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October 13, 2013
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Wanted: A Straw to Stir the Drink

“The straw that stirs the drink” is an old newspaper colloquialism, derived from politics, applied to very successful columnists. It means a commentator with a large following, one whom even the opposition reads. (It’s heard in baseball circles, too. After Reggie Jackson had been signed by the Yankees he showed up at spring training and announced that he would perform the task – and he did!)  The drink-stirrer for the last ten years or so in the world of center-left economic policy has been Paul Krugman, of The New York Times and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He retooled as a newspaper columnist long before his early work as a research economist was recognized with a Nobel Prize. He seems to have learned every trick in the columnist’s book.

Why is there no Krugman on the center right?

That a receptive community exists is obvious.  But the drink on offer today is not well-stirred, merely agitated. For forty years, ever since the late Robert L. Bartley became its editor, in 1972, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal has been a tent big enough to accommodate all those who preferred an alternative to whatever the Democratic Party was offering at the time.  Bartley, who stepped down in 2000 and died in 2003, was something special in newspaper journalism.

His enthusiasm for free trade, tax-cut populism and conservative internationalism, combined with a flair for smash-mouth politics (remember the six-year Whitewater campaign against Bill Clinton?), was so consistently interesting that everyone with a serious interest in politics read the page, whether they agreed with it or not. His successor, Paul Gigot, has continued in that tradition. It has always seemed likely to me that Bartley’s success led Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. to beef up the editorial page of The New York Times, by hiring Krugman, among others.

But the WSJ doesn’t have a Krugman of its own, a columnist tightly focused on what respectable technical economics has to say about the leading issues of the day.

Instead it has its editorial board, sixteen or so hard-working journalists, some of whom write weekly columns in addition to their share of the fifteen to eighteen editorials the paper publishes each week.  A penumbra of other columnists, op-ed writers , and book reviewers helps fill three pages daily, plus a superb weekend Review section.  They are heavily weighted towards former GOP political operatives such as Peggy Noonan (a Reagan speech writer) and Karl Rove (George W. Bush adviser), though Princeton economist Alan Blinder, a liberal and a former Federal Reserve Board vice chair, makes a monthly appearance, too. All of this makes it difficult to detect anything like the rhythmic accompaniment that Krugman lays down for the Times’s narrative.

Where Krugman writes two pieces a week (which he energetically supplements with daily entries on his Times-sponsored blog), the WSJ’s only writer with an economics background is former George Mason University graduate student Stephen Moore. (In his twice-weekly “Business World” column, Holman Jenkins Jr. dispenses shrewd microeconomic commentary.) Moore is not exactly deeply grounded in the discipline. Before he joined the paper, he worked for the Heritage Foundation and founded the Club for Growth, a campaign-contribution bundling organization. He is a partner, with economist Arthur Laffer, in an economic consulting firm. He contributed to the paper Saturday an admiring interview of 31-year-old Michael Needham, a Heritage Foundation tactician in the drive to defund Obamacare.

But since Bartley first took over, the WSJ editorial board has been viscerally skeptical of mainstream science – not just economics (Bartley was a gold bug), but climate science, too.

Two circumstances may combine to gradually change the paper’s stance. One is that the Tea Party’s influence clearly has begun to wane.  The other is that Rupert Murdoch owns the paper.  He bought control of it in 2007 from the famously hands-off Bancroft family.  Murdoch is a genius newspaper publisher and, as times change, is not likely to be content with the current approach. Gerrymandering notwithstanding, the Democrats’ success and manifestations of climate change will drag the Republican party back towards the middle.

So what would a center-right counterpart to Krugman look like?

Such a commentator would have to know something about monetary policy – have a feeling for the possibilities for better banking regulation.  He or she would have to confront the unpleasant news about income distribution emanating from the University of California at Berkeley, in the work of Emmanuel Saez, and not simply dismiss his epic collaboration with Thomas Piketty as  French economists… rock stars of the intellectual Left… special[izing] in “earnings inequality” and “wealth concentration.” Such a person probably would accept that the main features of the safety net, such as the Social Security System, are here to stay, and recognize a government role in formulating the market for health insurance. (Remember, it was GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney who introduced a version of Obamacare when he was governor of Massachusetts.) A serious economics commentator for the WSJ would take climate change seriously, too, and have something to say about the difference between the revenue-neutral carbon tax espoused by George Shultz (of the Hoover Institution) and Gary Becker (of the University of Chicago) on the one hand, and the initiative promoted by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and hedge fund magnate Thomas Steyer.

Come to think of it, a sensible full-time economics columnist who would broaden the audience of the WSJ’s editorial page and give it a realistic claim on the future might look a lot like Lawrence Summers.  I know, he’s thought to be something of a liberal.  He unquestionably possesses a decent heart.  But that is part of the job description I have been writing. It is his famously tough mind, so bothersome to progressives over the years, that is his main attraction.  He could cite his having worked in the Reagan administration, for his mentor Martin Feldstein, as a credential! (So did Krugman.)

I know, too, that it’s the Financial Times that put him in the column-writing business.  But that audience is too thin, and the paper too precarious a perch for Summers’s ambition, now that a major policy job in Washington has, in all likelihood, been ruled out (besides, the FT already has Martin Wolf).  Summers is uniquely qualified to play a part at the WSJ that for many years has gone uncast– the role of loyal opposition. Murdoch and he should think about it. .

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The Nobel Prize in economics, technically  the Swedish Central Bank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, is scheduled to be announced midday Monday in Stockholm.

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2 Comments

  1. Dave Backus @ NYU wrote:

    The thing about Paul Krugman is that he’s a good writer. Summers not so much, in my experience, but who knows how this will develop. Another economist with that skill is John Cochrane, but unlike Larry he’s still a serious scholar. Up to him what he wants to do, but he’d be good.

    Sunday, October 13, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

  2. Huh? wrote:

    Are you kidding? The entire establishment is center right. Any time I read the Atlantic, time, the economist, wsj, etc. Etc. Etc. Ad nauseum, all I see are center right commentators. Krugman is so popular because he’s maybe the only center left commentator with a major platform.

    Monday, October 14, 2013 at 2:07 am | Permalink

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