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 0-393-04638-9

I don’t know all that much when it comes to the science of economics, but I do love a good argument.

Paul Krugman wrote The Accidental Theorist for me.

It’s a vulgarization book about economics, or more accurately a collection of essays that aim to dispel some of the most prevalent myths about the economy. In here, Krugman takes on the effects of globalization, the trickle-down economy, currency speculation, unemployment and much more. His favorite target is the type of empty rhetoric propagated by right-wing icons who don’t understand the issues they’re discussing… and I can’t think of any more deserving targets.

Readers of Microsoft’s magazine should be familiar with Krugman, as several of the articles reprinted here were originally published on the site. Not being a Slate reader, though, this was all new material as far as I was concerned.

And pretty good material too. Krugman’s got everything he needs to be a good communicator: not only a thorough knowledge of his own field and the ability to make it understandable to the public, but also a set of strong beliefs and a passion to share them. His writing style is compact (don’t be fooled by the low number of pages; this book packs more ideas than other works twice the size), exact, to the point and often devastatingly funny.

Yes, funny. Economics and humor. Stranger things have happened.

Krugman also has the requisite disdain for people who ignore or ignore the truth. His step-by-step deconstruction of Richard Armey’s The Freedom Revolution [“An Unequal Exchange”, P.52-61] is utterly convincing: Armey must have intentionally mis-quoted freely-available statistics in order to sustain an untenable point to his readers. This kind of dishonesty is inexcusable, and there’s ample room for Krugman to make his point in exposing it. The Accidental Theorist really hits its stride when debunking bad economics.

Mind you, bad economics are prevalent across the political spectrum. Blaming Krugman for “taking sides” would be inappropriate, even if he seems to be an avowed liberal: he takes on sacred cows from both sides of the fence. Supply-side economics and globalization on one side, government size and currency control on the other.

[December 2003: In twelve short months, Krugman has, through a series of lively weekly opinion columns, emerged on the American political scene as a vigorous opponent of Bush II’s economic practices. Vilification by the right ensued in the best tradition of polarized debate. How dare one “liberal” argue for smaller government and balanced budgets!]

All and all, it’s a heck of a read. Krugman does more here to raise the profile and reputation of economists than anyone else I’ve ever read. He convinced me that this can actually be a fascinating field. I found myself, thanks to Part 5 of the book, enthralled by currency trading scenarios. Imagine that!

Though all of The Accidental Theorist, Krugman proves to be a witty, affable and constantly interesting commentator. He obviously loves his field and can’t wait to share this enthusiasm with others. It works; I found myself asking questions I never thought about before, and watching the financial news with renewed interest. His interests go beyond simple economics matters, especially in the last section where he applies the tools of his trade to matters such as environmentalism, health care and traffic jams with conclusions you might not necessarily expect. Krugman loves to play with ideas, and that’s an attitude I can only respect. The last essay of the book alone contains enough ideas for a full-fledged science-fiction novel… if anyone is bold enough to screw around with what “common sense” has been telling us for the past few years.

All in all, even though I accidentally picked up The Accidental Theorist without too much attention to the author, I’m now suddenly curious to find out what else Krugman has written. In the meantime, this collection is staying on my shelves besides Sagan and Pellegrino, smack-dab in the scientific vulgarization section.

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